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The magic of Venice lies in its back alleys. Forming a parallel universe to the jam-packed shopping and sightseeing districts around Piazza San Marco and the Rialto, the city's labyrinth of narrow side streets and footbridges offer an opportunity to leave the crowds behind and lose yourself in unexpected delights.
Among the most enticing discoveries hidden in these backstreets are Venice's bàcari - tiny neighbourhood bars that serve up some of the city's tastiest food and wine. In contrast to the calculatedly cute tourist restaurants along the main thoroughfares - where prices usually far exceed quality - bàcari offer both value for money and an authentic taste of Venetian culinary culture.
Throughout the city, around midday and again in late afternoon, it is customary for Venetians to duck into the nearest bàcaro for a drink and a bite, often in response to a chance meeting with friends in the street. Even in the 21st Century, such spontaneous get-togethers remain a quintessential part of Venice's pedestrianised lifestyle.
Typically, a bàcaro is an animated hole-in-the-wall decorated with wine bottles and perhaps a few stools or small tables. Show up just before lunch or dinnertime and you will find swarms of people chatting, sipping small glasses of wine (ombre) and nibbling on the countless bar snacks (cicheti) displayed along the counter.
Cicheti range from sublime little sandwiches to scrumptious seafood morsels speared on toothpicks. Some of the ingredients, such as prosciutto, cheese and artichokes will be immediately familiar to non-Venetians, but it pays to try Venetian classics such as grilled or roasted seppie (cuttlefish), bottarga (cured tuna roe), folpeti consi (baby octopus in vinaigrette), sardelle in saor (fried sardines marinated in vinegar and onions), polpettine (Venetian meatballs) and baccalà mantecato, a local favourite consisting of codfish beaten into a creamy paste with olive oil, often served on a square of grilled polenta. Some bàcari supplement these age-old recipes with creative dishes of their own. Whether traditional or innovative, cicheti are always reasonably priced, typically costing between two and five euros.
The roots of Venetian bàcaro culture go at least as far back as the 1700s, when Casanova was already frequenting the venerable Cantina Do Mori. The word "bàcaro" derives from the name of the Roman wine god Bacchus, and the term "ombra" for a glass of wine has its own uniquely Venetian etymology. Whereas in most parts of Italy, "ombra" simply means "shade" or "shadow", its slang use in Venice dates back to the days when Venetian wine merchants would set up shop in the shadow of the San Marco bell tower, moving their wares throughout the day to stay out of the sun. In this context, prendere un'ombra - "grab some shade" came to mean "grab a glass of wine", an affectionate colloquialism that survives to this day.
The libations served in bàcari range from humble tap wines to more expensive varietals. Perennial favourites from the Veneto region include sparkling Prosecco and golden-hued Soave, while Tocai and Refosco wines from the surrounding regions of Trentino and Friuli also appear on many menus. Whatever you do, make sure to try some of the lesser known local wines such as Fragolino, whose delicate strawberry-like flavour is incomparably subtle and delicious.
Recommended bàcari by neighbourhood
Bàcari are sprinkled throughout the city. See below for a few tried-and-true options, grouped by neighbourhood. But remember: half the fun of bàcaro-hopping is discovering new places for yourself. So if you are up for a little adventure, keep your eyes open for that cluster of locals ducking into a nondescript side alley that seems to lead nowhere, and follow them in for a round of ombre e cicheti - they just might be onto something good!
Cantinone Già Schiavi
Gregor Clark has lived in Florence, Venice and Le Marche. He co-authored the Lonely Planet guide to Italy.