In the whimsical Adriatic city of Venice, the citizens practice a wonderful little custom called “giro di ombre” (the shadow wheel). It is not a custom of all Venetians, but especially of men and, generally, of older men. However, with that being said, you don’t have to be a man to participate. You don’t have to be old. Anyone can do it, and in fact many younger Venetians (including women) are now caught up in this thing called the giro. Mostly though, you’ll see groups of men, three, five or six, maybe more, even one can do it alone. I often go alone. Don’t worry about being alone. You’ll make a lot of friends along the way, because that’s part of the “twist”, making new friends, eating, drinking, generally having a good time.

What is this twist di ombre you ask?

The giro di ombre is a splendid little ritual that began around the Rialto market in Venice some 600 years ago. Rialto market merchants, wanting a short break from selling their wares, would run to the nearest wine bar to shade from the sun and have a sip of wine accompanied by small bites of food (cichetti) to go with it. the wine. When these merchants went to the wine bars, known as bacari, which translates to “house of bachus,” they would say they wanted an “ombra,” the Latin word for shadow. They wanted to get out of the sun and into the shade. Over time, a glass of wine in Venice became known as “ombra”. So, if one day you have the good fortune to arrive at one of Venice’s charming little wine bars (bacaro), you walk up to the bar, order “un ombra rosso” if you want a glass of the house red, or “un ombra bianco” if you want a glass of white wine. It’s as simple as that, and you’re speaking in the wonderful Venetian dialect. Like a real Venetian!

When you walk into a Venice wine bar, you’ll no doubt see a tempting display of food attractively presented on trays at the bar. These foods are “cichetti,” bites of prepared food that come in very small portions so you can try three, four, five, maybe even six or more. Cichetti are generally around $1.00-$2.50. They are made to be very affordable and are in small portions so people can order a few different items for a change.

What are cichetti, you ask? Just what the Venetian dialect means, cichetti are little bites of food. There is a wide variety of articles when it comes to cichetti. The most traditional and popular cichetti are; grilled shrimp or calamari, braised or fried meatballs, cotechino, musetto (pork snout sausage, “yum!”), nerves, octopus salad, bacala mantecato (beaten salt cod), and sarde en saour (marinated sardines with vinegar and onions). You can also find a nice variety of small sandwiches (panini and tramezzini) that are packed with all sorts of tasty fillings, including crab salad, speck (smoked prosciutto), shrimp, ham with mushrooms and tomato, and much, much more. These sandwiches are also part of the cichetti and are priced around $1.00 or two as well.

You may be thinking that cihetti are like Spanish tapas. “Yes exactly. I might add that the Venetians started this ritual a couple of hundred years before the Spanish, only that the “cichetti” of Venice never caught on throughout the Italian peninsula like tapas did throughout Spain, where the tapas and tapas bars are a way of life..

So you go to the bacaro and ask for your ombra rosso or bianco. Peruse the fabulous array of cichetti and order a few items of your choice. A typical sampler plate of these wonderful little things might look like this; a couple of grilled calamari, a sarde en saor, a crostino de baccala montecato (beaten salt cod) and maybe a couple of fried meatballs. “Enjoy your meal!” All this should not cost you more than seven or eight dollars. In the halcyon days before the euro an ombra and, say, four pieces of cichetti cost around $4.50, today it will be almost double. Unfortunately, that’s life. Things change, however it’s still a pretty good deal.

So you’ve just had your first wonderful experience in a Venetian wine bar. What to do next? Go see another one of course! Ask one of the locals for suggestions or cross one off your personal list. If you have one.

Ahh, you are in your second bacaro. Why not try one of the most popular appetizers in Venice? A “drift”. A spritz is simply white wine with a splash of compari or aperol with soda and a slice of lemon. quite refreshing. Very Venetian. For those of you who love prosecco, you’ll be happy to know that Venice is the “prosecco capital of the world” and you can order one at any bacaro. Save the bellini’s for Harry’s Bar, and if you do, save your money too, as right now, a Bellini’s at the ultra-chic Harry’s Bar will set you back about $15 US. They are absolutely delicious, but they go down like water.

Ask for a prosecco. Some treats to pair with your bubbly Venetian would be a couple of small crab tramezzini or a shrimp and crab, both of which go perfectly with a crisp, fresh glass of local prosecco.

In addition to tasty food and splendid Italian wine, you’ll find a wonderful atmosphere in Venetian wine bars. You will meet and chat with locals as well as people who come to Venice from all over the world. The Venetian bacaro, which by the way translates as house of bacchus, bacchus, the Roman god of wine.

Go to Venice, indulge in its many bacari (bacaro is singular, bacari plural) and you’re sure to be ecstatic in some sort of veritable bacchanalia.

Suggested Bacari (Venice wine bars):

Al volto: located in calli cavalli, San Marco

A great old style bacaro, serving good inexpensive local wine, traditional cihetti, wonderful pasta, risotto and fresh seafood from the Rialto market.

Alla vedova: cannaregio 3912, bouquet ca’d’oro

Hidden in a small alley off the strada nuova, alla vedova is chosen by the authors as one of the best bacaro in Venice. Alla vedova has the quintessential bacaro decor and vibe, they serve great cichetti at the bar, which is always packed with fun ombre twist regulars. This bar can get crowded at times and you’ll have to find a spot at the bar for tasty baccala and the best fried dumplings in town. While entertaining at the bar while watching the diners seated at the table in the charming little dining room, you may feel the urge to sit down for a wonderful meal with some pasta, risotto, or Venetian veal liver. Have to!

All’arco, san palo 436, street dell’occhialer

this tiny (14′ x 8′) wine bar is one of the most traditional in Venice. You’ll usually only find locals here, but they love to see the occasional foreigner. They will welcome you with open arms, as they did to me when I stumbled across this little establishment on my first “ombbar spin”. You’ll find very traditional old-style cichetti that are no longer made in many places, such as nervti (nerve), tetina (cow udder), rumegal, and other funky items like musetto (pig’s snout sausage). These guys delight in turning newbies into the real deal. The enclosed spaces are great as they precipitate interaction between you and the very friendly locals in this wonderful little ‘gem’.

Do Mori, San Palo 429, Calle dei do Mori

You may want to visit do mori as it is one of the most historic wine bars in Venice. However, you may be a bit disappointed. It was, since the owners are cold and not very cordial. His coldness permeates the whole place, which is a shame, as this place could be wonderful if the owners didn’t have the personality of some “dead fish” thrown around the Rialto market. “Sorry fish, I didn’t mean to insult you.” “Do you understand my idea?”

To paradise lost, on the fondamenta miscordia in Cannaregio

You know when you stumble across a place you’ve never been before and walk in to have one of the best times imaginable? That’s what happened to me when I was on one of my typical exploratory walks in Venice one beautiful Sunday afternoon in April 2001. I was walking and saw that al paradiso was my kind of place; fresh, old, lots of character. The place was hopping with a very hip looking crowd. I sat down to lunch some antipasto misto and some Adriatic sole. Halfway through my meal, I was more than pleasantly surprised when a jazz quartet set up shop in the fondmenta just outside the restaurant. There was a bass player, a guitar, a trumpet and even a piano player who rolled his “big baby” to the venue. The band was exceptional.

What a combination, Venice on a beautiful spring Sunday afternoon sitting in paradiso perdto, drinking local wine, eating perfectly prepared soglio adriatico and listening to the lovely sounds of a great little jazz band playing along the canal. “Who could ask for more?” “I do not.”

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