Today we are sharing with you a Venetian tradition, as easy to create for your guests at home as it is to enjoy in La Serenissima herself. Cicchetti. Pronounced, chee-ket-tee. They are local snacks, traditionally served with an “ombra”, a small glass of local wine.
As celebrated as food is in Italy, it is no surprise that there we find all kinds of different words for a place to eat, each indicating the type of food, experience, or expense you will find inside.
Ristorante usually indicates a higher end experience with several courses, very nice and on the pricey side in most cases.
Trattoria is a bit more casual, usually with a smaller menu of seasonal items. These have become quite special to me. Order the biggest plate of homemade pasta you’ve ever seen with seasonal ingredients for 8 euros, and it will become your favorite too!
Enoteca is a wine bar, and, especially in Venice, we find bacari. Bacaro is the singular form. These often have a food menu and places to sit to eat, but the locals like to head straight to the bar or counter instead for what they know is a great value and always an interesting, fun experience. Cicchetti.
To be honest, as a vegetarian I had always shied away from this experience, because the most famous varieties tend to be fish or meat based. My adventurous husband only wanted to do one thing during our entire time in Italy. Try cicchetti in Venice. So, we asked a friend from Venice for some suggestions and off we went.
Bright eyed, as the server explained all the options, my husband was in culinary paradiso. I tentatively asked if they had a vegetarian option, and to my surprise and delight, he loaded my plate with three different types. “Would you like prosecco?” Of course, we would.
Seventeen euros later, we were standing in the sunshine on a warm day for February in Venice with plates of these local snacks and a glass of wine each. What a win!
Cicchetti are essentially pieces of bread (unless the chef gets extra creative and fries up something different). The bread can be toasted or not. This tradition is such fun, because there are hardly any rules. Creativity reigns, and when an Italian chef gets creative with whatever ingredients look best at the market that day, something beautiful happens.
We set off from our first bacaro to visit the hauntingly beautiful Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, home to two of the great artist Titian’s exquisite paintings, Assumption of the Virgin, and Madonna di Ca’ Pesaro, as well as his tomb. Also housed inside are Bellini’s Madonna with Child and Saints, and Donatello’s Figure of St. John the Baptist, to name a few. The church is at once an art lover’s dream, and a Christian’s inspiration.
This is Venice. See something spectacular, and then have a little fun. Lose your breath over the beauty and catch it again as you sip a spritz with a tasty snack.
Later that day, we wandered into a bacaro on a quiet alley not far from St. Mark’s Square. We ordered a spritz and they had a cicchetto (singular of cicchetti) my husband wanted to try. We asked if they had anything vegetarian, and they didn’t. I was fine with that, not even hungry really.
To my surprise, the chef overheard us asking. He came out to me and asked if I like mushrooms and zucchini. Absolutely! In a few moments he had whipped up one special cicchetto, just for me. It was delicious.
As we savored every bite and every moment, we found ourselves in a conversation with the barman about the famous Italian singer, Laura Pausini’s music, showing our age as my husband mentioned her song that was famous when he studied in Milan. Seeing we enjoyed it, he turned up the song.
For those few moments we felt, and were treated, as locals. As if we belonged there in that watery city. I’ve always felt a sense of belonging in Venice.
We had no idea when we left Venice that she was about to be struck by yet another disaster in the form of this virus and the fear surrounding it. A hard hit on both health and economy, adding insult to the floods in November and making an already difficult life for the locals, much harder.
This weekend, we had friends over and made cicchetti for them inspired by our time in Venice. As we munched and sipped Prosecco, one friend asked me about a little painting on our wall of the church of Santa Maria Della Salute, across the grand canal from San Marco, and an iconic view.
I explained that we had bought the painting from an artist in Venice on our anniversary years ago, having just visited the church that day. La Salute, as it’s called for short, was consecrated in 1681 to the Virgin Mary for restoring health to Venice after the plague reeked its havoc. Its name translates to St. Mary of Health.
Looking at this painting, I remembered praying for the health of two parents inside that church. I wonder how many people over the centuries have prayed for healing there or given thanks for recovery. Thinking of our current situation with the virus, this church brings me comfort that healing will come, for both health and livelihoods of the people there.
Venice is so beautiful, and if you give yourself the time to get off the beaten path a bit, you can find yourself a wonderful little corner to eat something fabulous and mingle with the locals who call this city home, and love to share it with eager guests.
Serving our own guests special dishes inspired by the place is a fun way to feel close to Venice, even when we’re far away.
A few recipes to try your own cicchetti:
A Venetian Specialty, Sarde in Saor:
If you can find them, 2 fresh sardines, lightly breaded and fried in extra virgin olive oil. We recommend Marini Giuseppe’s Extra Virgin Olive Oil Toscano IGP.
Fry the fish and remove it, then fry some sliced white onions in the same EVOO, not too long, just until they start to become clear.
Add some white wine vinegar, or for a special, sweeter flavor, Mia Emilia’s White Balsamic Dressing.
Cook for a few minutes to soak up the flavor of the vinegar.
Mix the fish, and onions together with a few pine nuts and raisins and pour the liquid you used for cooking (oil and vinegar) on top.
Let cool a little bit, and then chill for several hours. Traditionally, this is served chilled, on top of a slice of bread.
Cicchetti with Radicchio, Gorgonzola Cheese and Mieleaceto Countess Elixir IGP:
Wash and chop the radicchio, we use about a quarter of it for 8 pieces. You want relatively small chunks rather than long ribbons to make it easier to eat.
Cut a loaf of Italian or French bread into slices as you would for bruschetta.
Slice or crumble gorgonzola cheese over each slice of bread. I like a creamier gorgonzola best for this, but any will do.
Top the bread and gorgonzola with the chopped radicchio.
Drizzle a few drops of Mieleaceto Countess Elixir IGP over each slice. The sweetness is a beautiful complement to the gorgonzola and slightly bitter radicchio.
Bake the slices in the oven on 350 for just a few minutes until the bread is slightly toasted and cheese has melted.
Tomato Basil Cicchetti:
Cut a few slices of Italian or French bread, like you’re making bruschetta.
Chop tomatoes that are nice and ripe.
Add a few fresh basil leaves.
Drizzle over with a great Extra Virgin Olive Oil like Mia Emilia’s Dievole Chianti Classico Extra Virgin Olive Oil DOP.
For those who can get Baccala`:
This is an easy one, but among the most commonly found in Venice.
Top a slice of bread with the baccala`.
We hope these recipes will provide a bit of inspiration, but, don’t be afraid to get creative! Prosciutto, Parma Ham, Salami, Grilled vegetables, all delicious places to start!