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Episode #185: Venetian Cicchetti – A food lovers guide

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A trip to Venice would not be complete without sampling some Cicchetti – the famous small bites you can order with a drink in the Osterias and Bacaris of the City of Canals. Unique to Venice, Cicchetti are best enjoyed with some delicious local wine, good company and maybe with some people watching thrown in, we learn about the history of this unique part of Venetian culture and what to try!

Show notes
In this episode, we head back to Venice and welcome back Venice local Monica Cesarato – food writer and guide who shared the secrets and soul of Venice back in episode 35.  Monica runs food tours and classes in Venice, has recently launched a podcast about the city – Venice Talks and literally wrote the book on Cicchetti, Andar Per Bacari, with the English version recently came out. We learn about the culture around these tasty snacks and talk whipped cod, hidden alleyways and slowing things down on your trip to Italy.

What you’ll learn in this episode

  1. Katy and Monica met up in Venice on Katy’s most recent trip to Italy for a catchup, which started with a coffee and kept going – ending up with a big, shared meal in the evening before finally ending around midnight. A great example of how to do Venice the Vential way – good food, laughter and done slowly. An all-around perfect day in Venice, completely unplanned and despite it just being the end of March, was beautiful blue skies, sunny and warm
  2. Katy and Monica took a boat ride and Monica was waving at everyone as so many people they passed knew her. Quite the Venice celebrity, as a local but also now having appeared on a few TV shows, including The Reluctant Traveler, with Eugene Levy on Apple TV, where she featured in an episode focused on Venice. She found this a fantastic experience. It was a real pleasure because not only did she get to take him around to eat Cicchetti and talk all about it, but they also went through the Jewish Getto and discussed the history and food there too
  3. Monica is now finding some people recognize her on the street which feels very weird because she doesn’t think she is particularly noticeable. But that is fame for you! Now she just wishes she could get the money to match the fame!
  4. Cicchetti used to be a secret outside of Venice. When Monica first started in 2008, practically nobody knew what Cicchetti were. People would book her food tour and she used to explain it’s not just a food tour, it’s about Cicchetti and they would be “what?”
  5. Some describe Cicchetti as like tapas, but they’re not like tapas. Cicchetti are a way of life in Venice. It’s the way you do aperitivo there. It’s the way you sample Venetian cooking
  6. The word Cicchetti comes from Latin and means ‘little’. The history goes back to a very long time ago, probably to around the same time as tapas but we must remember that Venice and Spain had a strong link back then – but they’re not the same
  7. The first thing that you need to know about Cicchetti is that you should forget about the spritz. Everybody has a spritz but no – what you need to have is an Ombra, that is a small glass of wine, a nice Venetian wine. When you go around drinking the Ombra, always ask for local wine because Veneto wines are amazing anyway
  8. An ‘ombra’ is a small glass of wine that is typical of Venice and Cicchetti. Ombre comes from the word for shade and there are a lot of legends out there and false stories on the internet about the origins of the name. The main legend, which is not in fact true, is that the Venetian called it ‘ombra’ because they used to be sold underneath the shade of the church tower to keep the wine cool, so they would say “andiamo a bere all’ombra” “let’s go and drink in the shade”. This is not the true origin. 
  9. Not very long ago in history (for Venice at least) – about 200 years ago, there used to be a local professor in Venice that used to frequent and therefore was popular at the city’s Osterias. He visited them quite frequently (to put it politely. An ombra is a very tiny small glass of wine. He used to define it as “un ombra di niente” “a shade of nothing” because it is one-eighth of a liter. From then on, in his honor, all of the Osteria of the city then used ombra as a unit of measurement
  10. When you order an ombra, you should always have a Cicchetto. The Cicchetti of 20 years ago are not the Cicchetti of today. If you visited with Monica 20 years ago, you would have had brain, liver, tongue, spleen, tripe, etc. Now you get cod, sardines, octopus – lots of fish as it is the main produce of the city
  11. Monica has many recipes in her book which is coming out in English available here
  12. The history of why you eat a cicchetto with your ombra dates back to when there wasn’t any fresh water in the city – because the city was built on stilts in the middle of a salty lagoon. There was no springs or river so the Venetians had to find ways to gather fresh water into the cities. They had large barges called Bùrcio going to the mouth of the rivers every day to bring back fresh water into the city. They then had ladies and gentlemen delivering the water door to door which went on until the early 1900s. They also had these large wells that are massive systems under the ground in the main squares (campo) of Venice. They were filled with clay and sand so the water would filter through and be collected in a cylinder
  13. The problem with those systems and the barges was you just needed one dead rat and you got contaminated water. Venetians had to find a way not to drink contaminated water especially as plague was a big problem back then. So they did as people had done for years with a lack of clean water – when they drank the water they mixed it with wine to kill the bacteria. This was done by everybody of all social classes, genders, and ages including children
  14. So this obviously would have meant a lot of drunken Venetians, so the simple solution was to add a small bite to eat every time they drank, so they wouldn’t get too tipsy
  15. Now you see a lot of cicchetti which are bread with toppings. Originally, it would have been an egg with an anchovy, a bit of polenta with some cheese, or a side dish of beans and onions. It would have been totally different to now. In Monica’s book, she includes both brand new recipes but also the traditional old ones from 50 – 100 years ago. They’re both valid. We want to embrace the new exciting recipes but preserve the older, traditional ones too
  16. Monica’s favorite, and a Venetian classic, is Bacala Mantecato. It is made with dried cod (not salt cod), but it’s creamed dried cod. It is very creamy and very delicious. It’s whipped with oil and garlic and ends up looking like a mousse. It looks like there is cream in it but there isn’t. The consistency is a bit like tuna mayonnaise, and the flavor depends on the quality of the bacala that they use and how good the person who makes it is.  It’s unique.
  17. Monica recommends it to have it with polenta because the polenta tones down the strong flavor of the fish and balances out the dish
  18. Polenta is corn flour. Corn arrived in the Veneto region, thanks to the Spanish and they are big eaters of polenta (polentoni).  You boil it and it becomes like a porridge consistency at first, you then let it cool down and it becomes hard and then you can fry it or just have it as is
  19. Monica describes it as exactly like grits, but without the grits in it – we hope you get to try it for yourself! You can mix things into it, like mushrooms as they like in Valle d’Aosta or Piemonte regions
  20. Monica’s other favorite is octopus in tomato sauce. Those are the two that she usually gets everybody on her tours to try. Even though people them with trepidation – probably 9 out of 10 people enjoy them. You always get the odd one that doesn¡t – not everyone can like everything of course. Monica is not offended when they don’t!
  21. Each of the Osteria will have their own specialties of Chicheeti which they will be proud of
  22. There are basic recipes, of course, but everybody has their own twist and they’re never the same
  23. You can literally go to 10 osteria one after another and you will not eat the same stuff
  24. It is a great way to do Venice in the daytime without getting too full and reserve some space for your evening meal. During the day you can go bar hopping and not get too drunk or too tired. That’s the Venetians used to do it – they would not to get drowsy, it would get the digestion going and they could carry on working
  25. It’s tappabuchi – something to fill the gap. It lines your stomach for the alcohol 
  26. The prices have gone up, since COVID, because the price of everything has gone up, but the average is still only about €2 each
  27. When Monica goes out with friends (not with clients, because with clients they are eating a lot so they can try as much as possible and don’t have room to eat later) they’ll generally have 3 Cicchetti and a couple of drinks
  28. This would average at about €10. It depends – if you were with Monica who is friends with all the bartenders, it might end up less
  29. People have a misconception about Venice being ridiculously expensive. Venice can be as expensive or as cheap as you want it to be. Cicchetti is a good budget way to do the city. Save a proper meal for the evening and there are restaurants of different budgets – you don’t need and probably would not want to go to a fine dining restaurant every night. There are great normal restaurants and especially when you head away from the touristy center
  30. Venice is more expensive than other cities because the basic cost of running a business there due to everything having to come in by water and the cost of rentals of the locations is double that anywhere else in Italy because of the locations of historic buildings. When a restaurant opens, it has to keep these higher costs into consideration on top of the staff costs
  31. You’ll maybe spend 30 % more probably to eat in Venice than in other cities, even just outside of Venice. But at the same time, you can eat well. There are tourist horror stories, but away from the tourist traps you can have a good meal for about €40 (without too much wine on top)
  32. When you move from Cicchetti to Cicchetti to Cicchetti, then you don’t get really hungry and you make better decisions which is always better for your budget 
  33. Monica is keeping some of her favorite places close to her chest, as that is where she takes her tours, but she has some great recommendations for us here still and there are lots in her book
  34. First, we head to Castello. Visitors rarely go to the district (sestieri) of Castello, unless they go to the Biennale. It’s a residential part of Venice that is just beautiful and makes for a great visit. Monica thinks other Venetians might be annoyed with her for promoting their little secret – but she feels that it would be better for the city if tourism was spread out more rather than just so concentrated in San Mark’s Square. 
  35. In Castello, there is an Osteria called Osteria a la Scuela. When you walk in, it’s like walking into the 1960s. The people, and the decor all look like they are straight out of the 60s and the vibe and the food are totally 60s too. They have Cicchetti like it used to be. The place is full of Venetians. You don’t often see tourists, it is mostly locals and the food is amazing. If someone suggests to Monica to go to Castello – this Osteria is always her first stop and she is always taking friends and visitors there. They do amazing gratin stuff tomatoes and the wines there are really good too
  36. Near Rialto you get a lot of tourist traps, but along the embankment (fundamental), on one of the turnings, there is a place called Osteria Il Diavolo E L’acqua Santa. The gondoliers have their lunch and dinner here and the Cicchetti are fantastic
  37. They don’t do just Cicchetti, they do also proper food and you can definitely eat fairly cheaply there. You get the best tripe there – Monica claims it to be the best tripe she has had in my life – almost as good as her mum’s – so praise indeed!
  38. Monica whose job is in food, still considers her mum to be one of the best cooks she’s ever met in her life. She herself should write a book! Monica’s mum doesn’t tell her how to make a recipe – she shows her. When you ask her how much of something you need to put in, she’ll show you – no scales or measurements involved
  39. Monica has said to her mum that they really should start writing down her recipes but her mum says “I’m never going to give you my recipes”. And her grandma did just that. She has an amazing recipe for a liquor she used to make with walnut leaves, lemon zest, lots of grappa and raisins, but with a secret ingredient that she took to her grave, much to Monica’s horror
  40. Paying for your Cicchetti in the Osteria and Bacaro in Venice used to mean paying cash, but since Covid now everybody takes a card (though usually not American Express). During Covid, a law was introduced in Italy which meant businesses must take cards as well as cash
  41. Queueing depends on the place and the time you go. If you go at aperitivo time, around 6ish, you’ll definitely queue as well as Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, because of course that is when all the locals go. Many lunchtimes now as well. If you go at off times you usually don’t have to queue and even if you do, it is usually only 10 – 15 minutes. Many people stand up – you have a table with an umbrella, you have a chat with your friends, a spritz and then move on. People often aren’t lingering, so turnover can be quite quick
  42. Cichetti in Venice is part of the cultural experience and part of being in Venice. It’s something that you should definitely make time to do because it’s very special and unique. You’re standing in these beautiful, old buildings, you’ve got your little glass of delicious wine and some tasty bites of food  that you’ll not  get anywhere else
  43. It’s not only about eating and drinking with Cicchetti. It’s about the social experience. Many cities and countries don’t have this concept of just sitting with a friend having a drink, chatting while watching the people go by
  44. Recently Monica had a similar day to that she had with Katy with a Venetian friend. They started by visiting Palazzo Grimani, a beautiful museum in Venice that nobody goes to. Monica and her friend pretty much had it to themselves so she did a few videos and lives. Then they went to a free art exhibition – part of the Architecture Biennale and then they decided to go for some Cicchetti
  45. They sat there for about an hour and a half talking to Monica’s friend the barman and to the customers coming in. It was very ho – 3 pm and 40 degrees, so they decided what else could they do? and went off to do some people-watching. They went to Campo Santo Stefano (a large square), sat for 3 and a half hours, wined and dined by the staff (who Monica knows of course) and 7 pm came around and they were done. Could there be a more leisurely afternoon?
  46. To really enjoy Venice, do Venice slowly! The great thing about Venice, compared to other cities is that life is so much slower. Sitting for 3 hours in a bar sounds like a long time, but it literally flies by and you are relaxed – you don’t have cars passing by, so no pollution and smog. You have people to watch, good food, good drink, good company and beautiful surroundings
  47. When she was last in Venice, Katy kept finding google maps taking her down the same streets as everyone else and it was a real crush, but when she met up with Monica they were darting around all these little alleyways and getting everywhere in half the time. They can’t get the Google Maps car down through  lots of these alleyways so they aren’t even on there and Monica says Google Maps dies anyway through many small alleyways because the buildings are so tall
  48. These alleyways are what the Venetians call Sconte – the hidden ones. Only Venetians usually use them or the people who’ve moved to Venice eventually start to get to know them
  49. If you get the logistics of Venice and you understand the North, South, East and West, you can avoid going through the main, busy streets
  50. For those who grew up in cities where everything is like a grid, as many are in the US and Australia – the windy alleyways going off in different directions can be disorientated and make people panic a bit
  51. Back when these cities were being built, there was no street planning, they just built where there was space to build. Napoleon came along and knocked a lot down and street planning started around then, but before that, they just built as they went along
  52. Monica found it quite disconcerting when she went to America. She couldn’t find her bearings. Everything was too straight and all looked the same to her
  53. Monica took Katy to what she says is the best artisan chocolate shop in Venice if not the world – Vizio Virtù. Monica does Tea, cake and chocolate tours and Venice coffee and chocolate tasting tours and this is where she takes them for tastings. 
  54. You can find Monica’s tours as well as details about her podcast and book on her website monicacesarato.com
  55. The podcast is called Venice Talks and is available on all major podcast platforms. She talks to writers, artisans, museums, and journalists who work and/or live in Venice. She’s celebrating a year of the podcast and 40 episodes. She’s on a bit of a break at the moment because it’s summer and it’s a bit hard to find people available as Italy takes its summer break
  56. Monica can find it difficult to find people to be guests because it is an English-speaking podcast and many Italians suffer from Bella Figura which is a term meaning always wanting to look your best and many don’t think their English is good enough – not realizing that listeners will love their wonderful accent and way of speaking 
  57. Monica’s guests have all the insider knowledge and perspectives on Venice and at Untold Italy Italy we love to feature Italian speakers whenever we can. It’s great to have different perspectives – not just Australian, American, Canadian etc. It’s good to have that Italian voice and perspective because it is after all – their country and they know it best

About our guest – Monica Cesarato

Monica cesarato

Monica Cesarato is an Italian food and travel blogger born near Venice. She has lived there most of her life, apart from a break of 11 years spent in the UK.

As well as writing about Venetian and Italian food and about Venice and Italy in general, Monica also offers culinary tours of the city and is a cooking instructor offering cooking classes. She has written a book about Cicchetti, Andar Per Bacari, which is available here.

She has appeared in various TV shows talking about Venice and its food, including Apple TV’s The Reluctant Traveler with Eugene Levy. She now also has her own podcast all about Venice – Venice Talks.

Find more about her tours and writing on monicacesarato.com.

You can find Monica and her blogs on these social media channels:

Monica’s Book:

Andar per Bacari. Food, Wine & Itineraries among Venice.

Places mentioned in the show

  • Aosta Valley –  small, northern region in Italy
  • Castello – a more residential district that is home to the Arsenale and public gardens. Hosts the Venice Biennale every 2 years
  • Osteria a la Scuela – great place in Castello for old school cicchetti
  • Osteria Il Diavolo E L’acqua Santa – delicious cicchetti in a central location – amazing tripe
  • Fondamenta – meaning ‘foundation’ in Italian, it describes the walking bank alongside a canal
  • Palazzo Grimani – a museum in the Castello district
  • Campo Santo Stefano – a large square in sestiere San Marco
  • Terrazza Aperol – great place for a spritz and people watching in Campo Santo Stefano
  • Piazza San Marco – main square of Venice home to ritzy cafes, the basilica and Palazzo Ducale
  • Vizio Virtù –  incredible chocolate shop in Castello

Food & Drink

  • Cicchetti –  are snacks or small plates served in bars (bacari) around Venice
  • Ombra – a small glass of wine to accompany your cicchetti
  • Baccalà Mantecato – a cicchetti made with salt cod. Its name means “whipped salt cod spread” 

Resources

  • bùrcio – large lagoon cargo barges that used to collect fresh water
  • The Reluctant Traveler – travel show from Apple TV with Eugene Levy
  • Tappabuchi – something that fills a gap
  •  sestieri – districts in Venice

Resources from Untold Italy

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