The truism “you can’t get a bad meal in Italy” takes a beating in Venice, sad to say. Venice scores low in fine dining, and it’s inevitable. Ninety-nine percent of visitors have one meal and never return, and that doesn’t inspire restaurateurs to always do their best. Still, the upside is that the snacking is fine and fun and so is the drinking at La Serenissima’s many bacari. In a city that is essentially nightlife-free, these cheap and cheerful bars offer evenings of buzz and banter amongst (mostly) local patrons. Providing immunity from the pricy tourist-predatory restaurants mentioned above, bacari (accent the first syllable: BA-cari) serve inexpensive but excellent bites called cicchetti (pronounced chee-KET-tee), traditional tapas-like servings of polpettine (meatballs) baccalà mantecato (creamed salt cod or dentex), baby octopus, sarde in saor (marinated sardines), and anything else that may inspire the kitchen, plus assorted cheeses and salumi. Otherwise, bacari vary widely. Some offer full meals, others lack tables and often, even chairs; they’re open late or keeping fish-market hours. Standing-room-only outposts are well suited to the meal-cum-social-round of the “giro per bacari,” a pub crawl that is to Venice what the evening passegiata is elsewhere in Italy. Stationary or in giro, patrons usually take their cicchetti with an AperolSpritz, a low-alcohol cocktail blended of prosecco, sparkling water and neon-orange Aperol aperitif, or with wine, which will be bottled or from demijohns, and sometimes house-made.
Bacari cluster around the Rialto, where Cantina Do Mori (San Polo 429), which may or may not date to the 15th century, and may or may not have been one of Casanova’s hangouts, is known for its francobolli, aptly named “postage stamp” sandwiches. Along Cannareggio’s Strada Nuova you’ll find another of the oldest bacari, this one reputed to serve the best polpettine (meatballs) in the city. Like many places in Venice, it has two names: Osteria Ca’ d’Oro and Osteria Alla Vedova. Many others are farther-flung. Across town in Cannaregio, for example, is a newcomer called Vino Vero (Fondamenta Misericordia 2497). It’s convenient to the Church of the Madonna dell’Orto and its nine Tintorettos (including his “Presentation of the Virgin,” which made quite an impression on Henry James). Owned by the brothers Matteo and Massimiliano Bartoli, Vino-Vero has just a couple of tall stools wedged into its shrunken premises, and it offers wine at fire-sale prices: €3 to €10 a glass. Better, you might luck into one of their occasional free tastings. But take heed: the cicchetti are fine and inventive, but Matteo and Massimiliano take their wine seriously: they focus on the organic and biodynamic wine from small producers, so Vino Vero is one bacaro where ordering a spritz would be enologically incorrect.
Non importa: the glowing orange cooler is served almost everywhere else, having largely muscled aside yesterday’s ombra, a “shade” or “shadow” of cool white wine, as Venice’s restorative of choice. At its most elegant the Aperol Spritz is served in a tall wine stem and decorated with a speared olive inside and half an orange wheel perched topside. One of the best places to have a spritz is Marco Polo Airport. (If you’ve ever been through that mill you know why; if you haven’t, you will.)
A personal favorite among the fonts of spritzes is Osteria da Simson, which faces the Santa Marina canal at the terminus of gloomy, unprepossessing Calle Bressana, an obscure alley near the Basilica dei Santi Giovanni e Paolo, a.k.a. the Zanipolo. It was there last May that I inaugurated Simson’s canal-side kayak drinking and snacking service. It came about like a happy accident: Simson’s was just where I happened to find myself after a hot morning’s kayaking the canals, so I wearily paddled over, clung to the fondamente and briskly waved my paddle. The ever-alert Domenico Sercia, never one to miss a cliento, shimmered over to take my order and my photo. –Bill Marsano