Making Friends and Eating Cicchetti in Venice

My mission for my most recent visit to Venice was all about hunting down the best Cicchetti (chi-ket-tee), small bite-size appetizers and pieces of crusty bread topped with a variety of delicious goodness. In fact, the concept is not too dissimilar to my pintxos adventures in San Sebastian, Spain. But Venice, oh beautiful and so romantic Venice, was such an incredible experience my second time around; so rich with food, Campari Spritz and some new-found friends along the way.

Our first cicchetti stop at Cateolia

Our first cicchetti stop at Cateolia

This trip was very different from my first visit to Venice with my Italian class back in 1999 when I was just 15. My most vivid memory of then is of when Cara ordered the pesce (fish) on the one night we were given the freedom to explore the city and dine solo without our teacher. After finding a restaurant and proudly placing our order in our broken Italian accents, we all were aghast that Cara’s fish came fully intact; head, bones, eyes and all. That was one lesson learnt that still makes me laugh even to this day.

Gondola in the Grand Canal, Venice

Gondola in the Grand Canal, Venice

But what I’ve been most surprised about after doing some research close to 20 years later (OMG), was to stumble across the concept of Cicchetti and it being unique to Venice. I think this is largely due to the general lack of awareness from other visitors too. When I told friends and family we were heading off to uncover all the secret Cicchetti spots amongst Venice’s hidden corners, a typical response was a big fat “che cosa?”.

For anyone who doesn’t know what I’m talking about, I think it’s time you head to Venice to get your Cicchetti on!

Lisa & Jamie in Venice

Lisa and Jamie in Venice

Cicchetti aside for a moment, the greatest debate of all for Jamie and I as a couple on our first trip abroad together was deciding on how we would travel from the airport to our hotel. There are about four options (public ferry for the typical tourist, shared speedboat (shuttle) for those with a bit less patience, private speedboat for those with deep pockets, or the bus for those afraid of water), so it really was worth all the faff to finally agree on the shared speedboat for 25 euros each which we pre-booked on Venice Link. We felt like celebrities straight out of a Bond movie cruising through the Grand Canal. But this post is all about new friends and Cicchetti, so back at it…

We met our first friend, Louisa, who greeted us at our lovely boutique hotel, Ca’Gottardi in Cannaregio, and who graciously gave us some tips on getting around (like how to score a 2 euro gondola ride across the Grand Canal to witness the recently famous hand sculpture). Her hotel is perfectly situated off of the main artery, Strada Nuova, running from the Rialto Bridge to the train station Santa Lucia. This road can be quite touristy at the best of times, but once off the beaten path toward the Jewish Ghetto, we came across some fantastic Cicchetti and wine bars.

Crossing the Grand Canal

Crossing the Grand Canal

Hand sculture, Venice

Hand sculpture, Venice

On that point of Ca’Gottardi, another friend we can thank is the mysterious night manager on our first night’s stay. As we stumbled in after too many Campari Spritz, we were pleasantly surprised to find a drinks trolley in the lobby. His English was nonexistent you could say, but he simply wheeled it over to us as we fell into the couch and helped ourselves to some complimentary blended whiskey. This mysterious night manager wasn’t seen again, and on the two following nights when we inquired during the early hours about the drinks trolley, we were told there was no such thing. We still question if he even worked there in the first place!

Rialto Bridge, Venice

Rialto Bridge, Venice

Our first day was a whirlwind overall, getting lost amongst the streets off of the Rialto Bridge and taking in the breathtaking beauty of the magnificent water world that is Venice. Our favourite Cicchetti experience was that very first night at Osteria al Cicheto where a tall local gentleman, Alessandro, overheard Jamie and I trying to figure out how to order the bite-sized snacks, and before we knew it we were sharing wine and he was giving us suggestions on how to make the most of Venice. He was so nice and even helped us score a table for a more formal dinner at the very small and much in demand osteria. There we had the most authentic, delicious meal of the entire trip, including Venetian style cuttlefish, fresh octopus and duck pasta. We can’t thank Alessandro enough, but also, I would come back to Osteria al Cicheto in a heartbeat to dine on their three-course local cuisine for a steal at only 33 euro each. Our wine bill was a tad bit more…whoops.

On our second day, the rained had ceased enough that we assumed it was our one chance to head out to the famous islands of Murano, Burano and Torcello. I recall a visit to Murano, famous for handblown glassmaking, from my youth trip and wasn’t that fussed to return. Burano, for another matter, has become an Instagram sensation over recent years, as tourists capture the magnificent coloured houses on this island known for lace craft. Starving, after taking too many snaps of the breathtaking backdrop (it’s just so cute!), we stopped off for lunch at Ai Cesendeli and were definitely pleasantly surprised with the gorgonzola and prosciutto pizza and pasta vongole.

Once back in Venice, we were in dire want to truly uncover all the hidden gems of the Jewish Ghetto, as that’s where all the Cicchetti food tours take the tourists. Fondamenta Ormesini is the spot; a street in the heart of the Jewish Ghetto along a canal lined with small Cicchetti and wine bars. Our favourite was Al Timon, one of liveliest and most popular of the street serving 1-euro Cicchetti and some killer wines (and apparently steaks too if you book in for dinner). On our second time back, I overheard some young kids next to us with American accents chatting away and instinctively knew they must be studying abroad. It brought back memories of when I backpacked throughout Europe at a similar time in my life. So, after swapping a few tales of our travels with Carly and Eric from Long Island, Jamie and I decided to buy them their first Campari Spritz, something I know I would have greatly appreciated at the age of 19.

Campari Spritz Cheers!

Campari Spritz Cheers!

Our fun didn’t stop there. As our trip coincided with St. Patricks day, Jamie was hell-bent on getting himself a pint of Guinness, despite me sticking my nose up to the notion while in Venice. Late at night on the 17th of March, we coincidently stumbled across an Irish Pub (Irish Pub Santa Lucia) serving green beer. We quickly befriended Marco, who taught us how to translate phrases into Italian, as one does when having a few pints in a foreign land. The funniest part of the evening was trying to give Marco some context to the phrase ‘you’re hard’, as in ‘you’re a tough guy’, which he hysterically practised in English while we perfected its translation “uomo duro”.

On our third day, the rain was relentless. Take note, when you hear sirens going off from loudspeakers throughout the entire city, count the number of beeps as it signifies the anticipated water level the canals will rise. Or at least, that was our experience whilst befriending Nicola and Matteo, owners of uber cool Chet Bar in the university area of Campo Santa Margherita. We were instantly drawn in for their killer cocktails and a great soundtrack but left swigging new whiskies and learning the craft of rosemary gin (try their Vizio del Conte – rosemary-infused gin, cardamom-infused vermut, Campari bitter). Our fun got interrupted, however, by Nicola running outside to count the sirens, apologizing to us as he leapt out the door to run home in urgency to grab some higher wellies, and strongly advised that we make our way back to our hotel in no more than 1 hour, or we will enjoy the flooding on a much more personal level. Yikes, things just got fun!

We took their advice, but not before stopping off at their sister bar (it was on our way I swear!), the craft and sustainable Il Mercante. Alessandro (yes, everyone is called Alessandro) is co-owner with the boys over at Chet bar, and he happily gave us the inside scoop on what to eat (including their killer bacalao and duck breast Cicchetti plates) whilst we sipped another cocktail and listened to Oasis in the background. “We don’t do it for the money, if we did we’d open a shit restaurant for tourists,” he told us. We were in our glory land. But wait…isn’t there a flood going on?

We didn’t make it in time, and before we knew it we were nearly ankle-deep in water, tiptoeing our way across town. With barely any cash on us, we got swindled into buying two pairs of waterproof over the shoe wellies, which only leaked a few seconds later. As our hotel entrance was surrounded by water, we escaped across the street to the touristy Old Wild West, an American BBQ fast food joint. Luckily Stephano, an Italian/American/South American, interesting character to say the least, kindly served us wine and chicken fingers before telling us it was cash only and gave Jamie two trash bags to wear on his feet while he braved the flood to get cash out from an ATM. He was since known as ‘that weirdo Stephano’.

For our final day, we had initially planned on heading out of town to Verona or Vincenza but Alessandro at Il Mercante made our minds for us. With a bit of a hangover, we caught the train an hour and eleven minutes out to the holy land of  Italian brandy, Grappa, in the city of Bassano del Grappa. It was here, after visiting the Poli Grappa Museum and trying a quick throwback of the stiff stuff, that we took a stroll over the Ponte Vecchio (Old Bridge) for a breathtaking view of the Alps and met our final friend, the meat lady at the pub Al Saiso.

We were the only people there, and she didn’t speak very much English. We decided we needed something big and starchy for our hangovers, and Jaime thought he spotted the pasta on the menu under the heading ‘taglieri’. We even debated about the fact that we wanted the same one, so said who cares, let’s get two. When it came time to order, I asked for the burrata and prosciutto plate, but really pushed that it comes out primo (first). She looked confused because then we ordered two servings of the taglieri. We just nodded really, really enthusiastically, so she said okay.

After devouring a massive plate of meat and cheese “primo” as requested, to our surprise out came two huge cutting boards with more meat and cheese. We couldn’t keep our laughs in; come to find out, taglieri means cutting board. She must have thought we really were some meat-loving aficionados since we ordered so much of it. It was so intense we barely touched it and felt bad but laughed all the way home about how we travelled all the way to Grappa to eat a whole heck of sliced meat.

Lisa Vecchio in front of Cafe Ponte Vecchio in Bassano del Grappa

Lisa Vecchio in front of Cafe Ponte Vecchio in Bassano del Grappa

Our final shout out goes to the Flyin Lion, the magnificent mascot of Venice. The Lion with Wings can be seen everywhere from flags to upholstery and building carvings in the likes of St. Mark’s Square. Jaime loved it and even bought a dorky t-shirt with the lion on it to commemorate the trip.

Thanks to all the friends and memories we made in Venice! I’ll definitely be back sooner than later for some more Cicchetti.

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