Venetian Little Bites

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    Mention Italian food and chances are that most people immediately think of red sauces, those staples of southern Italy. The second thought might be of northern cream sauces, or perhaps the earthy, salt-free breads of Tuscany that are incorporated into so many dishes. Actually, any one of about 20 responses, one for each area of Italy, would be correct.

    Venetian cuisine is one of the most interesting, with influences from near and far: rolled, stuffed dishes such as canederli or strudel from the Austrian or Tyrolese tradition, or rice, a formally expensive, exotic food that Venetians brought to the city centuries ago from trading partners.

    Venice is one of my favorite destinations. The art, architecture, and history are all fascinating. But it is also great fun to go exploring around the residential part of the city away from the magnificent palazzi that line the Grand Canal. During a visit there this past May we had a goal: find as many bàcari (singular: bàcaro) as we can. What are bàcari, you ask?

    To answer that we go to Pittsburgh’s most enthusiastic lover of Venetian cuisine, Franco Braccia, owner of Senti Restaurant. Braccia worked at some of the best hotels in Venice, including the Hôtel des Bains, famous for the setting of Thomas Mann’s masterpiece Death in Venice.

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    “Bàcari is from the Venetian dialect. It identifies an unpretentious bar where people are entertained by eating small portions of food,” he explains. Since bàcari are usually very modestly sized, the food is often eaten standing up. Even smaller than a bàcaro, but no longer found, was a fritton, which specialized in fried food.

    The Cantina Do Mori, dating from 1462, is perhaps the oldest bàcaro in Venice, although there are records of bàcari going back to the 13th century. Cantina Do Mori certainly boasts the most romantic history, as it is reputedly the place where Casanova met his mistresses.

    Bàcari are devoted to cicchetti (pronounced chi-KET-ti), while other establishments, such as osterias, trattorias, or ristorantes, have a variety of foods—possibly including cicchetti. Cicchetti represents pure Venetian cuisine, unembellished with southern red sauces or northern cream sauces.

    Again we turn to Braccia to explain: “Cicchetti is also Venetian dialect. It is an old way to say ‘small amount of food.’ You eat one thing, one item at a time.” People ate them between meals, or today as quick snacks en route home. Braccia continues: “They are strictly Venetian or from Mestre or one of the other towns around Venice.” Sometimes they are described as Italian tapas, but more appropriate terms are “small bites” or “finger food.”

    And what foods comprise cicchetti? Needless to say about a city that floats in a beautiful lagoon, most dishes are seafood based: fish, moscardini (baby octopus), cockles, and sea snails; baccala mantecato, a salt-cod mousse on polenta; and sarde in saor, a sweet-and-sour sardine dish. But there are also non-seafood dishes, such as half a hard-boiled egg with an anchovy, finished with chopped parsley. What about polpette (meatballs) and fritatta (a type of omelet)? “I would not call them traditional cicchetti.” Salami and cheese? “No. They are the new age of the cicchetti.”

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    Indeed, many bàcari have reinterpreted cicchetti as fusion food. One example we saw was raw tuna chopped with capers and brandy, then dusted with unsweetened cocoa powder. Also found were crostini with pumpkin, porcini, and ricotta; vitello tonnato with anchovy-foam sandwiches; and even curries. Those cicchetti and others like them have propelled bàcari onto the list of world gastronomic must-go-to places, complete with numerous Venetian tour guides offering cicchetti crawls.

    Our first cicchetti were eaten at Wine Bar 5000 in San Severo Square. We ordered a selection of the day, which included oranges with Monte Veronese cheese and mortadella with another cheese. The latter had a small dollop of fruit jam called mostarda, which added a piquant note. The selections more closely resembled bruschette, which are not truly traditional cicchetti, but truly good. We dawdled over them as we watched one gondola after another glide along the quiet waters of the canal.

    Our second experience with cicchetti was at dinner at our hotel on Giudecca Island. This time we ate a combination of traditional and new-age cicchetti from Chef Ivan Catenacci. Sardines in saor, baccala mantecato, and cuttlefish with onions—deliziosi!—for the traditional. At the other end were sun-dried tomatoes on eggs, plus a mix of tomato, yogurt, and caperberries on bread. They were also delicious, but the traditional ones have lingered in our memories.

    Cognoscenti of cicchetti pair them with small glasses of wine called ombra, meaning shadow. Historically, wine merchants sold their products in the shade of the Campanile di San Marco, the famous bell tower near St. Mark’s Square and basilica. As the sun moved, the merchants moved their stands to follow the shade in an effort to keep the wine cool, hence the name of the serving of wine. But what to drink today?

    Ruth Barsotti, of Barsotti Wines, reminds us of the old aphorism, “If it grows together, it goes together” and adds that “there are many wines from the Veneto region that are perfect.” Most people think of white wines with fish—which, again, most cicchetti are. “But really,” says Ruth, “the last time I did a cicchetti crawl in Venice, we drank red wine with everything because it was chilly and rainy and red made more sense. So it’s more fun not to be too fussy about the wine.”

    One big question remains: Is the seafood to make cicchetti at home available here in town? That question was put to Henry Dewey at Penn Avenue Fish Company. “If it is in the sea or swimming I can get it,” says Dewey. Fresh sardines? Cockles? Sea snails? Cuttlefish? Of course. Baby octopus? “Absolutely. They are super delicious and tender.”

    Senti’s Braccia shares his love of traditional finger food with dishes such as Fritto Misto di Mare, a recipe he offers below. Numerous cicchetti recipes are available online. Cicchetti are relatively easy to make, not to mention being the perfect holiday
    and party food.

    And whether in Venice or Pittsburgh, may you happily savor the taste treats of many different small bites!

    Fritto di Mare

    (Mixed Fried Seafood)
    Recipe courtesy of Franco Braccia of Senti Restaurant

    Ingredients for One Serving
    2 ounces each of:
    Calamari, cut in ¼-inch rings
    Shrimp (all shrimp cleaned and without the heads)
    Smelts, cleaned
    Sardines, cleaned and filleted
    Squid tentacles
    1½ cups flour
    Vegetable oil, or a combination of vegetable and olive oil, in a deep-fat fryer or large pot
    Procedure
    Dredge the fish in the flour.
    Fry in hot oil, a few pieces at a time, until golden.
    Drain on paper towels.
    Sprinkle with salt and pepper.
    Put in a brown paper cone and serve.

    Notes
    The fish will cook faster and more evenly if the pot isn’t crowded. As always, great care should be taken when working with boiling oil because it does burn. That holds for steam, which will also burn, especially when food is first put in the oil and starting to cook. The fish will splatter when first put in the oil, so take extra care at that step.

    Local Sources

    Senti Restaurant is at 3473 Butler Street; 412-586-4347; sentirestaurant.com. Cicchetti are also available at the Senti bar.

    A variety of Italian cheeses and a selection of mostarda jams can be found at Penn Mac. Pear jam topped our cicchetti, but fig is always correct. Or try watermelon—just for fun.

    Barsotti suggests Tessari Grisela Soave Classico 2017, Cavalchina Bardolino Chiaretto 2018, and Ca’ del Monte Valpolicella Classico 2016—all of which are available through the PLCB Special Liquor Order directly, or through Barsotti Wines. For more information contact 412-251-9953 or ruth.barsotti@barsottiwines.com, or visit barsottiwines.com.

    Dewey of Penn Avenue Fish advises calling at least two to three days in advance of when you need the fish. Some items need to be ordered; other items are seasonal. Sardines, for instance, are available in season during summer and winter.

    Cynthia F. Weisfield is a freelance writer whose articles about art and food appear regularly in multiple publications. She is a graduate of the University of Chicago and has recently completed a biography (as yet unpublished) about noted abstract expressionist artist Sonia Gechtoff. She lives in Mt. Lebanon.

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