To a habitual patron of Venice’s bacari – that uniquely Venetian interpretation of a wine bar – my friend Gudrun is likely to be a familiar sight. On any evening of the week you will find her and her other friends, tippling, nibbling, exchanging social intelligence at one or, if like her you graze, at several of these neighborhood haunts.
When I told Gudrun I wanted to do a story about the bacaro phenomenon, “Oh, nooooo …” she cried “There will be nothing left in Venice we can keep to ourselves!”. To live in Venice is to be one of the most privileged persons alive, but you share that privilege with the visitors – approximately ten of them for every one of you – who come to gaze at the miraculous city. You share the calli, Venice’s maze of streets, the campi, its squares, the vaporetti, its water buses, the exquisite opera house, the glorious churches, even the outdoor food market at Rialto, to whose stalls, resplendent with daily renewed displays of produce and fish, you must elbow your way past the ogling crowds. Up to now, the only thing residents haven’t had to share with outsiders was a place at the counter of a bacaro, where one can spend minutes or hours, alternating cheering draughts of refreshing young wine with morsels of the savory tidbits that abound with copious variety on this singular branch of Venetian cooking.
The word bacaro comes from the name of the pagan god of wine, Bacchus. Churches in Venice are more numerous and certainly far more monumental than bacari, but the worshipful constancy of the latter’s congregations and the sincerity of their devotions are such that the ancient deity need not feel slighted. True to the teachings of Bacchus, what all bacari have in common is an extraordinarily convivial spirit, probably unequaled in any other public house in Italy. In part this is a result of the small quarters that most of them, although not all, occupy. There are tables available, only two or three of them in the cozier establishments, but regular patrons prefer to stand not minding, during crowded moments, the press of their neighbors. It is rare not to find some acquaintance to greet and even though one has no trouble keeping to oneself, it is an unusually dour soul who can spend time in a bacaro without eliciting a friendly nod or word.
The wines bacari dispense by the glass are of the kind Italy excels in making: very young, light-bodied, exuberantly grapey, inexpensive and deliciously gulpable. Many are produced in the Veneto itself, including the most popular white, the fresh, soft, and gently sparkling Prosecco, and the most popular red, Merlot, produced in a simple, tenderly fruity style. Out of the highly regarded vineyards of the Friuli region northeast of Venice, come wines from both local and international varieties. Pinot Grigio, Pinot Bianco, Sauvignon, Tocai, Ribolla satisfy a thirst for whites and for lovers of red there is Refosco, Schiopettino, Tazzelenghe, and Cabernet. Expect the latter, unless Cabernet Sauvignon is specified, to be the effusively fragrant Cabernet Franc. The more sophisticated bacari also pour some of the fuller reds from Tuscany and Piedmont. For their last round, Venetians often take a glass of Fragolino, an irresistibly scented white or red sweet wine – never exported – made from the locally grown Concord grape known as uva fragola, the strawberry grape. The white costs more but it is infinitely more delectable.
Bacari are not just about wine. Each good bacaro is a depository of genuine gems mined from the great mother lode of Venetian home cooking. Brilliant examples are based on the city’s most precious resource, Adriatic seafood. Among them you may find folpeti, tiny octopus whose sac can measure as little as an inch and no more than two. They are boiled, served warm out of their cooking bath and dressed with 3 drops of olive oil and one of vinegar, surpassing in succulence and sweetness whatever is done with octopus anywhere. There are fresh sardines or small soles in saor, fried and marinated in vinegar, onions, pine nuts, and raisins. There may be canoce, a pearl-gray, flat, broad, shrimp-like creature native to the Adriatic, whose flesh, tasting of almonds, is the most delicate of any crustacean’s. There are meat dishes as well: soppressa – the indigenous soft Venetian salami; musetto – the local version of cotechino, a mildly spiced, unbelievably creamy cooked salami; exquisite little meatballs, made with three kinds of meat mixed with potatoes. And in season there are the native vegetable specialties, baked radicchio, sautéed artichoke bottoms, steamed white asparagus. Not every bacaro has everything. Each has its specialty and each does some thing better than any one else. In a few you find a rich assortment of tramezzini, a sandwich created in Venice that encloses between small triangles of soft bread an infinite variety of meat and vegetable stuffings laced with mayonnaise.
What one consumes at bacari is not just delicious food and wine, but a generous portion of authentic Venetian life. It helps, but it is not necessary, to be Venetian yourself. As long as you are equipped with an unbiased palate and a sociable disposition, you can savor the experience as expertly as Gudrun does. After all, she too was a tourist once.
This article was originally printed in Food and Wine Magazine in 1995