Negotiating the Unwritten Rules of a Venetian Bacaro (Dive Bar)

“No, no, Miss. Say it again.” Our tour guide, maybe eighteen years old with spiky hair and a chipped-tooth smile, pinches his fingers and thumb together, Bacaro!” He kisses his fingers and explodes them open in the sky. “Bacaro!”

“Bacaro,” I say enthusiastically and kiss my fingers and watch them fall open like a drooping flower.

“Better, better!”

Paul and I are on the Definitive Bar Tour, advertised as visiting six bars with six snacks with six glasses of wine—all in three and half hours. Easy. The Klenks can handle that no problem.

We met Francesco in the university district where the Grand Canal opens up to the enormous lagoon of aquamarine water churning with the passage of speed boats, vaporetto (water taxis), gondolas, and tiny fishing boats manned usually by a young boy or two. Imagine a cruise ship and a canoe next to one another. It is stressful to watch, but so far, we haven’t seen any collisions or casualties.

We take off—Paul, me, Francesco, the tour guide, and a couple from Chicago. They didn’t talk the entire tour. I watched them chew and swallow—that’s it.

“Stop here.” Francesco left us in the middle of a street in Piazzale Roma with tourists surging around us. “Come now, now,” he waved from a tiny, low doorway between a lace shop and a hotel.

“Dive bar,” I whisper under my breath to Paul, as we squeezed into a narrow room with flapping posters on the wall and a table-like counter running around the perimeter of the room. Older men stood at the bar top eating bread with toppings without expressions. When they were done, they threw back a shot glass of wine and left greasy napkins that floated to the floor.

“Ooh,” I breathed.

“You can pick a cicchetti for yourself or I’ll select some for the group and we’ll all share them together.” The Chicago duo chose their own. Reluctantly, I wished I could read the Italian and know if I was choosing octopus or not.

The glass case was probably five feet long and filled with slices of French bread piled with meats, cheeses, spreads, and unrecognizable lumps.

“Cicchetti?” Paul asked. He totally massacred the word, but Francesco did not correct his pronunciation.

“Yes, yes. It is what separates Venetians from Italians. You will not find cicchetti, a small snack, in other places on your vacation.” He laughed. “Sir, I tell you what is here, and you choose. And then your wife.” He smiled at me.

Bud, if you want a tip, learn my name. Paul gripped my hand. Twenty years of marriage and he didn’t just read my mind. He heard it.

“Let me see what we have here. We have like your grilled cheese, I think.” He pointed to a fried bread sandwich. “But in Venice, we add a surprise, an anchovy in the middle and dip the sandwich in a batter to fry in lard. Delicimo!”

“Next one?” I inquired.

“This is Baccalà Mantecato,” he said pointing to crostini spread with a white fluffy concoction that looked like marshmallow. “It is salted cod spread.”

“Next?” I asked peering into the finger-print smudged glass case.

“Fior di Zucca, fried pumpkin blossoms stuffed with ricotta,” Francisco said meeting my gaze. “Very Venetian, you know.”

“I’ll try that one,” I spoke up. Paul picked one piled high with meat. We stood along the countertop and chomped on our cicchetti. Mine was creamy and salty and Paul’s took a bit more effort. He tried to eat it in several bites, but the meat was layered and didn’t pull apart well.

“Now the other part of visiting a bacaro, which now you should know is a local bar, is you drink a small glass of wine. Venetians pop into bacari all day long for a snack and a little glass of wine.” He carried four tiny glasses of white wine to us. Paul and I looked at each other. We tipped them back in one gulp.

“Very good. You drink like Venitians, no?” The Chicago couple drank theirs in sips.

“You can carry it, if you like,” he offered them. In Venice, you can walk with your drink. Never plastic, no.” he shook his head in disgust. You take a glass, you bring a glass.”

“These small glasses are for just a taste of the wine. When you order one, say ‘l’ombra bianco if you want the house white wine or l’ombra rossa for the house red. I’ombra means shadow in Venetian culture. It means the little shadow it makes in the face of the church.”

Paul and I looked at each other. All good information.

“So, this is called a desk.” He patted the scarred countertop. “A true bacaro has no chairs. You eat standing up and then go about your business. If you want to sit at a table in a bacaro, you pay two euros more each.” We gathered our stuff up and prepared to move along to our next five stops.

We ate Sard in Saor, crostini with fried sardines and pickled onions garnished with raisins and pine nuts in the Jewish ghetto. Throughout the centuries and during World War II, Jewish citizens were locked into a gated square each night in their neighborhood even though they spent their days building and working on Venice like anyone else.

We tasted glasses of fresh red wine that had been harvested, pressed, and immediately put into wine barrels for sale. It was delicious and reminded me of the fresh sangria I made at home.

The time flew by as we inhaled giant meatballs made of finely ground beef, egg, Italian bread, milk, Italian parsley, garlic, salt, pepper, olive oil and some Grana Padano cheese. Then, it is fried not baked. We slurped tiny tastes of Tuscan wine.

By the time we finished olives stuffed with meat, prosciutto and gorgonzola, pecorino and sottocularino, we were stuffed. However, those miniature glasses of wine didn’t seemed to complete the snack.

We said goodbye to Francesco and the couple from Chicago. I did give him a tip. His enthusiasm was fetching, and his dimples were delightful. I still can’t say bacaro with conviction, and cicchetti is way beyond my pay grade.

The next day through, Paul and I confidently made our way to the glass case in a bacaro and ordered three crostini a piece. A pair of young women watched us as we pointed and selected our snack.

“Do you need to know what to do?” I asked.

“Yes, would you help us?” they said visibly relieved.

“Okay, pick out which cicchetti you want—that is the name for the crostini or a fried thing—and then tell them what kind of l’ombra you want, white or red. It’s a little glass of wine.”

“What about you guys?” One of them pointed to the large glasses of wine we carried with our plates and the table we had commandeered.

“Uhh, I paused. “What can I say? We’re as American as it comes.”

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