The most wonderful thing about Venice is you can get completely lost, and yet never be completely lost. The city is essentially a big round island of canals and narrow pedestrian streets that all fold in on one another, leading nowhere and everywhere at once. And if you wander long enough, you’ll eventually wind up someplace you recognize — sometimes even back at the place where you started.

I remember wandering like that once through a maze of alleyways on an eerily quiet and foggy March afternoon in Venice with my sister, trying to find our way back to our penzione. Eventually frustrated in our efforts, we tucked into one of the city’s ubiquitous bàcari wine bars for refueling — a welcome glass of wine and a few plates of blissful cecchitti.

Nearly every country on earth has its small plates bar food culture — including our own Buffalo wings, sliders and jalapeño poppers. The best known are Spain’s tapas. But a couple countries over in Italy, they’ve got their own regional variations, including my favorite — the cecchitti of Venice. How do the bar snacks in Venice differ from those in, say, Barcelona? Of course, in both cities you will find variations on shrimp with garlic, grilled octopus and toasts with anchovy, tuna and egg. But certain flavors and textures stand out as distinctly Venetian — the sweet and sour of fish paired with tomato, vinegar and raisins; the crunch of breaded, fried rice; rich silky polenta accented with the foresty ambrosia of pine nuts; and strange crustaceans you will have seen, and tasted, nowhere else.

When it comes to dinner parties and food, I’m a big theme geek. You’ll never come to my house, for example, and have a sushi appetizer followed by a pasta. But you may be served piroshkis and a bowl of borscht followed by chicken Kiev, and there’s a good chance there will be chilled vodka and the sound of balalaikas in the background. You could make a whole party of cecchitti. So the next time one of your clever foodie friends invites you over for a Spanish tapas party (“Yawnnn. How cliché!”), up the ante when it’s your turn to host and put on a night in a Venetian bàcari. They’ll be talking about it for weeks!

And next time you’re in Venice, remember that when you travel, the best food is usually what the locals eat. Avoid the tourist plates at the expensive seafood restaurants along the Grand Canal. Let yourself get lost, drop into a bàcari, and pass a few hours with the Venetians, some vino blanco and a few plates of cecchitti. Prego!

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Baccalà in saor with polenta
serves 6-8 as part of a cecchitti spread

1/2 cup dried polenta
1/2 lb. salt cod
1/2 cup milk
1/4 cup olive oil, plus 2 tbsp.
2 ripe red tomatoes, roughly chopped
3 cloves garlic, peeled and roughly chopped
1/4 cup white wine vinegar
1/4 cup raisins
1/4 cup pine nuts

Soak salt cod overnight and the next day in water, changing water a few times. Bring 2 cups of water to a boil over high heat. Add salt cod and cook for 2 minutes per inch of thickness. Turn off heat and let cod sit in water for 5 minutes. Remove cod from water. Place in a bowl and mash thoroughly with a fork.

Bring milk to a simmer over medium heat in a small pan. Add mashed cod and cook, stirring frequently, until a thick paste is formed. Remove from heat and whip in the olive oil. Set aside.

Bring 2 cups of water to a simmer in a saucepan over medium heat. Add polenta and stir. Continue cooking, adding more water as necessary, for 30 minutes until polenta is smooth and thick. Remove from heat, and with a plastic spatula, scoop polenta into a small lightly oiled square or rectangular baking dish. Smooth top of polenta with your spatula, and place in the fridge to cool.

Heat the vinegar in a small dish in a microwave (or in a small pan on the stove) until just hot. Place raisins in vinegar and soak for 10 minutes. Meanwhile, turn the polenta dish upside down on a cutting board and tap a few times to dislodge polenta. It should be in one cake. Cut the polenta cake into 8 equal pieces. Place them on some foil, brush with olive oil, and cook in a preheated 350-degree oven for 10 minutes, or until golden. Remove from oven to a platter.

In a medium saucepan, heat 2 tbsp. olive oil over medium heat. Add garlic and cook for 1 minute, stirring. Add tomatoes and cook for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, until tomatoes have broken down and become saucy. Add raisins and vinegar, turn heat to medium high and cook another 2-3 minutes, until sauce thickens. Remove from heat.

In another small pan, toast the pine nuts over medium heat until golden. Toss in with the tomato mixture. Using a large spoon, spoon about a tablespoon of the tomato mixture over each polenta square. With a teaspoon, scoop a small dollop of the cod paste on top of the tomato mixture. Serve with other cecchitti and white wine or Prosecco.

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Arancini risotto fritters
serves 6-8 as part of a cecchitti spread

1/2 cup risotto rice
2 cups chicken stock
1/4 cup cream
1/4 cup proscuitto, chopped
1/4 cup frozen peas, defrosted
1/4 cup mozzarella, chopped
1 tbsp. grated parmesan
1 tbsp. chopped Italian parsley
1 cup bread crumbs
two eggs, beaten
1/2 cup olive oil

Cook your risotto. (This can be done the day before). Heat a little olive oil in a large skillet over medium high. Add rice and toast for 1 minute, stirring. Add 1/2 cup of chicken broth and cook for 1 minute, stirring, until liquid has evaporated. Add 1/2 cup water and do the same. Next add chicken broth… continue this way, stirring occasionally, until the rice is cooked al dente, about 15 minutes. Stir in cream and salt & pepper to taste. Remove from heat and let cool to room temperature.

Move risotto to a large mixing bowl. Add chopped proscuitto and mozzarella, peas, parsley and parmesan, and mix well. Dampen your hands, and form the rice into small batons 1 to 2 inches in length. Pack them tightly as you might sushi rice, and set aside on a platter. When all the rice batons are done (you should have somewhere between 8 – 14, depending on how big you make them), place beaten eggs in one soup bowl, and bread crumbs in another. Heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium high and cook arancini five or six at a time, about 2 minutes per side, until golden. Remove to a waiting plate and continue until all are cooked.

Serve as above as part of cicchetti spread.

*   *   *

Tremezzini toasts
serves 6-8 as part of a cecchitti spread

8 1-inch-thick slices ciabatta or other crusty bread
2 eggs, hardboiled
8 stalks asparagus, cut in half
8 small anchovy fillets
olive oil
1 green tomato, chopped
1 tbsp. fresh mint
1 tbsp. fresh basil
1 tbsp. Italian parsley
1 tbsp. toasted pine nuts
1 clove garlic, sliced
1/4 cup grated parmesan
1/4 cup olive oil
Heat your outdoor grill to high, brush toasts lightly with olive oil, and toast on grill until lightly charred on each side. (Alternately, toast in a toaster oven or hot oven.) Cut each slice in half and lay out on two platters.
Steam the asparagus halves in a skillet with 1/4 cup water over high heat for about 2 minutes, until most of the water has evaporated. Lay a couple halves on each toast. Cut the hardboiled eggs in quarters, and place one quarter on top of each toast. (Or slice thinly and place a couple slices on top, if you prefer.) Top with an anchovy, a drizzle of olive oil and some freshly grated pepper.
For the other toasts: In a small food processor, blend the tomato, herbs, pine nuts, parmesan and olive oil, to a rough puree. Divide the puree in spoonfuls over the eight toasts. Top each with a little mozzarella and a grind or two of fresh pepper.
Serve as above as part of cicchetti spread.

10 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. paul
    Apr 06, 2012 @ 00:30:54

    Lori and I had a small cicchetti party for two after reading a good article and trying some really great recipes from the Saveur that was celebrating Venice a couple of months ago.


  2. Michelle
    Apr 06, 2012 @ 00:38:47

    I kid you not. I was just sitting here cogitating about a possible cicchetti meal/party/blog post/whatever. Steve and I have been batting that idea around since last Fall (we had a house outside Padua for Sept. and made frequent trips to Venice) and then Saveur Magazine had an article a month or so back. Great minds! Yours look great and really capture that sweet/sour thing that is Venetian food. Oh, and I, too, am obsessive about “themes” even in regular old weeknight dinners. Bok choy with that pork chop and mashed celeriac? No way! Oops, better think of something Asian for tomorrow…


    • scolgin
      Apr 06, 2012 @ 14:18:26

      I think we’d be fast dinner party friends if you guys lived out here! You know, I was already working on my cicchetti blog and my two Iranian blogs (I usually have 5 or 6 in development at any given time), and then I got that issue of Saveur. And I was like, “Do they have a microchip implanted in my brain!?” I did include my own variation on one of the tremezzini recipes they featured. Dying to go to Venice, I miss it.


  3. Benjamin Thompson
    Apr 06, 2012 @ 02:18:29

    Not authentic, but try some toast points with avocado, white anchovy, EVOO, Maldon, and smoked Spanish Paprika.


  4. Andy
    Apr 07, 2012 @ 19:40:12

    I gained 10 pounds on that trip. The food in Italy blew me away!


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