Traditional food alone makes Venice worth visiting
Ombra and a platter of the day’s mixed cicchetti at All’Arco guarantees Venice’s exquisitely simple pleasures, writes Madeleine Morrow
Venetians joke that they can roam from bar to bar enjoying a drink because no one has to drive. From morning to evening customers frequent their favourite wine bars, called bacari, to enjoy an ombra — a small glass of wine — and a choice of savoury snacks.
Named cicchetti, these bite-sized eats range from a simple slice of salami, a serving of octopus or polpetti (meatballs), to tuna tartare with cocoa or brie with nettle sauce.
While some bacari offer a dazzling selection of cicchetti, others, like All’Arco, present a smaller number of traditional offerings. Located close to the Rialto market, All’Arco occupies a tiny room fitted with a marble bar counter and lace curtains at the windows.
All’Arco is well known to Venetians. The owners originated in Puglia, where the family had a vineyard. They migrated to Venice at the start of the 20th century, bringing their wine. The original owners’ grandson Francesco Pinto now runs All’Arco with his son Matteo.
From 11am a local clientele gather for a chat, a glass of local wine and a cicchetti or two. Platters of crostini jostled for attention on the bar. Some were layered simply with a slice of marinated anchovy or grilled aubergine, others with the house speciality, baccalà (salt cod). There were toppings of prosciutto and gorgonzola or bitter greens, and a superb combination of a gorgeous cheese, robiola, plus mushroom and truffle oil.
Matteo explained that cicchetti have long enjoyed a central place in Venetian social life and culinary history.
"A century ago Venetians came to osterie [taverns] to plays cards, socialise and drink wine," he says. "Sometimes they would bring something to eat from home. Eventually the owners began to serve cicchetti to accompany the ombra."
While preparing pierini, mini toasted sandwiches, Matteo chats about the cicchetti still prepared by his grandmother, Mary, who follows the traditional recipes for cooking baccalà, a Venetian favourite.
"The baccalà con aglio [garlic] has a very long history," Matteo says. "It was taken onto the boats by the fishermen when they set out for long periods of time. They also ate the baccalà in saor, made with vinegar, it would last four to five weeks. Baccalà mantecato [creamed cod] is made with mashed cod mixed with a mayonnaise made with oil and the liquid of the cooked fish."
These dishes are still eaten with gusto all over the city.
Francesco arrives from the Rialto fish market carrying a bag of anchovies, which he proceeds to gut with his thumb.
"These are called alici," he says. "We remove the bone, then we add salt and pepper, leave it overnight to marinate in vinegar, then add olive oil. And like that we have a simple plate that tastes very good."
He shares his mother’s recipe for sarde in saor, one of the oldest and most popular Venetian dishes. "The sauce is just some oil and onions, many onions. Then you add the white wine vinegar and heat it. When the vinegar has evaporated you add raisins and pine nuts. The next day you add the fried sardines. You leave it for five days, a week is even better."
Francesco breaks off to discuss the quality of a tray of ceps mushroom that had been delivered. He offers a few to a regular customer, who inhales deeply and nods appreciatively.
Francesco’s enthusiasm for his ingredients alights on the virtues of frattaglie (offal). He presents a graphic account of how to make musetto, a sausage containing the snout of a pig.
"It is all part of a tradition. We make marinated fish, cooked meats, sliced vegetables and cheese. There has to be plenty of variety," Matteo says.
"People ask for a menu but it doesn’t exist. When one dish is finished it will be replaced by something else. We prepare whatever they offer fresh at the market. We don’t have octopus today because the fishermen didn’t catch any nice ones."
Visiting All’Arco again one evening, the bar is quieter. Francesco is chatting in Venetian dialect with three men. Matteo is chopping a vast pile of onions. He grins through his tears and says "these are for the baccalà in saor".
Seated outside is a silver-haired couple. They are visiting from New York, enjoying an ombra. A platter of mixed cicchetti is served. They raise their glasses and smile. With no need for a designated driver how better to celebrate the simple pleasures of Venice?
• All’Arco is on San Polo 436, Calle Dell’Ochialer, Venice.