How to drink like a Venetian

Katie Mather, and the art of ombre


Legend has it that the Venetian ombre or ombra was so named because street sellers in St. Mark’s Square would follow the shade of the cathedral’s bell tower throughout the day, sheltering their wines from the heat of the sun. Ombre means “shadow” in Italian, but in Venice, it also means a small glass of wine. It’s nice to think of each glass as its own pool of shade, crisp and cool against the warmth of another hard day’s graft in Italy’s most unusual city. 

These ombre are 100ml—give or take—and are, especially in the most traditional bars and bacaro, a splash of perfectly chilled Prosecco or local white wine (a Soave, perhaps, or a Pinot Grigio) and served with the intention of having more than one depending on the time of day. It’s not unusual to see local Venetians drinking an ombre at 10 or 11 in the morning, on a break from work or as a quick stop between carrying out their daily duties. It’s a way of life here, and unlike drinking a bottle of wine on a Friday night, it’s seen as a quick pick-me-up, as normal as grabbing an espresso. You don’t linger over an ombre, you stop briefly for a moment of pleasure in your busy day, to catch up with your neighbours or to share a few snippets of gossip with your favourite bar owner. This is not the drink to savour with a newspaper and a bowl of clams. If you’re peckish, cicchetti is made for this moment, a snack designed to be held in your wine-free hand as you stand at the bar or sit on the edge of the canal, smart shoes dangling inches from the water.

It’s just one of the things Venice does well, all in the pursuit of making each moment count. How much better a life is when every day is treated with a little reverence. It could be called mindfulness: making time to add colour and joy to a normal working afternoon. To stand and talk, to taste something delicious, to soak in your surroundings when things could so easily get on top of you. An ombre is a glass of wine, yes, but it’s also a state of mind. A Venetian would never worry about their emails when it was time to hit the aperitivo. Social drinks are just as important as working obligations here, in fact, they’re upheld in a sort-of traditional protocol—as vital to local heritage as the wine and produce themselves. They solidify friendships and maintain a sense of reality in a place where tourism takes over every inch of the main streets and squares. What would the city be without it?

Another beautiful thing about ombre is that they are cheap. It’s normally just a couple of Euros for a glass, no matter where you go, and this makes giro d’ombre (going for ombre) easy for everyone to take part in. It’s a tradition for all, and in the evenings after the working day is done, you will see young and old, smart and casual, dishevelled travellers and smart-suited locals crowding the streets around popular bacaro with their favourite ombre, stood chatting, sat on their boats, spilling out of the bars and into the evening. As the sun sets over the lagoon sending golden light over the highest buildings, these small glasses can turn into bottles of Valpolicella and bowls of pasta, decorated with bright local seafood, the enthused chatting carrying on long into the night. The next day, it begins again, a dance of routine and pure enjoyment. 

It takes more than simply existing to live like this. You have to make decisions each day to make it so. You have to choose to take a moment, to look at the beauty around, to see more than the stress of your job or the worries in your mind. Even in a picture-perfect city like Venice, life can be taken for granted. The Venetians have got it right. With all this architectural wonder and opportunities for connection around you, why wouldn’t you want to take time to enjoy it? There is a lesson to take from the ombre, to be applied wherever we go. Wouldn’t you like to live deliciously?

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