Bite-sized joy

Venetian Cicchetti is far more than bar snacks, encompassing a whole mindset, culture and attitude to life, writes Katie Mather


Imagine yourself in Venice. The sun is radiating across the city, turning slab stones into marble, and busy waterways into glittering stages for the elegant cigar boats passing by. The canals, opalescent and milky-blue, are what make Venice the mysterious, otherworldly place that it is—its canals, and its people. True Venetians make a point of separating themselves from the rest of Italy. Once a state all its own, Venice retains a sense of individualism to this day. Its travellers brought spices and wealth to Italy, don’t you know? Its most famous son, Marco Polo, gave the country its pasta—or so it’s said. For a small city built on pillars out in the Adriatic lagoons, Venice has made an indelible impact, and perhaps it’s this that gives its people the confidence to defer from the norm. Perhaps it’s Venice’s long history of adventure and decadence that has inspired in its population a sense of playfulness when it comes to food. Maybe that’s where the Cicchetti comes in.

Often described as Venice’s version of tapas, this slightly downplays the joy and inventiveness provided at any Venetian bacaro. Unlike other bar snacks intended to fill a hole or sop up a little of the alcohol you’ve imbibed, Cicchetti is made to be enjoyed in the moment, savoured with enthusiasm, and it is a way of life. 

As Lindy Wildsmith and Valentina Harris explain in their wonderful book “Cicchetti: And Other Small Italian Dishes To Share” the aperitivi and cicchetti are as important in Venice as any main meal. “Even high water does little to deter this lunchtime ritual,” they write. “The elegantly-clad Venetian simply dons a pair of wellington boots…to complete his understated designer outfit…striding out across the boardwalks towards the object of his hunger.” 

This object, Chicchetti, could take any number of forms. The limit is only in the imagination of his favourite bar. So sit at a table close by and continue people-watching, seeing rose-red Campari spritzes glow in the afternoon sun, and elegant hands wave cigarettes in front of Versace sunglasses. Doesn’t all this observation make you hungry?

Cicchetti might be Venetian through-and-through, but with some pzazz you can make them at home. There’s nothing particularly difficult about making cicchetti, but they aren’t just bruschetta and crostini. To feel right they need an element of care in their construction—some expression of individual taste. Even if the ingredients are simple, it pays to think about them carefully, so get the best ham you can, or cheese, or whatever it is you fancy. Present them stylishly. Like a classic English cream tea, the component parts are usually pretty simple, but the quality and presentation is what makes it all feel worth the effort. Like cutting the crusts off an egg and cress butty, it’s the little things that make you feel like a million Ducats. Give some of the ideas below your best shot. You deserve it.

Scallop Gratin or Le Capesante Gratinate

Gratinated seafood is a common cicchetti dish, and whether you choose to use scallops, mussels or oysters, the gratin is the same—well-seasoned breadcrumbs, with olive oil, parsley, garlic, and melted butter. Baked in the shells they are extremely beautiful as well as perfectly portable, exactly what a Venetian would hope for.

Devilled Eggs, Venetian Style

Halved hard-boiled eggs are super popular cicchetti items, and while devilled eggs aren’t particularly Venetian, they are delicious. To make a more authentic snack, swap the tabasco and mustard for anchovy fillets, olive oil and fresh parsley ground into a paste. Incredibly dainty, and very delicious, these are popular because they can be eaten in a oner, as soon as you receive it from the bar. The perfect on-the-hoof snack for the busy Venetian.

Fig with Prosciutto and Gorgonzola

On an olive-oil-drizzled slice of soft, crusty bread (only one and a half inches thick is the rule, apparently) place half a ripe, fragrant fig, a slim slice of gorgonzola, and a ribbon of fatty prosciutto. Hold it all in place with a toothpick, and sprinkle a little smoked sea salt on top if you’re feeling extra fancy. This sort of combination is a classic cicchetti recipe, using cheese, ham, and a little fruit or pickled veg to bring freshness and interest. Play around with the concept—use burrata and nuts, or use fish instead of the cured meat. There are endless combinations to be found. Don’t worry about authenticity. Venetians enjoy creating fashionable moments, not following them.

Pickled Pepper, Anchovy, and Provolone

The sharp, fruity flavour of provolone cheese is a perfect match for salty anchovy and spicy pickled green pepper. Arrange these simple but delicious ingredients together on very slightly toasted bread (or crostini) and enjoy a burst of umami. Much like the fig and prosciutto cicchetti above, this mouthful is all about playing with flavours that complement each other. A roasted cherry tomato would also work deliciously in place of the pickled pepper, or a black olive marinated in oregano and garlic.


It used to be quite hard to find lardo in the UK, but fancier delis sometimes have it in stock and it’s well worth trying some. Yes, it is just fat. But have you ever tasted a fat you didn’t like? Slice it so thinly you can see the grain of your wooden chopping board through it, so thinly that it melts on the tip of your tongue, and serve on garlic-rubbed crostini or toast. If you want a more complex snack, do as the Venetians do and mix chopped hazelnuts or walnuts into ricotta, place on the crostini, then add the lardo. Incredible.


These little meatballs of delight are usually served from hatches, still so hot from the fryer they’ll take the roof of your mouth off. Make them with meat, vegetables or fish—the most popular tend to be beef or leftover pork—minced and added to mashed potato and ham, parsley and tomato puree. Then they’re fried in a batter or in breadcrumbs and served with a toothpick in a paper bag or on a saucer. Make these as fancy or as simple as you like, but remember—flavour is everything.

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