In this summer edition of Italian Table Talk, we are discussing the hot topic of street food in Italy, in an attempt to put together some useful information and give a few insights about this century-old practice to those who dare to visit Italy and its cities in the summer.
Much like any eating practice in Italy, street food is a ritual, and as such it is made of a few rules (of sorts). Knowing them will not only save you from tourist traps and perplexed local glances, but it will also enable you to taste some authentic fare along the way. Another factor to keep in mind is that street food is not the same all over Italy. Rather, it reflects its regional differences, and every city will have its specialties and some delicious treats that are not to be missed.
Time is key. No matter if consumed in the corner of a street or sitting in a piazza, street food is always food, and as such, it involves a pause – a hiatus between daily activities – and a good deal of enjoyment. Eating at any given time is regarded as mildly barbarian. Lunch time is usually between 12 and 3 pm, dinner from 7.30 pm onwards. In between these, falls the golden hour that is aperitivo time.
Even when eating food in the middle of a street or piazza, it'll remain an activity which is performed in stillness, standing or sitting on the stairs of a monument, a wall, a fountain, a bench. One of the few exceptions is gelato, which can be enjoyed while strolling peacefully, glancing at shop windows or contemplating ideas. Coffee, in contrast, is not a drink you usually see people walking with. Coffee in Italy, particularly after 11 am, is usually just a short espresso: two minutes between ordering an espresso at the counter and emptying a little cup doesn't make any difference in terms of time keeping. Coffee is rather seen as a break, a hiatus between daily activities, a moment to savour with one's eyes closed.
These are some good, general rules to consider while approaching the realm of street food in Italy. But besides those, as I said, every region, every city has its own differences. As a Venetian, I have a good dose of experience in testing the street food of Veneto – but beyond that, I remain an amateur and I never stop learning.
Enjoying food in Venice often takes the form of an errand – a ritual that in the local dialect is called andar par bacàri. It consists of hopping from a hole in the wall to another, grabbing a drink and a bite at each stop. The nibbles are finger-food bites called cicchetti, while the drinks are often called ombre. Typical cicchetti are fried tuna balls, fried meatballs, fried anchovies, sarde in saor (fried sardines topped with sweet and sour white onions), hard boiled eggs with anchovy, fried squid on a skewer, panino col baccalà mantecato (a small roll smeared with salted cod paté). More recently, a few bàcari have started to cater to clients wanting a more substantial meal, serving portions of seafood pasta and other traditional Venetian dishes. As for drinks, a very very classic choice would be spritz – a drink that was indeed invented in Venice. However, most bacàri also have a good choice of local wines by the glass, prosecco còlfondo (on the lies) being a local gem rarely exported – an absolute must-try!
When it comes to finding a good, traditional, inexpensive bàcaro, don’t worry about having to walk hours from the main attractions. Many of the best bàcari in Venice are tucked just around the corner from the main touristy areas, hidden in some dark alleys often overlooked by the least adventurous. After a few bites, a proper meal might be in order. Some good restaurants around town serve traditional fare at modest prices, including baccalà, bigoi in salsa, seafood risotto, gnocchetti...but more on that another time!
A quick list of favorites around the corner from the Rialto Bridge:
- All'Arco, San Polo 436
- Cantina Do Spade, San Polo 859
- Al Mercà, San Polo 213
- Cantina Do Mori, San Polo 429
- Osteria Bancogiro, Campo San Giacometto 122 , Rialto
No excuses now, no more "Venice is so expensive" kind of moaning. Your alternative to bad pizza is just around the corner – a bit hidden, but present, cheerful, cheap and fulfilling. Once you've tried it, you'll never go back.
Here are great tips from Emiko to eat along the Tuscan coast, from Giulia to try Lampredotto in Florence, and from Jasmine for a refreshing Sicilian granita at the end of a meal.