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Early winter is the best time to discover Venice's shadow bars. The bàcari hide in the alleys of the lagoon city. This is where the Veneziani drink their ombra and meet neighbours. Anke Sademann reveals where to find the best ones.
© Anke Sademann

After the exuberant high season between Carnival and the Biennale, Venice shows itself unadorned and serene in the fourth season. The milky winter light lies with the residual warmth of late autumn on the monochrome stones of the bridges and the brightly lit palazzi. Already in the early noon you can do as the locals do and make your first shade wine round in the bàcari. They are the osterias of Venice. "Andare per ombre" is one of the Venetian daily rituals around "bere e mangiare" (drink and eat) - just like the mild caffè in a pasticceria in the early morning.

From the bustling squares, you follow the Veneziani into the labyrinthine alleys, bridges and canals of the lagoon city. Before they take their daily errands home in the early evening with their "carelli" (handcarts), they often make a detour to one of the "bàcari" in the half-shade of the back rows of houses. Most of the small wine taverns are located in the stone folds of the city and are not easy to find for strangers. But even at midday, they are bustling with activity.

Especially in winter, the locals meet there and enjoy their "cultura dell'ombra" to be among themselves. The charming wine taverns, illuminated by dim light, are simply furnished and crammed with wine relics. The walls, clad in warm-toned wood and papered with wine labels, are crammed with copper kettles, wall plates or glowing Madonnas in miniature shrines. Some bottles cool in the outside windows on the stone ledges.

You meet baristi like Eduardo Barolo at Bàcaro "Un Mondo diVino", who wears a tattoo of vines and a glass of Vino Rosso on his forearm.

© Anke Sademann

Even during "Acqua Alta" - the regular high tide - locals visit their regular bars in rubber boots. Hand-painted wine lists - sometimes on neon green cardboard, sometimes on florally illustrated slate - feature a wild mix of regional and international wines.

Ombra - the simple, honest "shadow wine" - is accompanied by a cold or warm cicchetto on the hand. The bite-sized, two-bite Venetian tapas reflect the entire taste topography of the Veneto, the region around the lagoon. You eat the little tongue-twisters with your "piccolo bicchiere di vino" - strictly eyed by the locals, exclusively "al banco" (standing) at the counter and preferably at lunchtime or later at the blue hour.

Often there are only ten standing places in the small wine taverns. People stand close together to talk about the latest news of the day. From the gondolier to the rubbish man, from the palazzo owner to the elderly lady with bright red lips from the neighbourhood, everything is represented. Here, small wine meets small chit-chat and determines the social shading. It is not without reason that the Bàcaro is derived from the name of the wine god Bacchus. A Spritz Rosso, Bianco or Rosato, the wine spritzer, is also available as a light version in the Ombra format.

The history of the Ombra tradition

Light wines are in demand. The times of very simple poor-people wines of inferior quality are over. Only the low price is still a tradition and is sometimes even less than one euro. In Italian, "un'ombra" also means "a small amount". So people drink exclusively from tiny 0.1-litre glasses. If it is even less, the Venetians speak of an "ombretta", a "little shadow". Around 50,000 glasses are said to be sold in Venice every day. Only those who insist are poured the wine into a high-walled glass. The origin of this wine tradition is told in Venice in the story that in the middle of the 19th century, Apulian wine merchants shipped simple cask wine via the Riva degli Schiavoni. This was served instead of the expensive Greek wine on the Piazza San Marco for little money. To keep the wine cool, the commercianti di vino simply walked with the shade of the Campanile tower. The Ombra drank more pleasantly in the cool. Later, when the solid, simple bàcari opened, they became a second, warm living room for many people - small social shelters for people's worries and needs in austere times. The metaphor that gives the glass its name is still used today.

Which shade goes into the glass?

Regional grape varieties have long since replaced the Apulian grapes. Most of today's "good drops for every taste" come from the 75,000-hectare Venetian hinterland or nearby Friuli Venezia Giulia with its juicy, structured white wines. Manzoni (a cross between Riesling and Pinot Blanc), but also Gewürztraminer, Müller-Thurgau, Lugana DOC or grape varieties such as Friulano, Pinot Grigio, Pinot Bianco or Sauvignon Blanc are served.

Perfect Ombra red wines are the light-hearted, fruity Bardolino Classico and the young Novello (grape varieties: Corvina, Rondinella, Molinara), often accompanied by Merlot, Pinot Noir and Refosco. The counterpart with the same grapes as Bardolino is Valpolicella - a popular Ombra with its lightness of character. Barolo and Brunello rarely flow into the glass here, they are usually only served in the evening. Cabernet, Friulano or Verduzzo also end up in small glasses here alongside international varieties.

© Anke Sademann

Cicchetti - the Venetian appetiser

Cicchetto (cicchetti or also cichetti, cichete) are hyped in some places as the oldest street food culture and often replace lunch. Here, too, the "small amount" is already in the word. Small sandwiches, golden yellow polenta lozenges or "fondi di carciofi" (fried artichoke bottoms) carry the appetisers in the glass showcases lit up like altars. Fingers are used to nibble the colourfully draped cichetti or those held together with toothpicks with fried olives or pumpkin flowers "fior di zucca", marinated vegetables and local cheeses such as "mozzarella in carrozza". The baked filata is available with or without ham filling. Fish and seafood are the star performers: the "baccalà mantecato", a stockfish paste, sits as a creamy melt on crusty bread or polenta. "Sarde in Saòr" - sardines pickled with onions, olive oil, vinegar, bay leaves, sultanas and pine nuts are right next to the "polpette". The small balls of meat, fish or vegetables are nimbly shoved into the mouth with two fingers. The ombra accompanies the pleasure - sip for sip for sip...

© Anja Hendrischk / Giramondo

From ombra to ombra: the 20 best bàcari in Venice

To help you find the drinking temples of the slowly dying shadow bar culture in Venice's six districts, we've rounded up the best of them here. With every sip, no matter how small, you keep this tradition alive. Anke Sademann and photographer Anja Hendrischk present their personal tips here. They have not been funded by tourism companies or associations. Nor do they contain any affiliate links or other product placement.

© Anke Sademann

Un Mondo diVino

Website

In the Cannaregio district: formerly a butcher's shop, now "a divine world" and at the same time "the world of wine". Warm atmosphere and very knowledgeable, good-humoured baristas!

Salizada S. Canzian, 5984/a, 30121 Venice
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Milan Bar

In a lively but well-hidden square with a picturesque fountain, people meet for wine early in the morning.

Campo S. Canzian, 6032/6044, 30121 Venice
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El Sbarlefo

Website

Bàcaro in a winding alley with a large selection of cicchetti. Good evening address with live jazz concerts.

Salizada del Pistor, 4556/C, 30121 Venice
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Ae Bricoe

Small, fine, delicious: an atmospheric gem among the bàcari! Many fish variations on the cicchetti and porchetta - finely roasted young pork. A speciality that is rarely found.

Fondamenta dei Ormesini, 2684, 30121 Venice
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Camin Storto

Tiny and authentic: a top address not to be missed! This bàcaro is a bit hidden on the stairs just after Ponte Sant'Antoni.

Strada Nova, 2208, 30121 Venice
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Osteria A La Scuela

Website

Very familiar - in the Castello district. Small and refined with a counter full of wine-related knick-knacks and a small back room for the gossip of the day. Great wine selection and delicious cicchetti! A real favourite address where live music is also played.

Salizada de le Gatte, 3183/A, 30122 Venice
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Al Vecio Calice in Castello

Neighbourhood hangout with fine cicchetti and plenty of seafood at the beginning of Via Garibaldi in Castello.

Via Giuseppe Garibaldi, 1664, 30122 Venice
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El Refolo

Modern and pleasantly minimalist mini wine bar - away from the tourist flow in Via Garibaldi in the Castello district. You can sit on the terrace on Via Garibaldi in the middle of the real Venetian hustle and bustle until late in the evening.

C. Giazzo, 1580, (Via Garibaldi) 30122 Venice
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La Barrique Wine Bar

Website

One of the new wine bars in Venice with high standards of quality and service. Large wine selection and sommelier's corner with exquisite choices.

Via Giuseppe Garibaldi, 1765, 30122 Venice
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Bacarando in in San Marco

www.bacarando.com

Traditional yet hip with the young crowd, offering a fresh selection of cicchetti and regional wines. Ristorante upstairs, bar downstairs, somewhat hidden directly behind Campo San Bartolomeo, only two minutes away from the Rialto Bridge.

Sestiere di S. Marco, 5495, Calle de l'Orso, 30124 Venice
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Black Jack

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In San Marco, this tiny and very worthwhile wine bar with a great selection of prosecco and wine is located on Campo San Luca for daytime visits. It is closed in the evening.

Calle Minelli, 1267B (Campo San Luca), 30124 Venice
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Osteria Da Bacco

A classic and ancient Venetian bàcari in San Marco with an almost museum-like character. Prominent city dwellers, opera singers and actors are honoured on the walls. The lace-trimmed bar lamps cast a legendarily charming light in the glass.

Campiello, Campo Santi Filippo e Giacomo, 4621, 30122 Venice
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San Polo

Familiar meeting place for neighbours in San Polo with a surprisingly good wine selection in a small space. At Campo San Tomà you can also enjoy the vino outside.

Calle Larga Prima, 2863, 30125 Venice
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Naranzaria

Website

With a view of the Grand Canal between Ponte di Rialto and the fish market, this is the place to drink outside. Both locals and visitors to the Serenissima love to use this exclusive seating area on the legendary canal. Lots of seats and a tip for cool and sunny days too.

Sotoportego del Bancogiro, 130, 30125 Venice
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Dorsoduro - Trattoria Dona Onesta

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Classic restaurant with good cuisine. In winter, they like to chill their wines right in front of the open window, offering ample enjoyment in the heart of the Dorsoduro district.

Dorsoduro, 3922, 30123 Venice
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Osteria Alla Bifora

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Venetians and tourists alike enjoy drinking wine here under colourful Murano glass chandeliers and eating in the restaurant in the evening. A real tip on the lively Campo Santa Margherita in Dorsoduro!

Campo Santa Margherita, 2930, 30123 Venice
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Enoteca Schiavi

Website

Popular, lively, genuine. People like to stand outside, watch the boat traffic on the canal and savour the fabulous cicchetti with a good drop of wine. What you appreciate can also be taken home in a bottle.

Fondamenta Nani, 992, 30123 Venice
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Osteria Al Squero

Website

A favourite meeting and viewing point for visitors to Venice, because opposite is the last Squero, the classic gondola wharf. Over a glass of wine you can watch the gondoliers mending their gondolas across the canal.

Dorsoduro, 943, 30123 Venice
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Al Prosecco in Santa Croce

Website

An insider tip, because tourists don't often find the pretty and green Campo San Giacomo da l'Oria. Here, children play outside the door, the hustle and bustle is colourful and the enoteca is exceptionally good.

Sestiere Santa Croce 1502, Campo San Giacomo da l'Oria / corner of Calle Larga, 30135 Venice
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Enoteca Al Volto

Website

Drink wine and read. Because here the ceiling is wallpapered with wine labels. Served with classics of Venetian cuisine with lots of seafood.

Calle Cavalli San Marco 4081, 30124 Venice
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Cantina Do Mori

Famous and well-known classic with large copper cauldrons on the ceiling. The wine is available by the glass on the spot and freshly bottled from baskets to take home. Located just behind the Rialto Bridge in a small alley - yet out of the way enough.

San Polo 429, Venice
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Bacareto da Lele

Website

Centrally located near the train station is probably the smallest shadow bar in Venice.

Fondamenta dei Tolentini 183, Santa Croce - 30135 Venice
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Ostaria Antico Dolo

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The famous and supposedly oldest Bàcaro in Venice now scores with upscale cuisine and a hidden backyard terrace away from the hustle and bustle of San Polo, not far from the Rialto Bridge.

Ruga Vecchia San Giovanni 778, Venice
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