In the UK and I believe the US, the tapas bar is so commonplace as to be pretty unremarkable, though I remember the days when food writers in this country were getting excited by the possibilities of this new discovery (though in Spain there are three different kings credited with the possible origins, and according to which version you believe, they date back to the 19th, 16th or even the 13th Century).
I say tapas bar, but in the UK it is more likely to refer to a restaurant, probably a chain, serving dishes that have undergone a considerable transformation from the original, but in Spain it is still common to find these dishes served with drinks in settings which encourage the customer to engage with their fellows rather than a plate.
A similar approach to eating can be found in Venice, and in fact it is arguable that the best truly Venetian cuisine in the city is provided in tiny bars (bacari) rather than in the restaurants, pizzerie, and trattorie. I’m talking about cicchetti.
Just a short walk from the hustle and bustle of Rialto’s bridge and markets, can be found All’Arco. It’s so easy to find, that when here in the summer I passed it several times and even photographed people outside (though they have yet to appear in the daily monochrome Venice feed yet – see if you can spot them when they do). I never considered popping in. It didn’t really register with me.
Perhaps it was the size of the establishment (tiny) or the net windows to deter the circumspect, but it was a mistake, though one that I was glad to rectify on this trip.
Stepping inside I was greeted by apparent chaos. There were maybe 18 people in the tiny bar, more than enough to make getting to the counter a logistical challenge, but once there the friendly family staff made life much easier though they must be exhausted when they close. A generous glass of prosecco helped (one of the region’s other products) and then a plateful of varied crostini was swiftly assembled.
Being surrounded by the sea, there is inevitably an emphasis on seafood (half an octopus was a popular choice for the locals) but there is plenty for the carnivore too. I opted for five toppings:
- Sarde Saor – a Venetian speciality of sweet and sour sardines
- Marinated Anchovies – if you’ve only eaten them from a tin, you’ve never had anchovy!
- Parma Ham with pickled zucchini – simple but delicious
- Baccalà Mantecato – another regional delicacy; a creamy spread made from dried cod.
- Seppia – wafer thin slice of black and white marbled cuttlefish, topped with pickle, sour cream and salmon roe. My favourite.
I went back to All’Arco the following day to try a hot sandwich of salami, grilled cheese and roasted vegetables. The joy continued.