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Similar to Spanish tapas or Korean banchan, Italian small-plate dishes are known as cicchetti. Particularly popular in the city of Venice, these dishes are frequently served in special cicchetti bars that dot the water-soaked landscape, with or without an accompanying glass of wine. These dishes vary widely, from olive-laced seafood spreads smeared on different types of artisan breads to plates of fried vegetables and cheeses.
Cicchetti can be eaten at any time of the day. The cicchetti bars are most frequently patronized, however, in late morning, at lunch and before dinner. As of 2011, Venice has about 60,000 residents, and 10 million tourists a year, according to travel writer Rick Steves at his Rick Steves' Europe Web site. This means that all restaurants are catering to tourists, yet in the cicchetti, Steves insists, a slice of traditional Venice still can be found.
These small plate delights are near-equally divided between cold and hot offerings. On the cold end, plain or spiced-up raw oysters regularly make the menu as well as the traditional Italian medley of fresh sliced tomato, mozzarella, olives, oil, vinegar and herbs. These are to be expected, though. Menus also feature signature dishes too, which feature more diverse medleys of seasonal vegetables, cheeses and seafoods, often blended into spreads for crostini.
The hot types of cicchetti are usually mini-versions of gourmet dishes that traditionally serve as full entrees. These recipes include seafoods like squid, crab, shrimp and tuna — a Venice custom due to the city's watery location. They also have hearty showings of other meats like beef, pork and lamb. Such foods are typically paired with various fresh vegetables, cheeses and sauces of a particularly Italian bent. Many bars also serve more iconic Italian fare like ravioli or linguine — only the portion sizes are severely reduced, as are the prices.
According to the Italian Notebook Web site, a few dishes have the most historic pull. One is vinegar-soaked onions, called cipolle in saor. The other is more nuanced: a creamy dried cod dish, called baccala’ mantecato.
When eating at these establishments, guides insist that each diner order two or three cicchetti. Then, unless someone is hungry and does not want to share, everyone gets to sample everything at the table. For travelers, this can provide an economical way to get a fuller understanding of the local cuisine. It is also advisable to partake in a glass of l'ombra, which is a nickname for wine that translates to "shade."