The Bàcari and the Taverns of Rialto
Given its nature as a port city, Venice became a commercial center and, through the centuries, developed a complex series of services and businesses to satisfy the basic needs of travelers, be they merchants, pilgrims, or tourists.
Starting in the Middle Ages, hostels for pilgrims heading to the Holy Land and warehouses for merchants were built. In the Renaissance, taverns and inns appeared, some of which have even hosted intellectuals and royalty in modern times.
Nowadays, the most famous type of “food services” business is the bàcaro.
The etymology of the word is unsure: it may derive from the word bàcara, that, according to Giuseppe Boerio (author of the Dictionary of the Venetian Dialect), defines a small group of people making noise.
According to one anecdote, during the opening of a new tavern, an old gondolier was amazed by the taste of a great glass of wine from Apulia and straight after cried out: “Che bàcaro xe ‘sto vin!” meaning roughly “This wine is some racket!”. From that moment on, all the taverns selling wine from Apulia were called bàcari.
The steady importation of Apulian wine into Venice started in 1869. Before that Venetians had always preferred the wines produced in their offshore dominions scattered along the Adriatic and Aegean seas: Friuli, Dalmatia, Greece, and even Cyprus.
Given that they only developed in the 19th century, the bàcari are obviously just the latest in a long line of so-called people’s taverns of Venice, and at first they were places were only wine could be consumed.
Where was food and/or wine served in old Venice, and how were these businesses defined by the Venetian government? And if you were a weary traveler coming through town, where could you rest your head?
Here is a short – but not thorough – list of services.
Where to eat
Until the end of the 18th century an establishment where one could both eat and drink was defined as a trattoria. We can think of these places as modern diners.
Nevertheless, there were many other services where one could eat, but not drink (wine).
The “Guild of salsicciai (sausage makers)” came into existence in 1497 and was in charge of selling pork and cured meats. In the shops they ran (called luganegher), both retail sales and food delivery were allowed. They mainly served soups, dips, and offal.
These were small shops similar to a grocer’s where fried fish and offal were sold. These places were normally frequented by poor people. They could not sell wine, nor could they sell the food generally available at the luganegher’s shop.
This is the 19th century evolution of the furatola; the fritolin was a place specializing in the preparation of fried fish accompanied by yellow polenta (corn mush). Sometimes the fritolin was just a small shop selling fried fish to go, very hot and wrapped in a paper cone.
Where to drink
It’s hard to define the characteristics of the different establishments where one could drink wine in Venice. Documents proving the administrative rigor of the government toward the commerce of wine start to appear in the Middle Ages.
Let’s try to list the most important denominations.
A wine cellar where wine was sold wholesale.
A generic wine cellar for retail sale that could sell spirits, but not food.
A tavern selling only high-end wines, mainly imported from Greece. Among the wines sold here, the most famous was definitely the Malvasia from which the establishments took their name. Thanks to the high quality of the wine sold, the Malvasie were popular among both commoners and nobles, who would often deign to buy a round for the customers in the shop. These places could not sell food.
Magazeni e Bastioni
These were very low-class wine cellars frequented only by the common people. Only local wine was available here; they could not sell imported wine (vino da Mar), nor any food. For this reason, there was normally a furatola or a luganegher nearby.
Both Magazeni and Bastioni existed in limited numbers, and each had to be specially licensed by the city government because they served a dual purpose: they also functioned as pawn shops! People could trade in personal belongings, and receive two thirds of the value of the object in money and one third in low quality wine, which became known as “pawn wine”.
Where to stay
Until the 19th century the terms osteria (tavern) and locanda (inn) were both used to identify a hotel, a place where lodging and food services were offered.
Some of these establishments were hosted inside magnificent palazzi (noble mansions) and were considered luxury hotels. The most famous of these was the Osteria Al Leon Bianco (the White Lion) inside Palazzo Da Mosto, a 13th century building overlooking the Grand Canal.
Other inns occupied a lower social rank, since they normally served common merchants. Nevertheless, some of them still exist today and may lay claim to centuries of activity. One such establishment is the Osteria delle Spade, later renamed Osteria delle Do Spade (the Two Swords), that archive documents date to the end of the 15th century.
Given that most of the commercial activity took place in the Rialto area, there was a great concentration of taverns and inns on both sides of the famous bridge.
On the northern side of the Grand Canal (in the neighborhood of San Marco) stood inns named Al San Giorgio, All’Aquila Nera, Alla Cerva and Al Leon Bianco.
On the southern side of the Grand Canal (in the neighborhood of San Polo) there was more choice: Scimia, Torre, Campana, Do Spade, Angelo, Saraceno, Stella, Melon, Sole, Bue, Croce, Gambaro, Sturion.
The most well-known of these inns, besides the above mentioned Do Spade, was definitely the Sturion, whose sign even appears in a painting by the famous painter Vittore Carpaccio.
Don’t worry if your stomach isn’t too strong, because the food that Venetian taverns serve today is far more refined than what was once offered: dips and offal have been replaced by tasty cicchetti (appetizers or bites), watered-down wine has made room for rich wine lists.
Discovering these historical places with one of the BestVeniceGuides will allow you to combine gastronomic and intellectual pleasures, satisfying both your senses and your curiosity.
if you are interested in a tour with Matteo Gabbrielli please send a mail to firstname.lastname@example.org