Italian Small Plates Deliver Big Flavor

Spread of Italian tapas, or finger foods
Photo by Penny De Los Santos / Food & prop styling by Judy Haubert
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The Grand Canal and Piazza San Marco are beautiful, but you haven’t really experienced Venice until you’ve snacked on cicchetti in the city’s many bàcari, or wine bars. This all-day finger food, a cousin of Spain’s tapas and Portugal’s petiscos, is meant to be enjoyed with one or more ombre, or shadows, which are small pours of wine often served from a tap.

A cicchetti selection almost always includes sandwiches like triangular tramezzini, open-faced crostini and an assortment of deep-fried morsels. Practically anything that can be consumed in a bite or three is fair game, whether stewed, stuffed, sautéed or skewered.

These small bites are called stuzzichini or spunciotti elsewhere in Italy, but cicchetti and bàcari are synonymous with Venice.

Luckily, these dishes are easy to make at home, too. Stock your pantry with the best ingredients, learn to make some classic dishes and invent your own flavor combinations. Pair it all with wines from the Tre Venezie regions (Veneto, Friuli-Venezia Giulia and Trentino-Alto Adige) and beyond, and it’s almost like being there.

Spread of Italian food ingredients on table
Photo by Penny De Los Santos / Food & prop styling by Judy Haubert
Your Shopping List

To make a beautiful meal, you need the right ingredients. Here’s what to buy.

Charcuterie: salami, sopressata (a k a sopressa), prosciutto cotto, prosciutto crudo, coppa (a k a capicola), mortadella

Fish: smoked salmon or trout, canned anchovies, tuna, salt cod, salmon or trout roe

Cheese: mozzarella, mascarpone, ricotta, Asiago, Montasio, Robiola, Piave, Gorgonzola, Grana Padano

Preserves: olives or tapenade, pickled vegetables, roasted red peppers, pesto, nonpareil capers, savory jams or relishes

Fresh fruits and vegetables: onions, greens, zucchini, pumpkin or squash, tomatoes, artichokes, grapes, stone fruit

Other: bread, polenta, eggs, breadcrumbs, extra-virgin olive oil


  • Canned anchovies are terrific on crostini or draped over hard-boiled eggs, but they can be intensely salty. For a fresher flavor, rinse the anchovies, soak them in water or milk for an hour, then pat dry and store covered in olive oil.
  • For optimal flavor, take cheeses and cured meats out of the refrigerator an hour before assembling and serving your cicchetti.
  • To facilitate your cicchetti experiments, cook these vegetables ahead of time to keep in the fridge: caramelized onions, braised greens, sautéed zucchini, roasted pumpkin or squash.
  • Look for Italian products marked Denominazione di Origine Protetta (DOP) or Indicazione Geografica Protetta (IGP), which are geographical indications akin to wine designations that ensure regulation and adherence to standards.
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Tramezzini, or little sandwiches, on a cutting board
Photo by Penny De Los Santos / Food & prop styling by Judy Haubert

These little sandwiches are the most common cicchetti in Venice, where the traditional way to make them is to press down the edges to form a little dome shape. They’re limited only by your creativity.

Use soft white sandwich bread that’s sliced thin and has the crusts cut off. Spread with soft cheese or mayonnaise, depending on the sandwich filling. Pile on the fillings, and make the dome, or just compress the sandwiches gently to help the bread adhere to the filling.

Some favorite fillings:

  • Tuna and artichoke with homemade mayo
  • Prosciutto cotto, robiola and arugula
  • Smoked salmon, ricotta and capers
  • Bresaola, gorgonzola and braised radicchio
  • Egg salad with minced shrimp
  • Prosciutto crudo, mascarpone and shaved apple
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Gamberi in Saor, dish of shrimp, onions and pine nuts, on table
Photo by Penny De Los Santos / Food & prop styling by Judy Haubert
Gamberi in Saor

Sarde in saor is a classic dish made with sardines. Since fresh ones can be hard to find, make it with shrimp (gamberi) instead.

Slice 3 white onions into thin half moons, and sauté in 2 tablespoons olive oil over medium-low heat until pale golden, 10–12 minutes. Add ½ cup white wine vinegar and 1 teaspoon sugar, and cook until vinegar is almost absorbed. Stir in ½ cup raisins and ¹/₃ cup pine nuts. While onions cook, pat dry 1 pound medium shrimp (peeled and deveined), toss with flour to coat, and pan fry in olive oil over medium-high heat until just cooked through, 1–2 minutes per side. Cover shrimp with onions. Cover and refrigerate for at least 12 hours and up to 2 days. Serve at room temperature. Serves 6–8.

Local pairing: Bright, crisp Soave Classico and sparkling Trento wines can have herbaceous characteristics, as well as flavors of spice, apples and pears that will complement the sweet raisins and shrimp.

Or try: A Sauvignon Blanc or dry cider will also highlight this dish’s gentle sweetness against its vinegar pucker.

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Bowl of baccalà mantecato, or creamed cod
Photo by Penny De Los Santos / Food & prop styling by Judy Haubert
Baccalà Mantecato

This translates to “creamed cod,” and it’s a surprisingly simple crostini topping. Just plan two days ahead.

Soak 1½ pounds salt cod in water for 48 hours. Change water every 8 hours. Place in pot, and cover with equal parts milk and water. Boil for 20 minutes, or until fish flakes easily, and drain. When cool enough to handle, shred into bowl, discarding any skin and bones. Using whisk, stand mixer with whisk attachment or wooden spoon, beat well while adding ¾ cup olive oil in thin stream. Season with salt and pepper, to taste. Add grated garlic, minced parsley, and/or pinch of ground nutmeg, if desired, to taste. Serves 6–8.

Local pairing: Look to Prosecco for bubbles that will cleanse your palate between deliciously salty, fishy bites.

Or try: Further channel the seaside feeling with refreshing, light-bodied wines that have some salinity, like Picpoul de Pinet or Albariño.

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Plate of polpette alla veneziana, or bite-size meatballs
Photo by Penny De Los Santos / Food & prop styling by Judy Haubert
Polpette alla Veneziana

Serve these bite-size meatballs on their own, or with a simple tomato sauce for dipping.

Using your hands, combine 1 pound ground beef, 4 ounces Italian sausage or mortadella ground in a food processor, 2 egg yolks, 1 minced clove garlic, 2 ounces fine-grated Grana Padano or Parmigiano, and 2 slices sandwich bread that have been soaked in milk and squeezed dry. Form meatballs 1 inch in diameter and roll in dried breadcrumbs or crushed panko breadcrumbs. Deep-fry at 350˚F for 3–5 minutes, or until cooked through. Serves 8–10.

Local pairing: Juicy, red-berry-laden Valpolicella, with its woody spice notes, is refreshing enough to wash down these deep-fried snacks.

Or try: It’s hard to beat Cabernet Sauvignon alongside a rich, beefy dish like this one.

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Crostini di polenta, which uses polenta rather than bread for open-faced sandwiches
Photo by Penny De Los Santos / Food & prop styling by Judy Haubert
Crostini di Polenta

Use polenta instead of bread as a tasty base for open-faced sandwiches.

Prepare polenta according to package directions. Add more cheese and/or butter, if desired. Pour onto oiled baking sheet that will fit in refrigerator. Use a rubber spatula to spread polenta into layer that’s ¼- to ½-inch thick. Chill for at least 1 hour. Cut into desired shape with knife or biscuit cutter. To serve, fry in hot oil until golden-brown. Top as desired.

Suggested toppings:

  • Caponata
  • Smoked trout and crème fraîche
  • Braised greens and capers
  • Crushed chickpeas with pesto
  • Ricotta and roasted tomato
  • Caramelized onions and prosciutto
  • Mascarpone and trout

Local pairing: Juicy Schiava, a light-bodied red from Alto Adige, is a zesty, fun, food-friendly pour. Put a light chill on it.

Or try: The red-berry notes typically found in light-bodied red wines really complement the corn flavor of polenta, while their acidity cuts the richness. Gamay ticks all the boxes.

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Published on September 17, 2020