David Andreatta makes his wine slightly south of Bassano del Grappa, in the castle town of Cittadella. But the self-proclaimed Venetian vineyard anarchist, “Il Ceo,” who has a reputation for ripping out old vines from his five Breganze DOC vineyards to replace them with harder to manage autoctono (indigenous) grape varieties like Vespaiolo and Groppella, is here to guide us through the natural wines of Venice.
In true Andreatta fashion, the night before waking at the crack of dawn to drive the grape-lined roads from Cittadella to the so-called Floating City, he’s awake grilling steaks and standing around his cantina well past midnight, tasting wines straight from the barrel. It won’t be more than three hours from when the last glass is drunk until the punk-rock winemaker is awake again, preparing breakfast. He’s getting ready to navigate the Venetian labyrinth of more than 3,000 calli (small, carless streets) and 438 bridges in pursuit of sampling the finest few of the city’s hundreds of bàcari (tight, cozy wine bars).
Thankfully, Andreatta does this hard work without complaint. All that’s left for followers in his footsteps is to decide where to go first.
Considering that Vino Vero doesn’t have a website, it bodes well that even 20 minutes before opening, there are small groups gathered out front, biding their time patiently before being let inside.
As soon as the blinds roll up, the locks unlatch, and the mob of waiting bodies are gently pushed in, it isn’t surprising to hear a chorus of “Ceo!” ring out from the bartenders. The display case at Vino Vero is full of cichéti, the iconic drinking snacks that paint your first impression of any bàcaro as you glance through the front window. Mini-toast crostini are served, including one topped with tuna crudo and fennel cream, another with piquant shrimp crudo and crunchy red radicchio and burrata, and still another (this author’s ride-or-die go-to) with baccalà mantecato (creamed codfish).
Guests at Vino Vero flood through the front floor in undulating cycles like schools of fish, and the staff seems to have a workflow identical to that of a high-paced espresso bar. They serve glasses of wine and snacks to Venetians just finishing work for the day and those getting their nights started like clockwork.
A group of Adreatta’s friends hop off a small white motor boat from an adjacent canal and begin contributing to the bar’s general ruckus. A limited Pinot Grigio Col Fondo, made by Elvira Vini one hour to the west in Vicenza’s San Germano dei Berici, is poured. As everyone in Vino Vero seem to be shouting and kissing cheeks in unison, Adreatta takes off on the boat to have a swim at a nearby island.
Estro Vino & Cucina
About a 25-minute walk away form Vino Vero is Dario Spezzamonte’s superb bàcaro, restaurant, and all-natural bottle shop. Located on the northern fringe of the Dorsoduro neighborhood, Estro Vino’s cichèti display is dotted with top-shelf tremezzini (little triangle sandwiches on white bread). These baby-soft sandos pair perfectly with glasses of a sparkling Moscato Giallo by Monteversa of the nearby Padova's Cinto Euganeo. Chug-worthy, fizzy, and flattered in the finish by a faint nerds-rope—it brings you back to grade school weekends, sitting on a skateboard outside a 7-11.
Wine integralist and co-owner of Estro Vino, Spezzamonte has worked in the Venetian restaurant business his whole life.
“Before natural wine flooded Venezia, there was Mauro Lorenzon,” Spezzamonte says of the iconic proprietor and wine guru of the quintessential Venetian bàcaro, La Mascareta in the Castello neighborhood. “All of us in the natural wine business here were inspired by him.”
Spezzamonte explains that he and his brother, Alberto, opened their first restaurant not far from La Mascareta. “We have a vision to share our knowledge and passion between ourselves,” Spezzamonte says. “To not be jealous or possessive. And we know that staying together is better for the business and for the city itself.”
Taking a right out of Estro’s front entrance, four doors down on Calle Crosera is the nearly hidden Adriatico Mar.
There’s a celebratory group packed into its front room like sardines in a silver tin, but a connected outdoor dock allows for a glass of the dealer’s choice and some charming cichèti classics to be taken canal-side and enjoyed. Options like an anchovy topped deviled egg or a more particular crostino topped with raw lemon peel and tender castruare, or “castrated artichoke,” are the sorts of gems you'll find here.
Old Greek rebetiko recordings play across the sun on Adriatico Mar’s dock, and its proprietor, Francesco Molinari, comes outside with a framed map of Malvasia trade routes on the Adriatic.
“Malvasia,” Molinari says, “because it came from the East, as did Venice. The erratic story of this refugee grape has lent to hundreds of personalities. It’s a wine of adoption, protection, dialogue, and permeability.”
He explains the lineage of the Malvasia Istriana grape variety that makes up a wine he buys directly—in the manner he buys most of his wines—from its producer, Giorgio Nicolini. Nicolini works across the northern tip of the Adriatic in the province of Trieste. But just as Molinari is getting into its details, Andreatta cruises in on a boat, laughing loudly and calling out.
As the day grows short, Andreatta takes harbor in this nearby bàcaro, over a bridge on the same street as Adriatico Mar. Cantina Arnaldi serves a whirlwind of cichèti including a white asparagus and smoked ricotta lasagna that Andreatta and a friend, Francesca Demontis of Meteri Wines, share. The bàcaro’s co-owner, Andrea Degnato, doesn’t want anyone to confuse this cantina with a restaurant, despite often offering sensational seasonal piccoli piatti to complement its selection of wines.
With years of collective restaurant experience in her pocket, Degnato and her partner, Katia, started Cantina Arnaldi from scratch with the goal of establishing a place synonymous with home. Appropriately, it was imagined and built inside the first floor living room of a classic Venetian palace, and named after the original owner, Arnaldi Vicentini.
A Fresco di Nero Tempranillo rosato by Pietro Beconcini is recommended here, and this composed wine from Tuscany’s famed white truffle town of San Miniatois will be a welcome relief after a morning of glu-glu gluttony.
Ristorante al Covo
In order to crown the afternoon at al Covo before it closes for dinner prep, a quick ride on the vaporetti (like a subway, but actually a boat) is vital. Skittering off as soon as it touches the pier and rushing through a meandering maze of mysterious sotopòrtego’s (street level, under-building passageways), Andreatta arrives in the Campiello de la Pescaria, where the Ristorante is located, seemingly by chance. From across the plaza, he spots al Covo’s sommelier, Lorenzo Benelli, at a table of friends with a bottle of Il Ceo’s Vespri. As if they’d been expecting him, he’s welcomed graciously to join their table. A small food order gets into the kitchen just in the nick of time.
Benelli’s parents, Cesare and Diane, founded al Covo in 1987 after closing a jazz club on Lido Island, and the restaurant has since become a seafood institution for tourists and locals alike. Diane is a hospitable pastry chef from Texas and Cesare is al Covo’s head chef. Cesare also organizes Laguna del Bicchieri, a cooperative of winemakers that grow grapes on the surrounding islands. Thanks to Lorenzo’s selection, al Covo’s collection of wines are predominantly horizontal and young.
When the plates of raw and fried seafood arrive, there are seven people at the table. Benelli opens a mind-blowing ’15 Camillo Donati Sparkling Trebbiano, and three other bottles of beautiful blends charting three different countries. There’s a ’16 Weingut Schmitt Rosé, a ’17 “Scapigliato” by Agricola Calafata, and a bottle of “Bonkers” by Patrick Sullivan.
Just as some spider crab meat and roe in its own shell hit the table at al Covo, the previous evening in Andreatta’s cellar comes back as a memory.
Depending on how many glasses you’ve had, every neighborhood in which you’ll find natural wine in Venice are at least a half hour's walk apart. But once you’ve dropped anchor in any one, there are places to delight in around every corner. This short guide can’t do them all justice. There’s Osteria Anice Stellato—near Vino Vero—and CoVino, around the corner from al Covo, to name only two.
Venice can feel like a never-ending carnival, where you’re day drunk and tangled in an unending gaggle of strollers and suitcases. But with the proper approach, it is entirely possible to simply slip away from the crowds and tourists, into the realm of la Vera Venezia.