Cicchetti bars: where to eat like a Venetian in Melbourne

Heartattack and Vine, Lygon Street.
Heartattack and Vine, Lygon Street. Photo: Lisa Cohen

Melbourne, it's time you became acquainted with cicchetti, the small Italian snacks playing a starring role in a number of freshly minted bars – and causing some confusion in the process. What are they , how do you say it, and why do you need them in your life?

You'll often hear cicchetti described as "Italy's version of Spanish tapas", which is OK, if a little broad. Yes, they are bar snacks, but cicchetti (meaning "little things" and pronounced chi-ke-tee), specifically refers to the bites lining the counters of bacari – the casual bars of Venice and its surrounds, where people regularly step in for small glasses of wine and single bites, generally eaten standing up while having a chat. The term is contextual, referring not so much to what you're eating as where. Fried olives served at the table pre-dinner: that's antipasto. Offered alongside a drink in a bar? That's cicchetti.

Taking a break for a drink and cicchetti is a strong part of Venetian eating and drinking culture. And because those snacks are generally cheap or even free during aperitivo hour – Italy's take on the happy hour whereby you pay a higher price for your drink, and get snacks thrown in – making a meal of cicchetti while bar crawling has become a thing in Venice.

And now it's a thing in Melbourne too. You won't typically find cicchetti laid out on the bar top (they're made to order, generally) but you can find a couple of places offering the hallowed aperitivo happy hour.

Get your graze on here:

400 Gradi Cicchetti

It's hard to find the motivation to move into the restaurant proper now that this bar annex has been added to Johnny Di Francesco's Brunswick East pizzeria. In this dark yet glittering room, designed by Pascale Gomes-McNabb,as well as having access to the award-winning fresh, crisp and pliable pizze from next door, you can also summon a plethora of drinking support in the form of whole grilled baby calamari, spongy house-made mortadella and creamy centred croquettes to go with your spitzes and barbera wines.

99 Lygon Street, Brunswick, 9380 2320

Heartattack and Vine

The team behind one of the best cafes in the north has expanded into the wining and almost-dining business with their new site on Lygon Street, just a few doors down from Jimmy Watson's. At night, the cafe menu slims down to the eight or so rotating drinking snacks they have displayed in the glass case up the front. Expect juicy meatballs made with pork and beef mince flecked with speck, or a trio of breaded deep-fried olives stuffed with parmesan, sage, pinenuts and anchovies. Each snack is $3.50 or you can get three for $10 to back up your Spanish or Italian vermouth-on-ice or Italian plonk.

329 Lygon Street, Carlton, 9005 8624

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Doc Martin's

The new cafe-cum-bar fronting Collins Quarter isn't promoting itself as a cicchetti bar, but it is an aperitif-focused venue serving a long list of cinnamon-spiked meatballs, fresh bruschetta and croquettes so it should be on your radar. Ordering a negroni here (the bartender's best pal, consisting of equal parts gin, vermouth and Campari) can be complicated – they have every kind of Maidenii, Dolin and Lillet vermouth on the market, with as many high-end spirits to back them up, so you can tailor it any which way. Come early for pre-dinner lift-off with a Vedrenne vin de noix (a sweet-yet-astringent wine liqueur, barrel-aged with green walnuts) or swing by late for a Montenegro nightcap at that glistening tiled bar.

86 Collins Street, Melbourne

Ombra

Technically Ombra means "shade", but here it's used colloquially to say "let's get out of the sun and into a bar". It's like a Slip, Slop, Slap campaign with the added promise of pickles and negronis. This little salumi, snack and wine bar is part of the Grossi Florentino stable of venues, run by Carlo Grossi and offering the best lamb ribs in the city (confited-then-fried for ultimate softness and crunch), along with aperitifs and wines that tick all the boxes in terms of geography and production methods. Salumi is the focus here, but they offer plenty of hot and cold cicchetti – house-made pickles, pumpkin croquettes with mustard fruits and bowls of mild friggitelli peppers, fried soft and coated in salt – and from 4.30pm to 6.30pm daily you get a free bite with every alcoholic drink.

76 Bourke Street, Melbourne, 9639 1927, ombrabar.com.au

Merchant

Another of the Grossi clans venues, Merchant is specifically focused on aperitivo. It's named for the Merchant of Venice and they're big on traditional cicchetti like white anchovy and tomato crostini, little plates of marinated octopus and hunks of bufala mozzarella, lightly dressed with olive oil. Like Ombra, they offer a free snack with your Campari soda or prosecco between 4.30pm and 6.30pm every evening.

Rialto, 495 Collins Street, Melbourne, 9614 7688