“Excuse me one moment, I’ll be right with you!” said the young man behind the counter. He disappeared momentarily only to emerge with a fresh, two-litre bottle of vino frizzante. He poured himself a splash inside a tiny, almost-joke-like wine glass and exclaimed: “Cheers! This is the first ombra I’m having…well, after noon!” He laughed genuinely and clinked glasses with the amused couple in front of him. A clock behind him marked 12:02.
The line outside Da Lele was unsurprisingly long, the place a popular lunch spot amongst students, workers, and day trippers alike. It twisted around the corner along the fondamenta dei Tolentini, a stone’s throw from Venice’s bus station, and created much anticipation in those of us who couldn’t wait to get to a paninetto and a similarly small glass wine. Meanwhile, an unruly crowd gathering in small groups alongside the canal emptied small glass after small glass while chatting the day away.
As I made my way inside the small space – just a service counter and a window display filled with all manner of sandwiches – I eavesdropped on the chats my fellow queuers were having around me. Most of them reverted around wine, and many around the joyful drinking culture of Veneto.
That Venetians have quite the reputation for loving – and holding – their drink is undeniable. Happy hour starts as early as 10 or 11 am, and it’s not at all uncommon to see clusters of chatty locals quench their pre-lunch thirst with a glass of something. What’s more, Venetians have created a whole set of social rituals, local mores, and popular wisdom around the ritual of small goblets of wine, also known as ombre.
Ombra – literally, shadow, shade. It’s the word Venetians use to mean a glass – one tenth of a litre, to be precise – of wine. Why? It’s unclear. The most likely explanation seems to be linked to the dominating shadow cast by el paron de casa, aka the belltower of St Mark’s. Rumour has it that back in the day, St Mark’s Square was dotted by street vendors selling wine. To keep the wine cool, many would take advantage of the shadow cast by the bell tower and would follow it as it turned. In time, the adage “let’s go have a drink in the shade” morphed into “let’s go get a shade”, and the rest is history.
Let’s go for an ombra is a call for community time more than an enticement to drink. It’s about sharing a moment, exchanging a few words. It’s an excuse to hang out and be social, for unwinding and taking a breather. The ombra is uncomplicated, democratic, and cross-generational. And, sure enough, there are plenty of places in Venice where to get one. From old-school osterie to forward-thinking wine bars, there’s something for anyone’s liking.
Here is a non-comprehensive list of favourites for all tastes.
BACARETO DA LELE
A wide spread of small sandwiches for all tastes, plus small pores of unlabeled wine at laughable prices, and a fun crowd of locals and travelers that eat, drink, and repeat while standing just outside this popular place in Santa Croce.
CANTINONE GIÀ SCHIAVI
Crostini is the keyword here, but also ombrette of pinot grigio or merlot for one euro, or, if you’d rather, a more sophisticated selection of wines by the glass which you can sip while perusing the extensive selection of bottles lining the walls of this much-loved enoteca in artsy Dorsoduro.
AI PROMESSI SPOSI
Tucked in a calle just off the buzzy Strada Nova, this popular outpost pours ombre of red or white house wine as well as glasses of local labels, which you can alternate with delicious morsels such as their signature meatballs.
The forerunner of the natural wine movement in Venice, this wine bar set on the buzzy Fondamenta della Misericordia has an ever-changing selection of low-intervention white, orange, pink and red wines by the glass. Their snacks, too, are tempting and imaginative, and can be mixed and matched as a small snack or a meal alike.
A new spinoff set in Campo Santa Maria Formosa with a diverse range of natural ombre from small producers, to be sipped while sitting in the shade – apt! – as you take in the atmosphere and the beauty of this pretty part of the city.
With its interesting by-the-glass offering matched with its excellent food menu, Stappo has brough a breath of fresh air to this beautiful part of Santa Croce. Here, you can broaden your ombre experience by sampling wines from many Italian regions as well as from near and far wine countries.
And finally, here is a bit of Venetian Wine Wisdom to kick start the conversation and crack a joke like a local while enjoying your ombra de vin.
Bevi vin e assa l’aqua al muin.
Drink wine and leave the water for the mill.
Or else, to each its own.
L’aqua marsisse i pai.
Water rots the poles.
A refined one. It’s intrinsically linked to the nature of Venice as a floating city that stands on poles planted in the muddy bottoms of the lagoon. Water is an element that threatens the very existence of the city and life in general. It’s bad for you. So, why would you drink it? Drink wine instead.
Chi ga inventà el vin, se no el xe in paradiso el xe la vissìn.
Whoever invented wine should be in paradise, or at least very close.
Rather self-explanatory and reminiscent of that sacred passage in which water was transformed into wine for the joy of the party…
Mejo berghene na possa che spanderghene na giossa.
Drinking a whole puddle is better than wasting a single drop.
A waste not, want not motto that encapsulates the value Venetians put on their grape nectar, as humble as it might be.