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Quintessential Venice

If you want to get a sense of contemporary Venetian culture and indulge in some of its pleasures, start by familiarizing yourself with the rituals of daily life. These are a few highlights—things you can take part in with relative ease.

Il Caffè (Coffee)

The Venetian day begins and ends with coffee, and more cups of coffee punctuate the time in between. To live like the Venetians do, drink as they drink, standing at the counter or sitting at an outdoor table of the corner bar. (In Italy a "bar" is a coffee bar.) A primer: caffè means coffee, and Italian standard issue is what Americans call espresso—short and strong. Cappuccino is a foamy half-and-half of espresso and steamed milk; cocoa powder (cacao) on top is acceptable, cinnamon is not. If you're thinking of having a cappuccino for dessert, think again—Venetians drink only caffè or caffè macchiato (with a spot of steamed milk) after lunchtime. Confused? Homesick? Order caffè americano for a reasonable facsimile of good-old filtered joe.

Il Gelato (Ice Cream)

During warmer months, gelato—the Italian equivalent of ice cream—is a national obsession. It's considered a snack rather than a dessert, bought at stands and shops in piazzas and on street corners, and consumed on foot, usually at a leisurely stroll see La Passeggiata, below). It is the only food that is socially acceptable to eat on the street and not at a table. Gelato is softer, less creamy, and more intensely flavored than its American counterpart. It comes in simple flavors that capture the essence of the main ingredient. Standard choices include, besides chocolate and vanilla, pistachio, nocciola (hazelnut), caffè, and numerous fresh-fruit varieties. Quality varies; there are still some excellent gelaterie in Venice, but many who advertise themselves as artiginale (homemade) do very little more than mix factory-made flavors into a chemically treated base.

La Passeggiata (Strolling)

A favorite Italian pastime is the passeggiata (literally, the promenade), and in Venice, the favorite place for the ritual is the Zattere, the southern walkway of the city, facing the Giudecca. In the late afternoon and early evening, especially on sunny weekends, couples, families, and groups of teenagers stroll the Zattere. It's a ritual of exchanged news and gossip, flirting, and gelato eating that adds up to a uniquely Venetian experience. You may feel more like an observer than a participant, until you realize that observing is what la passegiata is all about.

L’Aperitivo

A late afternoon or early evening ritual is to meet friends at a bar or café for an aperitif, generally, in Venice, either a spritz, a light cocktail made with white wine, aperol (a bright orange herb liquor) or bitters, and soda water, or a glass of prosecco, the Veneto’s famous sparkling white wine. The drinks may be supplemented with ciccheti, or traditional Venetian snacks. Venetians are a very social folk, and it is not uncommon for them to get together with friends for an aperitivo three or four times a week. Since living space is at a premium in Venice, and many people live in rather cramped quarters, invitations to visit their homes are reserved for very special occasions. For everyday socializing, the aperitivo is the ideal solution.

Updated: 2014-04-10

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