Ombra: How it came to mean a “small glass of wine” in Veneto dialect

Ombra means “shadow” or “shade” in Italian. But in Veneto dialect it means something else: A little glass of wine.

Even the most accomplished students of Italian will be surprised by the special meaning of the word ombra in Veneto dialect.

Yes, ombra means shadow in Italy. But in the dialect of Venice and the Veneto, including the languages spoken in the land of Prosecco, an ombra means a small glass of wine to be shared with a friend or consumed in a bacaro or cicchetteria, where Venetian “small plates” are served.

Venetian legend holds that there used to be a wine vendor who set up his cart every day underneath the famous Campanile in Piazza San Marco, the bell tower in St. Mark’s Square in the “city on the lagoon.”

As the sun would move through the sky throughout the course of the day, he would move the car to stay in the shadow or shade projected by the bell tower. He would do so to keep his wine and himself cool.

After some time, it became a common expression in Venetian “to meet someone in the shadow [or shade] of the bell tower” for a glass of wine. And then, after more time had passed, the glass of wine came to be known as the “shadow” or “shade”: An ombra.

Today, in Venice and throughout the Veneto, in osterie and wine bars, it is common for wine (usually white and often Prosecco) to be served in small chalice-like glasses.

If you were to enter into such a venue with a friend and say to the tavern-keeper, “dame do ombre de vin” (“give me two shadows of wine”) or even simply “dame do ombre” (“give me two shadows”), he would certainly know what you mean. And he would give you two small glasses of white wine or Prosecco.

Image via Rodrigo Soldon’s Flickr (Creative Commons).

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