Polenta topped with rapini:The rapini stalks are served whole over the polenta. For a richer polenta, stir in 4 ounces mascarpone and 1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan. (Bill Hogan/Chicago Tribune)

Didn't make it to Venice again this year? Not in the cards? (Or the budget?)

Content yourself instead with a taste of that romantic Italian city. After all, we eat to remember travels; why not eat to summon visions we've not yet enjoyed?

Venice has a diverse culinary history with myriad flavors. Nowhere else is that as apparent as with cicchetti — small, intensely flavored snacks served in bacari (bars) and restaurants. Think of the tapas of Spain or pintxos of Basque country. Cicchetti (cheek-KAY-tee) come in a variety nearly as infinite as the fishes in the sea — an apt metaphor since seafood figures large among these bar snacks, as you'd expect in a city built on islands: stewed squid over polenta, fried tuna balls, baccala (salt cod). And from the land, you might see hard-cooked egg halves, spicy rapini over polenta, fried polenta sticks with stracchino cheese and so much more.

Many of those are featured in a new book, “Cicchetti and Other Small Italian Plates to Share” by Lindy Wildsmith and Valentina Sforza. While Sforza covers the rest of Italy, Wildsmith zeros in on cicchetti.

“I just love Venice,” says Wildsmith, speaking by phone from London. And she loves cicchetti, from the years she spent living and working in the city. “I always wanted to write about them.”

She also claims as motivation that everything else about Italian cuisine has already been written. Perhaps. True or not, making cicchetti at home presents the Italophile — and other home cooks — with a wealth of dishes to try.

Cicchetti evolved from the necessity of kitchen economy, Wildsmith says, from cooks using up leftovers, especially liver and onions.

“There was not enough for another meal, but enough for a snack,” she says. Today they are served at any time and at every hole-in-the-wall bar in Venice — people often eat them standing out in the piazza. And they are solely Venetian.

“You won't find it elsewhere, even elsewhere in the Veneto,” she says, meaning the region of which Venice is the capital.

A platter of cicchetti might include skewered bites (food on sticks figure big in the bacari) like Wildsmith's fried pumpkin here, or a little something over polenta (another cicchetti staple, whether cooked, cooled, cut and fried or served creamy), like the spicy rapini here from Bar Ombra, in Andersonville, which specializes in the snacks, offering a couple of dozen.

While cicchetti are most often as simple as these, they can be more complex, such as the beans in peverada sauce, a condiment with a Renaissance pedigree with its combination of chicken livers, salami and anchovies.

Those anchovies impart flavor from the sea, as they do in a piquant sauce from Michael “Mikey” Sheerin that he created for his fritto misto (a mix of fried items, in this case vegetables). Sheerin is executive chef of Cicchetti, which has an opening planned for November or December in Streeterville. Its focus can be attributed to a motive similar to Wildsmith's.

“We wanted to create something that is unique in Streeterville (Chicago neighborhood),” says Sheerin. Though the restaurant will offer an array of freshly made pastas, the titular cicchetti will star. Sheerin, formerly of Trenchermen, Blackbird and other restaurants, is excited about playing with ingredients of the Italian pantry, such as agrodolce and gremolata.

“There's a lot of layering of flavors,” he says. “I've found an Italian fish sauce I plan to incorporate.”

That sauce, colatura di alici (made from fermenting anchovies), grounds his garnish for the fritto misto. The tender vegetables in a light, crispy batter require a number of steps but deliver you-can't-stop-eating-them flavor. A great addition to your home cicchetti platter.

Oh, and don't forget an ombra, a small glass of wine, or an aperitivo. A drink is always served with cicchetti, quite often a spritz, a refreshing combination of a bitter, such as Campari or Aperol, topped with prosecco.

And Venice? Maybe next year.

Spicy rapini with garlic and citrus over creamy polenta

Prep: 15 minutes