VeniceWords Paul Dring
Photography David Loftus
Tourism is nothing new to Venice. As long ago as 1494, one Canon Pietro Casola decided to break a pilgrimage from Milan to Jerusalem with a spot of sightseeing.
“I determined to examine carefully the city of Venice,” he wrote, “about which so much has been said and written, not only by learned men but also by great scholars, that it appears to me there is nothing left to say.” Not that this has dissuaded learned men, great scholars or, indeed, food writers from offering their observations in the half-millennium since.
One thing that many of these commentators agreed upon is that you can’t get a decent meal in the city, that its restaurants simply exist to fleece tourists, passing off overpriced, sub-standard fare to an undemanding clientele. In fact, the only positive thing that was ever said about Venetian restaurant food was that it was nowhere near as bad as the muck doled out in the city’s hotels. Halfway through lunch at Antiche Carampane I decide that this bad reputation is out of date.
This homely restaurant, run by Francesco and his mother Piera, oozes hospitality. I’m here with Marco, a fishmonger from the Rialto, one of Europe’s most magnificent food markets. Marco comes here every day for lunch. As he supplies Francesco’s fish, not only can he vouch for its impeccable provenance but he also doesn’t have to pick up the bill. Today, says Marco, the moèche – tiny soft-shell crabs the size of £2 coins, harvested from Venice’s lagoon during spring and autumn – are particularly good. Francesco fries these in batter to serve with strips of fried aubergine, green chilli and samphire. The result is feather-light and astonishingly good.
I’d started the day with a stroll to the Rialto Bridge. Spend time here first thing in the morning, before the masses descend, and you get a picture of Venice as a working city, with the Grand Canal as its main thoroughfare. Beneath me, I saw a barge laden with skeins of cloth. Its skipper waved to the pilot of another, loaded with huge planks of wood on its deck and an excited-looking dog in a jaunty neckerchief. There were ambulance boats with flashing blue lights, as well as a smattering of pleasure craft – flashy motor launches with cherry-wood panels and brass fittings, piloted by tanned men in Armani loafers. And barge after barge was piled high with fruit and veg for the market. I imagine there must be a timelessness about this scene, that not much has changed in the 516 years since Canon Casola wrote of going “to the Rialto, to watch the unloading of the boats which arrived from time to time. There were 80 boats full of beans, peas and cherries … in such quantity, that it seemed as if all the gardens of the world must be there.”
I wouldn’t go that far, but the market certainly showcases the finest the area has to offer. Whistling rings out from beneath the renaissance colonnades as men load stalls with a bewildering breadth of produce. On the day I visit, there is a huge range of tomatoes, from tiny redcurrant ones to gnarled and misshapen costoluti the size of small pumpkins. There are pink-mottled borlotti beans; the last of the year’s castraùre, the little violet artichokes grown out in the lagoon on the market-garden island of Sant’Erasmo; fractal heads of romanesco broccoli; huge, fat-stalked porcini; and basket after basket of saturnia peaches, the flat, doughnut-shaped fruit whose juice Giuseppe Cipriani combined with Venice’s fizz, prosecco, to create the bellini at Harry’s Bar in 1931. There are butchers’ stalls, including a macelleria equina, or ‘horse butcher’, and fishmongers, where men with bulging forearms and cigarettes perched between their lips were skinning and filleting dogfish in preparation for the day ahead.
With such great raw material, it’s good to see the city’s restaurants finally doing it justice. One reason for this improvement is the growth of the ‘bacaro’ scene. Traditionally, a bacaro was a kind of wine bar, serving cichèti (tapas-like snacks) to eat along with an ombra (a glass of wine – ombra means ‘shadow’, a reference to the drinks stalls that used to lie in the shadow of the St Mark’s bell tower). Recently, lots of these establishments have morphed into fully fledged restaurants – indeed, the Michelin-starred Da Fiore is now the most expensive place to eat in Venice.
One of the oldest and best bacaros is Ca’ d’Oro, more commonly known as Alla Vedova, ‘the widow’s place’, after its late owner, the mother of Renzo and Mirella who now run the trattoria. Venice, like most Italian regions, is fiercely proud of its regional cooking traditions and, throughout the city’s restaurants, you will see many of the same dishes crop up time and again. So it is at Alla Vedova, where the locals at the wood-and-marble bar order faultlessly prepared cichèti such as sardèle in saór. This sweet-sour dish of sardines in vinegar is an age-old Venetian preparation, a way of lightly pickling fish so that it keeps for a week or two. Also on the menu is local staple baccalà mantecato: salt cod beaten with a little milk, olive oil and garlic to a creamy consistency and served with polenta.
Venice’s bacaro movement has been responsible for raising standards throughout the restaurant sector as a whole, by reducing complacency, promoting competition between establishments and driving innovation. There are still plenty of places to eat poorly and expensively, but there are lots of good options, too. Take Alle Testiere, a one-room osteria a few blocks back from the tourist mayhem of St Mark’s Square. Here, chef Bruno prepares top-notch Venetian fare with a hint of spice, the lucrative trade that helped to make the city’s fortune centuries ago. And so, vongole clams are flavoured with ginger, while gnocchetti are served with cinnamon-perfumed squid. A similar shtick is being pursued at Anice Stellato – ‘Star Anise’ – where dogfish with Indian spices is offered alongside local stalwarts such as bìgoli in salsa (fat spaghetti in a savoury onion and anchovy sauce).
Elsewhere, seafood-lovers are well served at Corte Sconta, Al Covo and Al Fontego dei Pescaori, where owner Lolo serves fish fresh from the stall he runs at the Rialto. Those after a quiet lunch spot would do well to book one of the pergola-covered terrace tables at Boccadoro, which look over a pretty square. Vini da Gigio offers pitch-perfect versions of Venetian classics, such as tagliolini con granseòla (spider crab), while across the canal, Antica Adelaide offers rib-sticking fare, such as tagliatelle with hare ragù, in its dimly lit dining room and smart cocktails in its impressively high-ceilinged bar.
It would be unfair to overlook the few Venetian restaurants that were standard-bearers for quality during the dark days – places that have been serving simple, well-cooked food at reasonable prices for decades. One such is Dalla Marisa, off the tourist trail in the northern Cannaregio district. I walked there through the back alleys, which at noon were uncannily quiet, just the odd domestic noise – the whine of a vacuum cleaner, an occasional snatch of song from a kitchen radio – to break the stillness. The restaurant was anything but peaceful. The tables on the canalside terrace and in the tiny dining room were packed with noisily lunching workers in overalls and luminous tabards, and Signora Marisa, the grey-haired matriarch who runs the place, was dashing between kitchen, table and terrace to keep everyone fed and happy.
Dalla Marisa was set up to offer lunch to the workers from the abattoir across the canal. Though the abattoir is no longer there, its influence remains, both in terms of its clientele and in dishes served – earthy creations using thrifty cuts such as nervéti (beef tendons, slow-cooked in milk) and risotto con le secoe (made with a cut of beef from around the spine). I had the €15 set lunch – penne with aubergines followed by thinly beaten steak with caramelised onions and green beans.
If the food was good then the atmosphere was even better, as the little dining room rang out with boisterous chat and ribald laughter. The cook, visible from the tables below, was shouting out salty imprecations to the diners, much to their amusement. In due course, her work done for the afternoon, she came down to join them and show off her new purchase. To great encouragement, she unveiled a plastic figurine of a pig clad in a raincoat, which, when she pressed a button on its back, proceeded to flash and expose an aroused member atop vibrating porcine testicoli.
And who says nothing new ever gets written about Venice?
Venetian addresses are confusing. The official one consists of the district and building number. We’ve also included the street or square.
All’Arco San Polo 436 (Calle dell’Occhialer); +39 41 520 5666. One-room osteria near the Rialto. Stand at the little bar and order an ombra and panini filled with mortadella or lardo (pork fat) and radicchio.
Anice Stellato Cannaregio 3272 (Fondamenta della Sensa); +39 41 720744. Typical local specialities sit alongside those with aromatic spices.
Antica Adelaide Cannaregio 3728 (Calle Larga Priuli); +39 41 523 2629. Cocktails and hearty Venetian fare in this art nouveau establishment.
Antiche Carampane San Polo 1911 (Calle de la Carampane); +39 41 524 0165. Trattoria with fabulous fish.
Boccadoro Cannaregio 5405a (Campiello Widmann); +39 41 521 1021. Excellent food in a pretty, tranquil setting.
Ca’ d’Oro (Alla Vedova) Cannaregio 3912 (Ramo Ca’ d’Oro); +39 41 528 5324. Textbook regional classics at one of the oldest trattorias in the city.
Cantinone ‘gli Schiavi’ Dorsoduro 992 (Ponte San Trovaso); +39 41 523 0034. With its walls almost completely covered in wine bottles, this bacari offers a great selection of wines and cichèti, such as baccalà mantecato.
Corte Sconta Castello 3886 (Calle del Pestrin); +39 41 522 7024. Cavernous seafood restaurant offering well-prepared versions of Venetian classics.
Al Covo Castello 3968 (Campiello della Pescaria); +39 41 522 3812, ristorantealcovo.com. Great seafood in elegant surroundings.
Da Fiore San Polo 2022a (Calle del Scaleter); +39 41 721 308, dafiore.net. Former bacaro that has become the city’s most exclusive restaurant.
Al Fontego dei Pescaori Cannaregio 3726 (Calle Priuli); +39 41 520 0538, alfontego.com. Seafood from the owner’s stall, in elegant surroundings.
Alla Frasca Cannaregio 5176 (Campiello della Carità); +39 41 528 5433. Pleasant, no-frills trattoria on a quiet residential square.
Alla Madonna San Polo 594 (Calle della Madonna); +39 41 522 3824, ristoranteallamadonna.com. Big, bustling restaurant near the Rialto. Popular with families at lunchtime.
Dalla Marisa Cannaregio 652b (Fondamenta San Giobbe); +39 41 720 211. Great food and service off the tourist trail.
Alla Mascareta Castello 5183 (Calle Lunga Santa Maria Formosa); +39 41 523 0744. This is the best place to get a meal after 10.30pm, when most of Venice’s other restaurants are shutting down. Plus, owner Mauro Lorenzon makes his own prosecco.
Al Prosecco Santa Croce 1503 (Campo San Giacomo dall’Orio);
+39 41 524 0222, alprosecco.com. Tranquil spot to savour good wine with a crostini cichèti.
Alle Testiere Castello 5801 (Calle del Mondo Novo); +39 41 522 7220. Tiny trattoria serving dishes full of the flavours of Venice’s former spice trade.
Al Vecio Fritoin Santa Croce 2262 (Calle della Regina); +39 41 522 2881. Good little spot serving enticing dishes such as gnocchetti with rocket pesto, almonds and smoked ricotta.
Vini da Gigio Cannaregio 3628a (Fondamenta San Felice); +39 41 528 5140, vinidagigio.com. Great Venetian classics and delicious puddings.
Aliani San Polo 654 (Ruga Rialto); +39 41 522 4913. The best deli in town. Pick up local cheeses, salume or even horsemeat bresaola.
Drogheria Màscari San Polo 381 (Ruga del Spezieri); +39 41 522 9762. Piles of spice in the window announce the only spice shop left on a street named for the many that used to be here.
Libreria Acqua Alta Castello 5176 (Calle Lunga Santa Maria Formosa); +39 41 296 0841. Named ‘high water’ after the floods that regularly submerge nearby St Mark’s Square, this bookshop boasts a full-sized gondola and a wide selection of Italian and English books.
Lena Castello 5919 (Salizada San Canzian); +39 41 523 7478. A treasure trove of locally made cutlery, including blades designed for cutting tomatoes.
Rosa Salva Four locations include San Marco 951 (Ponte Ferai); +39 41 521 0544. Institution selling top-quality pastries and confectionery since 1869. Ice cream, made on the premises, is deservedly popular.
Le Spighe Castello 1341 (Via Garibaldi); +39 41 523 8173. Fresh pasta made with seasonal ingredients.
VizioVirtù San Polo 2898a (Calle del Campaniel); +39 41 275 0149. Exquisite handmade chocolates.
For more information about Venice, visit the tourist board's website.