It is all too easy to go to Venice (or anywhere in Italy) and sit outdoors at a café, under an umbrella, on a plastic wicker chair – just like at home at a cheap Italian themed chain restaurant. And the food will be as bad (and more expensive) than those same theme restaurants at home. But it doesn’t have to be like that, just watch where the locals seem to go and give that a try instead. Back when I was a young backpacker I was pretty happy with over-cheesy, over-greasy faux-italian, but now I want to find the genuine local food, I want to eat and drink well in Venice.
First: What not to do.
There was a tourist restaurant, right next to my hotel, a block from Plaza San Marco (the Hotel Al Ponti dei Sospiri was brilliant by the way). On my first evening, succumbing to jet lag and sore feet from walking, I decided this would be good enough. It wasn’t. I didn’t make that mistake again for the rest of my stay. If the menu looks a lot like this one above at Trattoria Canonica, if it is headed “Pizza + Soft Drink” and has a special price in a big star, it’s probably best to avoid it.
- The markets. Head to the Rialto markets first thing in the morning and stock up on your own supplies from the fruit and vege stalls and specialty stores. Bread, cheese, cured meats, sweet treats, can all be picked up for a picnic breakfast or lunch, sitting under a tree in cobblestoned square, or watching out over a canal. It’s all fresh, it’s tasty and there’s a huge variety
- Caffeine. No surprise that Italians do coffee well, and as I love my coffee black, I was in coffee heaven in the morning, sampling perfect little expresso and ristretto. For the best coffee go into the little ‘stand up” bars, where the patrons order and then drink their coffee while standing up at the bar – don’t look for sit-down coffee shops. A bonus first thing in the morning was finding I was drinking my coffee while standing next to Gondoliers, resplendent in their black and white stripes, who were knocking back their expresso shots and then putting some muscle into getting a perfect shine on the paintwork and gilding of their gondolas- fun to watch while drinking my coffee.
- Drinks. Prosecco is my local summer favourite, and of course you can’t be in Venice and not try the Bellini – Prosecco and peach nectar. You can pay a small fortune for bad service at the famous Harry’s Bar, or pay only half a fortune at any flash outdoor waterfront bar on the bigger canals, which is a nice way to watch the sun set in the evening. In cooler months I found there are some great red wines to sample from the surrounding region, particularly the pinot noirs (Pinot Nero).
- Bacari. These are the local taverns, mainly small, hole-in-the-wall places. Many double as stand up coffee bars in the morning. But it’s not just drinks, they also serve a selection of appetisers or small dish snacks, called cichetti in Venetian dialect. (It sounds something like “cheekattee” with accent on “a”.) You can create your own dinner or graze from one Bacari to another. Some may also have tables to sit at, some may have a dinner menu in addition to the cichetti, but most customers will be standing at the bar, ordering their wine and their desired snacks. It’s fair to say that I fell in love this this style of establishment, food, and drink, and sampled far too many of them. The variety and quality was amazing. Here’s some of the cichetti I sampled:
- a single boiled egg skewered with an anchovy,
- fresh sardines in tomato sauce
- Calamari in black ink sauce
- numerous versions of bruschetta – tomato, salmon and cheese; gorgonzola and walnut; raw white fish with tomato; prosciutto;.
- and the places I ate at included
- Al Stagneri on Calle dei Stagneri. It also has an amazing roof inside – look up from your bar stool.
- Osteria De Carla in a laneway off Frezzaria – you’ll see it at the end of the tunnel, the bruschetta selection was phenomenal and went well with a cool prosecco; it also has a sit-down restaurant part but I didn’t try that.
- Bar Piccolo Martini, also on Frezzaria, had beautiful dainty fresh little sandwiches.
- Restaurants – I was very happy sticking to Bacari for lunch and dinner every day, until I stopped off at a cool wine bar for a late afternoon glass one day. Not only was the wine bar and it’s wine list lovely, but it was part of a cool restaurant with a mouth watering menu. I decided to splash out for the evening. The place was Osteria-Enoteca San Marco, on Frezzaria just west of San Marco Square – it was a modern take on Italian cooking, I can still taste the perfect gorgonzola and asparagus soufflé I had there.
Do you have a favourite spot to eat in Venice -do share!