The Blunt Truth about Food in Venice
[Fair warning: this is a long post with a lot of information about Venetian cuisine and restaurants. If you want to skip the learnin’, scroll on down for the food pics.]
So you say you felt landlocked in Venice? Hmmm…yeahhh…think I’m gonna have to throw a little laundry on that one.
As I mentioned two posts ago, many people were horrified and quite negative upon hearing our plans to travel to Venice this summer. Someone even told us he didn’t like Venice because he felt landlocked the entire time he was there. Landlocked.
Now I’m no geography whizz but I do know that The Republic of Venice was one of the greatest maritime empires in all of world history, creating ridiculous wealth through its unprecedented domination of shipping trade routes among Europe and the Byzantine Empire. And they weren’t portaging their fleet across land bridges. Because Venice is literally floating on a lagoon on the edge of the Adriatic Sea!
To understand and appreciate Venice, you really have to get to know its lagoon. The Lagoon is LIFE. Let’s face it, the early inhabitants of Venice who were fleeing mainland invaders made one of the greatest engineering gambles of all time when they drove wooden stakes into the sandy marsh bottom of the lagoon and decided to build a community on a string of mini islands. A few things worked to their advantage, including the fact that the lagoon’s prolific source of seafood and ripe farm soil would be self-sustaining.
While Venice is no longer a sea-based global economic super-power, one thing remains surprisingly constant: the lagoon is still a fertile source of seafood and vegetables for the people of Venice.
And yet this is a fun-fact that seems to elude the majority of visiting tourists year after year. Venice has a reputation of being a terrible foodie town, of serving tacky frozen fare, and of being more expensive than other restaurants in Italy. People! For the love of Bacchus and everything that is holy in the beloved world of gastronomy, a mere modicum of research will refute these misguided rumors!
First, do not travel to Venice looking for “Italian Food”. Because really, there is no such thing as Italian Food since every region varies so drastically. (Italy didn’t even become a unified country until 1861.) In particular Venice has its own cuisine. Seafood from the lagoon. Waterfowl from the lagoon. And fresh vegetables from the farming island of Sant’Erasmo which is located, as you may have already guessed, in the lagoon. Because of their history with trade, Venice has typically seasoned its dishes with exotic spices. And like the rest of northern Italy, Venice’s food history focuses on risotto and polenta as opposed to pasta. But yes, like the rest of northern Italy they now serve beautiful pastas that are infinitely better than what we can find stateside.
People get frustrated because they hit the ground in Venice and want pizza. Well the “Italian” pizza you are craving actually originated in the south, specifically Naples. And while much of Italy has figured out a way to recreate a smoky, paper-thin, wood-fired Neapolitan pizza that delights American expectation, Venice largely hasn’t. Why? Because wood-burning ovens are outlawed in Venice, save a few places that are grandfathered in.
Americans hit the ground in Venice and want their Spaghetti Carbonara. Carbonara comes from Rome. It’s not a Venetian dish.
Americans hit the ground in Venice looking for the amazingly MASSIVE grilled Chianinia steaks they saw Rick Steves eat on his show about Italy. They are served on wood boards, covered in coarse salt and served bloody rare. They are also in Florence. There aren’t many herds of cattle on the islands in the lagoon.
Of course like many tourist destinations in Italy, Venice has adapted and adopted the more universally Italian pastas and main dishes that appeal to visitors. But logistically it’s a lot harder for a road-free, car-free, truck-free, Venice to import some of these non-local items. So cha-ching, the price just shot up.
Bottom line, it’s best to do a bit of research about the food that is truly inherent to Venice in order to experience its freshest flavors and keep costs down. Then go ahead and break the rules here and there. But when you do: manage expectations, avoid restaurants with pictures on the menu, avoid restaurants with menus translated into more than three languages, and avoid restaurants under the Rialto Bridge if they lure you in like a carnival barker. There are actually some exceptional spots in the high-traffic tourist zones, you just have to be discerning. When in doubt, pick the restaurant with a hand written menu that is passed around or has been Xeroxed on cheap copy paper. Read the foodie blogs before you go and have a backpocket idea in every neighborhood so you know where to go when you’re exhausted from sightseeing.
Okay, Christine, so what the hell DO I get to eat in Venice?
Cicchetti is the hero of Venetian cuisine. (Pronounced chi-KET-tee.) These small bites are basically Venetian tapas. I first learned about traditional Spanish tapas, beautiful potato omelets with garlic aioli, crisp fried calamari, and yummy ham croquettes. These days every mixed-used development in Austin has a tapas restaurant on the ground level, perhaps fueled by the success of online dating. Obviously it’s best to meet that first Match.com date at a tapas joint instead of committing to a proper multi-course meal.
Venetian’s have been doing cicchetti quite a bit longer than singles have been winking and poking at each other on the Internet, and like everything in Venice, they do it with their own flavors. Lots of seafood and vegetables. Many items are lightly fried tempura style. Some meat bites are available. Cicchetti bars are located all over town and from about five pm until about eight, you’ll see Venetians standing in the street or up at the bar with a small glass of wine and a few small bites in hand. It’s common to wander from one cicchetti bar to another, tasting the specialty at each place.
We signed up for a cicchetti tour the first afternoon we arrived in Venice and it was hands-down the absolute best thing we did. Our guide, Elisabetta, was born and raised in Venice and offered all sorts of historical and cultural lessons as we walked between five different cicchetti bars. We were so full by the end of the tour, we didn’t even need dinner. Cicchetti are fresh, mostly healthy, legitimately local, and a very affordable way to dine in Venice.
We awakened early the next morning to attend mass at Basilica San Marco. After which we lounged in St. Mark’s Square at the world’ oldest coffee shop, Caffé Florian, which has been frequented through the centuries by notable playwrights, artists, writers and glistening Grand Tour travelers. It’s as charming and chic as ever, a must-visit while in Venice.
Just suck it up and make Florian its own line item in your budget. (Go to the Florian website to create a realistic estimate.) Yes, they charge a cover to sit down (as most cafes in Italy do, not just Venice) and yes they charge a live music fee. Don’t even think about taking earplugs and arguing that you aren’t hearing the orchestra five feet from you so you shouldn’t be charged the live music fee. You’re a visitor, they make a living off tourism, that’s their deal, and this place is iconic. So quit bellyaching about the price, settle in and enjoy the view, the architecture, and the people watching. It’s legendary.This next one is not my picture, I found it on Pinterest, but I LOVE her costume! All dressed for a masquerade ball during Carnivale and having high tea at Caffé Florian…with a suspiciously long straw. What’s up with that straw?
Come to think of it, the Venetian plague mask is very popular during Carnivale. Perhaps that is why they have the freakishly long straws. (This next one is not my picture either.)
Our lunch reservation was at the acclaimed Al Covo. I had read all about Al Covo and was considering putting it in the rotation. But I watched an old episode of Anthony Bourdain ‘No Reservations’ where he visits Al Covo and that sealed the deal. The proprietors are a husband and wife duo, he is Venetian, she is from Texas. In the Bourdain episode the owner-chef showed gorgeous lightly fried lagoon fish and chided people who squeeze lemon all over fresh seafood. “All you taste is lemon!” Ostensibly with really fresh wonderful seafood you shouldn’t have to cover up the taste.
Al Covo did not disappoint. (Grazie Tony!) Unfortunately the quality of my pics is in direct contrast to the quality of the meal. It was clearly the best we had in Venice, one of the top from the entire trip.
After a busy day out and about we kept dinner close to home, strolling down the Zattere to a restaurant on the Giudecca canal called La Piscina.
As I may have already mentioned, we loved our apartment, loved our canal, loved our neighborhood. The first day we arrived Tom grabbed a small empty duffle and I grabbed a tote and we ventured to the local grocery store, called Conad City. I nearly fainted at the selection of beautifully prepared foods and deli options.
So one day after touring the Peggy Guggenheim (which was just steps from our apartment) it was nice to flop back at home and take lunch in our private garden.
Another perk of our neighborhood? The Ca’ Foscari University of Venice is nearby so there are plenty of hip little pubs and eateries catering to graduate students. The Corner Pub is renowned for gourmet paninis on the cheap.
Dorsoduro is clearly my favorite neighborhood, or sestiere as they are called in Venice. I lived in Dorsoduro the summer before my senior year in high school when I studied in Venice. And it still offers a perfect blend of real Venetian life with plenty of cultural action. That said, I am more and more intrigued with a sestiere called Cannaregio. Talk about quiet remote streets and real slice of life! As Tom puts it, there are just “get things done” stores. Like a vacuum repair shop. No Disney stores. No Hard Rock Café. So one night we decided to wander Cannaregio for some cicchetti before our dinner reservation. We stumbled on our favorite spot in all of Venice. The bartender was a graduate student from Milan studying Chinese. (He also spoke perfect English.) The blues music was soft and the candles thoroughly lulled me in. Plus the cicchetti menu boasted classic Venetian fare, prepared fresh fresh fresh! Osteria la Bottega ai Promessi Sposi was a major highlight of our trip.
Then we wandered through a labyrinth of quiet streets to find our dinner spot, La Colonna, also in Cannaragio. La Colonna is a sleepy little neighborhood joint, dripping in ivy and warm hospitality. There were only about three other tables of diners with us, one chef and one waiter. WE LOVED IT. I think this was actually Tom’s favorite meal in Venice. No fuss, very fresh, hearty portions, local recipes. You could order a la carte or for 19 euro you could pick a starter and a main dish. Very reasonable considering the generous portions and refreshing quality.
After dinner we found ourselves lost in the dark empty streets of Cannaregio. Getting lost in Venice is required. Quite simply it is The. Most. Fun. But we couldn’t get over the lack of people. In July! The peak of the tourist season! Are we the only people left in the city?
Eventually we heard sounds of laughter. And music? Sure enough there were signs of life and before we knew it we punched back into civilization. A few twists and turns and bridges later we found ourselves back in the cafe life of Saint Mark’s Square.
The day we toured the Biennale, we had already covered a zillion miles on foot, we were hot, and it was very late for lunch even by European standards. I had wanted to lay eyes on the Arsenale which was the closest neighborhood so we agreed to limp there and just find something, anything to eat. Withering from the heat, hunger, and dizzy from our art buzz, we succumbed to an outdoor pizzeria. The pizza was fine. Nothing special. But the beer was cold, the wine was red, the umbrellas were shady, and I had a view of the Arsenale. I have good intel that locals dine and drink in the newly hip joints around the Arsenale, but we were too weak to be dedicated foodies at that point. We were typical tourists and frankly we grateful for the pizza and a chance to sit. We were still on a Biennale art high.
We had big plans for our last night in Venice. I had made reservations at I Figli delle Stelle as well as Ristorante Lineadombra, both of which are on the water’s edge boasting breathtaking views of Venice at night. All we had to do was pick which magical romantic place. Decisions, Decisions.
We canceled both.
For our last evening in Venice we decided we wanted to see more of our favorite neighborhoods, get lost again, and dine on more cicchetti. After all, upscale meals and upscale restaurants are a dime a dozen, but where else can you cicchetti hop?
We rode the vaporetto back to Cannaregio and started at our favorite place we’d stumbled into a few nights previously, Osteria la Bottega ai Promessi Sposi. We ordered plenty of our favorite, the creamy dreamy salty fabulous Baccalà Mantecato on warm fresh bread. It’s not much to look at but MAN! This creamed cod dish is divine. Between the rich flavor, the color, and the consistency it’s easy to assume there is actual cream in this dish. There’s not! Apparently the secret ingredient is patience. They start with cod, a long-time imported fish (remember, Venice did a lot of sea trading) and add a lot of olive oil plus salt, pepper and other seasonings. There are days of soaking, preferably in continuously running cold water. Waat? Then cooking. Skin and bone removal. Exchanging with salt water. Slowly adding olive oil and mixing gently forever (like an hour) until it takes on a mousse-like consistency. The end result is magic for your mouth.
Then we went back to the Rialto Bridge area to revisit one of the cicchetti bars we’d learned about on our tour.
We cicchetti-ed our way back across the water (that’s what the locals call The Grand Canal) winding our way back to our Dorsoduro neighborhood. While Venice is an early to bed town, this area around the university offers more nightlife with jazz clubs, pubs and outdoor cafes. It was getting a little late for the cicchetti scene but we were hungry for one more spot. We found this newer, hip cichetti bar not far from Campo Santa Margherita (the hub of the university nightlife scene) and enjoyed a few more Venetian morsels.
From here we wandered to Campo San Barnaba (where Katharine Hepburn fell in the canal in the movie Summertime) and Tom topped off the evening with gelato at GROM. Our mobile foot-fueled foodie night was the perfect finale to an amazing food experience in Venice. Never have I jumped into a cuisine knowing so little, learning so much, and loving so heartily.
ADDITIONAL FOOD SUGGESTIONS
Remember Fabio from my previous post? Here is his email to me with more Venice tips:
On the way to ” ponte academia”, there are some ” cicchetterie”, places where you can enjoy good wines and small delicious bites
Remember My Friend’s Husband’s Step-niece’s Husband (Or Boyfriend?) from my previous post? Here are his favorite restaurants in Venice:
- Osteria ai Pugni
- Oniga (his absolute favorite)
- I Gondolieri
In the Anthony Bourdain episode I watched, he went to Al Covo as well as a restaurant on the island of Burano called Da Romano which has a legendary fish risotto that is supposed to be life changing. It’s made with Gó Fish, a strange fish that lives in the mud of the lagoon but produces a fabulous flavor that is released by repeatedly tossing the fish risotto into the air. CLICK HERE to watch Bourdain’s short video about the making of this historic dish.
Places I want to try and/or revisit next time…
- Locanda Cipriani
- Osteria alla Staffa
- Bar Longhi
- Il Ridotto
- Rialto Fish Market
BUON APPETITO YALL!!!