When people think of Venice, they picture San Marco and the spectacular sights and museums. My Venice includes those sights, but for everyday life, the restaurants, pizzerias and trattorias are a far more important factor.
In Venice, there seems to be a restaurant around every corner and each turn of a canal. Finding a great restaurant amid the sea of touristy mediocrity — where the art of creative cooking and artistic presentation take dining to another level — is always the goal. After a week of dining in Venice, these eateries, all quite affordable, are ones that answer that search. The owners and chefs at these places work hard to make them stand out from the others.
You won't find any of these in the regular collection of guidebooks that crowd bookstore shelves. I hesitate a bit to expose them to mass tourism but these pizzerias, trattorias and ostarias are all run by owners that pride themselves on the presentation of good meals at a good value.
My favorite grilled branzino, or sea bass, is served at Osteria Do Farai (Calle Foscari, Dorsoduro 3278; 041-2770369), run by the affable Stefano. He kisses the hands of the ladies and makes them feel beautiful and circulates between tables throughout the evening making sure his creative meals are pleasing to his guests. Stefano insists that his fish is the freshest possible. Tableside, he debones the fish with flair and accompanies it with a spectacular salad created flamboyantly and covered with one of the best dressing that appears to be simply oil and vinegar but has a magical flavor. The evening finishes with a flourish as he mixes up a pitcher of sgroppino, a blend of grappa, lemon sorbet, milk and prosecco.
Bruno, the proprietor of Osteria ae Cravate (Salizzada S. Pantalon, Santa Croce 36/37; 041-528-7912), is another energetic restaurateur who serves meals that focus on quality, not price. Beneath a ceiling festooned with colorful ties sent to him from every corner of the world he tirelessly attends to his guests. His fish is prepared wonderfully, but other dishes such as bracciola di agnello, lobster spaghetti and risotto with scampi and mushrooms are succulent. His secret appetizer specialties are the tuna carpaccio and the surprisingly delicious octopus carpaccio. Venetian locals crowd his small restaurant for both lunch and dinner so call for reservations.
For pizza, salads and pastas served at a canal-side setting head to Ae Oche (Zattere, Dorsoduro 1414; 041-5206601 — right on the Giudecca Canal). This is perhaps the best canal-side dining value in Venice and is packed with local merchants and students enjoying a night out. They serve scores of pizzas, about a dozen salads and plenty of pastas. Try the Pizza Caprese where red cherry tomatoes brightly sit together white chunks of mozzarella di buffalo and fresh basil on a freshly-cooked pizza crust. The generous salads, depending on what you order, come packed with small balls of mozzarella, tuna, shrimp, peas, artichokes, carrots, eggplant, corn or ham — they are a meal in themselves. On evenings where it may be raining or just too hot to sit outdoors, their split-level, air-conditioned dining room offers a welcome respite. They have another pizza place with the same name and an American barn decor on Calle Tintor, Santa Croce 1525, near Campo San Giacomo.
Pizzeria Accademia right next to its namesake bridge in front of the Accademia Museum, serves only pizza and sandwiches. The location, right on the Grand Canal, makes this a fabulous spot for a lunch or dinner. The pizzas are amazingly affordable considering the canal-side setting. The sandwiches, wine and beverages are a bit pricey, but the view makes it all worth it.
Tucked in a corner next to the square where Marco Polo's house once stood is Ristaurante Malibran (Corte del Milion, Cannaregio 5864; 041-5228028). This place could succumb to tourist fare, but the chef still focuses on the details of presentation and the wait staff is a study in professional service. We enjoyed a beautifully laid out insalata Caprese, a colorful plate of octopus and polenta and the Venetian specialty sarde in saor (sardines smothered in sweet and sour onions) in the air-conditioned dining room since the open-air tables were packed.
Trattoria ai Greci (Rio di San Lorenzo, Castello 4988; 041-5289780), near San Giorgio dei Greci, appears to be another simple tourist trap, but its tables beside the quiet San Lorenzo canal just outside of the tourist buzz are hard pass up. We stopped because the chocolate, cream and lemon profiteroli in the window called to us. Stick to the basics here. The pasta was excellent and the pizzas are OK. I can't recommend much more. The bubbly Spritzes were also among the best that we have had in Venice.
The art of a Spritz
A Spritz is the cocktail of choice for the Venetians. The basic Spritz is a mixture of white wine or prosecco with either Aperol or Cinzano bitters and a shot of seltzer water garnished with lemon or an olive. The Aperol version is orange colored and a bit sweeter than the red Cinzano kind. These are a mainstay of the Venice campo evening life at open-air tables under a stand of spreading umbrellas or opened awnings.
Like caffe, Spritzes have different prices depending where they are sipped. They can range in price from about Euro 1.50 at an indoor bar to Euros 3 served at a table at most campos in Venice. Fancier restaurants charge Euros 4 and higher, up to almost Euros 11 on Piazza San Marco.
Gelaterie (ice cream joy)
Italy is renown for its gelato and Venice is one of the gelato centers of the country. For years guidebooks have proclaimed this gelateria or that one the best in the city. Truth be told, they are all mighty good. At Campo Santa Margherita there are two great ice cream spots at either end of the square and a few in between. None of them are going out of business, so, I guess the locals manage to visit all of them. My favorite is Gelateria Il Doge at the south end of Campo Santa Margherita. They also serve wonderful icy granite (kind of like slush) and fruit sherbets.
Another noteworthy ice cream spot is Gelateria Paolin on Campo San Stefano and finally the place with the best ginger ice cream I have ever eaten — Gelateria Alaska on Calle Larga de Bari in the Santa Croce neighborhood.
For those who want to focus on dining while in Venice, I recommend “Chow! Venice, Savoring the Food and Wine of La Serenissima, A guide to the restaurants and bars in Venice,” by Shannon Essa and Ruth Edenbaum (Wine Appreciation Guild and Chowbella Books; $19.95). I don't agree with all of their assessments, but they are right far more often than they get it wrong. It is a great place to get a head start on good dining.