A destination we visit yearly on our cycling and walking tours, Venice has fascinated travelers from all over the world for hundreds of years. Built on more than 100 small islands in the midst of marshy lagoon in the Adriatic Sea, its pallazi seem to rise out of the water. There are no paved streets, and therefore no cars, trucks, scooters or bikes, just canals and boats. Tourists wind their way down narrow, maze like alleys, through small squares, often loosing their bearings several times before turning a corner to find their ultimate destination in front of them – the Grand Canal, the Doge’s Palace, Piazza San Marco. Getting lost in Venice is virtually inevitable, but also leads to some of my best discoveries.
I am often asked by our clients on how I find the restaurants I recommend and include on our Italy tours. Wandering off-the-beaten path is part of it, but I’ve also developed an eye for where to find those special places that offer a wonderful meal, rich in local products, reflecting the traditional regional cuisine. Here are 5 tips that may help you find that hidden, special neighborhood trattoria on your next visit to Venice.
1. Avoid the main tourist spots
It is a lovely to envision yourself enjoying a fantastic meal sitting in the Piazza San Marco gazing at the Doge’s Palace, or dining along the Grand Canal. But this is where everyone heads. Venice is a popular cruise ship destination, and on certain days in the summer will have passengers from multiple ships spending the day exploring the city. They head to Piazza San Marco and the Grand Canal. When I wish to enjoy a glass of prosecco here, I wait until the evening when the cruisers have returned to their ship. And I accept the fact that I’m going to pay double the cost for the prime location.
Venice is home to several restaurants with long-standing reputations as dining destinations. At the time of my last stop at Harry’s Bar, made famous in the writings of Hemingway, a glass of coke was 13 euro, a whiskey based cocktail 26 euro, or with the exchange rate at the time, around $36. I left.
Another nasty surprise when I dined at Trattoria alla Madonna, a spot often recommended for those looking to experience a classic seafood restaurant near the Grand Canal – on top of the higher than average prices, an additional 18% ‘servizio’, or service charge. appeared on my bill. Tipping is NOT expected in Italy (there is no entry for tip income on a tax form in Italy, for example) and this servizio charge is simply to guilt tourists who are used to tipping into paying even more. I never recommend a restaurant that includes this charge.
So if your heart is set on including one of these institutions during your visit, do so – but be forewarned on the price tag. I personally want the most memorable part of my meal to be the food, the wine, and the overall experience, not the final bill.
Stroll along the Grand Canal at lunch or dinner time, and you will routinely be approached by restaurant host stationed outside the door, cajoling you to dine in their establishment (who falls for this, I wonder?) These places, and others, prominently display a large Menu Turistico, a Tourist Menu. Written in multiple languages, with photos of the dishes, and featuring items such as pizza, lasagna, and caprese salad, this type of menu delivers one message loud and clear “We haven’t changed our menu in years!”
I head away from these main tourist routes, and look for the small trattorie with a blackboard and a handwritten menu, a good sign the menu changes frequently to reflect what’s fresh and in season. I am especially intrigued when the menu is written in a seemingly strange version of Italian – the Venetian language, a Romance language still spoken by some residents of this region. The well-known local risotto with peas (risotto con piselli), is called “risi i bisi” in the Venetian language. I don’t always know what I am getting, but that is part of the adventure and I am sure this place is not catering to tourists. In Venice, it is quite rare to have a restaurant where not one employee speaks enough english to translate the menu for you, so step inside and try it out.
Since the year 1097, Venetians have gathered at the Rialto market for their fresh fish, vegetables, fruit, meats, cheeses, and salumi. Early in the morning barges arrive at the nearby port along the Grand Canal, unloading freshly caught fish and shellfish, and produce from nearby islands like Sant’Erasmo. Delivery men push handcarts laden with fruits, vegetables, cheeses. The market is one of the best food markets in Italy. An early morning visit will have you rubbing shoulders with chefs from the nearby restaurants as they figure out what their menu will feature that day. So head away from the Grand Canal into the neighborhoods behind the market to find some wonderful local spots. As the Rialto fish market is closed on Sunday and Monday, many of these restaurants are too, and those that aren’t are selling day old fish (gasp.)
Just around the Rialto market are the Venetian baccari, or wine bars. The locals head here after their shopping to sip a restorative glass of prosecco and sample a variety of little snacks called cicchetti or cichetti. Similar to the Spanish tapas, these snacks will feature many of the wonderful seasonal foods you just admired in the market. A walking tour of the wine bars is a great end to the morning; called a giro d’ombra, or tour of shadows, as ombra is local slang for a glass of wine. Years ago, vendors selling glasses of wine to market visitors would keep their wine cool by moving periodically to follow the shade, or shadows.
Venice is divided into six areas or “sestiere”. These are Cannaregio, San Polo, Dorsoduro (including the Giudecca and Isola Sacca Fisola), Santa Croce, San Marco (including San Giorgio Maggiore) and Castello (including San Pietro di Castello and Sant’Elena). Most tourists never venture outside of San Marco, home to the major tourists attractions. If you visit the Rialto market, you’ve made it into San Polo. But the other sestiere are well worth a visit, with many interesting but lesser know sites, and eateries undiscovered by tourist crowds.
Cannaregio is the northernmost sestiere, the historical home of the Venetian Jewish Ghetto. Today, the areas of the district along the Grand Canal from the train station to the Rialto Bridge are busy with tourists, but the rest of Cannaregio is residential and relatively peaceful, with morning markets, neighborhood shops, and small cafés.
Castello is the largest of the six sestieri of Venice, Italy. This district is dominated by Arsenale, once the largest naval complex in Europe, and by the monasteries in the north of the quarter. After learning about Venetian naval history at the Arsanale, wander the streets and enjoy the local macelleri (meat shops), bakeries and restaurants.
Dorsoduro is located the other side of the Grand Canal from San Marco. Here you will find many of Venice’s famous museums, including the Accademia Gallery and the Peggy Guggenheim Collection. Dorsoduro is a vibrant community, where foreign residents of Venice mix with the students and academics from Foscari University. Spend an evening people watching at one of the bars, cafes, and restaurants in lively Campo Santa Margherita.