Upon your arrival, the glory of Venice strikes you. It is present in the architecture of the palaces, churches, and squares. The city’s onetime prosperity is witnessed in commissioned paintings by Bellini, Carpaccio, Tintoretto, and Titian. And who is not familiar with the unique cuisine that developed in Venice? After all, when the city-state controlled the Mediterranean and the trade routes to the East, its wealthiest citizens enjoyed the finest spices, foods, and wines from Europe, North Africa, Turkey, and the Middle East.
Visiting Venice now, you can enter palaces like Ca’ d’Oro, built between 1424 and 1434 on the Grand Canal. You can marvel at the paintings by Tintoretto in the Scuola di San Rocco, where they were created between 1564 and 1587. However, finding restaurants that serve authentic cuisine presents more of a challenge. In fact, these days you’re more likely to view a painting by Carpaccio than enjoy a bona fide serving of the dish that bears his name, more likely to see a painting by Bellini than sip a true version of the drink restaurateur Giuseppe Cipriani named after him in 1948. It is even difficult to find simple classics, such as sarde in saor (marinated sardines), done right.
In part, this is because there are fewer Venetians to carry on the traditions. The majority of restaurateurs, hotel staff, and shopkeepers reside in la campagna, or the countryside, the word Venetians use to refer to anywhere in Italy other than the islands of their lagoon. The high cost of living and the an-nual flooding high tides account for the decline in the city’s population from 150,000 in the late 1940s to fewer than 70,000 today.
While most of Venice’s restaurants seem resigned to pandering to the tourist clientele, charging first-rate prices for third-rate cuisine, commuters to Venice and its residents who value fine food know better. Through connections with true insiders, you might be trusted with recommendations for authentic Venetian restaurants, but this information is not readily shared. Venetians guard their favorite osterias with a passion, because they fear that once discovered, tables at these sacred locales will be occupied by tourists.
It can be quite a challenge for sophisticated visitors to immerse themselves in the pleasures of the cognoscenti. The first step is to distance yourself from the most popular gathering spots. While Piazza San Marco and the alleys surrounding it are the most famous in the city, it is as difficult here to find a decent meal as it is in Times Square. Which is why you must, in general, venture far to discover food worth eating.
Osteria dal Pampo (also known as Osteria Sant’Elena), located on Isola di Sant’Elena behind the public gardens, is not easy to find, but it is worth the journey. Pampo, the owner, works the bar, and Luciana, his wife, runs the kitchen. The menu items seem to have come straight from a family recipe book. If your grandmother was Vene-tian, these are the dishes she would serve you in her home on special occasions. The food is simple, but with deep flavors that stimulate the palate. Especially good are the spaghetti alle vongole and the fritto misto. The dining rooms in the osteria look as if they came from a 1950s Rossellini movie set in a tavern. You will know that you’re dining among the regulars, because most of the other customers are locals who stop eating to look over every stranger who enters their haunt.
By patronizing authentic establishments, you will come to appreciate another feature of true Venetian cuisine: its reliance on ingredients from its lagoon and the Adriatic. The chefs at the real dining establishments in the city take a personal stake in the fish and shellfish they serve. It is a matter of pride, not profit. They know they have some of the best ingredients in the world—muggine (baby sea mullet), squill, golden mullet, baby spider crabs, green crabs, baby cuttlefish, vongole veraci (tiny razor clams)—and showcase them in their dishes. At Osteria Il Milion, a simple, nine-table restaurant set in a tiny courtyard across from the home of Marco Polo near the Rialto Bridge, you will find some of the finest local seafood. One of the city’s oldest dining establishments, its name is derived from a story about Marco Polo, who was said to exaggerate the millions of things he had seen and the millions of miles he traveled, earning the ironic nickname, “Il Milion.” The food here, most notably the tagliolini with spider crab, risotto with scampi and zucchini, and John Dory and grilled polenta, has clean flavors that are not masked by sauces, butter, or cream. The ingredients are so fresh and intense that there is no reason to hide them. “I eat here every day,” says owner Roberto Bocus, “so it has to be good.”
The highest compliment you can pay a Venetian chef, as is true in most of continental Europe, is to say, “The food is almost as good as my mother’s.” In the case of Damiano Martin of Da Fiore, one of only two Michelin-starred restaurants in Venice, the food is his mother’s. Da Fiore, owned for the past 24 years by Mara and Maurizio Martin, features a world-class wine list, first-rate service, and traditional Venetian dishes such as bigoli in salsa (pasta in a fish sauce). “My mother is the cook,” says Damiano, who has helped his parents at Da Fiore for the past three and a half years. “She’s self-taught, so it’s very simple.” Entering Da Fiore, even for the first time, you’re shown the rare courtesy of being considered an instant regular. Whatever you might desire in food, wine, or service is accommodated without hesitation. As Damiano says, “When you come here, you’re part of our club.”
Like the rest of Italy, the authentic restaurants of Venice tend to be deeply traditional, unflagging in their loyalty to the past. Yet savvy Venetians acknowledge that there is room for more than simply the local flavor. New establishments are opening that, while relying upon indigenous ingredients, make use of chefs’ experiences in other parts of the world.
One of the best of the newcomers, open since May 1999, is La Colombina, where owners Alberto and Biba Fabrizia serve food inspired by their travels through the Mediterranean. Alberto, a big man with bushy gray hair, is a former boat taxi driver in Venice. Now he waits on the customers while his wife, an ex–film producer, prepares the meals. There are no menus, just daily changes and an extraordinary list of young wines from Friuli and Veneto. “We wanted to make a place worth looking for,” explains Alberto. “We’ve traveled a lot, we lived in Barcelona awhile, but here we wanted to create a place where you feel at home.” The cool jazz music playing, the playful manner of Alberto, who takes patrons’ orders, and the soothing hues of the room provide a haven away from the bustle.
In some cases, you won’t have to venture far from your home-away-from-home for fine Venetian dining. At Cipriani in Hotel Cipriani, chef Renato Piccolotto turns out superb dishes such as jellied consommé with vegetables and sautéed filet of turbot with stewed red onions and pine nuts. And, for a price, you can accompany chef Piccolotto to the Rialto Market, a favorite with locals for produce and seafood, and afterward have a private cooking lesson. Also worth visiting is Ristorante Do Leoni, in the Hotel Londra Palace, the only Relais & Châteaux property in Venice. The menu features a Venetian section de-voted to classics such as risi e bisi, or rice and peas, and fegato a la Venessiani, or calves’ liver. Located within walking distance of the Doge’s Palace, Do Leoni offers a view of the lagoon. It is also one of the few restaurants near Piazza San Marco where you can find serenity.
Simplicity, profound respect for tradition, and a little flirting with the outside world—these characteristics of dining in modern Venice apply to the spirit of the city as a whole. “Half the enjoyment of Venice is a question of dodging [the tourists],” Henry James wrote in Italian Hours in 1882. Equipped with the knowledge of insiders, it is possible to avoid the crowds and savor the city’s gustatory pleasures. It’s a secret the locals have known all along.
Al Cantinone gia’ Schiavi, 992 San Trovaso, Dorsoduro
Casa del Parmigiano, 214 San Polo, Rialto Market, +39.41.5206225
Cipriani, Hotel Cipriani, 10 Giudecca, +39.41.5207744, www.orient-express.com
Da Fiore, 2202 San Polo, +39.41.721308
Ristorante Do Leoni, Hotel Londra Palace, 4171 Riva degli Schiavoni, San Marco, +39.41.2700608, www.hotelondra.it
Emilio Lovadina, 214 San Polo, Rialto Market
La Colombina, 1828 Cannaregio, +39.41.2750622
Osteria dal Pampo, 24 Via Generale Chinotto, Sant’Elena, +39.41.5208419
Osteria Il Milion, 5841 San Giovanni Grisostomo, +39.41.5229302