Restaurants in Venice: where to save and where to splash out

by Lee.Marshall

With its aggressive restaurant touts and eye-popping prices, Venice is fraught with dangers for diners. However, it is possible to find good, local food at a fair price. Just follow my advice

My stepfather has just come back from a long weekend in Venice. He was shocked by the price of meals and the mediocre standard of cusine and service. Only once in four days did he feel he had anything approaching value for money. I asked if he’d followed the recommendations I’d sent him before the trip – and he admitted he and his travelling companion had trusted to luck or instinct most of the time, depending on what part of the city they happened to be in at meal times.

Venice is one Italian city where this rarely works. In Siena, say, you have a more than evens chance of eating well if you take pot luck. On the lagoon, the odds are at least five to one against. The reason is simple: just look at it from a restaurateur's point of view. Venice has a small resident population of difficult, demanding and price-conscious locals plus a large itinerant population of tourists who won’t be back for years – even if you give them the best meal of their lives. If you wanted to make an easy buck, which would you target?

Yet there are islands of culinary excellence even here, such as Alle Testiere and Corte Sconta where you may spend €70 a head with wine for a three-course meal but at least you won’t feel ripped-off. A few neighbourhood trattorias have stayed militantly local despite the tourist invasion. There you can get a decent lunchtime meal for little more than €20 a head. If you stick to the following addresses, you shouldn’t go wrong:


Osteria di Santa Marina

Castello 5911, Campo Santa Marina (+39 041 528 5239). Closed all day Sun, Mon lunch.

Attentive service, great creative Venetian food, a warm rustic-elegant ambience and an honestly-priced, carefully-selected wine list. Few places in Venice tick all four of those boxes, and in my experience Osteria di Santa Marina is one of the most consistent. It’s in a quiet campo (Venetian square) with a real neigbourhood feel, not far from the church of Santa Maria dei Miracoli. The idea here is simple: take local ingredients and combos, but give them haute-cuisine twists and presentation. So scampi in saor – a classic sweet-and-sour prawn dish – is served with leeks and ginger rather than the usual onions and sultanas; and instead of a squid-ink risotto, you get an orzotto – made with barley pearls in place of the rice. Always book ahead for dinner, especilly if you want to nab one of the molto romantico tables outside in the campo.

Price: allow €65 a head for three courses, with a decent bottle of wine.

Met at the Hotel Metropole

Castello 4149, Riva degli Schiavoni (+39 041 524 0034). Open daily for dinner, and for lunch and dinner Saturday and Sunday.

Venice finally has a world-class ultra-foodie restaurant – one that takes itself so seriously that a footnote to the "surprise" tasting menu reads: “Please ask before taking photos”. It’s worth putting up with a small dose of gastro-pretension, though, to sample chef Corrado Fasolato’s revelatory cuisine. It’s by no means over-elaborate: a dish such as the sea bass steamed in hay, herbs and spices and served with vanilla-flavoured olive oil may sound complicated – but the result is delicate and delicious. The same goes for most of Fasolato’s Veneto-inspired creations, and desserts such as the ricotta and radicchio flan with clove-spiked gelato are to die for. The ambience is opulent in the extreme, all red velvet drapes and gold chandeliers, which makes it a perfect, theatrical option for a special occasion – and also a good winter choice (there are no outside tables). For a restaurant of this calibre, the bill is not excessive.

Price: plan on burning €110 a head with wine for a truly memorable meal.


La Zucca

Santa Croce 1762, Ponte del Megio (+39 041 524 1570). Closed Sunday.

I’ve been coming to this little place for years and it has never disappointed. The service is friendly, just like the warm, bottle-lined interior; and if you can get one of the few outside tables – especially the one wedged between the crooked little bridge and the canal–  you will enjoy one of the best-value al fresco meals to be had in Venice. This is also a good refuelling stop if you’re all seafooded-out: the menu at the "Pumpkin" is almost equally divided between vegetarian dishes such as pasta with radicchio and aubergine, and meaty options such as ginger-baked pork with pilau rice.

Price: for €35 a head, you will eat – and drink – very, very well.

Alla Botte

San Marco 5482, Calle della Bissa (+39 041 520 9775). Closed Sunday evening and all day Thursday.

Finding this ultra-rustic wine bar and trattoria is the real challenge. Here’s how it works: standing in Campo San Bartolomeo, with your back to the Rialto bridge, take the lane that leaves the square at 10 o’clock, then turn right. Chances are it will be you and the locals – join them at the bar for a glass of soave or cabernet franc and a nibble of the bar snacks (cicheti) on display: Venetian classics such as polpette (meatballs), folpeti (baby octopus), sarde in saor (sweet and sour sardines). Just grab a plate and keep tabs on what you consume. If you want to eat in more comfort, head for a table and order a plate of tagliatelle with scallops or Venetian-style liver, for example.

Price: a stand-up, grazing lunch should come to €12 a head with a glass of wine; a full sit-down meal might set you back €25 for two courses and a carafe of house wine – great value.

Al Diporto

Sant’Elena 25, Calle Cengio (+39 041 528 5978). Closed Monday.

If you really want to get off the beaten track and see where Venetian families eat, take a waterbus down to Sant’Elena – the last stop before the Lido – and ask for directions to this family-run backstreet trattoria. The ambience is very laid-back and local: washing is strung overhead and kids play tag around the outside tables. The food is filling, tasty Venetian fare just like mamma makes – because it’s mamma who is making it. After a starter of schie (grey shrimps) with polenta, primi might include spaghetti alla busara (in anchovy sauce) while secondi are dominated by Al Diporto's pièce de résistance: a knock-out fritto misto, or mixed seafood fry-up.

Price: €30 a head should be enough to take care of business.


I've lived in Rome since 1984. For the last fifteen years, I've made a living as a travel writer specialising in Italy (I'm a contributing editor for Condé Nast Traveller UK and the US travel and lifestyle magazine Departures). But that's really just an extension of the way I live in places and the way I travel: I've never been the kind of person who always goes on holiday to the same place, or who settles on one favourite trattoria and never eats anywhere else. So if I have any authority as a Rome expert, I suppose it's because - in addition to my passion for my adopted hometown – I'm just plain curious.

I arrived in Rome with my partner in September 1984, fresh out of university in England and with no clear idea about how long the stay might last (was it a holiday or a serious move? Neither of us were sure). It was touch and go at first, and fate took a hand in our decision to stay: on the day the money ran out, we both found jobs teaching English. Then came the sheer effort of finding somewhere to live, assembling all those bits of paper that Italian officialdom is so fond of, getting to grips with a new culture, a new language, a new job. All of this gave me an unusually intense and untouristy introduction to Roman life.

I’m ashamed to say that it was four years before I got around to looking inside the Colosseum – by this time I was an honorary Roman, and so I had the same slight resistance that a New Yorker might have to visiting the Statue of Liberty. But it was probably also something to do with the obviousness of the attraction – by this time my wife and I (we got married in the Rome registry office on the Campidoglio in 1988) had visited most of the city’s Medieval churches, toured the lesser Etruscan sites of Lazio, been to Ostia Antica (easily my favourite Ancient Roman site in Italy) three or four times. It’s the richness of Rome that I’ve always loved: ten different visitors could spend ten days in the city and not overlap once.

Not long after the birth of our daughter Clara in 1990, I gave up English teaching and became a freelance writer, soon specialising in two of my great passions – film and travel. In between the major film festivals, my wife and I worked on updates of the Time Out Rome guide and I wrote article after article on Italy for Condé Nast Traveller and other publications.

But it has always been a special treat to be able to write about Rome – I think I put more or myself into these pieces, because I'm working out on paper how it was that I came to think of this city as home. It’s difficult to analyse one’s love for a place. There’s the food, and the wine, and the weather, and the sheer beauty of the city – all those things are important. But the draw for me has a lot to do with Rome’s air of theatricality – all those Baroque stage sets that just happen to be piazzas and churches; and all those locals who walk and talk and gesture with the innate confidence of people who are always on camera. After more than a quarter of a century and plenty of run-ins with reality, I have never quite got over the feeling that my life in Rome is one long film (shot, or course, in golden evening light).

These days I divide my time between an apartment in the Testaccio district of the city and a house in the Umbrian countryside, but for all the charms of la campagna umbra it’s still Rome that really stirs my soul. I hope I’ve been able to communicate something of this passion in my Rome Expert guides and blog for Simonseeks. Personally I don’t think anyone can ever claim to be a real Rome Expert: there’s just too much to see, do, eat, study and drink. But I’ve built up a decent Rome radar in the last couple of decades – and I’m going to give it my best shot.

My Rome

Where I always grab a coffee
My local is a buzzy place called Linari (Via Zabaglia 9) in the down-to-earth Testaccio district. They know just how I like my cappuccino (in a small glass, with less milk than usual), and their cornetti (breakfast pastries) are some of the best in Rome.

My favourite stroll
Rome backstreets in general. I love working out routes across the city that take me down Medieval lanes and across Renaissance piazzas, avoiding the traffic. It makes you realise that there’s a secret city out there that those in cars never see.

Fiction for inspiration

The great Rome epic novel has yet to be written – but I enjoyed When We Were Romans, written by my friend Matthew Kneale, which gives a very evocative and dramatic child’s-eye-view of the Eternal City.

Where to be seen this summer
The hot ticket will be Zaha Hadid’s new MAXXI contemporary art and architecture museum (, due to be inaugurated towards the end of May. It should breathe new life into the rather sleepy Flaminio quartiere north of Piazza del Popolo, where cool bar/restaurant chalet Tree Bar (Via Flaminia 226) currently gives a taste of how the area might evolve.

The most breathtaking view
Rome spread out like a 3-D diorama from the main terrace of the Gianicolo hill above Trastevere.

The best spot for some peace and quiet
Rome’s Orto Botanico, or Botanical Garden, is perhaps not the world’s best kept, but it is a lovely green oasis on the edge of Trastevere (Largo Cristina di Svezia 24, tel +39 06 4991 7108, entrance €4, closed Sun).

Shopaholics beware!
I love the quirky mix of shops in the lanes that lie just one or two blocks north of Corso Vittorio Emanuele. Artists’ supply shops, designer chocolate, creative jewellery and accessory boutiques, vintage clothes stores, shops selling modernist antiques, my favourite no-brand jeans brand, SBU (Via San Pantaleo 68-69, tel +39 06 6880 2547) – this is a great area for alternative shopping.

City soundtrack
Load Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater on your MP3 player, and use it as your background music. It’s pure Baroque drama – just like Rome itself.

Don’t leave without... looking through the keyhole of the gate into the garden of the Knights of Malta HQ on the Aventine hill (Piazza Cavalieri di Malta). The cupola of Saint Peter’s is framed at the end of the rose walk, with the rooftops of Rome on either side. Where else in the world can you see three sovereign states through one keyhole?