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.
GOOD BUT AFFORDABLE
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.
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.
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.