Experience food shopping at its most Venetian while putting together a picnic. Read my guide and find out where to buy the finest cakes in Venice, excellent cheese and some perfectly quaffable wine
A favourite lament of Venetians is that normal life in the city is disappearing – by which, on the whole, they mean access to food. But if it’s true that butchers and bakers have a worrying tendency to shut down and be replaced by mask shops, it’s also correct to say that Venice has one of Italy’s most vibrant fresh produce markets; and that the number of convenience outlets has increased – small compensation, of course, but in line with the nationwide trend.
The first time I set foot in Venice, over 25 years ago, there may have been more charming corner food shops but if you forgot to get a staple, you were in big trouble out of regular shop hours, including the 1-5pm ‘lunch-break’ and all Sunday. Nowadays, the huge Coop supermarket in piazzale Roma (Santa Croce 499) is open 8am-8pm, seven days a week.
But that, of course, is not what you come to Venice for. And there are far better ways to turn putting together a picnic into an authentic Venetian adventure.
To experience food shopping at its most Venetian, the only place to start is at the main Rialto market, at the north-western foot of the bridge (Open early to about 2pm Mon-Sat).
The Most Serene Venetian Republic made its fortune by trade, and the hub of mercantile life throughout its history was the Rialto: the fact that the iconic bridge has two rows of shops running across it reflects this focus. The market was set up in the area west and north-west of the bridge in 1097. In past centuries, banks and import-export businesses of all ilks were concentrated here too. Today, it’s all about food and the names of streets and squares still reflect the activities that went – and in some cases do – go on there. Naranzaria (from arancio, orange) was where citrus and other fruit was sold; Pescaria (from pesce, fish) is still an explosion of squirming, glistening seafood; and Erbaria (from erbe, herbs) is the vegetable market, where much of the produce still hails from those islands – such as Sant’Erasmo: look for signs saying ‘sanrasmo’ – where Venice’s edible greens have been grown for centuries. To really live it, plunge fearlessly into the scrum of determined Venetian housewives.
The streets around are a warren of food opportunities.
Seafood and cheese
If the seafood in the Pescaria is too daunting, Pronto Pesce Pronto (Calle delle Beccarie, San Polo 319; +39 041 8220298; closed Mon) has delicious ready-cooked fishy treats. There are more take-away gourmet delights at Aliani (Ruga Rialto, San Polo 654; +39 5224913; closed Mon) where you can pick up cooked vegetables, pasta dishes, fish and meat in little aluminium-foil dishes, plus excellent cheeses from all over Italy, and bread too.
Dried fruit and nuts
For dried fruit and nuts, as well any spice imaginable, call in at Màscari (Ruga del Spezier, San Polo 381, +39 041 5229762, closed Wed pm and Sun), a veritable treasure-trove of old-fashioned goodies: candied fruit, loose-leaf teas and infusions, as well as sauces, oil and wine too.
If you’re choosy about your bread, and you’d like to try something a little out of the ordinary, you might like to detour up to Kosher Tevà in the Ghetto (Campo del Ghetto Vecchio, Cannaregio 1242, +39 041 5244486, closed Sat), where besides all kinds of rabbi-approved breads, there’s a selection of excellent biscuits and cakes.
Alternatively, think of the sweet-toothed climax to your picnic and make for VizioVirtù (Calle del Campaniel, San Polo 2898A; +39 041 2750149; www.viziovirtu.com; open daily), a temple to chocolate by the San Tomà vaporetto stop. From their wine-laced chocolate nut brittles to spice-spiked creations with varying percentages of cocoa, this is heaven for chocolate lovers.
Or there’s Tonolo (Calle San Pantalon, Dorsoduro 3764; +39 041 5237209; closed Mon), where the cakes – natives will tell you – are Venice’s finest. Since 1953, this wonderful pasticceria-bar – its display cases containing a bewildering array of cakes and pastries – has been providing desserts for Sunday lunch and sweet snacks breakfast, lunch and aperitivo hour.
The only element missing from your picnic basket now is wine, and that can be purchased straight out of great vats at nearby Vinaria Nave de Oro in Campo Santa Margherita (Dorsoduro 3664, +39 041 5222693, closed Wed pm). Take a bottle with you (or purchase one there) to fill with the perfectly quaffable merlot, pinot grigio or other brew of your choice. Or for a more traditional browsing-bottles-on-shelves set up, there’s Cantinone-Già Schiavi (Fondamenta Nani, Dorsoduro 992; +39 041 5230034; closed Sun). You’ll have to push through (or join) the crowds lounging, glass in hand, on the pretty bridge outside, or thronging around the snack-filled bar counter to reach the stacks of bottles further back in the shop. There’s a great selection of wines from around the north-east of the country.
Where to eat your picnic
Your picnic basket is full, and you’re ready to devour it. The problem is: where? Spread your meal on even the quietest bridge and some disgruntled Venetian is bound to come by and tell you you’re in the way. Not, however, on the wide Zattere – the pavement overlooking the Giudecca canal. Towards the western end, there are even benches. Grab one, spread your meal and enjoy the view.
More expert advice on Venice
For suggestions on where to stay in Venice, see my list of recommended hotels.
Read my overview on Shopping in Venice.