Venetian cuisine may not be as world-famous as its Tuscan or Neapolitan relatives but it is certainly as original and diverse and perhaps even healthier. The main staples in traditional Venetian cooking are fish, polenta and rice. Pasta is a rather recent import from other parts of Italy and so is pizza. Today you can find an assortment of pasta dishes and the ubiquitous pizza in almost any Venetian eatery, but if you want to sample a taste of the vernacular try some of these delicious dishes.
Sarde in saór. Fried sardines with onions and pinenuts marinated in white wine vinegar. Raisins are added in the winter months to make it more substantial. It is usually accompanied with polenta. Saór is a Venetian word that means sauce, flavor, savory.
Fegato alla veneziana. One of the oldest and most delicious of all Venetian recipes. Just calf's liver with onions sautéed in a mixture of olive oil and butter. Traditionally served with a side of polenta.
Polenta. As we know it today, this dish originated in the Veneto region and is the traditional side dish that accompanies many Venetian entrées. It can be white or yellow, grilled or fried. Expect to find it in almost any restaurant.
Bacalà mantecato. Boiled salt cod whipped with olive oil and garlic to the consistency of butter (mantecato). Salt cod, originally from Norway, was brought to Venice in the XVth century where it is was first consumed by German merchants.
Seppie in umido col nero. Stewed cuttlefish in its ink (black) is not a dish for everyone. If you like seafood but never tried this dish, once you get past its murky presence, you may love it (or hate it). It is often served with polenta.
Risotto di seppie. Combines the best of two traditional dishes: risotto and cuttlefish.
Risi e bisi. Rice and peas is perhaps the most typical of Venetian dishes. A little bit more wet than a traditional risotto, the original recipe calls for a broth made with the discarded pods. Best eaten in spring when fresh peas are in season and are at their sweetest.
Bìgoli in salsa. Bìgoli is a Venetian word for spaghetti. They are usually made of wholewheat flour. The salsa in this case is a sauce simply made with onions and anchovies.
Schie. Delicious baby shrimp usually sautéed with garlic and served over polenta or pasta.
Canoce. Known as mantis shrimp in English, because of its resemblance to a praying mantis, it is not a real shrimp but looks more like a small lobster when cooked, usually grilled.
Pinza (also known as pincia). A traditional sweet made with flour, eggs, sugars, raisins and a variety of optional ingredients such as pinenuts, candied fruit, almonds and orange peel. Chewy and moist, it reminds me of a firmer and more refined version of bread pudding.
Bussolà. One of my all-time favorites. This cookie is from the island of Burano and oftentimes is called buranelli. When freshly baked it is soft and delicate. It can also be eaten several days (even weeks) after baking if kept in a sealed container but it becomes harder. It is then ideal for dunking in hot tea or sweet wine. A recipe follows:
Sieve together 340 g (approximately 12 oz) of all-purpose flour with 200 g (7 oz) of sugar. In the center add four egg yolks lightly beaten and mix well. Add 100 g (about 3.5 oz) of butter, 1/2 teaspoon of vanilla extract and two teaspoons of lemon zest, finely grated. Work the dough until smooth and soft. Cut in small pieces and roll the pieces to make ropes about 8-12 inches long and 1/2-3/4 inch wide. Make circles on a greased cookie sheet and bake in a preheated oven at 400°F for 15 minutes or until pale golden brown. Store in an airtight container. Makes about twelve super delicious cookies.
Prosecco. This crisp sparkling wine originated in the hills of Treviso in the Veneto region. Today thanks to a remarkable improvement in quality, prosecco has gained in popularity in the rest of Italy and beyond, but is still the quintessential Venetian drink.
Spritz. A mixture of prosecco with bitters, either Aperol or Campari, and sparkling mineral water, this colorful drink is a favorite Venetian aperitif. It was inspired by the Austrian spritzer (a mixture of white wine and water).
Bellini. Named after the painter Giovanni Bellini, this drink combines prosecco with the pulp of fresh white peaches. It has a beautiful pink color. Created by Giuseppe Cipriani, founder of Harry's Bar. It is also available in small bottles, but when in Venice go for the real thing.
Despite what some people say about Venetian restaurants - touristy and overpriced - there are many gems to be found scattered all over the city where you can have an authentic and delicious meal at a reasonable price. Most of these places cater to locals and tourists alike. The traditional rule of thumb of eating where the locals eat also applies here, but keep in mind that this is Venice after all and it is almost impossible to find a place, any place, where tourists do not outnumber the locals.
In addition to the classic ristoranti, osterie and trattorie there are the wine bars or bàcari where you can make a meal out of little appetizers called cicheti and enjoy a glass of wine, red or white, called ombra. Most tourists, unfamiliar with the whole business of ordering tiny portions from a display and eating them while standing up, just ignore them. Venetians love them, and you will too once you try them. These are some of my favorites ristoranti, trattorie and bàcari.
Antica Osteria Giorgione. Off Campo San Silvestro, near the Rialto. This is my latest "discovery" even though a tavern has been on this spot since the 1880's. The building used to be covered with frescoes by Taddeo Longhi (XVII cent.) which have all disappeared except for some fragments on the inside. It's been claimed that Giorgione lived in this building but most likely his house was located at # 1091. The menu is typical Venetian and testament to that is the gondolieri that congregate here to have lunch. The fish, the pasta and the polenta are all excellent; the house wine is rich and velvety and service the most cordial. A real gem. It's ranked among the very best out of more than 600 restaurants in Venice according to www.tripadvisor.it. Antica Osteria Giorgione; San Polo 1022, on Rio Terà San Silvestro; vaporetto stop: San Silvestro; phone: (39) 041 241 2124.
Osteria Ai 4 Feri. Off Campo San Barnaba. Cozy place to have lunch or dinner; it specializes in fish. Their antipasto di mare with all sorts of steamed seafood is superb; the tuna steak is very rare (almost sashimi) but very fresh and tasty. The grilled vegetables crisp and light. Portions are abundant and service is attentive. You may be asked to share a table. Dorsoduro 2754/A, on Calle Longa San Barnaba; vaporetto stop: Ca' Rezzonico; phone: (39) 041 520 6978
Osteria La Zucca. Near San Giacomo da l'Orio, this restaurant offers some of the most creative cuisine in Venice specializing in dishes prepared with seasonal ingredients, most of which (but certainly not all) are vegetarian. Try their flan di zucca or pumpkin mousse. A delicate and creamy custard-like dish sprinkled with pumpkin seeds and aged ricotta cheese; it is simply out of this world. The rabbit in wine sauce is delicious as well, so are the curried carrots. Reservations are highly recommended. Osteria La Zucca; Santa Croce 1762, on Ramo del Megio; vaporetto stop: San Stae; phone: (39) 041 524 1570.
Pizzeria Accademia Foscarini. Best location in Venice, next to the Accademia Bridge overlooking the Grand Canal. I like this place because of the view and the friendly staff. The pizza is very good as Italian pizza goes, but do not expect more than that: thin crust with the typical toppings. One of my favorites is the veggie combo that may include artichokes, zucchini, eggplant and tomatoes. If you are craving anything else, from a simple salad to pasta, leave the Accademia Foscarini for another occasion. Vaporetto stop: Accademia; phone: (39) 041 522 7281.
Trattoria da Fiore. Also a bàcaro, off Campo Santo Stefano on Calle de le Botteghe, offers delicious seafood cicheti at a reasonable price. Formal lunch or dinner at a table is more expensive. Their schie (tiny baby shrimp) sautéed with garlic and served over soft white polenta is superb, so is their verdure all' agridolce (sweet and sour vegetables). Do not confuse with Ristorante da Fiore in San Polo. Trattoria da Fiore; San Marco 3461, on Calle de le Botteghe. Vaporetto stops: San Samuele or Sant' Angelo; phone: (39) 041 523 5310.
Casin dei Nobili. This restaurant offers a large array of dishes from pizza to the classic Venetian fare. The staff is young and friendly and the food is consistently satisfying. The pasta buranese with scallops is perfect and so is the schie with polenta. If possible, try to be seated at the patio where the atmosphere is very cheerful and the art on display whimsical. In the heart of Dorsoduro, off Campo San Barnaba. Calle Casin dei Nobili, Dorsoduro 2765; vaporetto stop: Ca' Rezzonico; phone: (39) 041 241 1841.
Ristorante da Raffaele. By the same owners of Pensione Accademia, this restaurant offers quality and ambiance. Located on Fondamenta de le Ostreghe, near the church of Santa Maria del Giglio and not too far from Piazza San Marco, you can have, in warm weather, lunch or dinner by the rio and enjoy a great view that extends all the way to the Grand Canal. Their pasta is excellent and so are the contorni (side dishes) including some southern specialties such as the peperonata. Ristorante da Raffaele; San Marco 2347; vaporetto stop: Santa Maria del Giglio; phone: (39) 041 528 9940.
Ristorante Il Nuovo Galeon. This restaurant is a gem off the beaten tourist path. On busy Via Garibaldi in Castello it offers excellent food at a reasonable price and outstanding service. You can eat inside in a cozy room with a nautical theme or outside watching people go by. If you try a classic Italian dish such as Prosciutto con melone (salt-cured ham with melon) you will not be disappointed. The gnocchi with meat sauce, if offered, is excellent as well. The contorni are fresh and crisp. Il Nuovo Galeon; Via Garibaldi, Castello 1308; vaporetto stop: Arsenale; phone: (39) 041 520 4656.
Osteria Al Mascaron. Charismatic co-owner Stefano will welcome you to this fine eatery that offers an excellent selection of local seafood. The atmosphere is relaxed and the service very friendly. Their antipasto misto will give you a flavor of what Venetian cuisine is all about: sardines, canoce, artichokes and octopus. Their fegato alla veneziana, a family recipe I was told, with fresh sage is fantastic. Reservations recommended. Osteria Al Mascaron; located off Campo Santa Maria Formosa on Calle Longa Santa Maria Formosa, Castello 5225; phone: (39) 041 522 5995.
Osteria da Carla. Not too far away from Piazza San Marco, this small osteria may be hard to find as it is tucked away in a quiet corner beyond a sotoportego. Once inside you will be welcomed by a cozy interior of brick walls, modern art and wood-beamed ceiling. You'll have a choice of cicheti at the bar or a more formal meal at a table. Their cicheti are among the most creative in Venice, take for example a round of crusty bread topped with prosciutto, hard-boiled egg and a paper-thin lemon slice sprinkled with poppy seeds or a mouth watering piece of ham over a paper-thin eggplant slice, roasted, with rosemary and parsley. Their pasta Veneziana, a version of bìgoli in salsa with wide spaghetti and onion sauce, is perfect. Corte Contarina, San Marco 1535 (off Frezzeria). Reservations recommended in high season. Vaporetto stop: Vallaresso; phone: (39) 041 523 7855.
Ristorante Corte Sconta. This restaurant is hidden away in a remote area of Castello, not too far from the church of San Martino and the Arsenale (that's what Corte Sconta means after all, hidden court). It has a very loyal clientele of locals and regular visitors to Venice. The atmosphere is quiet and understated. In summer you can enjoy your meal in the outside patio under the vines. This restaurant is famous for its seafood which is so fresh that it may have been dancing in the Adriatic just a few hours before served. Their sarde in saór is mellower than in many other places and it comes with raisins, pinenuts and a side of grilled white polenta. Their spaghetti neri with scallops is succulent. The scallops are prepared not only using the recognizable white adductor muscle but also the tastier and almost-never-found-in-America appendage, the orange roe. Utterly delicious. Reservations recommended in high season. Corte Sconta; Calle del Pestrin, Castello 3886; vaporetto stop: Arsenale; phone: (39) 041 522 7024.
Cantina Do Mori. This is a real bàcaro, not too far from the Rialto market. There are no tables, so you must have your cicheti at the bar. A favorite hangout of Marlena de Blasi as described in her memorable A Thousand Days in Venice, this wine bar offers a wide selection of wines, most poured from large demijohns kept behind the counter and prominently labeled. Their bacalà con l'erbe, polpette di tonno (tuna fritters) and crab are delicious, so is their pinot nero. Enjoy your ombra and watch out for the copper pots hanging from the ceiling. On Calle dei Do Mori, San Polo 429; vaporetto stops: Rialto or San Silvestro; phone: (39) 041 522 5401.
Harry's Dolci. A younger brother of Harry's Bar, this restaurant located on the island of the Giudecca has an outstanding view of Venice. I was there on the day of the Regata Storica when every soul was flocking into the Grand Canal, so this part of Venice felt like a million miles away from civilization. Service was superb and the food excellent. It is more reasonably priced than Harry's Bar and the view is free. The Bellini, the pomodoro (tomatoes) e mozzarella, the fegato alla Veneziana and the crostata di mele (apple tart) were all excellently executed, like a symphony. Harry's Dolci; Giudecca 773 on Fondamenta San Biagio; vaporetto stop: Sant' Eufemia; phone: (39) 041 522 4844.
Osteria da Alberto. Out of the beaten path in Cannaregio (near the Miracoli church) this osteria is a favorite of locals and visitors in the know. The pasta is superb and so are the traditional Venetian dishes. I had the ravioli stuffed with scallops in a sauce with bacalà and zucchini that was utterly delicious. The decor is rustic but cozy; service very cordial. On Calle Giacinto Gallina, Cannaregio 5401. This place can get packed, so you may want to call ahead; phone: (39) 041 523 8153.
Osteria al Garanghelo. In the heart of the San Polo district, not too far away from the Rialto market, this osteria specializes in Venetian dishes with a light and fresh twist. Easy on the salt, fat and sugar, it offers dishes such as gamberoni al saór, delicious steamed prawns served with onions, lemon and a touch of olive oil and parsley, fegato alla veneziana, polpette al vapore (steamed meatballs) and many others. In the summer months the tables outside offer a nice spot to watch people go by from the Rialto to campo San Cassan. Osteria al Garanghelo. Calle dei Boteri, San Polo 1570; vaporetto stop: Rialto (Mercato); phone: (39) 041 520 4967.
Trattoria Da Romano. In the heart of Burano, Da Romano is famous for its cuisine, its service, and its visitors. Their most emblematic dish is the gó risotto. Gó is a small fish that thrives in the mud of the lagoon; although never eaten by itself because it's too bony, it is used to make a broth to flavor this most amazing risotto, prepared with a recipe that has been handed down for four generations. This place was featured in Anthony Bourdain's "Without Reservations" in 2009. Among the many famous visitors, Matisse, Le Corbusier, Giorgio Armani, and of course Hemingway, signed their guest book. Via Galuppi, 221, Burano; phone: (39) 041 73 00 30.