Venice’s restaurant scene is centered around fish and seafood. Be prepared to pay for quality, though, as good restaurants only serve ingredients from the Rialto market or caught by fishermen who still ply their trade in the lagoon or sea beyond. Unfortunately, the captive tourist market means that many restaurants traffic in pizza, cheap prix-fixes and frozen seafood so choose wisely.
The bounty of delicious local seafood, often locally caught and some of it quite unique, is not to be missed, including the delicious granzeola (spider crab), moeche (tiny soft shell crabs), capelunghe (razor clams), canocie (mantis shrimp), as wells as a variety of shrimp, clams, cuttlefish and other fish. Italian cooking is all about seasonality so be sure to ask your waiter for any specials, especially in the spring and summer.
If you are on a budget, search out a bacaro (a bar serving cicchetti or small plates of food), which are often full of locals. A bacaro usually has dozens of small dishes, often of fried bites such as croquettes and seafood, for a few Euros, plus several wines by the glass. Locals often pop in for a quick glass of wine and a bite in the early evening since restaurants often do not open until 7pm or 8pm for dinner.
Unlike the rest of Italy, food can be fairly expensive in even mid-level Venetian restaurants. Plan to pay about €15 – €18 for appetizers and pastas with main courses in the mid to upper €30s. Many places will have multiple wines by the glass available, generally for a reasonable €3 – €5. Look for Veneto’s sparkling prosecco or soave (white wine). Keep in mind that you will pay a €2 – €3 per person cover (coperto) in restaurants, which is not a service fee or tip. Tip about 10% in cash, round up or leave a few Euros in bacaro. Of course there are many spots catering only to tourists with the ubiquitous menu touristico – if you are not sure about one of these spots, ask at your hotel. Some are good and some not worth venturing in to.
Locanda Montin (Fondamente Borgo 1147, Dorosoduro, website), part of a hotel of the same name) shows how simple Italian dishes can be elevated due to terrific ingredients. You may have had prosciutto and melon before, but not like this with smoky local ham and perfectly ripe cantaloupe. Equally good are the mussels “Venetian style” in a rich tomato sauce. In the summer, sit in the lovely courtyard and enjoy a perfect romantic Venetian evening.
A top notch yet low-cost bacaro, Gia Schiavi “Al Botegon” (Fondamente Nani 992, Dorosoduro), offers delicious cicchetti and cheap wine including a surprisingly good €1 pinot grigio around the corner from the Accademia Gallery. The small plates are unusual combinations like brie with truffles and eggs with more truffles, each just a few Euros. Order from the counter and then slide over to the bar to dine standing up. The setting also doubles as a wine store so you can stock up on a few bottles too.
Ristorante Fiaschetteria Toscana (Salizada S. Giovanni Grisostomo, Cannaregio 5719, 528-5281, website) is best known for its seafood – order sweet fresh granzeola spider crab, frittura di moeche (fried small soft shell crabs in season fall and spring) and the crudo misto plate. The owner’s apple tart tatin is also famous but if fragoline di bosco (wild strawberries) are in season (late spring), have a bowl of them – on their own or with gelato. The winelist is one of the most extensive in the city – and well priced. Expect to pay about €120 for two with wine. Nice shaded outdoor seating in season. Reservations highly recommended.
Alle Testiere (Castello 5801, 041 522-7220) is a tiny but very popular restaurant that deals with the demand by having two set seatings – 7pm or 9:15pm – reservations are essential. The menu is small but it’s hard to go wrong. Superb seafood and pastas. The grilled razor clams with olive oil and parsley are a must; also bay scallops with mint, lemon and olive oil; creamy burrata cheese and basil pasta, and gnocchetti with spider crab. Try the terrific bonnet dense chocolate pudding for dessert or cheese from their excellent selection. Short but well-chosen wine list. Dinner for two about €120.
Past San Marco in Castello is Al Covo (Campiello della Pescaria Castello 3968, website) a popular restaurant run by a husband and wife team (he’s Italian, she’s from Texas). Excellent fresh available seafood – the crudo of raw fish and shellfish of the day is a must. Extensive wine list and a small but good cheese selection. The Menu Hostaria is a good deal here – €47 for three courses, including the €3 per person cover charge. The dining room on the left is more intimate and our favorite over the roomier (and less charming) one on the right.
Vecio Fritolin (Calle della Regina 2262, website) was one of the few remaining old “fry shops”, serving in the same spot for over 100 years, but has recently been upgraded with new linens, tableware and a more refined menu. The fritto misto (mixed fried seafood) is not to be missed and you can still get it to takeaway for a reasonable €10. The wine list has plenty of options for Italian wine lovers, but unfortunately the good house wines are no longer available.
In days past, Venetians used to conduct financial business at the city’s first bank, set up at the Banco Giro Arcade. Today, the spot is occupied by Banco Giro a tiny osteria with a beautifully restored upstairs dining room and outdoor tables overlooking the Grand Canal. You can’t beat the view and the food and wine do not disappoint either. Try the wonderful ravioli featuring seasonal ingredients – ours came with white asparagus, basil and zucchini flowers. The wine cellar holds bottles from all over Italy and the good looking waiters offer good wine recommendations.
Un Mondo di Vino (Cannaregio 5984) is a popular bacaro with reasonable prices €2 – €4 for most small bites. The 80+ wines by the glass are equally affordable. Locals tend to pop in, grab a glass and then hurry off, making it a great place to watch real Venetians.
AVOID: Caffe Florian (Piazza San Marco 56, website) has been in business since 1720, making it reputedly Italy’s oldest café. Unfortunately, the place is a tourist trap and best avoided due to ridiculously high prices.