I’m overwhelmed by the choice of restaurants in any city I don’t know. When that city is a hugely popular travel destination it creates even more of a minefield, and there’s an increased danger of parting with your hard-earned cash for a plate of mushy mediocrity. Not knowing where to eat in Venice, I thought it might be an interesting exercise to use some of the online tools at hand to see which came out tops.
I compiled a list of recommendations from sources which included travel articles in online newspapers (we know first hand The Telegraph uses writers with destination knowledge so they were in, as was The Guardian). Tripadvisor is the voice of the people so had to be included. Finally we looked at suggestions from a travel blogger who grew up near Venice (Live Love Food).
The first test
… came shortly after landing when we picked up a street map showing Venice’s six sestieri (districts). After pounding city streets all day, I don’t want to have to walk them again for an hour just to eat dinner. Although all recommendations included either the district they were located or the closest vaporetto (waterbus) stop, Live Love Food’s was most user friendly. It grouped restaurants by district and included a brief intro to each sestiere which gave a useful insight into their differing personalities.
Our hotel located a few steps from Piazza San Marco. Nearby was Osteria San Marco, described by the Telegraph as “an oasis of quality in a sea of menù turistici”. It looked inviting but the pricey menu didn’t seem different enough to lure us in. The description highlighted a problem we had with some conventional travel writing reviews; they felt overly prescriptive, too uniformly similar – there was something lacking. They could have been written from research alone. Life Love Food’s, on the other hand, were similarly concise and although they didn’t include opening hours/website details etc. they did resonate with an insider’s voice.
Her recommendation for Local (Salizzada dei Greci) drew us away from the crowds around San Marco to the quieter streets of Castello (about 15mins walk). It wasn’t cheap, the 5 course taster menu was €75, but it did promise a creative take on classic Venetian cuisine. Local’s decor is on the minimalist side and the atmosphere a tad serious (they neatly fold your napkin if you stray from your table) but it was a successful start to our culinary experiences in Venice. An amuse-bouche of sardine, mini salt cod burger, and savoury poppadom was fun and full of contrasting flavours; the chef’s interpretation of scallop au gratin was excellent as was sole with potatoes, spinach, lemon and hazelnuts. A risotto with gò, nori seaweed and katsuobushi was good rather than great; and eel, mango miso and puntarelle lacked inventiveness. I enjoyed the dessert, chocolate berena (a fun take on Venice which included samphire paired with chocolate), but Andy was less keen. Overall, a great recommendation.
Recommendations in broadsheets can favour restaurants which are new, different, expensive, boast a known chef, are frequented mostly by locals and so on. Decent places on the beaten track tend to get overlooked because there’s nothing different about them. This is an area where Tripadvisor comes in handy. Wanting a more traditional and less expensive meal we turned to the travel advisory site for suggestions of potential restaurants not too far from our hotel. Family run Da Carlotta (Calle de la Bande, Castello) had an above average rating and turned out to be as friendly as reviews suggested. Peppery beef carpaccio with Parmesan, Venetian gnocchi, lobster linguine, and home-made tiramisu all hit the mark, plus we got to watch the waiter use a spoon to fillet salt crust sea bass at the adjoining table. A silver star for Tripadvisor.
It doesn’t take long to learn visitors can eat relatively cheaply in Venice if they stick to the many places selling street food – slices of pizza, piadinas, arancini, wraps etc. Alternatively there’s cicchetti, the Venetian version of tapas. Due to random meandering lunch was difficult to plan in advance. The selection of tasty looking cicchetti at contemporary Osteria A le Bande (Campo de la Guerra, Castello) caught our eye at just the right time. We didn’t even have to mull over a menu as they suggested we try six of their best. These featured a mix of cheeses paired with cured ham, salami, anchovies, tuna and salt cod – all winners and, at around €2.50 each, not bad value in Venice.
We sacrificed quality in favour of football as we wanted to watch the Spain v Portugal World Cup match. Finding a pizzeria with a decent reputation which also had a football screen proved difficult, probably due Italy’s failure to qualify. Planet (Calle Casseleria, Castello) is a pizzeria and pub which is unlikely to appear on anyone’s recommended restaurant list; Tripadvisor reviews fluctuate between good and terrible. Packed out for the match, the atmosphere was buzzing but, as expected, the pizzas were poor. Cracking match though and seeing CR7 in full flow made it worth the sacrifice.
A different scene
After a jaunt to Verona we spent a final night in Venice, this time in the arty Dorsoduro district. Again the local travel blog advice was most comprehensive. However, we ignored suggestions in favour of Impronta Cafe (Calle dei Preti) simply because its menu looked more interesting than others. What was interesting was Impronta ‘s Google description is of a “sleek, modern cafe, open all day, with sandwiches & a full menu of classic dishes, plus cocktails”. This was reflected in listings in a couple of reputable travel guides even though in reality it’s a modern, sophisticated restaurant with an interesting menu. This had us pondering if everyone who recommended it had actually eaten there. The food (mussels with clams, cherry tomato sauce and toast; smoked salmon with fried courgettes; seafood and vegetable tempura; black noodles, pesto and almonds in seafood sauce) was above average and portions were, if anything, too big. We were stuffed by the end, but not too stuffed to pass on a dream of a dessert – mascarpone cheese custard on a meringue waffle with a hot liquorice and star anise sauce. It wasn’t cheap (around €100 for three courses with wine and water) but in Venice we felt it was worth paying a little bit more than normal menu prices to ensure quality.
All in all we were pleasantly surprised by our gastronomic experiences in various Venetian districts; the only bad meal had been of our own deliberate choosing. Using a mix of sources for recommendations had worked well; each had both strengths and weaknesses. The local travel blogger, Life Love Food, stood out for having most insightful knowledge, and Tripadvisor was useful because we know how to use it.
Although it was clear the advice given in guides/online newspapers was well researched and written, the much-used formula applied by many publications meant, whatever the publication, there was a sameness which somewhat diluted writers’ voices. As a result I found myself trusting the more personal tone of the local travel blogger.