Not everyone falls in love with Venice at first sight; certainly not at first bite. For
all its mythic enchantment, its wondrous changing light and shimmering reflections, its haunting
intimacy, Venice can seem indifferent to the casual visitor, and it's never been known for
noteworthy cuisine. The popularity of certain ferociously expensive (especially for those
of us toting the diminished dollar) dining perennials suggests Venetians love overcooked fish
and thrive on the gluey black ink of the cuttlefish. My partner, Steven, and I are on our
fourth extended sojourn here, and I'm happy to report that there are dishes to savor, and
restaurants from which the fussiest mouths emerge smiling. All it takes to eat well in Venice
are walking shoes, a vaporetto pass, and reconnaissance. For the latest table buzz, I count
on all manner of Venetians, including transplants from elsewhere in the Veneto and expats
from Austria, Boston, and Los Angeles, and right away we find ourselves eating the way these
passionate locals do, as inexpensively as possible without skimping on what's essential: great
WORTH THE SPLURGE
We've been going to Fiaschetteria Toscana for years, and once showed up with Marcella
and Victor Hazan, so the owners know us. But that doesn't seem to matter. Sometimes the staff
is rude (especially upstairs) and sometimes they kiss our toes. But the food—Venetian,
not Tuscan, as you might think—is always good (except when the chef oversalts his signature
fried seafood, frittura della Serenissima). "Ask the chef not to use too much salt,"
I beg Claudio, the English-speaking waiter. He shrugs. "I can tell him, but if he's mad
at his wife, who knows?" Try spaghetti with clams, whole wheat bigoli (thick noodles)
in salsa (a must for anchovy fans), and don't miss an unexpected French touch: the
luscious tarte Tatin. San Giovanni Grisostomo, Cannaregio 5719; 39-041/528-5281; dinner
for two $168.
When we fly in with only a few days, we want the best at any price. And the best for aquatic
creatures is Alle Testiere. After a hill of buttery sautéed razor clams and
the most impeccably cooked swordfish I've had since the time I bought it on a beach and cooked
it myself, I have to admire the audacity of the satiny rare tuna, with balsamic tempering
the sweetness of fresh berries. The tiramisù is a revelation. (Request it when you
reserve.) Why are there so few Venetians in Testiere's 22 seats?Maybe it's because co-owner
Luca Di Vita recites the menu in five or six languages to a global clientele, reminding Venetians
how demoralizing it can be to owe your livelihood to tourism. Calle del Mondo Novo, Castello
5801; 39-041/522-7220; dinner for two $156.
Those who knew the consistently top-rated Da Fiore more than 20 years ago, when Mara
and Maurizio Martin opened their simple neighborhood wine bar, and even those of us who discovered
it in later years in the international spotlight, are shocked by how fancy and how expensive
it is now. Steven and I decide to go for broke, and are amazed by one of the best meals of
our stay: tuna carpaccio, cut like sashimi for optimal mouth-feel; overabundant saffron-scented
pappardelle with oysters; a masterly fritto misto; and a dessert that still haunts me—stingingly
tart lemon sorbetto dusted with pulverized licorice. Calle del Scaleter, San Polo
2202A; 39-041/721-308; dinner for two $240.
Young locals rave about the bargain lunch at Muro Vino e Cucina—a glass-walled
wine bar with a sleek gray-and-black-themed dining room—an unlikely 21st-century sight
in the historic Rialto district. We go in the evening, shouldering our way through crowds
downing wine and flirting outside, despite the chill. Upstairs in the small dining room, Rosella,
the genial waitress, keeps bringing warm olive rolls every few minutes. At first the clumsy
English menu translations put me off. But an antipasto of "deer with truffle foam" proves
to be carefully grilled venison, enough for three to share. Argentine steak, chewy but flavorful,
is paired with roasted potatoes and a bowl of immaculate baby greens in a splendid vinaigrette.
Since bottled water and cover charge are included, and Rosella will open a bottle to pour
wine by the glass, the tab is less steep than we expected. San Polo, 222 Rialto; 39-041/523-7495;
dinner for two $108.
THE BEST BACARI
Denizens of Venice are fiercely loyal to their local bacaro (wine bar), where cichèti (small plates) can be a nibble before a meal or dinner itself. At a neighborhood wine
and beer joint like Enoteca do Colonne, two or three tramezzini—sandwiches
in soft dark bread, here filled with pork or salami—and perhaps a shared plate of such
rough-hewn classics as musèto (a fatty sausage made mostly from pig's snout)
or nervèti (boiled veal tendons with parsley and vinegar) would be dinner for
a young working couple. Cannaregio 1814/c; 39-041/524-0453; dinner for two $30.
Ca' d'Oro does two kinds of meatballs, both of them delicious; an equally well prepared
squid with potatoes; and whole grilled seppie. Choose from the display at the counter,
where wine is red or white and nondescript, poured into teeny goblets. Around eight, packs
of locals and tourists begin trooping in, claiming bare wooden tables in the simple, informal
osteria for unusual Venetian dishes such as polenta with cuttlefish in black ink and
the deftly fried fritto misto. Ramo Ca' d'Oro, Cannaregio 3912; 39-041/528-5324; dinner
for two $48.
Two friends—he's an Italian architect, she's an American juggling jobs—lead us
to Enoteca Mascareta, where Mauro Lorenzon, an actor and wine connoisseur, keeps a
serious cave with champagne and wine by the glass, drawing regulars nightly till 2 A.M. We
share platters of salumi with cheese and a scattering of tiny pickles at a small cramped
table while Lorenzon snaps off the neck of a bottle with a sword and pours a free round of
bubbly for all. Calle Lunga Santa Maria Formosa, Castello 5183; 39-041/523-0744; dinner
for two $48.
Our budget-minded Venetian pals often stake out a table in the back room at La Cantina, where Francesco slices cured salamis, raw fish, cheeses—everything to order, even the
bread. Platters are priced by weight. Francesco's creative crostini are full of surprises—tongue
piled high under fresh horseradish shavings, salted beef with smoked ricotta and chopped pickle.
But we pay the price for his fame and obsessiveness with waits that seem endless. Francesco
can be temperamental, and when he's in a really bad mood, the place is closed. On a recent
visit, he was sipping red wine and singing along to Sinatra. The pilgrims simply drink, laugh,
and patiently wait. Campo San Felice, Cannaregio 3689; 39-041/522-8258; dinner for
A TRATTORIA FOR EVERY MOOD
Historically parochial Venetians have been slow to discover the proudly Sicilian Angolo
di Tanit. When we stop by, Bob Marley is playing on the sound system to an empty house.
But all of us are impressed by the antipasto sampler—eggplant two ways and stuffed sardine
rolls. We fall for a splendid version of Sicily's inevitable spaghetti con le sarde (with
sardines, wild fennel, and toasted bread crumbs) that follows. Calle dell'Aseo, Cannaregio
1885; 39-041/720-504; dinner for two $90.
Even Venetians who don't need to pinch euros are enamored of La Bitta, a new mom-and-pop
act in a small storefront off the Campo San Barnaba. The menu, propped on a wooden table easel,
mirrors market offerings, focusing on meat and vegetables: wonderfully light potato gnocchetti, tossed with artichoke and slivers of smoked ricotta; classic liver and onions. Grilled vegetables
accompany the small steak, which is smartly caramelized and modestly priced. We share homey
spiced pear cake and fudge-y chocolate triangles anchored on caramel streaks. Calle Lunga
San Barnaba, Dorsoduro 2753A; 39-041/523-0531; dinner for two $96.
Venice can be unkind to pizza. After a couple of leathery pies, we are ready to give up.
But friends are high on Il Refolo, an upscale pizzeria created by the duo at
Da Fiore for their son Damiano, with Mamma coaching the kitchen. Sitting at an umbrella-shaded
table with a view of the canal, I give high marks to the azazel pie and its layers
of spicy sausage, mozzarella, and chopped tomato, with the extra garlic we requested. But
lamb chops and a simple side of penne with tomato sauce are even more impressive. San Giacomo
dell'Orio, Santa Croce 1459; 39-041/524-0016; dinner for two $60.
La Zucca's pocket-sized kitchen has been off and on from one year to the next, but
right now it's on, turning out lush baked noodles, tagliatelle memorable for its sausage ragù with fresh ricotta, and irresistible vegetables, often layered with cheese. After sending
back fossilized lamb chops (ordered rare)—"they were cooked this afternoon," the waitress
explains—we are amazed that the roast beef replacement is so good. Zucca's bare wooden
tables are much in demand, so you might not want to walk to Santa Croce without calling ahead.
San Giacomo dell'Orio, Santa Croce 1762; 39-041/524-1570; dinner for two $90.