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 two $24.
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.