Skye McAlpine, raised in Venice, explores her city's true culinary heart in her new cookbook. Here, she shares her recommendations for experiencing a more intimate, unexpected side of this favorite travel destination.
Venice. It's the Queen of the Adriatic, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and so popular with tourists that the city has considered imposing a limit.
In fact, Venice typically welcomes as many visitors every day as people who actually live in the historical center, and many have expressed fear that the soul of the old city may soon be lost to the rising tides of climate change, an aging population, and an economy that relies increasingly on tourist dollars.
For Skye McAlpine, though, there is a different Venice — a Venice of community ties, dark osterie, and a slower lifestyle than the excitable crowds would indicate. She would know; she grew up there, and never really left, her connection to the city a constant theme in her popular blog From My Dining Table. She’s made that Venice, and the food that’s made in its hidden kitchens, the subject of her new cookbook, A Table in Venice: Recipes from My Home.
“I wanted to help people understand Venice, and Venetian food, outside the lens of a tourist,” McAlpine told Travel + Leisure. “Most cookbooks were written by people who had been to Venice and fallen in love with Venice” — but English-language books about everyday Venetian cooking were few and far between.
Despite the show-stopping restaurant fodder, Venetian food isn’t all about squid ink pasta: “It is a lot of seafood, which makes sense, but they use a lot of spice because of Venice’s days as a trading city. Cardamom, cinnamon, saffron. It’s quite unusual for Northern Italian food.” She says the best restaurants aren't chic — they might not even have websites — but are rather “an extension of a home kitchen.”
“It’s such a small town, almost village-like. But at the same time, it’s still Venice,” McAlpine says of the world-famous city. And while some of the well-trod tourist stops are worth the visit — “a martini at Harry’s Bar is a special experience, even though it’s not what people here actually do” — there are ways to experience another side of Venice, right under your nose. Here are Skye’s favorite spots.
Fresh island produce at Trattoria alle Vignole
This indoor-outdoor restaurant operates only during the summer, with an open kitchen just steps from expansive gardens where many of the ingredients are grown. “They once had huge piles of pumpkins in the yard,” says McAlpine, “so they did a pumpkin in saor” — a typical Venetian preparation where ingredients are marinated and cooked in vinegar, olive oil, onion, and savory flavors like bay leaf, pine nuts, and raisins. “It’s so flavorful it makes even the blandest things taste good. An adaptation of that recipe is in the book.” Plan ahead: ferries to Vignole island depart only once an hour.
Back in time on Torcello
This island — which, in addition to playing a hugely significant role in the initial settling of Venice, was once a writing haunt of Ernest Hemingway — is perhaps best known for what isn’t there; Skye estimates the permanent population at around nine.
“In addition to the beautiful Byzantine cathedral, Torcello has fantastic food,” she said. “All the restaurants are small operations cooking what they’ve bought in the market, figs they’ve picked, fish they’ve caught.” After eating, take time to explore the island's Byzantine mosaics and well-curated palazzo museum.
The culinary secrets of the Jewish Quarter
“It's a sleepy, unusual part of town,” said McAlpine. “Most people don’t think to go there. But it’s really magical.” She recommends touring the neighborhood’s many informal, hole-in-the-wall restaurants, where you can sample the best of Venetian Jewish food with flavorful kosher specialties like walnut croquettes and raisin-studded vegetables. “Paradiso Perduto is a really fun one — wild, very busy, and there might be someone singing or playing music.” Another favorite: the rustic canalside Osteria ai Quaranta Ladroni, or Forty Thieves. “Big flavors, with a weighted history.”
Escaping the crowds in Castello
For a taste of the “real” Venice — or, at least, an older, quieter Venice — it’s worth visiting this sestiere, the city’s largest but most residential. “Castello has many grand palazzi, and significant, beautiful churches,” said McAlpine. “But it’s also a part of town where people still dry their laundry by hanging it out the windows.”
Other highlights of the neighborhood include the city's historic arsenal complex and the Biennale Gardens, but the atmosphere is reason enough to visit. “People still gather in the streets to talk. It has a very Venetian feel.”
Eat like a local at All’Arco
If you’re wandering the tourist trail in San Marco near the famous Rialto Market, McAlpine suggests stopping by this bàcaro (neighborhood tavern) for some midday cicchetti, Venice’s famous tapas-like finger foods: anchovies on toast, marinated octopus, fried meatballs, and more. All’Arco is a well-known staple in Venice guidebooks, but it's arguably the best place to experience a quintessential Venetian happy hour.
City views from Giudecca
“I think going to this island is really special, but nobody ever does it,” said McAlpine.
The long, thin strip of land hugs the southern curve of the main city. It's perfect for walking (you can get from one end to the other in about a half hour) “and it faces Venice, so you get a postcard view.” She also recommends stopping at one of the island’s waterfront restaurants — like Cip's Club, at the Belmond Hotel Cipriani — to take in the city and lagoon over a meal.
“A Table in Venice: Recipes from My Home” by Skye McAlpine
To buy: amazon.com, $20