You either love or loathe food in Venice. Wander aimlessly near St Mark’s Square and pick the first restaurant with an English menu and accompanying pictures, and you’ll probably be in the latter camp – and your wallet will be considerably lighter, too. It’s true, eating out in Venice needs a little planning – but there are hundreds of superb restaurants showcasing the best of the lagoon. So, don’t eat too many cicchetti (bar snacks) – because these places are waiting to show you a different side of Venice.
Amid the Insta-friendly colourful houses of Burano island, and sitting plum on a wide canal, is the family-run Gatto Nero, which connects you directly with the lagoon’s living history. Owners-chefs Ruggero and Lucia Bovo, and their maître d’ son Massimo, preside over a laid-back place where the likes of Cruise and Clooney sit alongside the people who caught the fish on your plate. The risotto di gó – a small lagoon fish – is to-die-for creamy, and the homemade pasta with spider crab is worth the vaporetto (waterbus) ride from Venice alone.
Quick, cheap and delicious, this is one of the best lunch or easy dinner spots in town. In Cannaregio, just off the Fondamenta degli Ormesini bar strip, Orient Experience is owned and run by refugees, with the menu a celebration of their food cultures. It’s all superb – try the vegetarian Afghan ravioli, topped with a sauce of spicy pulses. Go for the “five-course” menu – it’s all served on a single platter and isn’t as overwhelming as it sounds.
Venice isn’t known for its pizzas – this is very much a seafood town – but Al Profeta is an exception: a lovely pizzeria and restaurant near Ca’ Rezzonico in the Dorsoduro sestiere (neighbourhood), whose nondescript main dining room opens out onto an idyllic little garden. The “rolled” pizzas – a bit like a calzone – are fantastic, and the non-pizza dishes are inventive and beautifully presented.
Hidden in the alleyways behind St Mark’s Square, this should be a tourist trap. Instead, it’s a family-run homage to Venetian food. Let owner Pino guide you through the perfect dinner – a just-netted shellfish platter, maybe, followed by sarde in saor (sweet-and-sour sardines marinated with pine nuts, onion and sultanas), baked scallops stuffed with creamy mushroom sauce and then the grilled catch of the day.
For a laid-back canalside dinner, you want friendly Frary’s, which serves Greek and pan-Mediterranean food – with recipes stretching as far as Iran – opposite the Frari basilica. Vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free dishes abound, but if you’re a meat-eater, try the fessenjun – Iranian pomegranate-spiced chicken with rice.
Maria Callas used to regroup from her performances at the Fenice opera house at this elegant yet low-key restaurant hidden round the back. Rare for Venice, it specialises in meat dishes – the signature dish is the risotto secoe, with slivers of beef almost melting into the rice. But while the food is excellent, it’s the atmosphere that’s the real draw – through the swirled-glass windows is a Belle Époque jewel where time seems to have stopped.
Vegetarians can struggle in this fish-centric town; this is where La Zucca (the Pumpkin) comes in. Although it also serves meat and fish, its veggie dishes will convert even the most ardent carnivores. Instead of sarde in saor, there’s zucca in saor – pumpkin marinated in Venice’s signature sweet-sour mix. The tagliatelle with gorgonzola, pear and pistachio is another highlight.
On the quiet island of Mazzorbo, next to Burano, is this beautiful restaurant-with-rooms, which seeks to preserve local traditions. Owned by prosecco magnates the Bisol family, there’s a Michelin-star restaurant, a laid-back trattoria and rooms overlooking the vineyard out the back, where the dorona grape – beloved by the doges of Venice centuries ago – has been rescued from near extinction. Everything is locally sourced, and the trattoria has the same chefs as the big-name restaurant, so you don’t need to go all out.
Cheap is especially cheerful at Mamafe, a bakery from the Salento region in Puglia, which brings southern cheer to the lagoon. As well as excellent pizzas and daily specials such as aubergine parmigiana, they do a fine line in build-your-own puccias – a cross between a pizza and a giant roll. Pick as many fillings as you want, and they’ll toast it for you – but leave room for the hot custard-filled pastries. It’s a brilliant, quick lunch stop.