Dining in Venice
Venice is so magical and so beloved that, at times, it threatens to be too much of a good thing. The city attracts such an endless array of romantics that sometimes you find yourself in the middle of what feels like the world’s largest tour group. But when everything aligns there’s no place like it. You might find Piazza San Marco completely empty late one foggy night and have the wonderful square all to yourself. Or you might stroll through the Rialto fish market with the grey-haired ladies visiting their favorite stalls and gossiping to one another. Or you might take your time beneath the wonderfully expressive Tintorettos on the ceilings the Scuola San Rocco.
In the middle of all this you have to eat and drink—lucky you! This involves threading the needle—avoiding the masses, as it were—that’s part of visiting the city. Take Harry’s Bar. Now Harry’s, as we know, is the home of the Bellini, which people will happily pay a small fortune for. My feeling with Harry’s is to aim for a late lunch downstairs—in one of the corner tables if possible. There are a few set menus that are merely expensive instead of eye-wateringly absurd. During lunch there’s also a white wine by the carafe. At the right time, you’re feeling very happy to be there.
If you remain in the classicist mode then there’s the Gritti Palace, naturally enough, which has a gorgeous dining room in the grandly named, Club del Doge. You’re not going to find a lot of Venetians here, but sometimes the heart wants antique velvet walls, terrazzo marble floors and linen table cloths—and you can’t argue with that. Next door is the Bar Longhi, a perfect room for an aged grappa at the end of the night.
I was impressed by the ambitious dinner I had at the Terrazza Danieli on the roof of the Hotel Danieli. In warm weather you sit outside with the most panoramic view of the Grand Canal. In winter you retreat into a darker, but still charming, interior room. Or visit their Bar Dondolo in their theatrical lobby. Once the man starts playing piano and singing, he’ll be at it until midnight. Are you into Billy Joel covers with an Italian accent? Plan accordingly.
But eating in Venice doesn’t have to be a fortune. There are the lovely cicchetti places all over, where you order small dishes, usually with fish, like baccala on a small slice of bread or a marinated sardine on a square of polenta. These are all set on a counter or in a glass case and, in case your Italian falters, just point to what you want. Order a glass of wine and stand at the bar or head outside and enjoy the boats moving by on the canal. Now you’re enjoying life.
Sometimes, as at, Cantine del Vino già Schiavi, you will be negotiating with a popular place. If there’s a line you can keep moving. Part of the cicchetti charm is that there’s no real commitment. Head down to Osteria Al Squero and enjoy whatever they’re serving that day, a marinated artichoke heart or a few red shrimp, while you watch them repair gondolas at the workshop across the canal.
Then check back in at Schiavi, and, if you’re feeling daring, order some white wine out of an unmarked green bottle behind the bar. This is what some of the more devoted locals drink, it’s one Euro a glass, and it’s about what you expect for the price, just a little more unrefined than you’d want for a second glass. So keep on the move and keep the dream alive.
However many times you visit Venice you will get lost. Or, looked at another way, you are discovering some place new. When I come across a little bar that looks promising and doesn’t have a menu translated into eight languages then I’ll just stop in. Depending on the time of day I’ll have an espresso, glass of wine, a beer or a Campari soda, whether I really need it or not. It’s Venice. That’s the magic of a city where there’s always something wonderful and unexpected just around the corner.