Venice - “The restaurants in Venice have an appalling reputation.” So says London restaurateur Russell Norman, whose Venetian-style bacaro, Polpo, opened in 2009. It was so successful that he’s opened four more restaurants since then.
When I interviewed him last year, he told me how he’d first fallen in love with Venice for its art and architecture. Only later, as a regular visitor, did he begin to notice “these little wine bars, or bacari, where the locals were sipping wine and eating snacks: cicchetti. It was daunting because there were no other tourists, but once I’d braved that unfamiliarity, I started to get a better idea of the city’s hidden culinary places”.
He also told me he had a cookbook coming out soon, with a chapter devoted to some of these “hidden culinary places”. I’d better go and check them out, I thought. Just to be thorough.
Perversely, eating well in Venice is cheaper than eating badly. An awful pizza on the piazza could easily set you back £16 (R205), while two people can have a great lunch and a glass of wine each at a bacaro on a nearby backstreet for half that.
Russell’s first recommendation was a gourmand’s guidebook, Michela Scibilia’s Venice Osterie, a handbook for discriminating diners, which I picked up in a bookshop soon after the water-taxi dropped us at our hotel in San Marco. The tome weighs less in your day bag than the Polpo cookbook and gives each restau-rant’s opening hours: the sign of a good restaurant is that it’s closed on a Sunday and Monday – the markets aren’t open on those days, which means no fresh produce.
I took my girlfriend with me, and our debut romantic dinner was down a side-street in Cannaregio, a 20-minute walk from the hotel. Few journeys in Venice are further than that. Alla Vedova is a big influence on Polpo – wooden tables, white curtains, relaxed atmosphere – and the first thing we ate were its tiny polpette: soft, warm veal meatballs covered in breadcrumbs. It was the best meal I’d eaten in months.
Between us we scoffed: spaghetti alla busara (tomato, chilli and shrimp, which is a Dalmatian favourite); calves’ liver and polenta, a local speciality; bigoli in salsa (whole grain pasta and anchovies, with slow-cooked, marmaladey onions); and squid cooked in its own ink. The owner, Mirella, looked at us as if we’d ordered one course too many, but our plates were clean.
The following morning, a Tuesday, we took a walk to the markets in San Polo, just north-west of the Rialto Bridge. The fruit, vegetables and fish on show would soon be gracing tables at the city’s better restaurants.
A few winding streets back from the canal is the grand Frari basilica, home to Titian’s tomb and his greatest works. We stroked our chins at those, then circled back to Rialto with grumbling stomachs.
All’Arco is typical of the tiny bacari wine-and-snack bars that Russell told me about. “You must try the baccala mantecato,” he said, “creamed salt cod spread on to warm toast.” So we did. Twice. Along with a glass of vino blanco, sarde en saor (marinaded, Venetian-style sardine crostini) and a delicious panini the size of a commemorative postage stamp. All’Arco is a family business, run by Anna and Francesco Pinto and their son, Matteo. Russell sent me, I told Anna. “Rustle?” she replied, puzzled. “Ah! Russell!”
We weren’t still hungry, exactly, but after taking a two-minute traghetto ride across the Grand Canal, we were so close to another spot on our list that we thought we ought to give it a whirl.
Tom Oldroyd, the Polpo Group’s head chef, spent time in the kitchen at La Cantina, researching dishes. The raw fish platter – tuna, seabass, gilt-head bream, local and Sicilian shrimp, all direct from the market – is moreish even on a half-full stomach.
At this point, you ought to take it for granted that we exercised between meals by looking at a lot of world-renowned churches and art museums. Walking in Venice, as you must, is good for the appetite. And if you avoid pizza and pasta in favour of seafood and cicchetti, you’ll never feel bloated.
We still had room for dinner at the unprepossessing Corte Sconta in Castello, where the moeche, soft-shell crabs in batter, and the walnut-and-radicchio-stuffed squid with balsamic glaze were spectacular.
Another lunchtime, another bacaro. Cantinone Gia Schiavi in Dorsoduro is a fine place to fill up after a morning at the Gallerie dell’Accademia. Just €10 (R100) got us a glass of wine, eight cicchetti and a spot by the canalside. And for dessert, two scoops of stracciatella and nocciola on the waterfront at Da Nico, Venice’s premier gelaterie.
We saved the best for last. You could walk past Alle Testiere without even knowing it was there. But Russell insisted we try it. “The chef is Bruno, but you should ask for his co-owner, Luca,” he said. “And bag an evening table – they only have 23 seats. The food there is the best in Venice. In fact, it might be the best in Italy.” – The Independent
At €180 for two it was the most expensive meal we ate all week: fresh, simple and worth every cent. Start with the razor clams.
l Polpo: A Venetian Cookbook (Of Sorts) by Russell Norman is published by Bloomsbury