Venice is bewitching, with its canals, poetry, art and architecture. But, says Sharon Feinstein, there’s something extra to love about the city, and that is its pride and passion for food.
I first went to Venice to write about food – it’s the way into the heart of the city. The best restaurants are like private theatres, with their own stage sets and colourful drama, and there’s a genuine excitement around the seasons and the local ingredients. The places where the locals tend to go, with their own wonderful recipes, are the ones I’ve chosen.
Da Ivo: a traditional Venetian trattoria
Ristorante Da Ivo doesn’t only owe its fashionable reputation to its famous patrons but also to its charm as a traditional Venetian trattoria with great character and class. Owner Giovanni resembles a friendly bear and may hug you or crush your hand in an effort to make you feel undoubtedly welcome. Inside, you’ll notice paintings by locals as well as the quirky but extremely precious sketches, drawn spontaneously on napkins, by the likes of George Clooney, Elton John and even the revered artist Damien Hirst.
The small restaurant has hidden, private corners where you can remain incognito. I had no idea that Bono and his wife were sitting a few yards away from me, and his bodyguard right next to us, until my friend dropped it into the conversation, and I nearly choked on my sea bass. Located adjacent to the canal you can arrive directly by gondola, or like Clooney did for his bachelor’s (but with a lot less fanfare) through the porta d’acqua.
In the kitchen, Luciano and Marcella’s passion for cooking centres around natural flavours, fresh seafood from the Rialto market and the best meat. Tall, muscular Rachid will explain whatever you need to know. The portions are hearty and beautifully presented, the emphasis on quality rather than hooking passing tourists. As usual in Venice, fish is a speciality, with starters like misto crudo (a sort of Venetian sushi, with marinated raw fish) and tortellini di ricotta e spinaci con salsa di basilico (pasta with ricotta, spinach and basil sauce) designed to prepare you for the superb baked turbot with potatoes, olives and cherry tomatoes. ristorantedaivo.it
Do Forni: for royalty and Hollywood stars
Do Forni’s high-end service and delicious traditional dishes have earned it a top place among Venetians, first and foremost, but also visiting royals like Prince Charles and Camilla, and Hollywood actors and directors. Hidden behind the narrowest of calli where you can barely open an umbrella, it extends across almost a whole block. It dates back to the Venetian republic when it started life as a bakery.
Run by Eligio Paties, now in his seventies, the man who knows everyone including the Pope and head of police – key people to have one’s side. If you come back two days in a row, as many guests do, you’ll be recognised as a regular and accepted into their fold.
Waiters glide by in crisp white jackets and bow ties, candlelight flickers in blue and red Murano glass holders, setting the stage for creative taste combinations in every course. The menu veers towards Venetian and Veneto regional cuisines. My pasta-loving artist friend, who had spaghetti in Sicily made by a Michelin-star chef, declared Do Forni’s fresh tagliolini with prawns and asparagus spears the best she’d ever tasted. The main course of sea bass baked in salt is a specialty, or dishes highlighting seafood which comes from the lagoon and Adriatic.
The big sin is the three-layer chocolate mousse cake. Grand Marnier Soufflé with vanilla and chocolate, or Do Forni crepes are made at your table with high flames and great flourish, you almost expect a brass band to appear through the door.
Unlike in Spain, Venetians don’t eat late. By 10pm Venice pretty much shuts down, and you’ll find yourself walking out of Do Forni and into the most exquisite square in the world with just the sound of your footsteps and a few passing voices. Stand there under the moon and stars, in Piazza San Marco, full of the satisfaction of having had a wonderful meal and discovered a new home from home.
Antiche Carampane: family-run, and the freshest fish
Hidden in the old red-light prostitute district within the labyrinth of the Rialto, Carampane used to be a brothel and still has the prices of the girls etched above the mirror of the toilet. It’s not far from the fish market and arguably one of the best places for fish in Venice, especially their antipasto of exquisitely sliced and presented raw fresh catch (carpaccio di pesce crudo), baccala prepared three ways and generous seafood platters, lightly battered and fried to perfection.
It’s very busy, and locals love it, chatting in Venetian dialect, making you feel part of the real city. There are low wooden ceilings and original terrazzo floors with paintings dotted around the walls done by local artists, mostly of the Venetian lagoon and other seascapes. The atmosphere is warm, cosy and unstuffy.
As soon as you arrive you’re offered little cones of brown paper filled with deep-fried, lightly battered schie – tiny shrimp from the lagoon, crispy and salty. One of the best dishes is tagliolini, an extra-thin tagliatelle, with a cassopipa sauce, a worker’s dish made with fish scraps spiced with cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves. There is a cook for every course and in a world of male chefs the dessert queen, Betta, shines out and has become legendary for her pavlova.
A family-run home from home restaurant, the elderly parents work behind the bar while their ex-rugby player son, Francesco, bustles around in a dark silk waistcoat welcoming everyone and juggling orders. Don’t surprised to see Woody Allen or the mayor eating at the table next to you.
Riviera: the best view of the Giudecca
Riviera deserves a mention because it’s so chic and has the most spectacular view of the Giudecca especially when the art deco buildings are lit up at night. One could argue that Italian cooking is as much about good shopping as flair and technique, and Riviera has the perfect combination. The owner, GP, a former rock star and perfectionist, prides himself on choosing the best ingredients, and he has a top young chef to handle those ingredients.
The place is sleek and elegant, the decor sober, with an emphasis on quality. They state on their website that it’s a restaurant first and foremost, not a playground for Instagrammers!
Consider Riviera if you’re wanting something very special.