It snowed in Venice the day before we arrived by train. The same snow that I enjoyed on my snowboard high up in the mountains. It was great boarding but if I could have chosen I would have taken snow falling in Venice in January. After checking out of our mountain hotel we caught the train down through the Adige valley and out onto the Veneto plain. We passed through Verona and Padova before finally arriving in my favorite town in the world.
I have had several acquaintances complain to me about Venice in the past. Specifically they complained about the food. To me on the one hand this is perfectly understandable, while on the other it is simply astonishing. For if I think back to all the great dining experiences of my life, the best of all have one thing in common:
They were all in Venice.
But like I said, I do understand how people can be misled in the city. For there are many tourist traps and after a while the average person simply becomes exhausted and desires something to eat. Here are the mistakes you need to avoid in order to have a chance to eat well here.
First, ignore any restaurant or bar that employs a tout. This means that they are relying entirely on the tourist trade because the locals are ignoring them. You want to eat where the locals eat. Some cretin attempting to hustle you inside is demonstrating that the establishment in question is entirely that – a hustle.
You also want to avoid any establishment that has a laminated menu. The reasons for this are many and varied but a simple explanation is that it indicates that they never change their offerings and Venice is a city that exists on the sea. You want to eat seafood here and there are certain times of the year when some delicacies are available only for a very short period. The tiny soft shell crab that inhabit the lagoon are a good example. The locals prepare a batter of white wine, butter, and flour into which the place the live crabs. These little darlings then spend the happiest half hour of their lives as they munch away in pure contentment before being gently placed in heated oil for a very short period of time.
You’re not going to get that in a spot that has laminated menus.
Last night the good wife and I went in search of the Trattoria alle Madonnna, our number one choice to eat in Venice. We made our way to the Rialto bridge and then we walked along the promenade there that fronts the Grand Canal. This spot is an excellent example of restaurants to avoid at all costs and they were full of ignorant tourists enjoying the attentions of supercilious waiters.
We passed by the touts with a wave of the hand until we came to a side street that leads away from the canal. It is dark and gloomy and poorly frequented. In the gloom I could make out the restaurant sign but the three great green lanterns that light the narrow passage in front of the restaurant were not illuminated. Further inspection revealed that my fears were correct – the restaurant was closed for maintenance.
Time for plan B. We headed back and recrossed the bridge and turned down a side street, and then we headed back on a grand arc on the main thoroughfare that leads back towards the train station. There we found our second choice, a small seafood restaurant by Gigio. The waitress asked if we had a booking and we were forced to accede that we had overlooked this option. I realized with some dismay that it was Saturday night. It was seven o’clock and the small restaurant was empty. The waitress conferred with another member of staff for some time and then they indicated a small table near the door. Our only option was this table and we could only have it for two hours. Each time the door opened it sent an icy wind into the establishment that blasted this particular table. The pile of snow outside the door didn’t help matters very much.
We took it without a moment of hesitation. It turned out that the charming young waitress was in charge and after a little back and forth I determined that she really knew her stuff. I then made what is known in the restaurant game as an expert move – I instructed her to bring us whatever was best that evening and not to stop until we could eat no more. Only make this move if you are an experienced diner as it can have disastrous consequences if you attempt it with the wrong member of staff or in the wrong restaurant.
The food was sublime. If anything it was better than what we had sampled in the Michelin star restaurant in our hotel in the mountains. It wasn’t because the chef was more skilled. It was entirely down to the supreme freshness of the produce. I won’t bore you with a full list of what we ate but I will provide you with one example that best illustrates what I am talking about.
Our waitress presented us with two prawns, each about the length of your index finger down to your thumb. The shell had been removed on the end of the tail but the rest was intact. The prawns were raw. She cracked a little white pepper on the exposed flesh and told us to enjoy. Back in Australia I would never consider eating this because the prawns are not fresh. They are frozen after being caught and sprayed with a chemical to stop them going bad when on display. The tell-tale sign is that a few hours after getting these prawns home the heads will begin to go black. Cook them fast or you will have to throw them away.
But these prawns had only be caught a few hours earlier. They looked supremely fresh. They tasted even better. Raw prawn with cracked white pepper. I will never forget it. At one point a group of people entered without closing the door. Our waitress was there in a flash. She firmly closed the door and then swept the group to their table. We had been disturbed for only a few seconds due to her expert skills.
After we finally surrendered and admitted we could consume no more the two of us slowly walked back to the hotel, passing the mounds of snow piled on the sides of the streets. There were only a few people around and it was still early on a Saturday night. If you ever want to come to Venice, this is the time. You might discover some of your favorite establishments are closed but it is a small price to pay for the empty streets, the snow, and the discovery of new places to enjoy some of the best food of your life.