Venice restaurants - the big hitters

Eating out in Venice is not cheap, as we’ve discovered, but there are ways of mitigating the cost (essential if you’re spending a fortnight in the city!) Here are five of the more classic Venetian restaurants we’ve been to. Some less expensive and off the beaten track options over the next few days.

Vini da Gigio
Fondamenta San Felice, Cannaregio 3628a
041 5285140

Vini da Gigio has the charm of a well worn leather jacket. It was our first visit but I imagine most people there - mostly locals - come to this deeply traditional trattoria every week. Being one of the rare Venetian restaurants to open on a Sunday evening it's completely packed. (They manage to fit in two sittings so you need to eat early or late)

The big draw is a fantastic wine list which ranges all over Italy but also the rest of the wine world with France being a particular strength. Prices are hard to credit - a Comte Georges de Vogue Chambolle Musigny 2000 for example listed at just 95 euros.

Pursuing our current interest in natural wine we chose instead one of their current recommendations, a bottle of unfiltered Trebbiano from the Marche, a Chaioro 2006 from A Z Camelli which shows that this workhorse grape can be intriguing in the right hands. (It reminded us of a Marsanne though with a little more acidity)

Its slight earthiness was spot on with my husband’s plate of smoked fish crostini (swordfish and eel, I think) and fared reasonably well with a more challenging mixed vegetable antipasti of courgettes, carrots and peppers, spinach, aubergine and artichoke - the latter quite a feat)Our main courses - a lightly battered and fabulously fresh fritto misto (I'm afraid fritto misto is non-negotiable in my husband's book) and sweetly charred grilled squid were quite exemplary. This is definitely a place to eat fish.The only downside is that it would be easy to run up a hefty bill. As elsewhere in Venice the starters and primi are not significantly cheaper than the main courses. We managed to get away with 92€ for two but that was for only two courses and a bottle of modestly priced wine.

Really good food, great wine and efficient, friendly service. This is a warm and hospitable place, perfect for a first - or last - night in Venice.

Al Covo
Campiello della Pescaria, Castello 3968
041 522 3812

We didn’t set out to eat at Al Covo having been put off by reviews saying how expensive it was but ended up there when we found our booked restaurant Corte Sconta unexpectedly shut due to a death in the family. We were glad that we had - we had a really good meal with great service that didn’t break the bank.It’s another Venetian institution with all the traditional dishes done impeccably well. I went for the saor, a sweet and sour dish of boiled and fried fish and vegetables, dressed with onions cooked with vinegar and seasoned with capers, pistachio nuts, pine-nuts and pink peppercorns (about the only time I’ve ever been convinced of their usefulness - they struck just the right exotic, aromatic note.) It’s hard to explain just what it tasted like - sharp and slightly spicy, a bit like a Moorish escabeche - but it was very tasty and absurdly generous - I could have dined off that alone.

My husband had another Venetian classic risi e bisi which usually looks and tastes like a pea risotto but here was transformed into a vivid green pea soup with rice. The dish made the best possible use of new season’s peas (and their pods) and some excellent parmesan.Inevitably he had to try their fritto misto which was generous to a fault - a huge plate which included little fried sole and scallops as well as the normal prawns, squid and assorted small fish and a few matchstick chips.

I opted for a primi of homemade stracci pasta with lamb ragu and cherry tomatoes which was good but slightly less interesting than it sounded. A bit like a bolognese.We had no room for desserts (a shame, they looked good) but were served excellent strong espressos with home-made biscuits for just 3 euros each.

We chose modestly from the splendid wine list - a half bottle of very enjoyable Filippi Castelcerino Soave (just 12€) which went surprisingly well with the saor and a simple fruity Valpolicella Valpantena from Secco-Bertani (15€)

The only real downside is that the atmosphere is a bit hushed as is the way in upmarket restaurants in which there are more tourists (albeit well-heeled ones) than locals. (And celebs of whom there is a wallful of pictures by the kitchen including a grinning Sting)

I preferred the atmosphere at Vini Di Gigio but a wet Tuesday lunchtime is never going to be as fun as a Sunday evening.Verdict: Expensive (our lunch cost 131€ plus service) but if you chose carefully Al Covo won’t set you back a great deal more than many far less competent restaurants. And the food and service are really very good.

Fiaschetteria Toscana
Salizada San Giovanni Grisostomo, Cannaregio 5719
Tel: 041 528 5281

I must confess we went to Fiaschetteria Toscana because we heard there was a demon lunch deal for 24€. In fact we even checked. First of all they said there was no deal. Then they said it was 28€. Then when we got there we found it wasn’t on (they clearly only offer it when business is bad or out of season.) No matter. Like most of Venice’s more expensive restaurants you can get by if you don’t eat more than two courses.

The menu is slightly more adventurous than some of the restaurants we’ve been too. Smaller portions too, which makes the two course strategy a bit of a stretch if you have a healthy appetite.But they’ve got the hang of cooking polenta, at least (by no means always the case in Venice). The best of our four starters was a lovely dish of cooked shrimps, seasoned with a bit of chilli, drizzled with olive oil on a mound of lovely light polenta. Our pasta starters - a dish of black tagliolini in lobster sauce and tagliolini with scallops and julienned vegetables were slightly less impressive, a bit short on their respective seafood (I suspect the lobster had been pre-cooked). Salt cod puree with polenta was well done but less interesting. Somehow I missed ordering a plate of raw fish with zucchini, tomato and camomile and poppy jelly which sounded intriguing.

Main courses were good too.on the whole although my beef carpaccio with rocket and parmesan was only a starter size portion. Gnocchi (with asparagus and bacon) were featherlight - absolutely delicious. Fritto misto (with courgettes) was fine but not the best we’d had. However it came with a splendidly vulgar commemorative plate under the ‘piatto del buon ricordo scheme.

Spaghetti alla vongole which came wrapped in a packet was again fine but less good than some of the less expensive trat versions we’ve eaten. Maybe we should have had grilled fish, a speciality of the restaurant which was slightly offputtingly priced by the 100 grams.. There are also some lovely vegetable contorni. The baby courgettes and courgette flowers and fresh peas which come from the market gardens of S. Erasmo and Cavallino were mouthwateringly good.We were sufficiently tempted by the look of the desserts to try an almond tart and a pear tart which were both delicious, light and elegant.

For wines we dipped into the well-priced wine by the glass list - an extraordinary dark amber Garganega 06 from Fasoli (€5.50) which was almost oxidised, a glass of Orvieto from Salviano (€4.50) (fine with my lobster pasta), a Sangiovese Romagna from La Zerebina (€5.50) and a rather oaky Cabernet ‘Cor Rominger’ 93 from Alois Lageder €13. Total bill: 216€ for 4

Verdict: An elegant, stylish restaurant with some interesting modern dishes which depart from the usual Venetian repertoire. Also (unusual for Venice) easy to find as it’s on one of the main tourist streets between the Rialto and S. Marco

Locanda Cipriani
Piazza S. Fosca, 29 - 30012 Torcello
Tel. (+39) 041 730150

I have to confess a sentimental attachment to Locanda Cipriani and the island of Torcello on which it is situated, about an hour from Venice over the lagoon. I remember eating there on my first visit to Venice some 30 years ago and can still taste the incredibly creamy seafood risotto I ate. So it seemed the perfect place for my husband’s Big Birthday Lunch.It didn’t disappoint. Well, it did slightly on the food front - we’ve eaten better in Venice but it didn’t matter in the least. The weather was perfect and we sat out in what I’m sure is a rose garden in season overlooking the church and the Campanile.

The restaurant as you can see from the website was founded in 1934 by Giuseppe Cipriani who founded the world-famous Harry’s Bar and the Cipriani. Hemingway stayed there as have many celebs and royalty. It’s the most discreet of places.

There were two set menus but neither looked particularly appealing so we ordered off the a la carte, trying not to tot up the prices. The restaurants signature risotto alla Torcellana con verdure dell’estuario (estuary vegetables) was the remembered creamy texture but lacked the definable taste of separate spring vegetables. A lobster salad was sweet and fresh and a dish of asparagus spears with a salsa meranese (chopped hard and soft boiled egg, I think, seasoned with chives and parsley) quite wonderful.- well worth replicating with the new season’s home-grown asparagus.

The inevitable fritto misto (fish and vegetables) was generous in quantity but was weighed down with a slightly heavy batter. Not as good as many we’ve had. Grilled fish with herbs was fine - exactly what you’d expect. We also had a couple of side salads and an outrageously expensive side dish of new season’s artichokes which was delicious - as well it might have been for 16€

Desserts - a chocolate cake with orange confit, chocolate mousse in a pastry basket and ice cream with chocolate sauce, were old fashioned and heavy - the weakest part of the meal.The bill for 6 of us was 507€ which since we’d stuck to house wine (a well-priced, Soave-style Breganze di Breganze from Maculan at 20€) wasn’t cheap (there’s a 9 euro cover charge but service is included) but given the occasion, the unique situation and the seamlessly discreet and attentive service was well worth it.

The food isn’t tops but the location is. A perfect place for a Significant Birthday.or any other special occasion.

Corte Sconta
Calle del Pestrin, 3886 Castello
041 522 7024

We finally got to Corte Sconta on our last day (previously it had been closed owing to a death in the family). And it proved a great place for a final lunch.It’s not flash - the various dining areas have an almost Edward Hopperesque starkness to them but it’s friendly and the food and the service was great (though there are adverse reports on some sites that service slips in the evenings).

Of course, being Venice it’s not cheap but being old hands by now, we ignored the suggestion on the table that they should make a selection for us which we reckoned would have easily have added up to 70€ each and asked for a menu from which we ordered two starters, a pasta, a fritto misto (well we had to for our last meal!) a cheese and a dessert.Highlights were a fantastic dish of clams with ginger, squid ink spaghetti with scallops and white asparagus, the fritto misto (not the best one we’ve had though up among them) and some superbly aged cheese from an impressive cheese menu. My mixed seafood starter was fine (and 8 euros cheaper than if I’d left the selection to them) but I was less impressed by the crabs (an overrated and expensive Venetian speciality) and the dessert a liquid zabaglione which tasted fine but had the unfortunate appearance of a curry sauce.

We shared a bottle of light but very gluggable still Prosecco and a couple of glasses of red (a Cabernet Franc and a Merlot/Refosco at a very reasonable 4 euros a glass). The total bill for what by our standards was a major blowout was 146€

NB A couple of practical points: most restaurants, especially popular restaurants need to be booked ahead . They also have slightly erratic closing days so if there is a place you particularly want to go, make sure you arrange your other bookings round it. And leave yourself plenty of time to get there. Some of them are hard to find. The normal way of giving an address in Venice is the district followed by a number but I’ve included the street too.

See also my review of Alle Testiere

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