Culinary journeys: John Brunton takes a tour of Venice to discover the hidden secrets of the city's forgotten cuisine.
A gastronome's guide to Venice
As a long-time Venice resident and someone passionate about food, I find myself eternally berated by friends who have visited the Serenissima, regaling me with horror stories of overpriced, unappetising meals in tacky trattorie. Well, Venetians themselves are fiercely proud of their distinctive traditional cuisine, and rightly so, but then they never order a menu turistico. Eating out for a local normally entails an entertaining evening, wandering around the backstreets of a quiet neighbourhood, stopping off at different bacari, where everyone stands at the bar picking from the dozens of delicious cicheti on display.
These are the Venetian take on tapas, tasty snacks that rarely cost more than a few euros. Each bacaro has its own speciality cicheti, and checking out a few in different parts of the city is the perfect way to discover a more authentic side of this unique city, far from the crowds of tourists.
Right now, I am in Alla Vedova (Ramo Ca' d'Oro; 00 39 41 528 5324), the most beautiful bacaro in Venice, standing at an ancient marble counter that is groaning beneath a cornucopia of mouth-watering food - crunchy artichoke hearts, succulent white asparagus, sardines in saor (preserved in vinegar, pine nuts and raisins), and delicate marinated anchovies. Welcome to the wonderful world of cicheti. Then suddenly, the conversation almost stops dead, as the chef dashes out of the kitchen with a plate piled high with freshly cooked polpette, deep-fried beef meatballs made from an ultra-secret recipe, that are the most famous in Venice.
In a minute they have all disappeared and everyone is talking noisily again, a ritual that occurs every half hour, as the kitchen turns out about 500 polpette a day. The Vedova is hidden down an alleyway by the sumptuous Ca' d'Oro museum, which majestically looks out over the Grand Canal. The decor has hardly changed here since the day it opened, and the 'bacaro' has been run by the same family for 130 years. Behind the bar are Mirella and Renzo Doni, whose great-grandfather originally bought the premises as a cheese shop, and they tell me that the name Alla Vedova means "the widow's place", referring to their mother, who ran the bar single-handed from the early '60s after her husband died suddenly.
A quick walk across Strada Nova, the busy drag that links the train station with the Rialto Bridge, and I'm already at the pavement terrace of La Cantina (Strada Nova 3689; 00 39 41 522 8258), a contemporary take on the bacaro that is an obligatory stop for anyone interested in modern Venetian cuisine. Don't expect to find neatly prepared cicheti, but rather exquisite spur-of-the-moment bite-sized dishes. He might not have a Michelin star and you'll almost certainly have to wait ages to get served, but Francesco Zorzetto is one of the most exciting chefs in Venice right now.
Francesco - or Keko, as everyone calls him - tells me that he believes in cooking by instinct and spontaneity, exclaiming enthusiastically that "with the incredible local products I get here every morning – fish, shellfish, vegetables, meat, game - I aim to create a cuisine with no limits. I cook right in front of everyone, using piastra [a hot plate/griddle] – to quickly grill duck breast with late-harvested radicchio, a quail's egg and melt local Asiago cheese over it, or plump scallops, scarcely seared - almost a sashimi - topped off with a few drops of olive oil and fresh horseradish shavings. Yesterday my fish seller arrived with a seven-kilo sea bass, caught that night just where the lagoon meets the Adriatic – I'm already trying to decide what I can cook with the liver and eggs. When my butcher brought in a fresh capretto, [baby goat], I immediately took out the fressura [liver, kidneys, lungs] and fried them up at lunch with baby artichokes."
Much of La Cantina's produce comes from just across the Grand Canal at the seething Rialto market. I jump on a public gondola, and after perilously negotiating a route among vaporetti, motorboats and barges, I walk straight into a mass of colourful stalls selling everything from wriggling eels, shrimps, lobsters and prickly spider crabs, to freshly caught sea bass, turbot and swordfish.
This is the real centre of Venice, where everyone comes to do their daily shopping, and there are a host of places to feast off cicheti. My own favourite is Vini da Pinto (Campo de le Becarie; 00 39 41 522 4599), preferred haunt of the fishmongers, and I can't resist the seppioline, tender baby squids quickly grilled and dressed with olive oil and parsley, and polipeti, baby octopi that are boiled, sliced in half and served with a touch of wine vinegar - never the modish balsamic - plus olive oil and salt and pepper. The owner, Giovanni Locorotondo, takes me aside and insists that "just as important as the chef properly cooking the seppioline, is the freshness of the original produce. I put all my faith in a single fish seller, Gianni Fabris, who delivers here every morning at 7am."
The Dorsoduro neighbourhood is another world from down-to-earth Rialto. With its elegant palazzi and chic boutiques, this is the desired residence of wealthy expats, home to landmark museums such as the Accademia, Peggy Guggenheim and the avant-garde Punto della Dogana. And tucked away on the bank of a romantic canal, is an unforgettable bacaro, known to all Venetians as Il Bottegon (Ponte San Trovaso; 00 39 41 523 0034), "the storeroom". The owner, Sandra de Rispinis, deserves the title of queen of cicheti, creating gourmet miracles in the tiniest space imaginable, a small cutting board surrounded by an enormous glass counter filled with tempting goodies. She has no kitchen at all, and prepares her recipes like an alchemist - creamed pumpkin with ricotta and Parmesan, a swordfish tartare sprinkled with cocoa powder, smoked tuna with Parmesan and a julienne of leeks, pesto Genovese mixed with mascarpone, ricotta and topped with a sundried tomato.
Despite being behind her banco for nearly 50 years, Sandra still passionately insists that "I love cooking. I can't deny it, and even when I go home and on my one day off, well, I spend all my time in the kitchen with the same passion and enjoyment that I have preparing cicheti at the bar. Maybe that is what comes from having four hungry sons to feed."
Three of her sons, Paolo, Piero and Tommaso, have just officially taken over the running of the bar, ensuring at least another generation of continuity at the Bottegon, but wisely they are happy to let their Mamma carry on making the cicheti, and Sandra doesn't seem to be in a hurry to retire.
My last stop is way over the other side of the city at Al Timon (Fondamenta Ormesini), which looks like another ancient locale, but this fashionable bacaro opened only two years ago, immediately becoming a hot spot in the Cannaregio quarter, far off the beaten track.
Timon sits on the lovely Misericordia canal, and its wooden bar is filled with enticing cicheti. The young owner, Alessandro Biscontin, cheerfully admits that he has no culinary training, but he brings an enthusiasm and passion that draw a young, fashionable Venetian crowd, and he has bought a traditional Venetian bragozzo – a small flat barge – and moored it outside Al Timon, where in summer, jazz bands perform concerts in the evening , almost a revolution for this conservative city. Right now, he prepares more than 30 kinds of cicheti, simply served on a crusty slice of bread – creamy bacala, stockfish, served on a slice of polenta, or grilled zucchini with pecorino cheese, smoked ricotta and roughly chopped tomatoes drizzled with olive oil. Priced at one euro each, the plates disappear almost as soon as they come out of the kitchen. And who said you could not eat well in Venice?
If you go: A return flight from Dubai to Venice on Emirates (www.emirates.com) costs from Dh3,805, including taxes.