When deciding where to eat in Venice, my husband and I first defaulted to the idea that we’ve never had a bad meal in Italy. Then, on our first day, we encountered a mediocre lunch at a pizzeria. Although we sat outside on a glorious day, the pizza might as well been made in the United States. We vowed to be more discriminating for the rest of our trip. As a result, we found some wonderful places to eat.
Best restaurant for foodies: Local
Where to eat traditional dishes: El Magazen
Favorite gelateria: Suso
Best casual pasta restaurant: 6342 Alla Corte
So what to eat in Venice? Due to its location, Venice abounds in seafood. If you don’t like fish and shellfish, however, don’t worry. You’ll find pasta, cured meats, cheeses, risotto, and pizza. Most menus note that they can address dietary restrictions, so don’t be afraid to inquire. And after or between meals, you’ll want to eat gelato or tiramisu or artisanal chocolate or a Venetian “cannoli” that’s more like a cream horn.
Even in the latter half of October, you should scope out where you want to eat and reserve. We did make one reservation stateside, for Local, and we were glad we did since the staff turned away many walk-ins. Still, many restaurants don’t have a dedicated website and don’t use a reservation service. Ask your hotel staff to assist you if you cannot make reservations online.
We opted for Local’s tasting menu, a seven-course meal of chef specialities. As the restaurant name implies, Local specializes in region-inspired cuisine and ingredients. For this reason, we chose the wine pairings option, so we could sample those, too.
Although the interior looks unassuming, the restaurant is decidedly upscale with prices to match. At the time of our visit, the 7-course menu cost €95 per person, with wine pairings adding €45 each. The meal was worth every euro.
Local’s chef adds his own twist to traditional Venetian dishes to elevate each to haute-cuisine. Every dish arrives impeccably and artistically presented. Our first course, cicheti, started us off with a delicious array of small bites.
The risotto de gò was perhaps the most uniquely Venetian of the courses. The tiny gò, or goby fish, comes from the shallow lagoon that separates Venice from Murano, Burano, and the other islands. In Local’s version, the fish flavor the cooking broth. The risotto came topped with flecks of katsuobushi, similar to bonita flakes, that waved as the steam rose from the rice.
The real star of the tasting menu was the smoked eel with mango miso. After just one bite, my husband and I both proclaimed it “amazing.” The American couple dining next to us were leery of our enthusiasm — until they tasted it themselves. The eel was moist, lightly smoked, and tender. Dabs of mango miso provided a great complement to the smokiness.
Desserts, and after-desserts, finished the meal with a flair. We enjoyed our meal at Local so much that I named it one of my favorite restaurants of 2019.
When we searched for possible places to eat dinner, El Magazen popped up. Because the restaurant was located close to our hotel, we decided to try it. Although we didn’t have a reservation, they seated us — at the only unreserved table. The tiny restaurant doesn’t have a website or a reliable online presence, so ask your concierge to book a table. You may not be as lucky as we were.
El Magazen is a cozy spot that feels like a local favorite. It serves dishes dear to the Venetian heart. We had asked the captain of our lagoon cruise which local foods he would recommend that a visitor eat. All of them were on the menu.
As per our captain’s recommendation, we ordered saor (sour): a vinegar-enhanced combination of sardine, shrimp, and onions. El Magazen’s version included two rounds of polenta. We also ordered a generous starter plate of local cheeses. For his main course, my husband ordered a delicious tuna tagliatelle; however, the showstopper was my lobster and squid ink pasta. The chef had taken the meat out of half a lobster and tossed it with pasta and sautéed cherry tomatoes. (Look for this recipe from me later in the year when I successfully recreate it.)
6342 Alla Corte Spaghetteria
We found ourselves caught when we didn’t stop for lunch during normal serving hours and couldn’t wait for dinner. Rather than trying to fill ourselves with sweets, we opted to see if we could find a restaurant that served all day. While 6342 Alla Corte didn’t fit that bill, the manager saw us looking at the menu and opened up a little early for us. The kitchen would be ready in 15 minutes, he told us. (6342 Alla Corte has a sister restaurant called 6342 A Le Tole.) We felt a little weird dining alone; however, the staff made us feel welcome.
Given the spaghetteria designation, we ordered pasta. This time, my husband opted for black pasta with scallops. I ordered fettucine with duck. Both were delicious, although not high-end. The fresh buffalo mozarrella appetizer hit all the right notes with black olives, basil, and grape tomatoes.
Trattoria Valmarana (Murano)
If you find yourself on Murano and in need of lunch, don’t hesitate to try Trattoria Valmarana. Located across the canal from the Glass Museum, it inhabits a quieter part of the island. We ate outside next to the water.
Not surprisingly, the bottled water we ordered was served in colorful Murano glasses. The culatello (a cured meat similar to proscuitto) and burrata (mozzarella with cream interior) appetizer, served on a piece of slate, started us off with typically Italian flavors. The vegetarian ricotta and spinach ravioli in a light marscapone cream sauce had a delicate, only slightly rich flavor. My husband’s tagliatelle with sausage was equally good. We accompanied our meals with a bottle of pinot grigio.
Cicchetti and Where to Sample Them
Venetians love their cicchetti (also spelled “cicheti”), small bites sold in bars (generally), often to accompany a pre-dinner glass of wine. It not only helps Venetians make it until dinner, but it also becomes a way to socialize with friends and strangers alike. Think of it as an Italian Happy Hour.
During our trip to Venice, we booked a cicchetti-and-wine tour. The individual bars were selected by our wonderful local guide. My favorite food came from the place with the least ambience, WEnice, but I also highly recommend Cantina do More, Osteria Sacro e Profano, Osteria al Portego, and Sepa.
Best Gelato in Venice
Even though while in the U.S. I prefer to buy ice cream in a cup, I’ve discovered that a cone is a must-have when it comes to Italian gelato. The scoopers seem to take more care in arranging the frozen treat. Plus, the Italians seem to prefer it. When in Rome . . . . Or Venice.
Hands down, the best gelato we tasted came from Suso. Their gelato is creamy, full of flavor without any artificial or off notes. The pistachio-and-amarena gelato combines luxury amarena cherry syrup with pistachio gelato. But of the several flavors I tried, all displayed the best characteristics of artisanal gelato: fresh dairy, clean flavors, smooth finish.
An American student studying in Italy recommended that we try Venchi, a shop known for both chocolate and gelato. Although not quite as good as Suso, I found it came in a close second. The flavors and creaminess were excellent. Instead of being topped with a wafer cookie, cones were finished with a Venchi chocolate.
Gelato di Natura
We found Gelato di Natura another good option. Although we went to the gelateria on Murano, the company has at least one location in Venice itself. The mixed pistachio and amarena gelato did not have the same flavor concentration found at Suso, but it was delicious nonetheless. The dark chocolate was intense for a gelato, and the vanilla tasted pure.
The ubiquitous Grom — you can find one of most Italian cities — came in a distant fourth, mostly because of inconsistency. We sampled gelato from the one located near Ca’ Rezzonica. While the flavors were good, my gelato started to melt even before the scooper handed it to me. My husband’s had no such problem. One failure. One success. And unlike the others above, the gelato did not get topped with anything. During my travels, I’ve learned that some Grom flavors and locations are better than others. If you are staying near a Grom and can’t easily get to one of the others, it remains a good, but not great, choice.
Not surprisingly, the food in Venice differed from that in Florence, a city we visited a few months earlier. The emphasis is on seafood here, whereas the Florentines love their steak. Whether the restaurants embraced haut-cuisine or traditional favorites, we found enough options to keep our inner foodies satisfied.
Debbie Lee Wesselmann