It’s very easy to get very lost in Venice. Don’t expect to rely on your phone’s GPS. And while there’s a certain romance to freewheeling around this labyrinthine network of alleyways and bridges, those hours of wandering could culminate in panic-buying lunch from the nearest and loudest restaurant. Claggy carbonara, lousy lasagne and overpriced pizza: these are Venice’s tourist traps. But, as I squeak on to the leather of our speedboat water taxi at Marco Polo airport, I’m reminded that I’m not here to get lost. Rather, I’ve come to uncover one of Italy’s most criminally underrated food scenes. It’s all about knowing where to look and I couldn’t have picked a better guide than Russell Norman: self-styled Italophile, cookery-book writer, sometime star of BBC's The Restaurant Man and the force behind the pioneering Venetian-inspired Polpo restaurant group in London.
Russell’s first revelation is this taxi. “It’s €120 a pop, but worth every penny,” he says, as the salt spray from the lagoon flies up around us. We glide dreamily under the camera-clicking masses on Rialto Bridge, through the narrow turquoise canals, past crumbling Venetian plaster the colour of strawberry and pistachio gelato. I’m having so much fun, standing on the back deck of the boat, that I almost get decapitated by one of the city’s 400 bridges, so I plant my backside firmly down on the leather until we’re delivered to the door of our hotel, James Bond style.
Russell has been coming to this city for the past 33 years, ever since falling in love with it on a three-week holiday, aged 20. We’re staying at one of his favourite hotels, the Pensione Seguso, which looms large on a corner of Fondamenta Zattere Ai Gesuati, all terracotta paint and green wooden shutters. Inside, it’s a Venetian timewarp, with slats of light falling on to heavy wooden furniture, most of which looks like it’s been here since the building was converted into a hotel in 1906. “It doesn’t have flatscreen TVs or fancy toiletries, but has been in the same family for over three centuries and is as authentically Venetian as they come,” he tells me.
This quest for authenticity has been Russell’s preoccupation for as long as he’s been traipsing these streets. “I’ve always shunned the touristy, Disneyland version of Venice, which upsets me and the locals, but I started to properly discover the food here in the late 90s. I’d been visiting on and off for years, and seeing these little back-alley places with locals drinking luminous red drinks and eating pre-made snacks from glass cabinets. They’re the sort of places that look intimidating, but once I braved them, there was no going back,” he says, as we head round the back of the hotel and deeper into the Dorsoduro sestiere, the city’s bohemian university district, to find lunch.
The local wine bars are known as bàcari and are social pit stops for the city’s working people, serving savoury snacks or ciccheti to soak up the booze. Russell modelled the concept of Polpo on these and the casual osterias of Venice, trailblazing the trend for small plates in London, and he still believes they are some of the best, most affordable places to dine in the Italian city.
At an energetic pace, he leads us down easily missed shortcuts, over bridges and side canals, until we emerge on to Fondamenta Nani and into Cantine del Vino già Schiavi, a slightly battered looking, wooden-fronted establishment also known as Al Bottegon (‘bottle shop’).
It’s one of Venice’s most popular bàcari. Inside, it’s charmingly ramshackle, with family photos stuck on the walls and wooden shelves stacked busily with local wines, like the fresh, blushing pink Pinot Grigio: a steal at a euro an ombre (small glass). Then there are the cabinets filled with plates of variously topped crostini, which people gather around, jabbing fingers at and ordering in rapid Italian.
I’m salivating as I eye the primo sale – a young sheep’s-milk cheese – with grilled radicchio and sesame, oozing pecorino, topped with slivers of truffle and pink peppercorns. Russell orders a selection, along with some very good DOCG prosecco by Bisol, a family that's been making wine for almost 500 years. Outside, we head over the Ponte San Trovaso and nab a covered well for a makeshift table as Russell cracks open the chilled bottle, whose fresh, lively bubble taste of honeyed pears and slip down all too easily in the midday sunshine. This is a true expression of the Glera grape,” he says approvingly, as he fills our glasses.
It’s also a taste of Venice as it’s been for centuries, though there is a younger generation of bàcaro owners, Russell explains, who are reconnecting with the tradition and subtly reinventing it. After a quick spritz at Il Caffè Rosso (The Red Café) in Campo Santa Margherita, we’re at Adriatico Mar, a bar opened in 2015 by former architect Francesco Molinari and his wife, Sira, with a mission to honour Venetian food culture with products of the most exemplary provenance. It’s a jewel box of a place, with a suntrap deck out the back and, inside, a couple of wooden tables, a marble counter and no fridges, meaning that they only buy small quantities of food and sell it fresh.
As Francesco pours us glasses of the most sublime chilled pink fizz – a natural Pinot Noir from the Marche region – he explains his ethos. “There are two tendencies: one is to use food and restaurants purely to make money; the second is about restoration, and sharing the history of Venice and the traditions of Venetian food. There’s a civil war going on here in terms of tourism and what’s happening in the restaurants mirrors what’s happening in the town. There’s a network of local people who are trying to preserve the town in terms of tradition, history and hospitality – from people who grow and harvest aromatic herbs in the lagoon and sell them into restaurants, to me here, hosting you. It’s a call for dignity. We can’t live off history of 500 years ago: we have to create a Venice for today, one that we can pass on to our children.”
We eat the most glorious platter of meats and cheeses: soft salami from the Dolomites flecked with sweet, nutty fat; gum-tingling aged asiago hard cheese from near Vicenza; hunks of latteria – a soft, buttery cheese made from the raw milk of heritage cows in Friuli; and pancetta crudo – a lush, melt-in-the-mouth pancetta that’s been cured for just five months.
After we’re finished feasting, the couple’s seven-year-old daughter Anita, who has been chatting away to us throughout, hands me a little picture she’s drawn of me. My heart leaps: if the Molinaris are the custodians of a future Venice, there is indeed hope for the next generation.
The rest of the afternoon is lost to much-needed siestas, but in the evening we re-emerge and head back to Cantine già Schiavi for more spritzes, chasing the setting sun and its coral haze farther along the canal, before walking to dinner at Locanda Montin, one of Russell’s favourites.
He leads us out into its surprisingly vast garden, which is teeming with lively Italian families feasting under the greenery-covered arched trellises. We follow their lead and order delicious little soft-shell crabs from the lagoon, which come deep fried with a punchy salsa verde, squares of grilled polenta and lemon wedges, and little plates of new season artichoke buds, drowned in olive oil and lemon.
The soft-shell crab is a local delicacy and something of a natural phenomenon. Russell explains: “When the temperature changes in the lagoon every spring and autumn, the crabs shed their shells and fisherman have a feverish 19-hour window to catch them.” I can understand why they go to the effort as I crunch down on them, shell and all.
That night I sleep deeply, despite the whirr of the ancient electric fan in my room, and wake the next morning to the gentle sound of the lapping canal and an appetite to continue our quest. After a swift macchiato, we head into the famous San Polo district with the Rialto market in our sights for some serious foodie retail therapy.
The fruit and vegetable market is Venice’s shop window. I marvel at vines laden with glossy datterini tomatoes, boxes of green and purple figs, bowls of blush-cheeked apricots and magenta-coloured sweet tropea onions. Russell points out a sign many of the stalls are sporting that reads ‘nostrane’, meaning ‘homegrown’. In this context it’s an especially proud pronouncement of the pure provenance of the ingredients.
“There are lots of layers of pride and locality you’ll see in the market,” he says, as we pass a man on a plastic chair, trimming the petals from globe artichokes like he could do it blindfolded, and tossing their bald, pockmarked hearts into buckets of acidulated water.
Then there’s the fish market, where the deep-rooted Venetian connection to seafood is evident in all its glory, from the glistening gambero rosa (rose prawns) and ink-marbled cuttlefish, to the striped live sea snails escaping across the ice, the gawping john dory and silvery sardines.
By now I’m seriously ravenous. Our lunch destination is Alle Testiere, a modern legend found at the top of many best Italian restaurant lists. It was set up 22 years ago by chef Bruno Gavagnin and front-of-house maestro Luca Di Vita, and it is just these two, and a kitchen porter, running the show. Each day, Bruno personally selects the fish from the market for his daily-changing menu.
The smell of good cooking – the sizzling of garlic and the caramelising of prawn skins in hot oil – hits you as soon as you walk in the door. The restaurant is small and simple, with only a few tables (just 24 covers) nestled on its terrazzo floor, all of which are heaving with busy eaters.
“You’d better find something you like, because we don’t have anything else,” smiles Luca as he hands us the menus. We don’t have trouble choosing, ordering plates of the most ethereal seafood to share, starting with the sweetest, creamiest, raw langoustines with citrussy pink peppercorns, mango pearls, wild fennel and mint.
As I slurp my way through the most tender razor clams I’ve ever tasted, dipping hunks of bread into their garlicky, parsley-flecked juices, Luca shows me the paperwork from the market that pinpoints where in the Adriatic the produce was fished. He explains that the restaurant has a paper trail for everything they buy. He is also in the midst of setting up a quality mark to denote establishments that are genuinely ‘sea to table’.
“At this point, the Rialto fish market, which has been the beating heart of the city since the 12th century, is destined to disappear,” he says. “It has shrunk by 50% in the past few years, thanks to the decrease in residents and fewer numbers of tavernas, restaurants and trattorias selling local fish. We want to start a movement of restaurants honouring the market and set up a quality mark for the places that can prove they are genuinely buying their fish there.”
For Russell, Luca’s admirable efforts speak to a broader point about conscientious tourism and the conservation of this magical city. “There are only 50,000 people left living in Venice and if it dips below that there won’t be enough people to buy fish at the fish market, buy milk at the local shop and eat at local places, which is what nobody wants,” he says. “Yes, you should come to Venice, but come and seek out the local wine bars and contribute to the local economy. If you’re going to do Venice, do it properly.” I couldn’t agree more.