ONCE in a blue moon, private chef Philippa Davis travels for pleasure rather than work. She has just had a few days in Venice, the location for the brilliant thriller Don’t Look Now, based on a Daphne du Maurier short story, and starring Julie Christie and Donald
Sutherland. Fortunately Philippa’s visit involved delicious food adventures rather than haunted memories and a sinister little figure in a bright red mac …
VENICE, more than almost anywhere in the world, is notorious for being a tourist food trap (and has been so, I have been told, for more than 2000 years) so I put extra effort into my research so as not to slip up on the food side of the break. I had no doubt as we were heading to Italy that churches, statues and art would be very hard to miss.
Whether I am traveling for work or pleasure I tend to do a crazy amount of research on what and where to eat. I spend the weeks before ringing, texting, twittering and chatting to everyone I think may have the skinny on my destination. I go through my address book of friends and family which includes chefs, clients, food writers, food producers, foodies, food retailers … it’s a lot of people who know a lot about food.
I could say this slightly obsessive behaviour was because as a well-travelled chef/food writer I feel the pressure to know about these things from others – but its more because I love doing it and I see food as one of the most interesting and important aspects of learning about people and places.
Firstly NEVER, EVER wander down a street, peer into a restaurant and think “Ooh that looks nice, lets’ eat here.” Yes that’s a fun approach and works perfectly well elsewhere but in Venice it’s a sure way of being disappointed and ending the evening in frosty looks and mutterings of “Well it was your idea” as the bill for a bajillion euros reaches the table while you are trying to digest your canned luke warm spaghetti alle vongole.
Trust your sources. When researching and asking people, be honest and think, do I trust their opinion? Some food review sites like Trip Adviser may have some of the biggest collection of views, but they include all opinions and so are open to the restaurant’s friends and family putting positive or false opinions up along the lines of “Eating at Besta Pasta in Towna was the best dining experience I have in the entire universe”. On the other hand they also allow disgruntled customers to rant or even competitor restaurateurs to have their say, such as “ This Venice restaurant should be allowed to sink, the waiters had less charm than the tasteless slimy sea-slug-like gnocchi being served on my plate.”.
I stick to food bloggers’ websites, trusted sources of friends and family and take note if certain restaurants are repeatedly mentioned on ‘Where to’ lists published by magazines and newspapers.
It’s perfectly acceptable to have a sharpener before 11. As you wonder through the markets and peer into trattorias and bars you will see locals casually sipping on glasses of prosecco, wine or my favourite Venetian drink, the spritz. This can be taken with Aperol (the scary orange stuff) that is actually delicious but quite sweet, Select, the medium sweet option, or my top choice Campari, which is deliciously bitter. The drink is topped off with prosecco and soda water and is served on the rocks. It is usual to get a bowl of crisps or fat green olives alongside your spritz and is often one of the cheapest cocktails you get over there.
North Eastern Italy produces some good wine that is worth trying so don’t dismiss the Friuli Venezia-Giulia, Alto Adige, Trentino, and Veneto regions when flicking through the wine list (for reds Valpolicellas and Bardolinos and for whites Soaves are the ones to look out for).
You may of course be tempted to try the Peach Bellini, created here at the iconic Harry’s Bar in the 30s and 40s, and consisting of white peach puree and prosecco. While drinking it at this charming canal-side bar, former watering hole of Hemingway and Welles, you will of course have to wear your large ‘I am a tourist’ badge. (Yes I’ve done it…ok, it was fun).
With its famous fish market near the Rialto bridge, it is not surprising that fish is the dish to order in Venice (although they are still arguing with Tuscany trying to claim to be the birthplace of beef carpaccio and Venice also loves its liver and onions).
Based on my extensive research the restaurants that made it to my ‘must get a table or there is no point going to Venice at all’ list were;
Al Covo is set in a small square and is staffed by charming waiters. The wine list is reasonable and the menu is encouragingly small. Simply done fish and desserts worth saving room for makes this a place I would definitely recommend and visit again.
Locanda Cipriani – if you are staying in Venice for a couple of days I would definitely recommend the boat trip out to Locanda Cipriani on the small island of Torcello. Taking public transport can be a great way to collect the ambiance of a place and unless you fancy selling your Louboutins or a kidney to fund a private water taxi, hop on a vaporetto and enjoy the group ride.
If you set out early enough (9-ish in holiday terms) you can stop at Murano (the island for glass) or Burano (the island for lace) before carrying on to the very charming Torcello for lunch. With one road/canal leading from the vaporetto stop to the restaurants and the church you will not need a map. The restaurant has a charming garden which half made the experience for me so I would suggest going in the warmer months. Service was good and the food very enjoyable.
Antiche Carampane – when this restaurant gets mentioned there is usually reference to how difficult it is to find but fortunately for me Mr Del Monte has a knack of sorting out these navigational issues so we only ended up down one dark alley with a group of Japanese tourists and their selfie sticks. I was concerned by the ratio of English to Italian customers (the waiters were charming enough not to be snobby about having to mostly speak in their non native tongue) but it was a top meal and well worth finding.
Chechetti – on our fourth day the sun had gone, the rain had started and morale was sinking. I had not booked a restaurant for lunch this day, as there are only so many three-course meals a girl should eat in five days, but I was keen to stick to my rule of not being fooled into stumbling across and eating at the wrong place. It was then that data-roaming, foodbloggers of Venice and Mr Map Reader Extraordinaire saved us.
Just as I was about to push him into the canal he found the chechetti bar that I suggested as salvation. Chichetti can be found all over Venice and providing you are not on the main tourist drags you will be able to spot a good one. Very reasonably priced little slices of bread topped with salted cod or cured meats or grilled vegetables are laid out on trays under the glass counters. You have a good stare then point and order the ones you fancy along with a glass of something. Choose somewhere that looks like it has a good atmosphere and the chechetti haven’t been sitting there since time began.
Alle Testiere – you need to book well in advance if you want to eat here. You can email, then ring to arrange a deposit to secure your table. Sadly my Italian is limited and it wasn’t until I managed to make the waiter understand I was at the ready-to-hand-over-my-credit-card-details stage that he started to thaw to the determined English girl at the end of the phone.
The 24-seat restaurant is not particularly good looking and I admit expectations were high. Antipasti and primi were delicious but if you are used to eating fresh simply cooked fish the main courses can be underwhelming. The wine list encourages you to spend and although I am pleased to have it ticked off my list I would not recommend it to those who want simply cooked, very good fresh fish.
Next time I visit I would be keen to have lunch on the terrace at the Gritti Palace which I am told is a wonderful place to watch Venice float by. I should also mention a restaurant by the Rialto called Bancogiro which has one of the most romantic outdoor spots at night and serves some delicious food.
For more of Philippa’s travels and recipes, visit www.philippadavis.com