Is any cuisine so universally loved as Italian? But while it boasts a large fan base, many people don’t realize ‘Italian’ cuisine is a very generic term – each region of Italy boasts a unique style of food, making a trip around the country a succession of stunning culinary experiences. And is Venice, Italy, food isn’t Italian, it’s Venetian.
As arguably Italy’s most unique city, the traditional cuisine of Venice is every bit as distinctive as the place it calls home. Having long been one of the epicenters of European culture, Venice has always pushed the culinary envelope, with seafood, pasta, bread and sweets served up in all manner of weird and wonderful ways.
But visitors to the floating city face a challenge. What to eat in Venice? Which are the must eat places in Venice, Italy? Where do the locals eat in Venice, Italy? Traditional Venetian food can be tricky to distinguish from any other Italian dish for an international visitor. So to help tourists find both the best local food in Venice, Italy and the best places to eat in Venice, we’ve put together a handy little guide – the 10 dishes that every visitor should try, and the must eat places in Venice, Italy for each.
Ready to taste the finest Venetian cuisine? Let’s find out what you should be looking for.
1. Sarde in saor
Sarde in saor is a unique appetizer created by Venetian sailors. The idea was to simply get fresh sardines to last longer, but by frying the fillets in oil and marinating them in a mixture of vinegar, onions, raisins and pine nuts, they stumbled upon a taste sensation. A staple of seafood restaurants in Venice, xpect to taste saltiness, sourness and a very subtle sweetness, before being overpowered by the fish’s flavors. If you’re a fan of seafood, you’ll almost definitely be a fan of sarde in saor.
Where to try it: Trattoria Da Gigio
2. Baccala mantecato
Venice seafood restaurants will likely serve up yet another fish-based appetizer, baccala mantecato, which was also created for sailors on long voyages. The odd thing is that the fish this dish is commonly made from – cod – isn’t actually native to the area. The story goes that a Venetian trader was stranded in Norway in the 1400s and soon fell in love with the northern fish. When he began to import it to Venice, the locals loved it too! Dried, salted cod is creamed into a smooth mousse, before being seasoned simply with olive oil, salt and pepper. The creamed cod is commonly served on either a polenta fritter or fresh bread.
Where to try it: Osteria Al Bacareto
3. Risotto al nero di seppia
Rice is an absolute staple of Venice, having been used to fill out meals for centuries. As such the city has its own take on that most Italian of rice dishes, risotto. Squid ink is used to give this starter its distinctive jet black color, while the squid itself is used to fill out and add flavor to the dish, along with onion, tomato and wine. While it might not look like the most palatable of meals, you’re sure to be won over by the first bite!
Where to try it: Osteria Ai Carmini Di Biasotto Daniele
4. Fegato alla Veneziana
While most traditional Venetian dishes feature seafood, a handful are built on land-based protein. Perhaps the most famous and ancient example is fegato alla Veneziana, a dish that boasts a history dating back to the Romans, and that utilizes tender cuts of calf or pig liver. The liver is finely diced before being fried with white onions that have ideally been sourced from Chioggia. This onion adds a distinct sweetness to the dish, and helps to bring out the flavor of the meat. Butter, parsley, vinegar and a dash of olive oil are also added to make the flavors pop.
Where to try it: Osteria l’Orto dei Mori
5. Risi e bisi
Is it risotto? Is it soup? Risi e bisi isn’t a dish that is easily categorized, and neither does it need to be. The most traditional of traditional Venetian dishes, this tasty morsel was historically served by the peasantry to the Doge (ruler) of Venice on the 25th of April, the day of St Mark, Venice’s patron saint. You begin with a pea-based broth, to which you add plenty of rice, pancetta, onion, parsley and butter, and salt to taste. If you’re wondering what to eat and where to eat in Venice on a budget, look for restaurants serving risi e bisi. And if you’re in Venice in late spring be sure to sample this dish, as that’s when peas are at the most plump and tasty.
Where to try it: Trattoria alla Rampa
6. Caparossoi a scota deo
In the Venetian dialect a scota deo means ‘hot fingers’, which are generally what diners end up with as they scramble to try these delicious local clams. This is a simple dish, reliant on the freshest and plumpest clams being carefully cooked in a lemon and pepper seasoning. Again, if you want the most authentic and delicious experience possible, aim to order caparossoi a scota deo during clam season, which stretches over the Venetian summer.
Where to try it: Poste Vecie
7. Bigoli in salsa
Sometimes less is more. That’s certainly the case with bigoli in salsa, a dish with just three ingredients – bigoli pasta (similar to spaghetti), anchovies and onions. Despite anchovies playing such a starring role in the dish, bigoli in salsa isn’t particularly fishy – rather, the fish break down into a flavorful sauce that is more salty and savory than it is briny. Onions are added at the end and cooked until soft, creating a pasta of incredible depth and complexity considering its minimal ingredients. Most of the best places to eat in Venice, Italy on a budget will serve up bigoli in salsa.
Where to try it: Cantina Do Spade
The Mediterranean lagoon on which Venice sits is home to all manner of delicious crustaceans, and moleche are perhaps the most popular of the lot. These small green crabs swarm the sea bed every spring, with many ending up on the plates of Venice restaurants. The great thing about moleche is you’re pretty much guaranteed to be eating a fresh catch – the crab’s shell hardens if it’s taken out of the water for too long, and this makes preparation difficult, so most fishermen either deliver their catch to Venice food markets within a few hours, or still alive. Moleche can be eaten any number of ways, all of them delicious!
Where to try it: Trattoria Antiche Carampane
We need to thank those hardy Venetian sailors once again, as baicoli, or ship biscuits, are yet another of their creations. These baked goods were vital when the Republic of Venice was a naval power, as they were packed with slow release energy and would last forever. The simple looking oval-shaped cracker is actually quite difficult to make, requiring two rounds of baking and rising to come out perfect. From baicoli’s beginnings as sailor fare, they turned into a favourite of the Venetian upper class who would dip them in cream and wine, before finally becoming a staple of local coffee shops.
Where to try it: Colussi Il Fornaio
While we’re on the subject of sweets, the smell of fritole – sweet pastry fritters, essentially a Venetian doughnut – marks the beginning of Carnevale, Venice’s biggest annual celebration. The recipe is relatively simple but oh so delicious – combine eggs, flour, milk, sugar, butter, pine nuts and raisins, roll the mixture into balls, deep fry them in oil then dust them with sugar. This is a must eat food in Venice, Italy, particularly for sweet tooths.
Where to try it: Tonolo