Charlotte Carlton provides a gastronomic yet wallet friendly guide to Italy’s most alluring city… In Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, Marco Polo tells the Emperor Kublai Khan of the city of Zobeide, founded after men of various nations had the same dream of pursuing a woman through an unknown city. Each man goes in search of the dream city, but never finds it; instead they find each other and construct Zobeide in the image of the city in their dreams.
Each of Polo’s cities is, of course, his native Venice, but wandering through the city’s streets it is Zobeide that captures my imagination most. The winding, narrow alleys, the impossibility of getting anywhere in a straight line, the sudden dead ends, the unexpected squares with beautiful churches and numerous exits, any one of which could be the escape route for the elusive woman.
Back home, nobody asks about Venice’s enchanting beauty. Instead, the first question is often, “Was it expensive?” The answer is yes, but only if you want it to be. In San Marco for example, you can pay €9 for a hot chocolate at a table in the square on a balmy May evening. Stand at the bar and that price is dramatically reduced to a respectable €3. In Venice, spending less money is partly about doing things the Venetian way, and partly about ditching the tourist map.
Eating is a leisurely affair in the city, something to be enjoyed. Bars, cafes and restaurants are busy, but it’s a relaxed, unhurried sort of busy. The most interesting places you can stop for food are the bacari, small bars that serve snack food – cicheti – and wine. These bars offer everything from fresh fish dishes, pork rissoles and baked aubergine to mozzarella balls and deep-fried pumpkin flower. Most dishes come at a mere €1-2 and two people can easily eat their fill and indulge in a glass or two of wine for around €20.
If you’re eating on the go, there are plenty of places away from the main tourist spots where you can grab a bite for a reasonable price. Small establishments tend to provide freshly made sandwiches, savoury pastries and pizzas for around €5, but heading off the beaten track is a must if you want to find them. Luckily, you don’t have to go far – ten minutes’ walk can take you into quieter streets where you’ll find better deals.
Heading out for a sit-down dinner needn’t be pricey either. As a rule of thumb, it’s a good idea to pick somewhere that’s frequented by locals and doesn’t necessarily have a menu in English; if it’s got pictures of pizzas in the window, forget about it. Menus are divided into several courses: antipasto, primo piatto, secondo piatto (meat or fish dishes), contorno (vegetables or salad) and dolce (dessert). You’re not expected to choose a dish from every section, so just pick what you like and enjoy the meal at your leisure. A note of caution on the wine side – often it comes by the quarter or half litre instead of by the glass, so make sure you know what you’re asking for!
In the Cannaregio district, there’s one of those pretty, unexpected squares I mentioned named Campiello Riccardo Selvatico, which has on its corner a juice bar called Frulala. Offering a wide selection of both fruit and yoghurt based smoothies, as well as some alcoholic cocktails for those who are inclined, it’s a great place to stop and quench your thirst. Drinks are prepared with fresh, organic ingredients and the friendly staff will give you some free samples to help you make your choice.
Finally, you can’t really stop in Venice without trying the coffee and the gelato, both of which are exquisite. Coffee is served at a ready-to-drink temperature and consumed while standing at a bar. Those used to coffees from Starbucks should beware: asking for a latte in an Italian coffee shop means you’ll get milk and milk only – you should ask for a caffé latte, and only then in the morning if you don’t wish to incur a little disdain from the barman.
Gelato can be bought for as little as €1.50 for two scoops and the multitude of flavours on offer will leave even the most restrained tourist salivating. The Alaska Gelateria in Santa Croce has a fantastic selection of flavours, from the more traditional chocolate, roasted pistachio and hazelnut to the odd yet delicious combination of rocket and orange.
Eating in Venice doesn’t have to break the bank. If you head away from the crowds and use a little common sense, you can spend your money on exploring what the city has to offer instead of having to skip the interesting stuff to afford lunch. And who knows, if you keep your eyes open maybe you’ll catch a glimpse of the mysterious woman of Marco Polo’s story slipping down a quiet backstreet or dancing through a crowded square. Charlotte Carlton