Insider’s guide to Venice
A view of a misty lagoon from top of San Georgio Majore. (BBC)
“My love affair with Venice started 23 years ago when I first visited the city as a student. But it wasn’t till 13 years later when I started to go regularly with my wife Jules that I started to fall in love with its cuisine too. Venice has an appalling reputation for food, largely because the vast majority of restaurants churn out crowd-pleasing tourist fodder washed down with chianti from ghastly straw-clad bottles. But if you avoid the tourist traps and seek out the authentic back-street osterie and bacari (taverns and wine bars) the food is actually rather good. In some places, it is even excellent.”
Ca'd'Oro, known as Alla Vedova, is the osteria that most inspired my London restaurant Polpo. The small bar at the front is where locals stand and drink a small glass of regional wine, such as a flowery Bianco di Custoza from Lake Garda and eat the house speciality polpette (meatballs), just € 1.50 each, and, oh my God, they're good. (Cannaregio 3912, Ramo Ca'd'Oro; 00 39 041 528 5324)
Neighbouring La Cantina is a little more modern. It has excellent local wines (ask for pinot bianco from Friuli for a really typical taste of the region, €3) and a show-stopping cheese and meat cold plate, €15. Ask owners Andrea and Francesco for their recommendations. (Cannaregio 3689, Campo San Felice; 00 39 041 522 8258)
Postage-stamp-sized All'Arco serves excellent cicheti (Venetian snacks, pronounced chi-KET-tee). Chat to father and son owners Francesco and Matteo and they'll get the good stuff out from round the back - no joke! Depending on the time of year, you get lung, spleen, ricotta-stuffed zucchini flowers and tiny fried mozzarella sandwiches, from €1.50. (San Polo 436, Calle dell'Arco; 00 39 041 5205 666)
Seafood restaurant Corte Sconta is hard to find and its tiny entrance belies the generous, traditional interior but you get a lovely welcome from flame-haired owner Rita. Sit under the dappled sunlight in the inside courtyard and order the catch of the day, perhaps John Dory with orange and green peppercorns. (Castello 3886, Calle del Pestrin; 00 39 041 5227 024)
My favourite Venice restaurant is the tiny Alle Testiere, a short walk from St Mark's Square. The whole experience is exquisite, breathtakingly fresh, inspiring and unsurpassed in Venice. The décor is humble and simple and the wall shelves are cunningly constructed from brass bedsteads (testiere means 'headboard). The menu is mostly verbal so you have to put yourself in owner Luca's capable hands and trust his recommendations. If they are available, I always order the razor clams, €19. (osterialletestiere.it)
Whenever I'm in Venice I shop at the stunning Rialto Market (Tuesday to Saturday), where you'll find fresh fish and fruit and veg so good that it puts every UK greengrocer to shame.
If you are a cheese fan, like me, you will die and go to heaven in Casa Del Parmigiano, family run since 1936 and packed to the rafters with excellent cheeses, meats and speciality produce. Buy Sicilian extra-virgin olive oil, €11.20 per 0.5lt. (aliani-casadelparmigiano.it)
Cantinone Gia Schiavi is a cavernous wine shop that is an essential stop to stock up on local varieties and Italian bitters and spirits. I always take home a bottle of Cynar - a delicious, slightly bitter digestivo made from artichokes, €10.90. Come in the afternoon for crostini, from €1, and superb homemade bacala (whipped salt cod), €3. (992 Ponte San Trovaso; 00 39 041 5230034)
Travel like a local on a traghetto, decommissioned gondolas that ferry you across the Grand Canal at various points. The handiest one shuttles between a jetty beside the huge red curtains at Rialto Market and Ca' d'Oro on the other side. For 50c you get the best view of the canal and palazzi.
For great people-watching, go to Campo Santa Margarita. Look for the small caffè in the middle painted red (known locally as Bar Rosso but not marked as such) and get a table outside. Order spritz (the local aperitivo of wine, soda and Campari), €1.80 standing or €2.40 sitting, and watch the world go by.
I love the unnamed bookshop in a small alley off Calle Lunga S. Maria Formosa, opposite Osteria alla Mascaretta. You could easily get lost for hours amongst the second-hand cookbooks and vintage maps and posters. I bought an old map of Venice here about two years ago for €25.
Venice is divided into six sestiere. For a truly authentic feel of the city stay in Dorsoduro. La Calcina is a delightful pensione here with traditionally furnished rooms, many of which have fantastic views of the Giudecca canal. Doubles from €180. (lacalcina.com)
Next-door is Pensione Seguso, my new favourite. It has oodles of charm, beautiful furniture, ancient mirrors and Murano glass chandeliers. Doubles from €140. (pensioneseguso.com)
Locanda Montin is situated on a blissfully quiet minor canal. Internally it is adorned with paintings of the artists who have stayed there and photos of visiting film stars and politicians too. The rooms are basic and unglamorous. It's a real slice of yesteryear. But beware; the owners and staff are famously grumpy. Doubles from €120. (locandamontin.com)
Russell Norman is the co-owner of Polpo and Polpetto, the popular Soho restaurants serving New York-style, Italian small plates. His inspiration came largely from the wine bars of Venice. His third restaurant, Spuntino, opened in March. (polpo.co.uk; polpetto.co.uk; spuntino.co.uk)