Don't come to Venice for the food alone: you'll be disappointed. Come for the serried ranks of Murano glass tat, pushy gondoliers, the ever-present carnival masks and the tourist hordes instead - at least, that's what you're going to get. Most people are here for the canals and the romance, and the odd little alleys and sun dusty squares where it's just you and your lover. When she's pretty, she's really pretty, the effect too often reduced by the aforementioned tourist hordes.
Snaketails of umbrella-led tour parties predominate. While luckily less so in the spring, the cruise ships and coaches still regurgitate vast lumps of the very old and very young, united in their ability to irritate as they wind down the narrowest of streets.
Venice is viewed from above like a leaping fish; avoid the tourist packed San Marco at the rump like the plague. Aim instead for cheap and studenty Dorsoduro occupying the belly, quieter Canareggio at the head and dorsal and San Polo and the Rialto in the centre. The last of these, the food market at the heart of the city both literally and metaphorically, is worth an early morning trip for the still-quivering crustacea and iced piles of lagoon-caught fish, fresh veg too and all gone by 11. If you must go to St Mark's Square, go early and escape to the Rialto afterwards. We hit the misdescribed 'must see' square at 8.30 and were heading away from the cobbled tourist trap towards the Rialto Market before the menu touristicos were fully unfurled.
The local food scene
The name of the game in Venice is chichetti or polpette. Tiny bites on tiny slices of bread or small breadcrumbed balls of ground meat and fish. There's local pasta, the best utilising the excellent seafood bought from the market. There's pizza too, piles of it, the Japanese Knotweed of Italian food. Not specifically native to the region, but ubiquitous.
Both bacari and osterias serve surprisingly cheap local wine, prosecco and snacks. Bacari are often tiny hole in the wall joints where locals will grab tiny glasses or ombré of wine and a chichetti from the bar counter for a couple of euros before moving on to the next. The one nearest our hotel for example pumped out stunningly flavoured pork sandwiches and 1Eu glasses of prosecco from its postage stamp sized serving hatch. Osterias tend to be larger, still with a standing bar, but often with table service too. Don't bother trying to find a certain place, much less at a certain time, it's almost impossible on the winding streets and much like obsessing about seeing that specific band at Glastonbury. The fun is in the giro d'ombre, the Spanish-style wine bar crawl.
Some advice on standing at the bar. Do it and you'll feel smug and local (and pay less than a euro for a cafe or an ombra of wine) but play by their rules. Don't take up too much space or time and make sure you order quickly and efficiently when you catch an eye. Don't expect obsequious service or a menu, that comes at the pricier tables at the front.
If you go, and you should sample it at least once, then the best advice I can give is to get off the beaten track, avoid the tourists as much as you can and get involved in the local scene.
Breakfast at the Rialto Market
For centuries the centre of Venetian life and still critically important. It's open early, with the stalls along the narrow streets and courtyards operating till lunchtime. Go as early as you can and take a look at the vast piles of fresh, pulsing seafood that make up the daily diet for many Venetians. As you'd expect, there are a number of places serving it for you then and there.
Tiny osteria All'arco gave me possibly my favourite experience of the trip. Standing at the bar, jostled by the workers finishing their shift, drinking wine at 10.30 in the morning (well, they have just finished work, and I am a lush, and a holidaying one) I turned to Marco the barman. We bounced different words and translations off each other to get a rough approximation of the plates of chichetti he and his father prepared daily from the best ingredients of the market. Packed into a corner, listening to the salty Italian chat of the stallholders I tucked into no less than three variants of salt cod, all prepared from the same base. Baccala Vicentzia came first. Hot, with capers and loosely flaked, it was neither salty or overly fishy but robustly held up the other flavours. It then came flaked with garlic, mayonnaise and chive and finally as local favourite Baccala Mantecato, deeply creamed with decent olive oil, it's breathtaking, simple and hideously moreish.
I'd also recommend Al Merca, another of the typical hole in the wall style baccari selling wines, a good selection of panini piccolo and the ubiquitous polpette, Bancogiro and Naranzaria. Anywhere this close to a tourist site of the magnitude of the Rialto Bridge needs to really go some to be viable and thankfully the last two are part of a row of decent options that share a perfect little terrace overlooking the Grand Canal. They weren't the cheapest, but were both several leagues less than the over-priced pizza joints in San Marco and well worth it for lunch or an early evening spritz and a few snacks.
A recommendation for lunch
La Cantina was a real treat. Exceptional. No menu (repeatedly asking for one got two obnoxious Americans ejected) merely a selection of the best the market could offer from a grumpy bald genius hidden away behind a meat slicer. We shared a plate of fish, at €25 per person not cheap, but astoundingly good value for the amount and quality received. Fresh raw prawns and plump langoustines were sweet, creamy and served semi nude to be sucked greedily out of their shells, perfectly cooked fillets of meaty turbot, dorade and mackerel were lightly seasoned and oiled just enough to let the flavour through, it was simple but heavenly.
A few highlights from a Canareggio 'giro d'ombre'
Around the top of the island between the Jewish Ghetto and the Rialto bridge sits Canareggio. Strada Nova runs through parallel to the Grand Canal, Murano-selling and mask-spattered by the train station, more lovely as you go round and home to a good selection of osteria and wine stores. It was recommended by several sources as the best place for an evening tapas and wine crawl and certainly didn't let us down.
Osteria Ai Osti - just off the main street in a little square widens out inside and sells battered crab and fish fritto (deep fried, lightly battered mixed fish) of a lunchtime and early evening. Start there if you can, the battered softshell crab was stunning.
Chichettaria Venexiana has shades of the tourist outside, but we ventured inside to the cool wood panelled interior for excellent tuna and mozzarella polpetti. The urge to explore deprived us of their house specialities, sandwiches of ham and cheese surrounded by battered aubergine 'bread'.
There were a number of others, some with packed crowds and salty clouds of creamy baccala served on chichetti, others forlorn and empty. The same rule of thumb applies here as anywhere else. If you're the only people in there, you haven't found a hidden gem, just botulism...
Alla Verdova is, we belatedly realised, something of an institution. It's as old as the hills and has been successfully balancing the local/tourist apartheid system for many years. We stayed at the bar for wonderful polpette, snapped up by the waiting crowds as soon as they hit. There was a larger selection here too, but I did wake up the next morning fantasising about those meatballs.
We finished the night in a tiny unnamed wine store, signed only by a barrel outside. Ranks of chichetti and some very accomplished pork sandwiches. The vino came from enormous bottles of house, and by that point, giggly drunk, I can confirm only that it tasted of 'wine'.Suggest a correction