Venice is such a unique and special place that doesn’t need much description. It’s a city built on water, right on the ocean, and it’s insanely beautiful.
In 2006, while I was working at Per Se, I was looking for a place to stage and had heard that Venice has great seafood. One of the sous chefs I was working with had worked in Italy for a long time, and through a series of connections I ended up spending 3 months at the Ristorante Al Covo, owned by Cesare and Diane Benelli.
For many who visit, Venice can be strange in that it’s almost got this Epcot Center thing going on - you have such a wonderful, beautiful place that so many go to visit that it turns into a city totally overrun with tourists. There are places and periods of time when there are no Venetians. It’s a very strange phenomenon. To actually find interesting and authentic Venetian places not doing spaghetti pomodoro or pizza is unusual.
When I was working at Al Covo, I befriended a bunch of regulars and would end up going out to eat with them. Below are some of my favorite places to eat, drink, and avoid the crowds in Venice.
This restaurant played a huge part in helping me developing my personal style of cooking. Al Covo is a mom-and-pop operation. Cesare, the chef, was born in Tuscany but lived in Venice his whole life, while Diane is an American from Texas, where the two met in the mid-80s.
What makes Al Covo and Cesare special is that he really does practice the Italian style of cooking where the primary ingredients are the most important thing. People talk about that a lot, but he’s the real deal.
Much of Al Covo is focused on Venetian seafood, a place to experience products and dishes that you might have never seen before. Baby sardines, baby sole, mantis shrimp, Venus clams called tartufi di mari that taste like the truffles of the ocean - it's truly astounding.
Al Covo gave me exposure to amazing product and an amazing idea about how food should be prepared. The simplicity with which things were treated was eye-opening, pushing past the precise, technical plating and into a realm of home-spun cooking with some real soul.
Because of that, I felt a strong connection to the way Al Covo does things. The restaurant has a rusticity and an elegance that makes an amazing combination. They make their own pasta - gnocchi, tagliolini - and they do Venetian dishes such as risotto with chicken livers when appropriate and in season. It’s a homey but elegant place.
This is the oldest cafe in Venice, right in Campo Saint Marco. We used to go there to have coffee and drink Ricard, which they prepare in the traditional style, pouring it through ice, the whole routine. It’s a beautiful historical place.
I wouldn’t recommend going in the summer peak, but if you're there in the fall it's a starker, more isolated place to come and relax. Right before Christmas in November and October when it’s kind of cold, chilly, and rainy, there weren’t many people and you can enjoy a quiet drink.
Alle Testiere (Osteria Alle Testiere)
This is a place similar to Al Covo, but even smaller. It’s chef-driven and the menu changes seasonally. It’s a small and intimate space that has great balance and elegance, but is a bit more high-end than Al Covo.
Harry’s! It’s the world’s original bar. Giuseppe Cipriani opened this proto-typical bar in the 1930s where the bellini was invented. It’s the kind of place where you can just imagine Grace Kelly or Audrey Hepburn sipping a drink - a truly elegant, time-period kind of place. It’s a trip into a glamorous and beautiful world of yesteryear, but it's still very fun. Oh, also! Don't forget to try the chicken sandwich.
My host father and I would go shop by the Rialto Bridge and stop in here to take a break from looking at the seafood and vegetable vendors and the Venetian-style shops. Cantina Do Mori is the quintessential cicchetti bar (think Italian-style tapas). It’s very old, kind of a time warp inside, and very Venetian. You can stop in for 15 minutes for a glass of wine and a bite and be on your way.
I’ve been trying so hard to get back to Venice, but leaving the restaurant has been impossible. It’s a special place to me because I was able to work there and be more than just a tourist, experiencing the rhythms of a working life there and building relationships with the people. If you hit these spots, you'll be able to feel a little bit of what life can be like in this stunning city when you're not just a tourist.
Photo Credits: ElizabethMinchillinRome, Ristorante Alle Testiere, Instagram / Claudia Barth, Caffe Florian