For me, there’s no food more satisfying than Italian food. When in Italy, we adopt a mantra of “when in Italy, eat like an Italian,” and we throw all carb-consciousness out the window and feast on Neopolitan pizza and al dente pasta until we can’t eat any more. It’s one of the best things in life! That’s why the first thing we wanted to do when we arrived in Venice was go on a Venice food tour.
You may have heard somewhere that there’s no good food in Venice. We heard that so many times before going that Venetian food isn’t very interesting. I almost believed it! What kept me from buying it was the fact that most travelers don’t know how to find good food in a touristy city like Venice. If you’re eating all of your meals near the main square and in tourist-filled restaurants, you’re doing something wrong.
But how to do you find the best places to eat in a city like Venice when you know nothing about it? First, I would recommend looking at blogs, like this one, for recommendations (because believe me, we really know how to eat!) and second, I would recommend taking a food tour first thing when you arrive so you can get tips and recommendations from a local. (See other food tours we’ve been on around the world.)
Walks of Italy gives one of many food tours in Venice. Their version is called Venice Food Tour: Rialto Market, Cannaregio, Gondola, Food & Wine. They deliver on every aspect of that claim.
This food tour will show you around a few of the popular neighborhoods and introduce you to the most popular foods you’ll find in restaurants. It’s not an all encompassing food tour. You won’t get to taste everything Venice has to offer. But you will get a good overview of what to expect and where to look when you want to find more of it on your own. You’ll also get to take a ride on a gondola, albeit a short one. But it won’t cost you €80 for 25 minutes.
Here are are a few of those popular things we mentioned that you’ll try on the tour.
If you’re looking for something very Venetian to drink, you have to skip the typical Aperol Spritz that everyone else is drinking and go straight for the good stuff. Ask for an Apertivo Select instead, or ask for a Venetian Spritz. This drink can be found all over Venice and it’s alot more authentic with Select, a vibrant red-colored liqouor, than with the more ubiquitous Aperol, which is bright orange. A Venetian spritz is made with 3 parts Prosecco, 2 parts Select, 1 part soda, and an orange wedge for garnish. It’s sweet, a little bit bitter, and has a more robust flavor than the more cloyingly sweet Aperol.
Cicchetti isn’t a type of food, it’s a style of food. Much like tapas or pinchos in Spain, cicchetti are small bites that are typically served in bars alongside a spritz or a small glass of wine. Locals make an afternoon of hopping around from bar to bar, having a small snack and drink at each. Most cicchetti consists of a piece of bread with creative toppings, but they can also be small fried snacks or sandwiches. On the food tour, we were introduced to a couple of great cicchetti bars in the Rialto area. At one, we had little sandwiches filled with yummy things like cured meats, cheese and dried tomatoes, or tuna salad. At the other, we had baguette slices topped with prosciutto, pickles and and red peppers.
Do a Cicchetti Crawl
You can make a really fun cicchetti crawl yourself. It’s easiest to identify cicchetti bars by looking for the case of small sandwiches or finding a wine barrel sitting up outside to act as a gathering spot. Plan to hit up three and just grab one snack and one drink at each. If you do it right, it should take anywhere from 1.5-3 hours. We found the highest concentration of good-looking cicchetti bars in the Rialto area, in the calle around the market, but you’ll see them everywhere, as soon as you start looking for them.
You’ve likely heard of baccala, or bacalhau, or one of the other many ways it’s said, especially if you’ve traveled around Europe. It’s dried salt cod and it’s a specialty in many different countries (see our recipe for Portuguese Bacalhau). In Venice, dried salt cod is used to make a whipped spread called Baccala Mantecato. The spread is made entirely from cod, which is soaked and whipped into an airy and light spread that is served on a slice of baguette or fried polenta. We were expecting it to be mixed with mayonnaise or cream cheese, but it’s not. It’s only cod. You’ll find it all over Venice, particularly at ciccheti bars, or served as an appetizer in restaurants.
Spaghetti al Nero di Seppia
If you’ve never tried squid ink pasta before, Venice is a fantastic place to try it. Nero di Seppia, as it’s called there, is one of the specialties. You may be a little hesitant to order it, but just suck it up and do it. You won’t be disappointed. It doesn’t have an overwhelming aroma or taste of fish. The squid is really mild tasting. The black-as-night squid ink sauce thoroughly coats the spaghetti. It has a savory, slightly salty taste, like the sea. Don’t worry, it only temporarily turns your mouth black.
Other Pasta Specialties to Order
One of my favorite things in Italy is pasta. You can find some really good pasta in Venice if you know where to look. We talk about that in a different article. What we’re focused on here is what to order. Aside from the Nero di Seppia, there are a few other pasta dishes you’ll find in every restaurant in Venice. The first is Spaghetti Alle Vongole (spagetti and clams). It’s a simple dish with a very light clam sauce and clams in the shell. If you find a really good one, you’ll see why it’s so popular. It’s oh so delicious. The second dish is Pappardelle with Duck Ragu. If you like bolognese sauce, you’ll also like the similar duck ragu. It’s rich, meaty and very flavorful.
Sarde in Saor
While we didn’t get to try this popular Venice appetizer, Sarde in Saor, on the tour, we made sure to find it on our own. If you like sardines, you don’t want to miss this dish. The fresh sardine fillets are marinated slightly in vinegar, then served with cooked white onions, and sometimes raisins and pine nuts. I saw it served in many different ways, but the dish always tastes the same. We are definitely sardine fans, so we really liked this dish. It’s a great appetizer before a meal, or just as a snack while enjoying an afternoon spritz.
Another aspect of the food tour that we really enjoyed was a walk through Rialto Market. Located on the north side of the bridge, the Rialto Market is a historic market that still comes alive every day (except major holidays), to sell fresh produce, meat and fish to the locals. While the market today is somewhat overrun by tourists, there are still locals shopping there every day and it’s really lovely to walk through. There are two distinct areas of the market, the produce area and the fish market. Alongside the outdoor stalls there are many cicchetti bars, restaurants and coffee shops where you can stop off for a bite or to just sit and people watch.
The food walking tour takes you from the Rialto area, where you’re eating cicchetti, to the Cannaregio area, where you’ll be eating Nero di Seppia in a classy little restaurant. In order to get from one side to the other without spending hours fighting the crowds on the walking bridges, you will take a gondola ride. It’s not the 4-person romantic, spread a blanket on your lap and enjoy kind of gondola ride, but if you don’t want to shell out the money for a private ride, you’ll at least get a chance to float across the Grand Canal on one. This public gondola service only costs €2 and saves a lot of time if you need to cross the canal.
Going on a Private Gondola Ride
If you absolutely cannot leave Venice without going on a gondola ride, then we suggest you try to arrange your ride ahead of time with Viator, which offers shared gondola rides that will save you money ($38 instead of €80), or even a romantic private gondola rides complete with a serenade. If you don’t book in advance, you might have a hard time finding a free slot during the high season, but there are gondola operators all over the city, so just look for one in a less populated area. The price is fixed at €80 for 25 minutes, but do be clear with the operator what you want, so your ride doesn’t exceed that amount.
There are many things to do in Venice to fill your time, but we highly recommend spending some of your time on a Venice food tour, like this one given by Walks of Italy. There’s no better way to acquaint yourself with the food of the city and the best places to eat than to spend a few hours with a local food guide. We know you’ll enjoy it!