Every two years almost everyone I know heads to Venice. I used to be more involved in the art world (my father was an art dealer and I started out life as an art historian) and so most of my closest friends are art historians, art dealers, professors or artists. Almost all of them go to the opening of the Biennale which takes place – as the name implies – every two years. Countries from all over the world exhibit contemporary art in their own pavilions that are located at Venice's most Eastern tip. And of course they all ask me where to eat while in Venice. For years I would send them a rag tag list that I’d compiled over the years. But now, happily, I can just refer them to my app, EAT ITALY, which contains all my Venice picks. But if I know my friends, they are still going to ask me things like "do I need to reserve?", "but which ones are your favorites?" and "are there places you like near the fair?"
And so, to answer at least one of these questions, here are a handful of great places that are within walking distance of the Arsenale and Giardini...
ELIZABETH MINCHILLI, 2017.
Trattoria La Rampa
The holy grail in Venice – at least for foodies – is finding that little hidden away place where locals go. In a city like Venice – which makes its living from the hoards of tourists who come here each year – these simple places are a dying breed. But Trattoria La Rampa is the exception. The small restaurant, with a hand painted sign outside, is located in an area of Venice where few tourists venture. Just north of the Biennale gardens, the small streets leading off of the wide Via Garibaldi are hung with laundry belonging to the mostly working class families that live here. La Rampa opens its doors at 5am. Yes. You read that right. They open that early because that is when the men who live in this neighborhood – police men, firemen, garbage men and other workers – head off for the day. They stop by La Rampa for a quick breakfast and the place remains open for the rest of the day until just after lunch.
A ramp (where the place gets it's name) leads into the restaurant. There's usually a few men lined up at the bancone, enjoying a coffee or a glass of wine, and maybe a sandwich. A low doorway at the back leads to the dining room, where a dozen tables are set for lunch. The menu changes daily. The day we were there most people were ordering spaghetti all' nero di seppie, thick strands of spaghetti coated in inky sauce.
Via Garibaldi, Castello 1135 (right in front of the market boat), Venice. Mon – Sat: 5am – 3pm. Tel. +39.365.649.0277
THE ENTRANCE TO NEIGHBOURHOOD FAVOURITE TRATTORIA LA RAMPA.
Caffe La Serra
Serra dei Giardini is a relatively new arrival in Venice. Well, actually, like everything else in Venice, it's very old. But it does have a new use. La Serra, or Greenhouse, was built in 1894, just around the corner from the Biennale gardens. It was used (like greenhouses are) to store delicate plants. In the 1990's it was abandoned and it started to slowly decay. Until the city of Venice realized what it was losing, restored it, and has rented out to various activities. Including a very cute little cafe. A dozen tables are scattered in the garden, and a few more are inside, within the sun soaked greenhouse itself. A limited – but healthy – menu features natural juices, organic salads and sandwiches as well as tarts (both savory and sweet). They even have a list of organic wines.
It's not a typical Venetian experience, but it is pretty magical. Either in the shade of the garden, or within the antique greenhouse.
Viale Garibaldi, Venice. Closed Monday. Tuesday – Thursday: 11.00 – 20.00 Friday: 11.00 – 21.00 Saturday – Sunday: 10.00 – 21.00. Tel. +39 041 296 0360
CAFFE LA SERRA. © ELIZABETH MINCHILLI.
I love Via Garibaldi. It's one of the widest 'streets' in Venice, and so is never that crowded. Which makes it the perfect place for a passeggiata. El Refolo is the perfect place to stop for a glass of wine and one of their excellent panini. This tiny spot usually has about 20 bottles open at any one time. And to pair, their sandwiches which change daily and are true works of art. Speck con Pate di Noci combines smoked prosciutto with walnut pate. Provola e Melanzane combined provola cheese with grilled eggplant for a vegetarian option. The meats and cheeses are all specially sourced, crafted by artisans in small quantities.
And if you feel like a spritz, this is the place to have one since they are one of the few places that still use the local and very hard to find Select bitter, instead of the more modern Aperol or Campari.
Via Garibaldi, Sestiere Castello, 1580, Venice. Tel. +39 344 163 6759
THE SANDWICHES AT REFOLO. © ELIZABETH MINCHILLI.
A cute little no-frills place that serves healthy, organic, vegetarian and vegan food. The small shop is set up with a display case at the back, and a long communal counter in the front. Choose your dish by pointing out what you'd like. You can mix and match, since everything is sold by the weight. The menu changes every day, and they have an 11 Euro fixed lunch menu that includes a first course, second course, two side dishes. Dishes include pastas, grain salads, vegetables and usually things like hummus and savory tarts. If you don't feel like eating in, they also serve take out, so you can head a block away to the benches along Viale Garibaldi to have a picnic.
Via Giuseppe Garibaldi, Castello 1341, Venice. Tel. +39 041 523 8173
The above are all simple places within a very short walk to the Biennale, and a good stop for lunch. If you'd like something fancier, and just a bit further, try these...
Corte Sconta is many people's favorite restaurant in Venice, and with good reason. The understated elegant interiors, on a narrow out of the way alley, play host to one of the most delicious fish-centric menus in Venice. The menu changes daily, and depends on the catch of the day. In the summer a charming hidden courtyard (from which the restaurant gets its name) allows outdoor seating.
Calle del Pestrin Pietro Riva Degli Schiavoni, 30122, Venice. Tel. +39 041 522 7024
THE BAR AT CORTE SCONTA.
Ristorante al Covo
Al Covo is no hidden secret. It's been a favorite with Americans – and especially American food and travel writers – for ages. This is due mostly to the food, but also to the warm welcome from American Diane Rankin, who comes from Texas and is the co-owner with her husband, Cesare. While Diane is in charge of the desert menu – featuring her fabulous chocolate cake – it's Cesare who will tell the fish stories. He is an expert on the fish of the lagoon and you won't find any farmed fish from afar here. Everything is just caught and often served raw or perfectly grilled. But they are also passionate at resurrecting forgotten Venetian recipes. Do have a look at the printed menu, but you'll be more likely to order something from the daily menu which Diane or Cesare will explain to you. If there are a lot of words you don’t understand, they are likely to be names of local fish that only exist in the lagoon. The side dishes all feature seasonal vegetables from the nearby island of San Erasmus.
Calle de la Pescaria, 3968 – 30122, Venice. Tel. +39 041 522 3812
A SQUID DISH AT RISTORANTE AL COVO. © ELIZABETH MINCHILLI.
This has got to be the most oddly located good restaurant in Venice. No, it's not on some hidden alleyway next to a small canal like most of the other great restaurants. Instead, it is located on the ground floor of a 3 star pensione on one of the most touristy stretches of the super touristy Riva Degli Schiavoni.
But Luca Fullin, whose family runs the pensione, has decided to turn the restaurant into one of the best in Venice. Focussing his attention on fresh local produce the menu features many ingredients from Slow Food's Ark of Taste. The dishes are straightforward, and prepared simply to highlight the incredible attention to quality.
Since Luca's main passion is wine, the list is full of surprises that you won't find elsewhere in town. Lots of small producers, including natural and biodymanic wines.
Riva Degli Schiavoni, Castello 4161, 30122, Venice. Tel. +39 041 522 7463
SPAGHETTI AL VONGOLE AT WILDNER. COURTESY OF HOTEL WILDNER, VENICE.
Other great places to visit around town...
Antiche Carampane (San Polo)
Ristorante Dalla Marisa (Cannaregio)
Gatto Nero (On Burano)
Osteria Anice Stellato (Cannaregio)
For more tips on eating in Venice download my app, EAT ITALY, available on iTunes.
Elizabeth Minchilli is Rome-based writer, who popular blog features all that is good to eat in Italy. She is the author of 7 books on Italian lifestyle, the app, EAT ITALY, and leads food-centric tours in Rome and Umbria.