In Venice, it’s never too early for an aperitivo. Especially at the weekend, when spritz o’clock chimes at around 10am, and the campi fill with locals drinking and putting the world to rights.
So it was without any qualms that Dom and I knocked back a prosecco at 11am last Saturday, in a cichetteria tucked away just off Rialto. We were on the first stop of the Hidden Venice Food Tour from The Roman Guy – a tour company that specialises in taking visitors off the beaten track, and feeding them pretty well while they’re at it. And in Venice, that’s an honourable challenge.
You see, in a city with the highest ratio of restaurants to people in Italy, it can be tricky to sort the wheat from the chaff. Faced with so much choice, skipping the gloomy bacaro in favour of a well-lit restaurant a few steps from St Mark’s Square is a tempting option. But of course, it’s almost always the wrong one.
Instead, just as our tour guide Rossella advised us, follow the locals. And that doesn’t mean trekking to the edge of town. In fact, the first stop on our foodie tour was Corte dell’Orso – a bacaro, just 30 seconds from the hustle and bustle of Campo San Bartolomio. There we ate hot fried mozzarella in carrozza (literally ‘mozzarella in a carriage’), and bite-sized slices of bread topped with smoked salmon, baccala mantecato (a Venetian favourite), and prosciutto slathered in brie.
From there we crossed the Grand Canal on a traghetto – the far less glamorous, but eminently more functional (and affordable), cousin of the gondola. Our next stop was waiting for us on the other side, right next to the Rialto Market – bustling with shoppers snapping up the last of the morning’s deals.
Al Merca is little more than a hole in the wall, offering a selection of tiny panini, and of course, something alcoholic to wash them down. Patrons have no choice here but to spill out into the campo in a gloriously convivial muddle. Venetian cicchetti is a social affair, as much about talking as it is about eating and drinking, so it was great to be able to chat with the rest of the wonderful folks on our tour group as we sipped our Aperol Spritz. We were lucky to find such great company on our tour, but how bad can anyone who signs up for a secret food tour of Venice really be?
That was the end of the giro d’ombra (Venetain pub crawl). A short walk brought us to Pane Vino e San Daniele, a friendly osteria tucked down an unassuming calle. Bruschetta (pronounced brus-KET-a), rubbed with plenty of garlic and piled with fresh tomato was offered up and enthusiastically received. Then we were treated to gnocchetti coated in a luxurious cream sauce.
Feeling full, socially lubricated and ready for a nap, we moved onto our last stop: Goppion Caffetteria. As well as crafting some very impressive chocolate sculptures, they make a damn fine cup of coffee – just the thing when you’ve eaten your body weight in carbs.
Then, after two and half hours of fantastic conversation and food, we said our goodbyes. It’s strange how you can feel a pang of sorrow at leaving a group of people you’ve only known for two hours, but that’s just what this tour does to you. Rather than bombarding us with history and facts, Rossella joined us in conversation, inspiring discussions on what we were eating, and the intricacies of Venetian food culture. It meant that in the space of a morning, we came to feel close to those we were eating alongside. And I guess that’s really what food is all about in Venice – conviviality. Standing at a bar or in a campo; cicchetti in one hand, spritz in the other; and the orchestra of conversation all around. This might not be hidden Venice, but it’s the Venice we like best.
The Roman Guy invited us to experience the tour free of charge, but all of our opinions are our own. Check out their Venice tours for more info on their tours across Italy.