Talking with my friend Martina about what a bad blogger I’ve been when it comes to detailing our anniversary trip to Venice made me want to buckle down and write the post that’s been percolating in my head for several weeks now. Before we left for our trip, several people told us we’d probably have a good time but not to expect much from the food. Since we’re pretty passionate about the food we eat, hearing that feedback was a disappointment but rather than letting it impact us too negatively I took to the internet to research food tours in Venice. Surprisingly – or not, depending on your point of view – there were a number of options available … but because of the time of year we visited, many of them were closed down for the season. My general philosophy is cities that have good food usually have a number of food tours available to tourists, so seeing the breadth of options available brightened my spirits. The day before we left I booked two options without doing much research and didn’t give it another thought. When we were in the water taxi on the way into the city Alan pointed out to me that I’d basically booked the exact same tour two nights in a row, just offered by two different companies. I canceled the cheaper one in favor of keeping the Progressive Dinner Through Cannaregio led by an American couple who runs Venice Food Bites.
You might be thinking that going with an expat-led tour instead of a local is a strange choice, and normally I would be inclined to agree with you. But the thing you get with having an American who has immersed themselves in the culture is a guide who understands where you’re coming from and is better equipped to help you navigate this strange, new world based on your inherent biases and experiences. We joked a few times during the tour that I’m essentially a British person living in an American’s body since in new social situations I hate interrupting, favor politeness in all social interactions, and will never step forward and volunteer my voice unless specifically asked to do so. I also love a good queue. (When people don’t properly queue it freaks me out. Really.) My philosophy paid off in spades when we met Maya, 1/2 of the couple who runs the tour – and then our fellow tourists, all with a personal tie to California. Right away it was like a night on the town with friends instead of awkwardly stilted the way some groups can be when you don’t know one another and are in an uncomfortable situation. The thing I loved about this tour was that Maya personally knew the proprietors of all the places we visited, including small details about their families and lives that earned us a very warm welcome in a few of the restaurants we visited. Through her 23 year love affair with Venice, she has learned the city inside and out and used her knowledge to not only educate us on why the food was the way it was and how dining in Venetian culture works, but also empowered us to become comfortable with dining out by ourselves during the remainder of our visit.
So, what kind of food did we eat? Well, the tour was focused on cicchetti, small snacks or side dishes that are typically served in traditional bàcari. Common cicchetti include tiny sandwiches, plates of olives or other vegetables, or small servings of seafood, meat, and/or vegetables served atop a piece of bread of a slice of polenta. Similar to Spanish tapas, you can easily make a full meal of cicchetti by ordering everything that appeals to you. Traditionally not served in Venetian homes, cicchetti are the cornerstone of lunch or an evening out with friends. Cicchetti are most always eaten with a glass of wine or an Aperol Spritz. We did eat some gnocchi at one restaurant and dessert at the final one, but for me the various cicchetti bacari were the highlight of the night.
The next afternoon I was still sick – getting sicker, in fact – so I slept in late and while snoozing Alan mapped out our own cicchetti walking tour of Dorsoduro, another neighborhood in Venice, based on the daytime tour Venice Food Bites offers. Because Google Maps is terrible about navigating the small lanes and canals of Venice, we only found our way to two of the places he’d intended us to visit, but oh boy were they terrific.
We enjoyed one of the places we visited on the guided tour so much that we went back for our anniversary dinner a couple of nights later. One of the dishes I’d been craving was a fritto misto and Osteria La Bottega ai Promessi Sposi did not disappoint. It was also the second time during our trip I ordered spaghetti with cuttlefish ink and this time it was superb. Alan wasn’t a huge fan of the texture of the sauce (or the flavor, I don’t think), but I generally love squid ink so I devoured that plate of pasta like it was going out of style. Alan ordered pappardelle with what we think was a rabbit ragu. We saw it on someone else’s table as we were seated and it looked – and yes, tasted – excellent.
By the time our trip was over we were confidently walking into restaurants, ordering the items that looked the tastiest, and generally discovering the type of good, local food we enjoy most both at home and during our travels. The one thing we learned, however, is maybe to ignore online posts that tell you how you have to order while in Venice because we ended up ordering way too much food and at the last restaurant we visited the night before we left, the waitress looked at us like we were crazy. I had been told by several people that each person should order both a pasta and a main dish but there was just no way to make it through that much food without eating yourself silly. By all means, don’t go into a restaurant and order an appetizer to split between your party because then yes, they will tell you to go to hell, but also be realistic about how much you can eat and how much you want to eat. By the time we got home to Dublin I didn’t want to eat for three days.