It's early evening in Caffè Rosso in Venice's bohemian Santa Margherita Square and I'm watching barman Raf prepare a spritz — a drink that no visitor to this magical watery city should miss. Into the chunky glass goes Campari, then white wine, topped with a dash of soda, a slice of lemon and crowned with a deep green, juicy olive.
It's the bar's most popular drink (Campari can be substituted with Aperol if desired). 'How many steps do you walk a day?' replies Raf with a shrug when I ask him how many spritzes he makes on a busy evening. I take a sip and can see why — the delicious bitterness of the Campari melds with the dry wine, the soda refreshes and the saltiness of the olive complements it all.
I'm in Venice with Russell Norman, the man behind the Italian restaurants Polpo, da Polpo and Polpetto, which have recently taken London by storm (for the record, he owns American speakeasy-inspired Spuntino and Mishkin's, a take on the Jewish deli, too). We're on a quest to sample real Venetian cuisine, the stuff that's so easy to miss as a tourist, focusing on the bàcari (small bars) where cichèti, the uniquely Venetian-style tapas that originally inspired Norman, are served.
Since he first visited the city in 1984, Norman has been back countless times, drawn by the romance of its beautiful decrepitude and the delight of discovering the uncommercialised eateries of the locals, all the while 'picking up ideas like a magpie' for his own ventures.
Norman describes the growth of his restaurants as like having kids — some were planned, some weren't ('but the happy accidents are no less loved!') — and his passion for all things foodie is immediately contagious. The day before we meet he'd run the Venice marathon but he's determined to pound the streets again in an effort to share Venice's hidden foodie haunts — with the help of the occasional painkiller and the odd spritz along the way.
Way to go
British Airways flies to Venice from London Heathrow and Gatwick. Flight time: about two hours. Visit ba.com, where you can also book Avis car hire and great-value holidays.
Join the Executive Club and earn up to 3,510 Avios points when you fly Club Europe to Venice (return). Or redeem your points: 15,000 will get you to Venice*.
*Euro Traveller return, excluding taxes, fees and surcharges.
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