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.
'The average tourist spends 11 hours in Venice,' he tells me, 'most of it around San Marco and Rialto Square, where they eat overpriced pizza and cannelloni from a packet. But behind this Disneyland façade there's the real city, with absolutely fantastic food prepared by people who are passionate about it — you just need to know where to look.'
Venice is set on a lagoon full of seafood and surrounded by garden islands — the raw materials are right on the city's doorstep and they're served fresh all day in different guises at the bàcari around town. Our tasting starts at All' Arco, a postage stamp-sized place near Rialto with a constant flow of locals popping in for a bite. Run by Francesco Pinto and his son Matteo, All' Arco has been in the family for four generations. There's no menu — early every morning they go to the market and what you get depends on what they find.
The rush starts at 8am with fishermen who've finished their shifts. It's 11am when we arrive, but small glasses of local red wine, Prosecco and spritz are already being sipped all around. 'These bàcari are traditional little pit stops, like petrol stations to keep you refuelled as you go about your day,' says Norman. 'Spritz is really as essential a Venetian experience as any food.'
We tuck into sarde in saór — sardines in an onion marinade served on toast. It's made by cooking the onions until they almost dissolve, frying the butterflied sardines in butter and layering them with vinegar, raisins and pine nuts. The dish is a staple on Polpo's menu although, as UK sardines are too large, sprats are used instead. 'Our philosophy is to keep the heart of the dish but use the best produce we can get as locally as possible,' says Norman. 'The key is in the simplicity: we never have more than three main ingredients in a dish.'
Baccalà mantecato, 'the Holy Grail of bàcari eating', is next, an amazing creamy cod, prepared with garlic and parsley, served on toast or sometimes on polenta. Made from the dried fish, it's soaked for hours and hand-whisked with olive oil time and time again. There are plates of cichèti displayed on the bar, roasted vegetables on bread, courgette flowers stuffed with ricotta, and bollito misto, boiled meats in clear broth — all deliciously fresh and uncomplicated.
Around the corner from All' Arco, Do Mori (the Two Moors) is worth a peek. Dating from 1462 — it's claimed Casanova drank here — this is one of the oldest bàcari in Italy and incredibly evocative, with low ceilings and a stone slab floor. Its wine from vats is served in tiny glasses known as ombre or shadows. Wine at Norman's London restaurants is served in small glasses too — 'Our wines are all young vintages from this area of Italy. It's the perfect way to drink them.'
Despite loving the casualness of the bàcari, Norman decided that in the UK seating had to be offered. 'Brits are obsessed with sitting and reserving. I don't think we're ready for a real bàcari where you just point, eat standing up and go — but we've retained the food philosophy and the atmosphere as much as we can,' he says.
We leave Do Mori and wander on, through Venice's windy streets, over canals and down narrow alleys, into the Cannaregio district — a great area for lesser-known, good-value eateries. Ponte del Cavallo has several inviting bars, but we stop at Ostaria al Ponte, one of the most enticing with its red-shuttered façade. Set opposite the vast Gothic Basilica dei Santi Giovanni e Paolo and ridiculously picturesque hospital, Ospedale Civile, its regulars naturally include doctors and priests. We tuck into plates of mixed meat, butter beans with white cheese, musetto (a type of rich fatty sausage served in winter) and grilled radicchio. Another 'small plate' triumph.
For any foodie visiting Venice, a trip to Rialto market, where much of the produce served at the bàcari comes from, is a must. Right on the canal, with stone pillars and wood beams, it's certainly pretty and the antithesis of a sanitised supermarket shop. Stalls are piled high with Veneto fare, much of which looks as if it's landed from another planet with its lurid colours and defiantly not supermarket regulation shapes. There are huge, misshapen blood-red tomatoes, deep purple radicchio di Treviso, crimson capsicum, neon green pointy cauliflowers and slices of pale artichoke heart in tubs.
In the fish section, we spot tiny moeche (soft shell crab), seppie (squid) of all sizes and seppioline (cuttlefish). A sign reads 'seppioline nostrano' — 'our cuttlefish' — indicating a pride that the produce is locally caught. Seagulls hang around, helping themselves to a sushi feast when morsels of raw fish drop to the floor.
Joining the locals clutching shopping bags, we take a traghetti, one of the 'commuter gondolas' that cross the Grand Canal at certain spots, across to the other side (it's a great way to get your gondola ride on the cheap — though there are no seats, everyone stands).
It's not far to Ca' d'Oro, one of the longer established osterie. Run by Mirella Doni and her brother Renzo, Ca' d'Oro has been a bar for more than 130 years, and at lunchtime is packed. You can stand at the bar for a quick snack (the meatballs are heaven), but there are tables here. It has a similar feel to Polpo — 'We wanted to create the feeling that Polpo had been there forever too,' says Norman. Diners feast on staples such as bigoli in salsa, a pasta dish with anchovy and onions, and cuttlefish cooked in its own black ink (a Venetian speciality and a favourite on Polpo's menu too), both washed down with carafes of Veneto wine.
Heading back out onto the busy Strada Nuova, the next stop on our bàcari crawl is La Cantina. The emphasis is on wine, though craft beer fans should try La Cantina's own brew, the delicious Morgana. There's no space to cook here, just the biggest meat slicer I've ever seen, and meat and raw fish plates — as well as oysters in season — are house specials. Owner Francesco choreographs the arrival of our plates of cheese and meat like a dance, everything is so beautifully presented and totally scrumptious. 'I love the characters in these places,' says Norman. 'They could be serving up any old food to please tourists, but they won't — they take such pride in what they do.'
One character any food-lover should encounter in Venice is the flamboyant Contessa Enrica Rocca, who runs cookery and wine-pairing classes from her apartment — the converted laundry of the riverside palazzo that was her family home before harder times meant it had to be divided into flats and rented out.
It's a slick Manhattan-style place, with zebra-print stools, modern artworks adorning the walls, a mezzanine sleeping area and gleaming chrome kitchen. 'Thank goodness for the iPad. Now I can use my bookshelves to store wine instead!' she laughs. It's a Monday when we visit — the fish market's closed, so the feast she has prepared is meat and vegetable based. Artichoke hearts are pan-fried with garlic and parsley — 'It's the only city in the world where you'll see artichoke hearts like this,' says the contessa. Pork ribs are tenderly seasoned with rosemary and sage, and oyster mushrooms are simply griddled and served with olive oil and salt. It's all delicious — and I'm already plotting to return for a cookery course.
Besides the focus on using the best ingredients from the local area, one thing that really gives Venetian cuisine a character of its own is the spice route heritage of the city's trading past. One place that draws inspiration from Renaissance times is Alle Testiere, not a bàcari, but a tiny restaurant, not far from Santa Maria Formosa, where ginger, cardamom, cinnamon and coriander are used in recipes that sometimes date back to the 1500s.
Gnocchetti is served with cinnamon-perfumed baby squid — a complete melt-in-the-mouth sensation — sweet raw langoustine come with figs, John Dory fillets are delicately flavoured with citrus, spices and fine herbs, and baby razor clams are juicy and tender. Owner Luca talks almost poetically about the dishes, which change every day, and describes wine in such a way you really feel it is the nectar of the gods.
Again it's the freshness and the love and pride that goes into each dish that's striking. Chef Bruno works in a space he can barely turn around in, with just a couple of hobs. Pasta, such as the pumpkin and ricotta ravioli with swordfish on the menu today, is prepared by Luca's wife, as well as the puddings. It's one of Norman's favourite restaurants. 'I bring my staff here,' he says, 'It's such an inspiration.' Indeed, it's truly one of the best meals I've ever eaten, made all the more delectable by the feeling that you've discovered a hidden secret. It's the kind of magical cuisine this fairy-tale city is really about — if you know where to look.