I have a love/hate relationship with Venice. It’s like the pet that keeps peeing on the floor. It’s just far enough from almost everywhere else I want to go in Italy to make it inconvenient and the food is mediocre while also terribly expensive. With every bite I take of a meal in Venice I think, “I wish you were just a little bit better or a little less expensive.” But it’s not going to be any better or cheaper any more than my cat is going to stop peeing where it shouldn’t.
And yet Venice, like my cat, is magical. It looks like no other place on Earth and you have to see it at least once, and probably the sooner the better, as it’s falling into the very water that surrounds it and makes it so magical.
When dealing with Venice – or my cat – it’s best to adjust your expectations. You will not eat great. You will see a large amount of Americans, so many that you will wonder why you even bothered leaving the states. And the closer you get to Piazza San Marco, the greater the likelihood that you will be crushed in a sea of humanity somewhere between a Prada and a Chanel store. If I wanted that I could have stayed home and just yelled, “Free boob jobs!” on Rodeo Drive. And if you are lucky enough to make it through that scrum alive, you will pay at least ten dollars for a cappuccino while you watch tourists get bird flu because they think it’s cool to get attacked by pigeons.
But you will get to ride everywhere on boats! And you will always feel like a million dollar Bond girl every time you get off of one and step onto the dock. You will see some amazing art, whether it’s modern at the Guggenheim or much older at the Accademia. You will see some grand old buildings and some charming not so grand, old ones, too. And you will ride in a gondola despite your cynicism and you will love it. The fact that they let you bring a bottle of wine helps.
Lodging might be challenging. In fact, while at dinner there just a few weeks ago, I overheard some statistic that only half of the tourists you see in Venice are actually spending the night there. The reason being (and again I was eavesdropping and drinking so make of it what you will) is that it’s much cheaper to just come in for the day off either one of those ghastly cruise ships or from a much more reasonably priced town a mere train ride away. Indeed the last two times I’ve been to Venice I’ve gotten a “good deal” and splurged at one of the Bauer’s hotels, after giving up on finding anything reasonably priced and figuring I would save money elsewhere in the itinerary.
The Bauer Il Palazzo gave us an incredible view of the Grand Canal and we enjoyed watching all of the activity from our room almost as much as we enjoyed being part of it down below. Plus, the staff was unbelievably attentive and helpful with whatever we needed.
Our experience wasn’t as good at the Bauer Palladio on the Giudecca. A remodeled convent, the hotel and grounds itself were lovely and the island was much quieter than being in the heart of Venice. (For example, we didn’t hear the gondoliers sing “Ciao, Venezia” twice an hour as they floated by.) But the staff were at times cranky and unhelpful plus our door didn’t properly lock the entire 3 days we were there and little was done to address that situation.
I’m not going to lie, most of our restaurant recommendations on this last trip were straight out of Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations: Venice. We’d had a disastrous time the last time we were there, having gotten lost coming back from a thoroughly average meal the first night and then getting conned into Harry’s the second. By the way, here’s probably a good place to say this:
DON’T GO TO HARRY’S
Not wanting to repeat the same mistakes, we did some research and by that I mean, we watched an hour of TV while drinking wine. Best research ever.
Al Covo was on the fancier side, and a little bit more nouvelle than I like to eat when I’m in Italy. For example, when we ordered the baccala mantecato with polenta, we expected it to come with more than a square of polenta about half the size of a ring box and some artistically arranged and burnt slices of what I think was once bread. (The bit of polenta we did get, as well as the baccala, were both very good, however.) And to be fair, one of the toasts wasn’t burnt, although it was sliced so thin most of it was holes and I was perplexed as to how one would spread any of the mantecato on it without it falling through. However, the actual bread plate was one of the highlights of Venice cuisine, all of it being homemade, including these smaller breadsticks that I think were their spin on taralli and tasted like Christmas. (If I had to guess, I would say butter. Lots of it.) And my monkfish in a potato leek fondue with Cosaruciaro beans (8 of them, I counted) was really delicious and the perfect antidote to the heavy tortelloni I spent 5 days in Emilia Romagna eating. (The pancetta wrapped around the fish probably helped.)
We also really enjoyed Da Romano on the island of Burano. The famous risotto Romano wasn’t quite as flavorful as I had hoped, but I was really excited to try my first Sarde in Saor which was sardines cooked with onions and vinegar and a larger than ring box size square of polenta. Plus we washed the whole thing down with a Greco di Tufo that I still dream about and the waiters in their white dinner jackets were thoroughly old school and charming.
We also stopped by Locanda Montin in the Dorsiduro, one of the few places that felt really authentic in that everyone who was in there was Italian. Not a fanny pack in sight! I had more baccala mantecato, and a mixed fish grill that was very, very fresh.
But my favorite dish – and also the least expensive – was at Trattoria Altonella on the Giudecca. It was a simple spaghetti, cooked perfectly, with a sauce of anchovies and onions. I realize that’s a very specific flavor profile for some people, but if it’s your thing, it doesn’t get any better and that’s even drinking it with red wine as I was, because I had had it with white wine. The one drawback of all that fish is that you have to drink white wine with all of it and while I love a good one as much as the next person, I’m a red wine gal at heart. And it seems criminal to be in Italy where the wine feels practically free after paying all of the tariffs and import fees in the States, and only drinking white wine.
But whatever wine you’re drinking, you’ll be fine as long as you –
DON’T GO TO HARRY’S.
The one American you will be glad to see is Peggy Guggenheim, whose face adorns the tickets to her palazzo which is now the Guggenheim museum. In addition to her unparalleled collection of modern art, the museum also features a temporary exhibit, and the last two times I was there it was showcasing Italian art from the 60’s. Plus, where else in the world are you going to bask in the sun on her boat launch, taking in both a Calder and the other Palazzi of the Grand Canal. There’s also a statue of a man riding a horse with a rather large penis (the man, not the horse) that our gondolier told us was supposedly detachable and that Peggy used to use as a dildo. (I’m just repeating what I was told so please don’t sue me Guggenheim Foundation.)
This last trip we went to the Gallerie Accademia which had an exhibit on the man who basically invented fonts in the 16th century, but which they advertised with a painting of a woman whose boob was hanging out, because nothing about fonts is sexy.
I’m being glib, but there is nothing quite like a thoughtfully curated exhibit and both the Accademia and Guggenheim never disappoint. It’s one thing to be able to walk into a museum and see some famous work of art that you appreciate because it’s famous and now you’ve see it. It’s another thing to learn something about the age and culture in which it was created: why it’s famous and how it was influenced by what came before it and influenced what came after. It’s what always pushes a museum over the top for me and leaves me feeling like I’m bringing something home with me: an experience, knowledge or just a new way of thinking about things.
In addition to fonts, Aldo Manuzio invented the paperback. It was seen as a status symbol for rich people because it meant that a. they could read and b. they could afford books. It was like a Louis Vuitton bag of its day, except not ugly and made of plastic, and it would be nice if books were once again status symbols. As footage of any Trump rally will show you we’re already headed towards a culture where we can’t take it for granted that everyone can read.
The Basilica di San Marco is a gold leaf and mosaic assault on the senses whose exterior looks more like the Small World exhibit at Disneyland and for all of these reasons is definitely worth seeing. I recommend getting a ticket that allows you to skip the line. And The Husband’s new favorite building is the Doges’ Palace, also in Piazza San Marco, which looks amazing but I skipped that day because the English speaking tour started at 8:45.
This time around we also got out to the island of Burano. Burano is famous for having the delightfully painted houses that you see in photos all the time and say, “Where is that?” It’s Burano, an island of mostly fishermen who painted their houses like that so that they could see them through the fog. And now hordes of people make their way to the island to stare at their homes, take photos and walk the gauntlet of tourist shops offering Burano lace which apparently isn’t real Burano lace anymore, as real Burano lace is prohibitively expensive. But it is very pretty and also
has a large collection of cats that looks as if they came from the Island of Dr. Moreau as they are the strangest mix of breeds I’ve ever seen. As I said, we had a lovely lunch at Da Romano and the boat ride was fun and relaxing, with a triple rainbow over the Burano on our way back.
While I find Venice lacking in food, it does not disappoint when it comes to bars. In fact, once we realized that Venice was more of a bar hopping city, we liked it a lot better. Some of the pours aren’t big, but at as little as 3 Euros a glass, who cares? We hit three places this trip that we found fun and charming and were delighted with the wine. (A big thing in bar culture. I’m wary of any place where the only option is some house wine that may have been made from prunes in a toilet and opened 3 weeks ago.) And the convenient thing about the bars is that they will usually have cicchetti, a selection of small bites sitting in a glass container that may have been made that day or may have been made last year, but either way is a cheaper alternative to the other food and in most cases probably just as good. Regardless, at least you’re NOT AT HARRY’S.
Bacarando was a wine bar and restaurant we hit before we went to dinner at Al Covo. Small and charming, it seemed populated by only Italians and the staff was friendly and really knew their wine which I thought was amazing.
The bar at La Caravella was a bit more upscale being part of a hotel and in close proximity to Le Fenice and Piazzo San Marco. But they offered a full menu of mixed drinks and spirits and each round came with snacks and small bites like white fish on a crostini or ricotta with olive. Plus, it’s where we saw a number of gondoliers drinking before presumably going back out to drag tourists around the laguna, so that was fun.
But probably what felt the most authentic was Osteria Stella Polare, a small place that we stumbled into walking back from the Fondamenta Nuove vaporetto stop after returning from Burano. It wasn’t quite 5:00 yet and we sat outside watching people try to avoid the rain while next to us sat and older Veneziano. He had two glasses as people approached him and talked to him before moving on. He and I spoke in Italian about how pretty the rain was before he said something cynical like, “It’s every day. It’s not that pretty.”
No, but at least IT’S NOT HARRY’S.
And now, the Harry’s story.
I’m telling you this so you don’t beat yourself up when you’re traveling. Because we all make mistakes and I made two big ones. Our first night in Venice last time, we sought out a small restaurant off the beaten path that had been recommended to us by an Italian, thinking that we were saving money and not being tourists. Unfortunately, not only was the dinner just OK, but on the way back we got lost, and then got into a fight about it. It was mostly my fault; I have a tremendous sense of direction, even in a place like Venice, and when it fails me it’s a crushing blow to my ego. And I had been doing very well that night, orienting myself with the laguna and remembering places we had passed until it all went to hell, and there we were, two lost Americans fighting in a piazza. Not my finest moment.
But I share this because if you’re traveling with a significant other you’re bound to have your share of fights. You’re someplace unknown, you’re jetlagged, you’re drinking….You are not alone. These things happen. The important thing is to have make-up sex as soon as possible.
So the next night we were determined to avoid any drama, even if that meant sacrificing our desire for off the beaten track authenticity. We were having tea with an older English gentleman at our hotel who was denouncing the hotel and everywhere in its vicinity as being so expensive when he asked us, “Have you been to Harry’s Bar?”
“No,” I said, having heard of it, “Should we go?”
“Well, everyone should go once,” he replied nonchalantly. He did not add that it was RIDICULOUSLY expensive, and since he had just been complaining about everywhere that was, it never occurred to us that this may also be the case here. What I knew was that it was so close to the hotel that we couldn’t get lost and that greatly appealed to me, even if it was a bit touristy. I had already accepted that I wasn’t going to get the best meal. I just wanted to avoid a fight.
So that night around 9 we walked to Harry’s Bar and I’m happy to say we didn’t get lost. We stopped outside of it and tried to find a menu to look at, only they didn’t have one posted. Instead, a man in a dapper white dinner jacket whisked us inside, took our jackets and sat us at a table. That should have been our first clue. They don’t want you to look at a menu or have time to think. In fact, you don’t even leave through the same side you enter so you can’t meet anyone on their way out who might tell you to turn back.
Once we were seated and realized how expensive it was I realized we had two choices: we could go back to Venice at 9:30 at night and try to find some alternative, without a reservation, and hope that we didn’t get lost or get into a fight or we could make the best of things and enjoy each other’s company over a ridiculously priced meal and try to turn it into a story that some day we might laugh over. We did the latter, although The Husband will never laugh over it. But I was the one who eventually paid the bill when the statement came, and I don’t remember it as being this awful experience I never got over. Sometimes when you travel things happen. People fight. And not every experience is a home run. That’s life. Don’t beat yourself up. Enough other amazing things will happen that it will be the last thing you remember about your trip.