From film stars to Michelin stars: a guide to fine dining in Venice
I can honestly say that when I moved to Venice 20 years ago, I never thought the day would come when I was spoilt for choice with gourmet fine-dining options. In those days, trattorie would grumpily announce last orders at 9pm and a mediocre “menu turistico” was often over-priced.
Yes, I witnessed the “bacaro” revolution, traditional osterie whose chefs rediscovered the art of “cicchetti”, delicious Venetian-style tapas, finally providing high-quality, affordable food for locals and tourists alike. But even a few years ago, there was barely a restaurant that could lay claim to being gastronomic.
As the Venice Film Festival crowd descends this week, discerning diners can discover eight Michelin-starred addresses in La Serenissima, with food critics predicting the promotion of at least one chef here to the giddy heights of two- or three-star status. Moreover, there is a blossoming group of young, ambitious chefs who are likely to join the city’s Michelin elite soon, with a distinctive locavore cuisine that puts to the fore the cornucopia of fresh, seasonal vegetables and seafood from Venice’s fertile islands, lagoon and Adriatic waters.
I begin my fine dining tour by reserving a table upstairs at the historic Caffe Quadri, which offers the ultimate vista over Piazza San Marco. Since it opened in 1638, Quadri’s lustrous dining room has been the ultimate address for a memorable, romantic meal, although the food has never quite matched the surroundings.
Today though, I am tasting a dazzling 16-course menu at a cost of €250 (Dh1,060) created by Massimo Alajmo, one of the youngest chefs in the world to rise to three Michelin stars, with his gastronomic temple in nearby Padova, and whose decision to take over Quadri firmly marked the arrival of Venice on the gastronomic map. The whole experience is daring and exciting, with a recent renovation by Philippe Starck revolutionising the traditional decor by juxtaposting surreal stuffed animals with angelic wings alongside a show of glittering Murano chandeliers.
Alajmo tells me that, “while my philosophy of cuisine remains the same in all our restaurants, at Quadri I wanted to maximise the wonderful produce of the lagoon”. His delicate zuppetta di pesce features tasty local bovoleti sea snails, the classic spaghetti aglio, olio, peperoncino is transformed
with wild asparagus, while succulent soft-shell moeche crabs are fried with salicorn and curcuma.
The chef recalls that when he arrived in the city, fine dining was very limited, “but now an exciting new generation of young chefs are opening their own restaurants, ready to dream and dare to create gourmet cuisine here in Venice”.
Caffe Quadri is not the only historic venue to lure a gastronomic chef. A short walk past the Doge’s Palace along the Riva degli Schiavoni takes me to the waterside Metropole Hotel, a luxurious bolthole whose owner, Gloria Begiatto, is convinced the family’s 16th palazzo is the perfect venue for a stellar restaurant. Signora Begiatto has entrusted the decor of her Met restaurant to local fashion designer Silvia Bisconti, who has created a romantic, baroque salon filled with Fortuny lamps, plush velvet Bevilacqua drapes and the ball gowns she has designed exhibited on the wall.
The waiters and waitresses wear Bisconti’s extravagant creations, wafting between tables like catwalk models.
Chef Luca Veritti complements the mood with a playful cuisine that both reinterprets Venetian heritage dishes and looks to the future with more personal, creative recipes. I could not resist his six-course vegetarian menu for €130 (Dh550), where certain plates resemble artworks, like carrot mousse with ginger, moss-scented crumble and tapioca chips, or the totally delicious paccheri pasta filled with pea puree, mint crunch and lime-flavoured goats cheese.
Back on the Riva degli Schiavoni, I jump on the sleek private motorboat of the legendary Cipriani Hotel, which takes me across the lagoon to the favoured holiday hideaway of the rich and famous. The exclusive Oro restaurant is a showcase for the talents of Davide Bisetto, the only Italian chef to win two Michelin stars in France.
I remember a meal when Bisetto was at Casa del Mar in Corsica, and am intrigued why he forsake fame in France to start anew in Venice. The answer is quickly apparent when he shows me round his “orto”, an immense garden of 300 kinds of vegetables, edible flowers, plants and aromatic herbs – genuinely cultivated for cooking rather than the classic publicity pictures that chefs love posing for.
Given his international reputation and daily presence in Oro’s kitchen, Bisetto is clearly the favourite for Michelin promotion, and his cuisine is nothing less than a triumph, especially dishes Seppie Nere, a daring reinterpretation of the classic Venetian inky squid, combining tender slow-cooked cuttlefish with ponzu, fermented daikon and asparagus milk. And I could not quite believe my eyes when the waiter served his signature Horto Nostri, an audacious creation of more than 30 dried and fresh vegetables and salads (eight course vegetarian tasting menu for €160, Dh680).
Preparing this in the kitchen must be crazy, but the result is both visually stunning and a revelation for your taste buds. The chef says: “I came here with the aim of waking up and revitalising the Cipriani with my own concept of fine dining. We have had to change staff, suppliers, decor and above all, the cuisine, to convince diners to come her for a unique gourmet experience not the safe comfort food that Cipriani was famous for. I want people to return to the Grand Restaurant concept, from the plate to the dishes, the service and the location. And sitting here looking over St Mark’s Basin could not be more emotional and romantic.”
Like Alajmo, Bisetto is equally enthusiastic about the young chefs now arriving in Venice, and he advises I plunge into the backstreets of the Serenissima to discover Zanze XVI and Local. Both new venues are affordable modern diners – there are no starched linen tablecloths or crystal wineglasses, minimalist decor and casually-dressed waiters.
Both follow a philosophy of locavore cuisine, using almost exclusively “kilometre-zero” produce, from sustainable lagoon and Adriatic seafood to organic vegetables. Overlooking a quiet canal, Zanze is one of the oldest trattorie in Venice, dating to the 1500s, now a sleek contemporary osteria run by 26-year-old Luca Tartaglia, who has just returned from three years in Paris in the kitchens of Astrance, the gastronomic diner of one of France’s greatest chefs, the much-travelled Pascal Barbot.
Although the ambiance is no-frills, Tartaglia creates sophisticated haute-cuisine dishes, like classic Venetian sarde in saor – sardines in onions and vinegar – reconstructed into a romantic, oriental presentation with delicate pastel petals showered with pink raspberry powder. And the price is more than reasonable, beginning with a €25 (Dh105) lunch menu.
Over on the other side of town, towards the Biennale Gardens, the relaxed Local (seven-course menu €95, Dh405) is another exciting surprise. Venetian chef Matteo Tagliapietra manages to excel with each seasonally-inspired dish that emerges from his open kitchen, as I try iced lettuce paired with a plump oyster, lagoon eel sauteed with mango miso and tart puntarella salad, and succulent, deeply-grilled artichoke smothered with intense rocket and black garlic sauces. It strikes me that it is only a matter of time before Local is consecrated with a Michelin star.
There is one more unmissable gourmet experience in Venice, and for this I pick up the public ferry at Fondamente Nove and head across the waters of the lagoon to Mazzorbo, last stop before the tourist island of Burano. Tiny Mazzorbo has a handful of inhabitants but it also boasts Venissa, a Michelin-starred restaurant with glass walls that let diners look out over a landscape of vineyards and vegetable gardens.
The crowds of visitors back in Venice seem a million miles away. The Bisol family, who have been making Prosecco on the mainland since 1542, replanted vines on Mazzorbo to produce a lagoon wine, and have invested heavily in their fine dining restaurant.
Chef Chiara Pavan supervises a young, enthusiastic team of cooks, and much of the fresh produce they use comes straight from Venissa’s gardens and the fishermen of Burano. Her recipes are intriguing, predominantly seafood and vegetarian (five-course tasting menu €90, Dh380), often using a mix of Asian spices and local produce.
Line-fished mackerel is paired with yuzu, basil oil and refreshing cucumber, spaghetti is topped with raw prawns, aromatic juniper and crunchy green tomatoes, while simple cured fish roe is smothered with hazelnuts and shallots. And the beauty of dining at Venissa is you can book a room in their comfortable hotel and watch the Sun rise over the lagoon in the morning before heading back for sightseeing in Venice.