In fact, we remain aware of Venice's impending demise through reports, not observation, and the food is beyond a doubt the most underrated in all of Italy.
To many Americans, it's somehow seen as a shortcoming that all the good Venetian restaurants specialize in fish, and use less butter and garlic than in much of northern Italy, almost no Parmesan or prosciutto, and but a few spices. Yes, the cooking is limited in scope, intensely regional and seasonal; but Alice Waters has been proclaimed a genius for cooking this way.
It all seems strange at first, but then you remember that Venice was the seat of an empire, and is unusual even in a confederation of former city-states. They do their own thing there, and they do it so well that you can eat variations of the same dishes over and over and keep enjoying them.
And if Venice's good restaurants are expensive, there are swell places to stay that are not, and you can walk almost everywhere, saving tons of money on taxis. To eat well, you must go to the right places — not the pizzeria at the base of the Accademia, or any place in St. Mark's Square. And the right places are either the bacari (the neighborhood wine and snack bars) or the undeniably pricey old reliables and their imitators.
Time after time this year, I found the best cooking in Venice restaurants at the same places I'd found it during my last lengthy visit, more than 10 years ago.
The general recommendations are these: Avoid places with tourist menus, eat loads of fish and drink white. (That you can walk everywhere allows you to freely imbibe the excellent local wines, like Soave, which in general is like no Soave you'll get in the United States.) In the good places you'll be served shrimp — or prawns or any of the dozen or so local names for that family of crustaceans — that make you think no other shrimp should exist.
One place new to me, and serving my favorite version of slightly updated traditional Venetian food at a relatively reasonable price, is Osteria di Santa Marina (Castello, Campo Santa Marina 5911; 39-041-528-5239; www.osteriadisantamarina.it). It is a cute but not funky joint with rough-plank wood walls, glass-front dark wood cabinets, hanging metal lampshades, and windows overlooking the lovely campo.
I was interested in the 55-euro tasting menu (about $75 at $1.37 to the euro) but not in salmon carpaccio, so I asked the waiter for a substitution. After lengthy and intensely amiable negotiations, with many suggestions on his part, I wound up with a customized tasting menu, the majority of which was substitutions.
When I ate just half of every dish (I'd lunched at Da Fiore), they discounted the bill 25 percent. “It's just the way we do things here,” my waiter said.
This in a city widely considered to be filled with thieves.
What I ate was super: black sea bass ravioli in mussel-clam broth, beautifully hand shaped and pinched on top, like dim sum; perfect black barley risotto with mushrooms, zucca (pumpkin) purée, and a couple of first-rate grilled scampi; grilled octopus on a bed of potatoes mashed with olive oil, along with cold, slow-cooked tomato — a surprising touch that worked — and a garnish of lardo (cured fat) tangled with a wafer of black bread; zucca saor (saor is the local marinade, usually of raisins, pine nuts, oil, vinegar and onion) with thin fried slices of artichoke and soft shell crab.
Then there was the inevitable, ubiquitous, emblematic and wonderful fritto misto, served on greaseless brown paper and featuring the local tiny soft-shell crab, about the size of a silver dollar — crisp, light, hot, irresistible. I liked the desserts, too, especially the almond nougat with chantilly, raspberries and pistachio ice cream, and the lemon sorbet with licorice.
That was the most ambitious and perhaps most enjoyable meal I ate in Venice, but it was not necessarily the best. That honor would have to go to the popular, deservedly hyped Da Fiore (San Polo, Calle del Scaleter, 2002; 39-041-721-308; www.dafiore.net), which, despite its tuxedoed staff and expense (figure at least 100 euros a person for three courses plus dessert and a moderately priced bottle of wine), is friendly and not at all stuffy. From the moment I tasted the amuse-bouche — shrimp broth with orange peel — I was sold. The food restores faith.
This was followed by crostini with the most tender and delicately flavored shrimp, wrapped in thin slices of lardo with a little rosemary, and then a plate of lightly fried and ultra crisp vegetables: red onion, Treviso (the local radicchio, served everywhere in season), celery, broccoli, asparagus and zucchini. Was there lemon?
“We don't do that here,” I was told. “Maybe you'd like a little pepper?”
Did I say Venetians do their own thing?
With the exception of a few vegetarian items and a duck breast, the menu — which changes daily — was all fish. I next had bigoli, whole wheat pasta with sardines and caramelized onions, unfortunately in a slightly silly thin bread bowl.