Our house in Venice is hidden away in a quiet little corner of the city, perched on the edge of a canal where few boats ever drive by. The kitchen is cosy: it’s a higgledy-piggledy room with dark, ancient wooden beams, and stone floors that are long since warped and cracked from when the water floods in at high tide. At its heart is a big open fire place, a worn marble table and a tired old cooker. It is in this kitchen that I first learned to cook.
The story of how I came to live in Venice is a serendipitous one, and in that delightfully messy way that life has, it is also kind of tied up in how I came to be a cook and a writer too. I wasn’t born there, nor are my family from there; they moved to Venice when I was tiny and before I can really remember living anywhere else. The plan was to stay for a year, but then one thing led to another and some 25 years on we’re still there. For me it is home.
My SECRET VENICE
I’ve lived in Venice for as long as I can remember, yet I still surprise myself by stumbling upon a coffee shop that I didn’t know was there, or by getting lost in a maze of quiet canals and alleyways. Here is a list of some of my favourite places to eat, shop or just while away the afternoon.
C A S T E L L O
Traditionally the poorest area of the city, this quarter is largely dominated by the Arsenale, the old naval base. Largely residential and untouched by the tourist trade it’s a great area for authentic food shops and to get away from the crowds in the city centre.
S H O P
Banco Lotto n.10
Fifties style cotton dresses and stylish felt cardigans, all made by hand by the interns at Venice’s women’s prison. A small shop, hidden away in Castello, you can find surprisingly chic and affordable clothes and accessories here.
Libreria Acqua Alta
A quirky book shop, where the books – both second hand and new – are stored in gondolas, canoes, tanks and on shelves, pretty much wherever there is space for them. The owner, Luigi Frizzo, believes that books are as much beautiful objects as reading material, and has created a unique, inspiring space to house his ever-evolving collection. The shop also has several resident cats.
E A T
Pasticceria Alla Bragora
Family run small bakery and pastry shop. They bake brioche (Italian croissants filled with apricot jam) fresh every morning, so you can eat them while still hot from the oven. They also make a wonderfully thick, dark hot chocolate with zabaglione cream. And in the summer, their iced cream coffee is sheer heaven.
Tiny restaurant owned and run by a charming Texan, Diane, and her Venetian husband. They take it in turns to run the kitchen and are both passionate about traditional Venetian cooking. Must have: spaghetti with pesto and bottarga and Diane’s torta alla ricotta, a cheesecake made with buffalo ricotta and honey biscuits, which is not only as light as air but – literally – one of the most exquisite cakes I have ever tasted. Also, the crema Veneziana (deep fried custard) is to die for.
A smaller, rather-more trendy version of Al Covo, run by Diane’s son. One small room with one large wooden table. Rustic chic. They serve light cichetti (Venetian tapas of sorts) and have a great wine list. Edgy without feeling pretentious.
Gelateria Mela Verde
Tiny artisanal ice cream shop just 10 minutes walk away from Piazza San Marco. There is no seating area in the shop, and you’ll probably have to queue for a little while to be served (on hot days the queue snakes down the street), but they make some of the creamiest ice cream I have ever tasted. And their flavour combinations – which change from day to day – are always interesting. The pinenut ice cream and the lemon, basil and mint sorbet are two of my favourites.
Every Summer, contemporary exhibits run in the Biennale Gardens. Different countries have their own pavilion in the park and curate exhibits with the work of their most prominent contemporary artists and architects. Fringe exhibit spill out across the city – dip in and see what you find.
D O R S O D U R O
Lofty palazzi stretching along the Grand Canal; and lots of arty independent shops selling books, glass, antiques and paintings.
S H O P
There are too many mask shops in Venice – and a lot of them, sadly, sell masks that have been mass produced, often in Asia. But at Ca’Macana they craft and paint papier maché masks in the back of the shop. This is where Stanley Kubrick sourced the masks for his last film, Eyes Wide Shut. Mask-making courses available for small groups.
E A T
Tiny bacaro overlooking the oldest gondola workhouse in the city. You eat standing at the bar. A spritz with a few cichetti in the early evening or just before lunch is a Venetian tradition that you can’t not try. The crostini with lardo, thinly sliced pork fat, rosemary and honey taste like sweet butter melting in your mouth.
Pasticceria Dal Nono Colussi
A family run bakery that specialises in focaccia Veneziana, a sweet brioche bread with a sugar crust. All the focacce are baked on site in their big wood fired oven and then hung upside down from clothes pegs to cool, so that they keep their distinctive shape and light texture.
S E E
Punta Della Dogana
The old customs house, looking on to the Giudecca Canal, has recently been restored and renovated by Tadao Ando. Now it houses François Pinault’s private contemporary art collection. The building itself is full of character with spellbinding views over the water and onto the Palladian fronted Giudecca. Don’t miss the Ronnie Horn glass cylinders.
Peggy Guggenheim’s private house on the Grand Canal was converted into a contemporary art museum with a uniquely intimate feel. The rooms house an extraordinary collection of works by Picasso and other major 20th century artists from her social circle. There’s also a shady garden at the back, where Peggy’s dogs are buried, each grave touchingly marked with a stone tomb.
S A N M A R C O
The congested tourist heart of the city, where you will find all the big luxury shops and the more famous sights.
S H O P
The oldest paper shop in Venice – it first opened in 1851. A tiny little shop, full of fading character and brimming with beautiful printed papers and paper covered goods in all manner of colours and patterns. You could while away an afternoon in there, sifting through their stock.
A textile designer who makes delicate and colourful linens, in classic designs often with a playful twist. Her cushions with iconic animal are particularly gorgeous.
There is a longstanding tradition in Venice of printed silk, satin and velvet. Venetia Studium makes luxurious (and expensive) scarves, bags and lamps using the old techniques. The shop is like a treasure trove of decadent and otherworldly fabrics in dark, rich colours and muted golds.
A small scale Italian soap company, founded by the artist, Sue Townsend, and inspired by the aesthetics and colours of Sicily. They have a few shops across Italy and two in London. This is a charming little shop – intimate and filled with beautiful soap, exquisitely and artfully packaged. Each little soap box is like a jewel box.
Beautiful, unique and wonderfully Venetian in feel – handmade and hand painted furniture. Each piece is like a work of art.
E A T
Old fashioned bakery and pastry shop near Piazza San Marco. Their pastries are delightful; and their tramezzini (sandwiches on thinly sliced soft white bread – a Venetian speciality) are pretty much the best in town. Try the carcioffi e funghi (mushroom and artichoke). Stand at the bar for a quick coffee, or sit at one of their tables for a more leisurely break.
Woefully extravagant, but oh-so-beautiful. Kind of a must at least once on any trip to Venice. The oldest coffee shop in Venice, complete with gilded rococo rooms and red velvet chairs. Their dark hot chocolate with whipped cream is legendary. In the summer, you can sit out in Piazza San Marco and listen to their band playing tunes.
S E E
A collection of paintings, textiles and photographs belonging to the twentieth century artist and textile designer, Mariano Fortuny. All on display in his magnificent gothic palazzo.
S A N P O L O
Centred around the Rialto Market, this quarter is filled with food shops and small boutiques. You will find that it is crowded in parts and completely undiscovered in others.
S H O P
Mazzon Le Borse
Chic and classic bespoke handbags, belts and other leather goods made on site in the back of the shop by Signor Mazzon. Reasonably priced and you can choose every last little detail from the colour, to the kind of leather to how many pockets and where you would like the zip. Turnaround is about 3-4 weeks and they will post worldwide.
A tiny family run shop that sells handstiched leather gloves, in all manner of chic designs and colours. Available with cashmere, wool, silk or even fur linings. With polka dots, leather trims or just plain.
A family run spice shop just by the Rialto market, that remains unchanged since it first opened 50 plus years ago. They sell a fabulous array of loose teas, spices, spirits and candied fruits, as well as old fashioned sweets and chocolates in big glass jars. Everything is weighed out to the gram and then carefully wrapped in pretty printed paper.
Vizio e Virtù
A small chocolate shop, halfway between the Rialto and Accademia bridges. You can watch them making the chocolates in the back of the shop. Their sweets are pricey, but exquisite – especially the chocolate covered glacé figs.
Farmacia Erboristica Dr Buratti
Part medieval apothecary, part modern day pharmacy in Campo San Polo. With dark wooden shelves, bottles full of potions and golden mosaics. Beyond the day to day essentials that you would expect to buy in any chemist, they also sell their own range of natural herb based products – teas, essential oils, lotions and so forth – all boxed up in irresistibly old fashioned packaging.
E A T
Birreria La Corte
Cheap and cheerful pizza spot in a old brewery looking on to the charming Campo San Polo, a 10 minute walk from the Rialto market. Great pizzas, baked on site in wood fired oven with all manner of toppings, and lovely freshly made pasta.
A bustling baccaro just by the Rialto Market. Perfect for a mid morning pick-me-up and to soak up some of the market atmosphere. Exposed brick and bare tables. You can eat standing at the bar or stay on for a more leisurely, table-service meal.
S E E
Rialto Market (at the foot of the Rialto Bridge)
Fruit and vegetable stalls laden down with fresh and local produce: anything from wild asparagus, artichokes, persimmons or flat peaches depending on the season. Fish stalls with great local catches: eels, turbot, sea snails and so forth. Bustling, manic, bursting with atmosphere. If you love food, this is a must. Open every morning except Sundays (Sundays and Mondays for the fish market) and starts to wind down around midday.
C A N A R E G G I O
Mostly quiet and residential winding streets. It’s easy to get lost in this part of the city, but so enjoyable to wander around that you won’t mind. This quarter is home to the world’s first ghetto.
E A T
Rustic seafood restaurant hidden in the depths of Canareggio. Garish decor, with painted murals and harsh lighting, but the very best seafood and a welcoming atmosphere. Ask them to bring you a selection of antipasti to include the polenta with fried baby shrimps, razor clams with parsley and lemon juice, and sautéed potatoes with scampi. And make sure to order the gnocchi with granzeola (spider crab), which is out of this world.
Stunning seafood and traditional Venetian cooking in a cozy trattoria setting, just a 15 minute walk or so from the Rialto Bridge and market. The restaurant feels intimate – think copper pots hanging from the walls and low wooden beams – and the service is delightful. Have the fritto misto (mixed fried seafood) which is so good it’s cult, and comes served in little brown paper cones.
S H O P
A tiny workshop near the Fondamente Nuove, where Signor Basso makes headed stationary and cards on ancient printing presses. Signor Basso is something from another era: he has no email and no mobile phone, but makes stationary for a number of celebrities, such as Hugh Grant and Ryuichi Sakamoto. His work is fine and his attention to detail unparalleled.
G I U D E C C A and S A N G I O R G I O
A sleepy island a stone’s throw away from the centre of the city. Almost entirely residential, you can only get to this part of Venice by boat – vaporetti (water buses) run every 10 minutes.
E A T
The Cipriani Hotel restaurant. Impeccably chic with unparalleled views over the water on to Piazza San Marco. Their Bellini, made with fresh white peaches, is the best in Venice.
S E E
Campanile di San Giorgio
Go up the bell tower on the island of San Giorgio. There are never any queues (it’s in a relatively undiscovered part of Venice) and the views over the city and the lagoon are sensational. Great to do at the start of your stay so that you can get a feel for the geography and scale of the city.
M U R A N O, B U R A N O and T O R C E L L O
If you’re in Venice for a few days, you should take the time to explore the islands around the city. Each has it’s own character: Murano is a hub for glass making; Burano is full of picturesque and colourfully painted houses; and Torcello has the peaceful atmosphere of a rural idyll.
E A T
Idyllic bed and breakfast on the Island of Burano (Mazzorbo), set in a vineyard where they make their own wine (sold in hand blown bottles with labels made from beaten gold leaf). Peaceful and sleek – there is nowhere else quite like Venissa. Their restaurant serves a trendy rendition of classic Venetian dishes as part of a many course tasting menu. They cook with ingredients foraged from the lagoon and their dishes include beef carpaccio with wild blackberries and smoked rice risotto.
A small inn on the secluded Island of Torcello. Ernest Hemingway used to stay here and that is where he wrote Across the River and Through the Trees. Sit out in the picturesque gardens in the summer, and settle in by the big open wood fires in the winter. Great for lunch or dinner too: simple Venetian food.
S E E & S H O P
Old and traditional glass factory (with shop) on the Island of Murano. You can watch the glass being blown in the furnaces. It’s kind of a touristy experience, as they run you through in groups, but watching the craftsmen at work is hypnotic and definitely a must see, at least once.
Proof that glass is art. The Venini shop on the Island of Murano is excruciatingly expensive, but each piece is crafted by hand using the most complex of glass blowing techniques, often as part of a limited edition run and often in collaboration with renown independent artists. Worth going to have a look just to admire their workmanship and designs.
Skye McAlpine’s new book A Table in Venice is about celebrating real food and bringing people together: where friends and food gather around a table a certain indescribable magic occurs – a magic that I happened to find in our little kitchen in Venice; but once captured, it is magic that translates to kitchens everywhere.