The first time I went to Venice, I had on a backpack, paced its streets, and nearly slept on the steps of a small, isolated footbridge until a Canadian backpacker rescued me. He brought me back to a hotel room where three other students were crashing, and we all spent the next four days getting lost.
There was no money then for eating in restaurants and no kitchen to cook in. We made due with yogurt, rolls, and slices of pizza. I remember aromas of baking bread trapped in narrow alleys.
I have had the good fortune to return to Venice more than two dozen times for long stays since that first visit. No city fills me up quite as much. Mainly it is the architecture, everywhere I look it is beautiful, and true, too, is the wonder of being in a place that has its own sense of time. On the train or bus ride out, on the long isthmus, I feel as if I am returning to reality rather than simply ending a stay. As Proust wrote: “I discovered in Venice that my dream had become… quite simply, my address.”
Nowadays, I go nearly each year to an apartment in Dorsoduro owned by good friends who live in Udine. Harley, who grew up in the house, and Claudia, who is from Udine, exchanged their place in Venice with us years ago to come to Boston. Subsequently, their daughters Camilla and then Susanna lived with us for summers, and soon we all grew closer.
What I love about the house in Dorsoduro is its simplicity, the old fashioned 1950’s feel to the interior, and the quiet canal it abuts. On the top floor is a kitchen next to a tiled patio, and on warm nights it is lovely to drink wine and eat fresh fish or pasta overlooking the school and garden below.
This year, however, the kitchen was undergoing a renovation that would take up most of the time during our eight day stay in November. We could eat in the house, but there was no stove. The news scared me: Where could we eat in Venice? Like most destinations where tourism accounts for the biggest share of revenue, the city, in my experience, has a host of crazy expensive, high-end joints where you drop big bucks and leave feeling poorly.
Rather than frequent these unaffordable restaurants, I would go to Rialto market each morning. Next to the Rialto bridge, the market, where deals were cut for trades and expeditions back when Venice was an empire, is now home to fruit and vegetable stands, cheese and meat shops, and fishmongers. The products here are often superlative, and it is by far one of my favorite places in the world to buy food.
Still, without a stove, it was necessary to explore bars, cafes, and restaurants. I would break my longstanding habit and return to another time in Venice when I had no stove, as a teenager; only this time I could afford more than a slice of pizza.
The best bakery I found in the city? Colussi. Each morning I bought freshly baked pretzels and whole grain breads. And when the stove was available? Potato gnocchi that, after I tossed them with butter and parmigiano, were ethereal.
Speaking of parmigiano, one of the world’s great cheese (and meat) shops is Casa del Parmigiano. Located next to the bustle of the Rialto Market, this small family run outfit has stunning gorgonzola, pecorino, burrata, parmigiano, hams, and other cured meats. And when the stove was available? Small, exquisite raviolis stuffed with smoked mozzarella or porcini mushrooms.
It took courage, but we made it to a small collection of first-rate restaurants where locals dominated. These were often hard to find, out of the way, and priced to satisfy fussy Venetians. The three best pizzerias in the city are: Il Refolo, La Perla, and Vecio Canton. We’re talking thin crusted pies baked swiftly to perfection washed down with draft beer or local wines.