Welcome to my neighborhood in Venice, where I grew up! This is the first of four blog posts, in which I introduce you to the part of Venice I know best. I’ll take you for a walk around Castello, east of Piazza San Marco, and will share my favorite restaurants for lunch and dinner. You will also receive tips where to stop for coffee and pastina (cake), a tramezzino, and breakfast.
Do you know the area east of San Marco? It’s beyond this bridge you can see above, a “very beaten path” in summer. Even at 6:00 am in the morning, people stop on top of Ponte de la Canonica (the oldest stone bridge in town), taking pictures of the Bridge of Sighs ahead. In the distance, you can hear the faint noise of the vaporetti, arriving at and leaving Riva degli Schiavoni. For now, all is quiet, and after a short while, people turn their head left, and hesitatingly look at the narrow calle, which like a bottleneck leads down the bridge towards a campo in the distance.
In a way, those people are right as a change takes place, and they will step onto those islands first settled in the 4th century AD. Outwardly, this area looks like in the images below. The true story of Venice, though, is inside: In courtyards, secret gardens, and semi-private campielli and corti, opening up amidst a maze of streets.
Let’s walk down the calle with a beautiful name, calle de la malvasia vecia (malvasia vecia means old wine bar): It looks very touristy at first. The cosmetics store closed in December 1992 (! we still miss it …), and a fast food restaurant is now in its place. There are several shops, selling handbags, glass, marbled papers. So yes, a few things changed here as well, and to see the authentic Venice, you need to take one of those secret calli taking you deeper into the oldest neighborhood of Venice.
We’re now on the island group OMBRIOLA, one of the three oldest areas in Venice (the other two are the Rialto islands, and Olivolo, as San Pietro di Castello was called 1500 years ago). Most of the buildings you can see in the images date back to the 10th – 12th century AD: Greek, Byzantine, and Dalmatian merchants were living here, selling and shipping their goods. They stopped in this area, off Riva degli Schiavoni, at the San Zaccaria guesthouse, or other “hotels” run by nearby monasteries. Farther ahead, along Rio de l’Osmarin and beyond, many of these merchants settled in Venice for good, and created marvelous gardens in Levantine style, which is our secret, forgotten Levantine heritage.
This was a very beaten path in the past, just like it is today, with one significant difference: 90 per cent of travelers in the past were merchants, “business travelers” instead of tourists. The economy and urban structure of Venice looked VERY VERY DIFFERENT, as you can read here.
So after walking down a narrow calle you arrive at the little campo, called Campo SS Filipo e Giacomo. It looks nice and quiet in the morning. Show owners wash the street and wipe their windows, the edicola just opens in the midst of the campo. A sweet smell makes you turn left, towards a bakery (Castelli). Still closed are the shoe and fashion store on the right, and the pharmacy just beyond.
This is what I see first thing in the morning when I leave the house. Here we do our shopping, even though a few stores closed doors during the last decade (the shoe store on Ponte de la Canonica is just one of them …) We do have a fine choice of restaurants, bakeries and pastry stores though, and we’ll start exploring them now.
Ristorante Conca d’Oro. My mother’s favorite restaurant in Venice. This is where we went for a special treat when I was a child. Today, it’s still an excellent restaurant, with a menu both innovative and partly historical. It’s a nice setting during any season, and cozy inside on an autumn night.
Pasticceria Castelli. Located on Campo SS Filipo e Giacomo. This is where I buy Pan del Doge, Venetian sweet bread, made from the same dough as zaeti biscuits are. This sweet bread is a nice gift which my friends abroad just love. The pastry store also offers a fine choice of liquors, which I buy to flavor our cakes. And for breakfast, my favorites are the cestoni di cocco – little cakes topped with coconut-lemon cream – you can see them above.
Pasticceria Bonifacio: Located in Calle degli Albanesi. The Albanian merchant community used to live here, centuries ago. Whenever we have guests coming over for coffee or tea, I buy a plate of pastine (pastries) at this pastry store. Usually, it’s also my last stop for coffee (un caffé, or cappuccino in the morning) before I “go on a photo expedition” to take images for the blog :-)
Bar Verde: I practically spent my childhood in this place located on the corner between Calle delle Rasse and Campo San Filipo e Giacomo. Its walls were painted grass-green in the 1990s. If you are searching for the best cioccolata densa in Venice, look no further, you’ve come to the right place.
Their tramezzini are my favorites as well. I love the tacchino e rucola variant (turkey and rucola) which come with a home-made mustard filling. My perfect lunch in autumn, and I always have a tè al limone and pastina al pistacchio (soft almond cakelet, filled with pistachio cream).
Trattoria Rivetta. Riva ~ rivetta means bank: this trattoria is located on Rio di San Provolo, next to the bridge, Ponte di San Provolo. Family friends, this was grandfather’s favorite place to spend an afternoon. Their restaurant is often booked out because it is very small. Yet, after 1:30 pm, you might find a table after a short wait at the bar, and there might just be an apéritif on the house as well :-) This is the place I ‘d send you to if you asked for a very creamy coffee after lunch or dinner.
Aciugheta. In the 1990s, the owners taught me how to make pizza. If you’re not so much into pizza, you might still try a small version of their signature dish, una pizzetta with a sardine, as starter or on their antipasto plate (cicheti).
True, Venice is not a “pizza” expert of any sorts, but we do have a tradition of baking focaccia bread here. The “Venetian pizza” is thus a focaccia variant, and the Venetian pizza is much thinner than the one you get to eat in Naples.
Aciugheta offers one of the best desserts in town, in my opinion. Try their warm chocolate cake, or, if you love pistachio as much as I do, the warm pistachio cake with liquid pistachio filling, plus pistachio ice cream!
Il Ridotto. Aciugheta has a luxury restaurant arm, which offers set menus for lunch (under EUR 30 each). They use Lagoon ingredients to create colorful and healthy dishes. It means that you can also taste honey from the Lagoon in one of their desserts, while many main dishes and starters include herbs growing on the barene (semi-flooded Lagoon islands).
Trattoria Da Nino. Located under a sotoportego (very refreshing in summer), leading from Campiello del Vin to Campo San Provolo. In case you order pasta or fish, you can recognize Lina’s cooking in the dishes, as she shared many recipes with them … The menu is simple, and you get to know the food Venetians ate in the 1950s and 1960s.
In the next part of this blog series, we cross two bridges and explore the area around Rio de’l Osmarin, where Greek and Dalmatian merchants were living, in the midst of paradise gardens. There are also ancient monasteries, scuole, and a few secrets historians are now unearthing. Amongst them, culinary ones :-)
PS: It really feels and looks like autumn in Venice now. This is why tomorrow, we will share the recipe of a Venetian autumn cake with you in our food section. The Yellow Leaves Almond-Hazelnut Cake, straight from grandmother’s recipe journals, will be online soon.