We are back from our wintry visit to Italy. We were in Venice first and we loved, loved, loved our entire stay there. Londra Palace hotel was fantastic, the food we ate was better than we could have imagined, and in general, Venice is so charming and lovable.
After flying into Milan and taking the train to Venice, we actually had more energy than we thought and had the hotel make us a reservation for La Bitta for the first night. We walked over and stumbled around for about 15 minutes and finally found it. We had a great experience. The owners couldn't have been friendlier and our food was very solid. 2 apps: sliced ham and horseradish sauce was very good but the tagliatelle with red pepper sauce and sausage may be the contender for the best pasta we had in Italy - though carbonara at Da Danilo in Rome (more on Rome later) could also take the title. Mains were Venetial calves liver and veal with artichokes - both solid. Dessert was another big winner - a panna cotta with a dark, slightly bitter, caramel sauce. It was so simple and really delicious.
Day 2 we managed to hit La Zucca for lunch. It was good, but not memorable. So much so that I can only remember two of the things we ate: the pumpkin flan, which I really liked and some type of cheesy lasagna, which my husband enjoyed. A funny (or sad) thing happened while we were there. After we were seated, we noticed a man dining alone at a nearby table. He asked the waiter "Do you have an english menu?" When the waiter replied "No," he got up and left! All the diners around us, Italian or not, looked at each other and shrugged. What a shame for that man. I imagine his culinary experience in Venice was very different from ours.
That night we had reservations at Alle Testiere. I was so looking forward to this meal, but I have to say, it was our least memorable meal in Venice. The food was good but not great, and it was not the warmest experience from a service standpoint - probably not intentional, but the atmosphere was extremely rushed and hectic, even though it was the late seating. Mixed seafood appetizer was good and we ate things we had never even seen before, let alone tasted. We also got a crab appetizer that was good but basically just crab. We shared pasta with clams which was very tasty and loaded with tiny, tiny clams. Our mains were grilled monkfish (very good and simple) and the john dory, which was overcooked and that was disappointing for that type of restaurant. I love chestnuts so when I overhead there was some type of chestnut dessert, I knew I had to have it. It was strange though, and had something in it that was very smoky tasting, almost like bacon, but I don't think it was bacon.
Day 3 - cicchetti for lunch after Rialto market. Alle Vedova - excellent choices, all fresh and delicious, especially meatballs, eggplant and fried ball of something (meat?). Lots of locals in there. Ai Promessi Sposi. We loved this place. The people, the atmosphere, and the food - all good. We shared a plate of veggies from their cicchetti offerings, a pasta with ground duck that was very, very good, a salad and a steak with porcini mushrooms (which they cooked to my specification of "rosso" - thank goodness for level 1 italian). I can't remember what we had for dessert so it must not have stood out for me. We liked it so much there that we had them make us a reservation for the next night, Sunday, when we were supposed to go to Fiaschetteria Toscana. We had walked by FT on our way to dinner that night and it looked really quiet and formal. While I'm sure it would have been really good, we loved the staff so much at Promessi Sposi that we wanted to come back, so cancelled FT.
Day 4 (Sunday) - We toured the Jewish Ghetto in the morning and then had reservations at L'Anice Stellato for lunch. This was our best meal during our stay in Venice. The staff was great and the food was better. Shared a broiled scallop with herbs appetizer. Simple and fresh and delicious. My husband finally got his bigoli with salsa and he loved it. He still talks about it. I had a pasta shaped like torn, long thin penne with a sauce of tomatoes and chunks of smoked fish. It was very, very good. We then split a simple baked whole turbot, covered in herbs and olive oil. The fish was outstanding - easily the best secondo of the trip. Though pretty full after the pasta, we devoured the entire fish, including the head. We split my favorite dessert of the trip. It was a chocolate, orange mousse - two of my favorite tastes together. Chocolate mousse on the bottom, covered by orange mousse with tiny shreds of candied orange peel on top. Go to this restaurant!
For dinner we headed back to Ai Promessi Sposi and decided on a fish dinner that night. We were welcomed back heartily by the staff which of course made us feel great. We shared a plate of mixed cicchetti - mussels, sarde en saor, assorted veggies, fried stuff - all very good. We had a mixed salad that only Americans order - it was good though. I had pasta with clams that was very good (though not as good as Alle Testiere) and my husband had a potato leek soup to start - which he loved. We then split a whole Orato, which I think is a sea bream, grilled simply. They asked us if we wanted them to "clean up" (I guess filet it) the fish for us before serving it, but we told them it was not necessary. It was fresh, simple and very good - better than my John dory at Alle Testiere, but not as good as the turbot at L'Anice Stellato. For dessert I got the simple cookies with the dessert wine and I was pleased with the choice because we were so full. They offered us grappa and limoncello again, as they did the previous night, but this night we had several rounds on the house, while we chatted with the staff. They asked where else we had eaten and I told them. They were very familiar with La Bitta and L'Anice Stellato and considered the 3 restaurants as similar - all trying to do the same, homestyle, fresh concept. They asked how we found these restaurants and they were really intrigued by chowhound - asked all about it and had me write down the website for them. We said our goodbyes and stumbled out happy.
We were sorry to leave Venice the next morning after a wonderful time there. The service is every restaurant we went to was warm and friendly - always allowing me to spit out a few of my Italian beginner phrases I had studied before they switched to English to help me out. We were so pleasantly surprised by how much we enjoyed the food as well, considering our expectations after reading some reviews by other posters.
A couple other quick non-food related notes: Venice in winter is great, but if you're expecting no tourists, you're wrong. I can't imagine what it's like in the summer. Also, go to the casino. We had so much fun and it's a very cool setting in a palazzo. It's nothing like going to Vegas. I can't imagine getting Americans to walk up about 100 steps to get to the gaming tables!!! Also, there's really no drinking at the tables, which is clearly very different from Vegas. We really liked the experience, though, and it was pretty lively on a Saturday night around midnight.
Thanks again to everyone who helped us plan this wonderful stay. For those of you who live in Venice, you really have a special city.