First of all, thanks to everyone who replied to my request for recommendations about a month ago. My wife and I are now back from a memorable week in Venice, and your advice was most helpful. I printed it all out, and at his request I left it with my son, a doctoral student in medieval history who is on fellowship and has an apartment there this semester. Though small, the apartment has a refrigerator and a good cooktop; so we were able to cook three dinners of our own. We enjoyed local sole, small tender clams that I wish we could get in the U.S., gorgeous porcini together with the tiny brown cluster mushrooms that seemed to be on the front shelf of every shop, green cauliflower with florets shaped like miniature pineapples, tomatoes that we would call "heirlooms" but seem to be standard over there. Some of the most enjoyable moments of the week were spent shopping in the fish and vegetable markets near the Rialto. Several times when we didn't need to buy anything, we just walked around and looked.
Restaurants? We loved Osteria La Zucca, which several of you (and one of my neighbors) described as a "don't miss." This tiny place in Santa Croce has an imaginative menu like no other that I saw in Venice, and everything on it is delicious. Best dishes: a pumpkin souffle, pear tart with ginger, pasta with smoked mackerel, duck with fresh prunes, rabbit with olives, lamb with fennel, all the vegetable dishes. Zucca is not in a tourist area and is hard to find. Sitting outside on a narrow street, we watched children go home to dinner and then run back to the campo to play. It is hard to get a table after eight, because it fills up with a smart young Venetian crowd. We vowed to go back but ran out of days. About $100 for three with house wine.
We took Michael's recommendation of Trattoria alla Madonna for good value and traditional Venetian meals. Very different from Zucca, but we enjoyed it mightily. It's open on Monday (which is helpful), with expert and amusing waiters, a big room with many locals (two gondolieri sitting across from us), and good fresh seafood, esp. a grilled fish (branzino). I had my first experience of cuttlefish in the black, thick ink sauce. My son, who likes the dish, said this was a good one. I'm glad for the experience, but it's obviously an acquired taste, and I'm still making up my mind about it. I also had another Venetian specialty, calf's liver with onions, that ought to be right up my alley. To my taste, it was overcooked and lacked some ingredient to add piquancy to the liver, onions, and unseasoned cake of polenta. I have no idea whether it would be less disappointing in another Venetian restaurant. I guess I am influenced by a Lyonnais version of liver & onions learned from a Pierre Franey column years ago. Madonna's version was cut into strips like Franey's, while I had read elsewhere that the Venetian version should come in large thin pieces. The lemon sorbet (Sgroppino), which I'm told is very popular, did end the meal with a lively taste.
A colleague recommended Hostaria da Franz, a restaurant that no Chowhounder referred to, way out in Castello near the Biennale. We tried it for lunch, and it was obviously different (more expensive, more formal waiters) than Zucca or Madonna. My son had the black ink pasta there in a slightly more elegant presentation, and my wife and I had seafood with pasta in an "aggressive" red sauce the only spicy sauce we were served anywhere. We also ate at the pleasant Trattoria da Bruno across from my son's apartment. We would gladly have tried several other small places in the vicinity if they had been open on a Sunday or Monday. One night an Italian woman left her husband and children on a doorstep to walk three American strangers several blocks to a restaurant (Gazettino?) she liked, but it was closed.
What a great city to visit! For me, the highlights were Torcello, St. Mark's ceilings, the Peggy Guggenheim collection, the ghetto, the Tintorettos at San Rocco (which we almost skipped). But on this site we talk about food, and I have some questions about Venetian cuisine: what is it, and how much to like it? Maybe these questions belong on the "General" board; so I will pose them only briefly. If Venetian cuisine means essentially, as I have read, "simply prepared" seafood, then the grilled branzino was a perfect example. But is there something distinctive about the cooking? I had also heard that because of its mercantile history Venice's cuisine uses more spices from the Indies than do other Italian cuisines. I really found the food rather bland, certainly as compared to a favorite medieval Venetian chicken dish featured at one of our St. Louis restaurants.
I have a colleague who spends lots of time in Venice and dislikes the cuisine compared to others in Italy. He exemplifies Nigella Lawson's point made in a column I clipped from the New York Times in July: "Tell anyone that you are going to Venice and you are likely to hear how bad the food is there." The restaurants, she says, "seem to vie with one another to disappoint." Well, I wouldn't go that far. We stayed away (as advised) from tourist menus, and everyone we dealt with was very pleasant. We called it a "happy" city. But about the Venice cuisine, whatever it is, I'm still making up my mind. It will be fun to go back for more research.