Venetian food often cops a lot of flak for being overpriced and underwhelming. This is a shame because contrary to popular notion, with a little bit of research, it is certainly possible to eat well in Venice without going broke. During our visit, we were on a mission to find the best food in Venice and we had a blast eating our way through the city. Here’s our scoop on what to eat in Venice: traditional Venice food from cheap eats to seafood dishes, drinks, and sweet treats!
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Table of Contents
- 1 What is Venetian Cuisine?
- 2 Venice Food: Cheap Eats or Appetizers
- 3 Venice Food: Main Dishes
- 4 Venice Food: Pastries & Desserts
- 5 Venice Food: Drinks
- 6 Venice Food: Vegetarians & Vegans
- 7 Venice Food Tours
- 8 Where To Eat in Venice
- 9 Further Reading For Your Venice Visit
- 10 More Information About Italy
What is Venetian Cuisine?
Venice has a distinguished culinary history, much of it based on its unique geographical position on the Adriatic Sea and, to a lesser degree, its cosmopolitan past as the hub of a trading empire.
Venetian trading posts in the Levant gave the city access to exotic spices such as ginger, nutmeg, saffron, cloves, etc. which made their way into the local diet. Due to later conquests of Venice from the end of the 18th century, these exotic ingredients are enriched with a dash of French or Austrian cuisine.
In a city where the streets are made of water, seafood definitely dominates the menu. Traditional Venice food is heavily influenced by the bounty of the lagoon with fish and seafood featuring heavily, enhanced by vegetables grown on surrounding islands such as asparagus and artichokes.
You’ll see things on Venetian menus you won’t find elsewhere, together with local versions of time-tested Italian favorites.
A traditional Venetian feast entails up to four courses: antipasti (starters or appetizers); primo piatto (first course); secondo piatto (main course) with contorni (vegetable or salad accompaniments) and dolce (sweets/desserts). However, don’t fret if you’re just looking to grab a quick bite – you won’t be expected to soldier through all four courses.
So, without further adieu, let’s take a look at some essential and traditional Venetian foods and drinks you should really try when visiting La Serenissima.
Venice Food: Cheap Eats or Appetizers
Some of the best food in Venice you’ll come across in the city comes in the form of cheap eats or casual starters.
Similar in concept to Spanish tapas (though Venetians deeply despise that analogy) and unique to Venice, cicchetti are small dishes of local finger foods and snacks that are some of the best culinary finds in Italy.
The array of cicchetti is expansive and typically include crostini (small open-faced sandwiches), panini (small sandwiches on crusty rolls), tramezzini (crustless white bread half-sandwiches), and polpette (fried balls of meat, tuna, cheese, or potatoes).
They can even include artichoke hearts, baby octopus or squid, and sun-dried tomatoes, peppers, and courgettes cooked in oil.
Cicchetti are filled or topped with a tantalizing range of seafood, cured meats, eggs, cheeses, and vegetables. Though traditionally consumed as an accompaniment to pre-dinner evening drinks, they are served all day long from early in the morning and can also be consumed as a quick lunch or a substantial afternoon snack.
If you’re on a budget and looking for cheap eats in Venice, cicchetti are the perfect go-to option. The price for an individual piece typically ranges from 1 to 3 EUR, depending on the type and size with vegetarian options being cheaper than seafood or meat cicchetti.
Mouth-wateringly addictive, cicchetti are arguably the most popular food in Venice and a must-try if you want to eat something truly Venetian.
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2. Sarde in Saor
Sarde in Saor is a classic Middle Eastern-inspired dish that is said to have been born from the necessity to preserve fish for as long as possible. It consists of fried sardine fillets marinated in a sweet and sour mixture of vinegar, raisins, sautéed sliced onions, and pine nuts.
It’s interesting to know that originally the dish only contained sardines, vinegar, olive oil, and onions. Much later, as the dish spread to the nobility, raisins and pine nuts were added to the recipe as the gentry hoped this would “sweeten” their breath and elevate the overall taste of the dish.
The simultaneous blend of sweet and sour flavors works harmoniously. The tartness of the vinegar enlivens the taste buds, while the sweetness of the raisins and the creamy nuttiness of the pine nuts balances the tanginess. Yummy!
Sarde in Saor is a great example of relatively simple ingredients transformed into a local delight. It is one of Venice’s most traditional and beloved dishes and one that simply has to be tried even if you’re not that big on seafood.
3. Baccalà Mantecato
Another eminent fish-based appetizer, baccalà mantecato is definitely our favorite food to eat in Venice. Though it is one of the most iconic dishes of Venetian cuisine, it has its origins in Northern Europe.
In the 1400s, a Venetian ship caught up in a turbulent storm ended up on the Norwegian island of Røst. Here, the shipwrecked Venetian sailors were introduced to dried cod by the Vikings who had used it for their sea voyages across the North Atlantic
Eventually, they brought it back to Venice and the rest is history. It quickly became an important ingredient in the local cuisine and elsewhere along the Italian peninsula too.
Today, baccalà mantecato consists of dried Atlantic cod that is soaked, poached, and whipped vigorously with olive oil until it becomes mousse-like with a light and fluffy consistency. It is enriched with salt, pepper, lemon juice, and sometimes parsley or garlic.
The creamed cod is then spread on grilled pieces of toasted, crispy bread or polenta. Baccalà mantecato enjoys a ubiquitous presence throughout eateries in Venice and many locals call it “an obligatory taste of Venice.”
4. Polenta e Schie
Formerly regarded as a poor man’s dish, polenta e schie is now a highly sought-after and refined Venetian appetizer. It consists of small, seasoned shrimp (boiled or fried) from the lagoon, served atop a mush of soft polenta.
Similar to grits, polenta is a recurrent feature of Venetian meals and is made by slowly stirring maize flour into boiling salted water. The schie are gray lagoon shrimps that turn grayish-brown when cooked.
Tender and tasty, schie are characterized by their unique taste that perfectly complements the porridge-like texture of the polenta.
5. Moeche Fritte
Another in the long line of traditional Venice food, moeche fritte (or moleche frite) is one of the best appetizers to eat in Venice. This mouthwatering dish is made from soft-shelled crabs coated with beaten egg and fried until they are golden brown and crisp.
Served with sea salt and a squeeze of lemon, moeche fritte is absolutely a delight to feast on, especially if you’re a seafood aficionado. However, it is only available for a limited time in autumn or early spring when these little crabs lose their carapace during the molting period.
6. Fritto Misto
With an abundance of seafood available in the lagoon and sea beyond, it’s no wonder that fritto misto is such a beloved street food in Venice. Fritto misto is basically an assortment of delights from the Adriatic covered in batter and deep-fried to crispy perfection.
You’ll get a piping hot mix of fried fresh anchovies, smelt, scallops, calamari rings, shrimp, sardines, mussels, or white fish. Fritto misto is usually served naked or with just a squeeze of lemon juice. Mmm—Mmmmm!
Although fritto misto can be ordered in restaurants, I highly recommend trying it from a ‘scartosso’ (Venetian for cartoccio, a paper cone), which is in what it was originally served.
Hardcore carnivores like myself should definitely try carpaccio, an elegant appetizer consisting of very thin slices of raw beef on a plate with grated Parmesan, rucola, a drizzle of pure virgin olive oil, salt, pepper, and served with a lemon wedge on the side.
Carpaccio, as we know it today, was concocted in the 1950s by Giuseppe Cipriani of Bellini fame (see below), founder of Venice’s legendary “Harry’s Bar.” Cipriani created the dish for a friend, Countess Amalia Nani Mocenigo, whose doctor had placed her on a very strict diet that forbade cooked meats.
A fervent lover of the arts, Cipriani named his invention in honor of the Venetian painter Vittore Carpaccio, as he thought the color of the beef resembled the blood-red paint in many of Carpaccio’s paintings.
I absolutely adore carpaccio. It is delightfully light, and the wafer-thin slicing of the ingredients brings out the finest aromas.
8. Antipasto di Frutti di Mare
Seafood lovers will derive great pleasure from eating Antipasto di Frutti di Mare, a top contender among the best food in Venice.
Frutti di Mare are “fruits of the sea” and the dish is a sumptuous seafood platter of baby octopus, anchovies, mussels, shrimp, or whatever’s in season in a lemon dressing.
Venice Food: Main Dishes
The main dishes in Venice include both the primi (first courses) and secondi (second or main courses). First courses usually include the classic Italian pasta or risotto whereas the second/main courses typically are seafood or meat dishes.
1. Nero di Seppia (Cuttlefish Ink)
One of the quintessential dishes of Venetian cuisine, nero di seppia consists of sliced cuttlefish in its own rich, jet-black ink sauce. It can be served with both risotto and pasta as Risotto al nero di seppia or Spaghetti al nero di seppia.
Nero di Seppia might not look appetizing at first glance, but it is undoubtedly rich and truly delicious on the palate. I highly enjoyed this dish and loved its mild and slightly tangy sea flavor.
A word of caution if ordering Nero di Seppia. While the taste of squid ink is mild, the jet-black stains it leaves on your clothes are extremely stubborn! Be very careful when eating, especially with kids.
2. Risi e Bisi
It’s hardly surprising that risotto is a major feature in Venetian cuisine as the Veneto is one of Italy’s main rice-growing regions. In fact, risotto is even more common than pasta in Venice, so you will find it on nearly every menu in a variety of flavors, most commonly with vegetables, meat, game, or fish.
The most quintessential risotto dish in Venice is Risi e Bisi which mixes rice (of the vialone nano variety) with fresh peas. Often described as a cross between risotto and thick soup, this humble and comforting dish contains onions, butter, parsley, and pancetta.
Traditionally, risi e bisi was eaten on the 25th of April, the day of St. Mark, patron of Venice. It was offered to the Doge (ruler of Venice) by the peasantry from the lagoon islands to mark the special occasion.
Nowadays risi e bisi is served all year round but is best eaten in spring when the peas are at their freshest, smallest, and sweetest.
3. Fegato alla Veneziana (Venetian-style liver)
A traditional Venice food for lovers of offal, Fegato alla Veneziana contains calf’s liver sliced into ribbons and sautéed with parsley and white onions. It is commonly served with polenta as a side dish and goes well with a powerful full-bodied wine.
If you don’t have an aversion to organ meats, you definitely ought to try this dish. Jacky is not a big offal fan so it was up to me to sample fegato alla Veneziana.
I was quite surprised how much I enjoyed it. The earthy flavor and tenderness of the liver are commended impeccably by the sweet, caramelized onions.
4. Bigoli in Salsa
Bigoli in salsa is another of La Serenissima’s archetypal dishes and ranks high on my list of what to eat in Venice.
Bigoli is a long and thick whole-wheat pasta that originated from the Veneto region. Although bigoli closely resembles the standard spaghetti, it is much larger and has a coarser texture.
The salsa in this dish refers to the sauce consisting of white onions and salt-cured fish (sardines or anchovies) used to accompany the pasta. The rougher texture of bigoli allows more sauce to be ‘absorbed’ to the bigoli, lending the dish a gravy-like consistency.
Originally only consumed during Lent, this simple but delicious dish is now served all year round in Venice.
Venice Food: Pastries & Desserts
When dining out, be sure to save room for sweets because the assortment of waistline-threatening Venetian biscuits, pastries, cakes, and desserts are excellent. Having introduced cane sugar to Europe, the Venetians have retained their sweet tooth, and
Ah tiramisù, I bow to thee! It is undoubtedly one of my favorite Italian desserts and the one I look forward to eating the most when visiting Venice.
Tiramisù, which literally translates as “pick me up”, is purported to have originated in the small town of Treviso near Venice. It is a creamy dessert of espresso-soaked ladyfingers (sponge cake biscuits shaped like thick digits) separated by layers of an airy cream made by whipping together sugar, egg yolks, and mascarpone.
The top is normally dusted with cocoa powder, although some places scatter bits of bitter chocolate on top. Some variations include the addition of liqueur such as rum, amaretto, brandy, cognac, or Marsala wine.
When done correctly, a classic tiramisù is sinfully good and will leave you clamoring for more.
One of the gastronomic delights of Venice is buranelli or bussolai—traditional yellow-colored butter cookies from Burano, a small island in the Venetian lagoon famous for its lace and rainbow-colored houses.
Originally coming in the form of rings, buranelli now also come shaped like the letter “S”, which has led to them being nicknamed Essi.
Made from flour, butter, sugar, and eggs and flavored with lemon zest and vanilla, the nutritious buranelli have long durability. It is said that these cookies were given to fishermen as nourishment while they were out at sea for long periods of time.
Similar in taste to an English shortbread, buranelli are buttery, not too sweet, and possess just enough crunch to make them the perfect accompaniment to a cup of tea or coffee.
If you happen to be visiting Venice during Carnival season, you’ll notice that the windows of all bakeries and pastry shops across the city are full of trays overflowing with frìtole.
A true delight for those with a sweet tooth, these Carnival treats are dough ball fritters laced with liquor-soaked raisins, crunchy pine nuts, and coated generously in powdered sugar. Some variations of frìtole even feature cream-filling like zabaglione, chantilly cream, or ricotta.
Dating back to the 14th century, frìtole’s immense popularity among Venetians led to them being declared as the ‘official sweet’ of the Venetian Republic in the 18th century.
Hideously moreish, they make a hearty treat as you wander the chilly alleys of La Serenissima gawking at the intriguing masks and costumes worn by the revelers.
Consisting of flour, butter, sugar, yeast, egg whites, milk, and a pinch of salt, baicoli are small, slightly sweet traditional biscuits. Similar to buranelli, baicoli were hugely popular among seamen and were often packed along for long sea expeditions.
Ovoidal and thin, these dry biscuits get their name from their peculiar shape as in the Venetian dialect “baicoli” indicates small fishes, such as sea bass. Good to eat in their original form, baicoli are even better when served with zabaglione, or dipped in a cup of hot chocolate or wine.
Ok, I know gelato didn’t originate in Venice or the Veneto region but I’ve decided to include it due to the Venetian merchant Marco Polo’s association with ice cream. Plus, if you’re visiting Italy, you’ve just got to eat gelato!
If you’re wondering where to find the best gelato in Venice be sure to check out our article on the 11 best gelato shops in Venice.
Venice Food: Drinks
As in other parts of Italy, wine is extremely popular in Venice and no truly Venetian feast would be complete without at least one ombra (glass of wine). The Veneto region produces a number of superior (DOC) wines, from the dry, light-bodied white Soave to the fruity, garnet-red Bardolino and the less prestigious Valpolicella.
Venetians drink far more white wine than red, partly through habit, partly because it is a better accompaniment to seafood. For a taste of something really local, you can try white wines such as Orto di Venezia and Venissa which are produced on the islands of the Venetian lagoon.
Many wine bars (enoteche) and casual eateries (osterie) in Venice have wine selections that run into the hundreds of labels, so feel free to solicit your server or bartender for expert guidance.
Prosecco, the Veneto’s answer to Champagne or Cava, is one of the most popular drinks in town. Italy’s most famous sparkling wine was born in the vineyards between the towns of Conegliano and Valdobbiadene in the Veneto region.
Light-bodied, vibrant, marginally sweet, and highly aromatic, prosecco is perfect as either a refreshing light aperitivo or with a meal.
An alcoholic libation made up of white wine (or prosecco), a herb-based bitter liqueur, and soda water, Spritz is the tipple of choice of many Venetians. Jacky is a big Spritz fan and enjoyed several spritzes during our Venice stay.
It is believed that its origins can be traced back to the Austrian occupation of Venice between the late 18th and early 19th centuries when Austro-Hungarian soldiers took to diluting the high alcohol level of local wines with sparkling water. In fact, the term ‘spritz’ derives from the German verb ‘spritzen’ which means ‘to spray’.
In Venice, you will find different versions of the Spritz, each with its different flavor and alcohol content. Aperol (characterized by bright orange color and mild flavor) is the most common flavoring agent in a Venetian Spritz.
However, non-conformists can ask for a Spritz made with Select (characterized by intense red color and a dry bitter flavor) or the stronger Campari (characterized by a dark red color and very bitter flavor).
If you’re feeling really adventurous, you can have your Spritz made with Cynar (pronounced “chee-nar”), a brown-colored mild digestive liqueur made from artichokes.
If you enjoy cocktails, one of the “must-do’s” in Venice is to have a Bellini, the ultimate summer aperitif. Invented in 1948 by bartender Giuseppe Cipriani of Carpaccio fame (see above) at the legendary Harry’s Bar in Venice, the Bellini is a classic Italian cocktail made with a combination of Prosecco and fresh white peach pureé.
Legend has it that the Bellini’s characteristic sunset hue reminded Cipriani of the strikingly chromatic paintings by 15th-century Venetian artist Giovani Bellini, hence the name.
Thanks to famous celebrities such as Orson Welles, Truman Capote, and Ernest Hemingway who frequented Harry’s Bar, and the Bellini’s succulent fruity and sweet taste, it became world-famous.
A beloved spirit in Venice, Grappa is made by distilling the pomace or vinaccia (a blend of grape seeds, stalks, and stems) left over from the wine-making process. Regarded as a digestif, grappa is traditionally consumed at the end of a rich meal, and many Venetians swear by its curative powers and use it to treat everything from tummy aches to depression.
We both tried grappa during our time in Venice but the so-called “firewater” is definitely an acquired taste and we didn’t really cotton to its intense sour-plum-like flavor.
Venice Food: Vegetarians & Vegans
Those on the lookout for vegan or vegetarian food in Venice need not despair in Venice as you can find several dishes of polenta, pasta, and risotto incorporating local specialties as asparagus, artichokes, radicchio, and bruscandoli (wild hops).
There are several eateries in Venice that serve a good range of meat-free dishes in all price categories. You’ll widely come across meat-free and cheese-free pizza, and gelaterie which offer milk-free sorbetto (sorbet) and gelato with latte di soia (soy milk).
Obviously, self-catering is always an option for vegans and others with restricted diets.
Venice Food Tours
Both these tours are led by knowledgeable locals, with whom you’ll be able to comfortably navigate Venice’s bewildering back streets and avoid tourist traps.
Where To Eat in Venice
It takes a little planning to eat well in Venice otherwise you’re bound to be disappointed. Dining in the areas around St. Mark’s Square, the main train station, and along principal thoroughfares should be avoided as overpriced tourist traps, grand cafés, and expensive established restaurants predominate.
But moving away from the San Marco area, dining experiences tend to be more authentic and you will generally see both the crowds (and the prices) trickle down. Try the districts of Cannaregio, San Polo & Santa Croce, or even Dorsoduro for decent, well-priced meals.
As a rule of thumb, avoid places where lasagne, spaghetti Bolognese and pizza are all present on the menu as these aren’t Venetian specialties and the place is essentially a tourist trap.
Finally, avoid places with cajoling waiters standing outside, and beware of restaurants that don’t display their prices.
The bill usually includes service (Servizio) of between 10 and 15 percent, but just ask if you’re not sure. It’s common practice to round the bill up slightly in addition to this.
Whatever the price range, Venice’s best restaurants are always busy, so it is advisable to reserve a table. If restaurants don’t accept bookings, try to arrive early to avoid waiting in line.
The following are some of our favorite cafès, restaurants, and eateries in Venice –
1. Caffè del Doge: One of the best places to grab a shot of espresso and cream-filled pastries in Venice
2. Pasticceria Rizzardini: This 18th-century family-run pastry shop has an amazing variety of biscuits, cakes, and other Venetian sweet treats
3. Pasticceria Tonnolo: Arguably the best pasticceria in Venice, Pasticceria Tonnolo has been delighting sweet tooth connoisseurs with its delectable pastries and baked treats since the late-19th century
4. Frito Inn: The little eatery in Cannaregio is one of the best cheap eats in Venice, specializing in serving fritto misto in paper cones
5. Osteria La Zucca: This beloved Venice restaurant is a great option for vegetarians as it offers a variety of tasty veggie-friendly options
6. Taverna Scaniletta: This cool nautically themed restaurant is a great option for those looking to gorge on seafood and other Venetian classics
7. Al Covo: This family-run restaurant serving contemporary versions of Venetian classics is one of the best places to eat in Venice
Further Reading For Your Venice Visit
That summarizes our definitive guide to the best traditional foods to eat in Venice. We assume that you’re not going to Venice just to eat and drink (although, no worries if that is the case).
Either way, we reckon you’ll find the following resources useful for planning your trip to Venice!
Further Reading For Your Venice Visit
→ Check Out the 30 Essential Things to do in Venice
→ Find Out How to Spend One Perfect Day in Venice!
→ Discover How to Spend a Blissful Weekend in Venice!
→ Read Our Comprehensive Guide to Public Transport in Venice
→ Check Out the 30+ Must-See Sights Along the Grand Canal in Venice
→ Learn About the Best 12 Best Cicchetti Bars in Venice!
→ Uncover the 19 Best Venice Instagram Spots!
→ Check Out the 14 Best Traditional Souvernirs to Buy in Venice!
→ Find Out About the 11 Best Gelato Shops in Venice!
More Information About Italy
Herculaneum: Check out our definitive guide to visiting Herculaneum!
Now, what do you think? What are some of your favorite traditional foods in Venice? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below!