Eating cheaply in Venice is not easy, though it's by no means impossible. So plan well and don't rely on the serendipity that may serve you in other cities. If you've qualified for a Rolling Venice card, ask for the discount guide listing dozens of restaurants offering 10% to 30% discounts for cardholders. Bear in mind that, compared with Rome and other points south, Venice is a city of early meals: You should be seated by 7:30 to 8:30pm. Most kitchens close at 10 or 10:30pm, even though the restaurant may stay open until 11:30pm or midnight.
Budget Dining -- Pizza is the fuel of Naples, and bruschetta and crostini (small, open-face sandwiches) the rustic soul food of Florence. In Venice it's tramezzini -- small, triangular white-bread half-sandwiches filled with everything from thinly sliced meats and tuna salad to cheeses and vegetables; and cicchetti (tapaslike finger foods such as calamari rings, speared fried olives, potato croquettes, or grilled polenta squares), traditionally washed down with a small glass of wine, or ombra ("some shade from the sun"). Venice offers countless neighborhood bars called bacari and cafes where you can stand or sit with a tramezzino, a selection of cicchetti, a panino (sandwich on a roll), or a toast (grilled ham and cheese sandwich). All of the above will cost approximately 1.50€ to 4€ if you stand at the bar, as much as double when seated. Bar food is displayed on the countertop or in glass counters and usually sells out by late afternoon, so don't rely on it for a light dinner, though light lunches are a delight. A concentration of popular, well-stocked bars can be found along the Mercerie shopping strip that connects Piazza San Marco with the Rialto Bridge, the always lively Campo San Luca (look for Bar Torino, Bar Black Jack, or the character-filled Leon Bianco wine bar), and Campo Santa Margherita. Avoid the tired-looking pizza (revitalized only marginally by microwaves) you'll find in most bars; informal sit-down neighborhood pizzerias everywhere offer savory and far fresher renditions for a minimum of 4€, plus your drink and cover charge -- the perfect lunch or light dinner.
Fishy Business -- Eating a meal based on the day's catch (restaurants are legally bound to print on the menu when the fish is frozen) will be a treat but never inexpensive. Keep in mind that the price indicated on the menu commonly refers to l'etto (per 100g), a fraction of the full cost (have the waiter estimate the full cost before ordering); larger fish are intended to feed two. Also, avoid splurging on fish or seafood on Mondays, when the Fish Market is closed (as are most self-respecting fish-serving restaurants). Those restaurants open on Mondays will be serving you fish bought on Saturday.
Culinary Delights -- Venice has a distinguished culinary history, much of it based on its geographical position on the sea and, to a lesser degree, its historical ties with the Orient. You'll see things on Venetian menus you won't see elsewhere, together with local versions of time-tested Italian favorites. For first courses, both pasta and risotto (more liquidy in the Veneto than usual) are commonly prepared with fish or seafood: Risotto alla sepie or alla seppioline (tinted black by the ink of cuttlefish, also called risotto nero or black risotto) or spaghetti alle vongole or alle vorace (with clams; clams without their shells are not a good sign!) are two commonly found specialties. Both appear with frutti di mare, "fruit of the sea," which can be a little bit of whatever shellfish looked good at the market that morning. Bigoli, homemade pasta of whole wheat, is not commonly found elsewhere, while creamy polenta, often served with gamberetti (small shrimp) or tiny shrimp called schie, or as an accompaniment to fegato alla veneziana (calves' liver with onions Venetian style), is a staple of the Veneto. Some of the fish and seafood dishes they do particularly well include branzino (a kind of sea bass), rombo (turbot or brill), moeche (small soft-shelled crab) or granseola (crab), and sarde in saor (sardines in a sauce of onion, vinegar, pine nuts, and raisins).
From a host of good local wines, try the dry white Tocai and pinot from the Friuli region and the light, champagnelike prosecco that Venetians consume almost like a soft drink (it is the base of Venice's famous Bellini drink made with white peach purée). Popular red wines include merlot, cabernet, Raboso, and Refosco. The quintessentially Italian Bardolino, Valpolicella, and Soave are from the nearby Veneto area. Grappa, the local firewater, is an acquired taste and is often offered in a dozen variations. Neighborhood bacari wine bars provide the chance to taste the fruits of leading wine producers in the grape-rich regions of the Veneto and neighboring Friuli.
Ai Tre Spiedi -- There's nothing in particular that flags this as kid-friendly, but its genial atmosphere, friendly service, and good cookin' make it welcoming for families. Admittedly, most tables are taken by couples.
Da Sandro -- This place offers good pizza and pasta, seating outdoors, and low prices. What more can you ask for?
Pizzeria ae Oche -- If the kids are hankering for home and you (rightly) refuse to set foot in a McDonald's, this place is a good compromise; it serves great pizza and pumps rock music through the speakers, and even looks vaguely American -- or at least trattoria-meets-Cracker Barrel.
Pizzeria/Trattoria al Vecio Canton -- This spot offers plenty of seating, a good location near San Marco, low prices, and an extensive menu of both pastas and some of the best pizzas in Venice.
Rosticceria San Bartolomeo -- There's not much that isn't served at this big, efficient, and bustling fast-food emporio in the Rialto Bridge area. Much of it is displayed in glass cases to pique the fussy appetite, and you won't raise any eyebrows if you eat too little, too much, or at hours when the natives have either finished or haven't yet started.
Taverna San Trovaso -- Here you'll find a bustling atmosphere, good-natured waiters, and a lengthy menu that covers all sorts of dishes and pizzas to please finicky youngsters and more adventurous palates alike. Good value-priced menus, too.
You don't have to eat in a fancy restaurant to have a good time in Venice. Prepare a picnic, and while you eat alfresco, you can observe the life of the city's few open piazzas or the aquatic parade on its main thoroughfare, the Grand Canal. And you can still indulge in a late dinner alla Veneziana. Plus, doing your own shopping for food can be an interesting experience -- the city has very few supermarkets as we know them, and small alimentari (food shops) in the highly visited neighborhoods (where few Venetians live) are scarce.
Mercato Rialto -- Venice's principal open-air market is a sight to see, even for nonshoppers. It has two parts, beginning with the produce section, whose many stalls, alternating with that of souvenir vendors, unfold north on the San Polo side of the Rialto Bridge (behind these stalls are a few permanent food stores that sell delicious cheese, cold cuts, and bread selections). The vendors are here Monday to Saturday 7am to 1pm, with a number who stay on in the afternoon.
At the market's farthest point, you'll find the covered fresh-fish market, with its carnival atmosphere, picturesquely located on the Grand Canal opposite the magnificent Ca' d'Oro and still redolent of the days when it was one of the Mediterranean's great fish markets. The area is filled with a number of small bacari bars frequented by market vendors and shoppers where you can join in and ask for your morning's first glass of prosecco with a cicchetto pick-me-up. The fish merchants take Monday off and work mornings only.
Campo Santa Margherita -- On this spacious campo, Tuesday through Saturday from 8:30am to 1 or 2pm, a number of open-air stalls set up shop, selling fresh fruit and vegetables. You should have no trouble filling out your picnic spread with the fixings available at the various shops lining the sides of the campo, including an exceptional panetteria (bakery), Rizzo Pane, at no. 2772; a fine salumeria (deli) at no. 2844; and a good shop for wine, sweets, and other picnic accessories next door. There's even a conventional supermarket, Merlini, just off the campo in the direction of the quasi-adjacent campo San Barnabà at no. 3019. This is also the area where you'll find Venice's heavily photographed floating market operating from a boat moored just off San Barnabà at the Ponte dei Pugni. This market is open daily from 8am to 1pm and 3:30 to 7:30pm, except Wednesday afternoon and Sunday. You're almost better off just buying a few freshly prepared sandwiches (panini when made with rolls, tramezzini when made with white bread).
The Best Picnic Spots -- Alas, to stay behind and picnic in Venice means you won't have much in the way of green space (it's not worth the boat ride to the Giardini Publici past the Arsenale, Venice's only green park). An enjoyable alternative is to find some of the larger piazzas or campi that have park benches, and in some cases even a tree or two to shade them, such as Campo San Giacomo dell'Orio (in the quiet sestiere of Santa Croce). The two most central are Campo Santa Margherita (sestiere of Dorsoduro) and Campo San Polo (sestiere of San Polo). For a picnic with a view, scout out the Punta della Dogana area (Customs House) near La Salute Church for a prime viewing site at the mouth of the Grand Canal. It's located directly across from the Piazza San Marco and the Palazzo Ducale -- pull up on a piece of the embankment here and watch the flutter of water activity against a canvaslike backdrop deserving of the Accademia Museum. In this same area, the small Campo San Vio near the Guggenheim is directly on the Grand Canal (not many campi are) and even boasts a bench or two.
If you want to create a real Venice picnic, you'll have to take the no. 12 boat out to the near-deserted island of Torcello, with a hamper full of bread, cheese, and wine, and reenact the romantic scene between Katharine Hepburn and Rossano Brazzi from the 1950s film Summertime.
But perhaps the best picnic site of all is in a patch of sun on the marble steps leading down to the water of the Grand Canal, at the foot of the Rialto Bridge on the San Polo side. There is no better ringside seat for the Canalazzo's passing parade.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.