Eating cheaply in Venice is not easy, though it’s by no means impossible. The city’s reputation for mass-produced menus, bad service, and wildly overpriced food is, sadly, well-warranted, and if you’ve been traveling in other parts of the country, you may be a little disappointed here. Having said that, everything is relative—this is still Italy after all—and you'll find plenty of excellent dining options in Venice. As a basic rule, value for money tends to increase the farther you travel away from Piazza San Marco, and anything described as a menù turistico, while cheaper than a la carte, is rarely any good in Venice (exceptions noted below). Note also 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 later.
While most restaurants in Italy include a cover charge (coperto) that usually runs 1.50€ to 3€, in Venice they tend to instead tack on 10% to 12% to the bill for “taxes and service.” Some places in Venice will very annoyingly charge you the cover and still add on 12%. A menu should state clearly what extras the restaurant charges (sometimes you’ll find it in fine print at the bottom) and if it doesn’t, take your business elsewhere.
Bacari & Cicchetti -- One of the essential culinary experiences of Venice is trawling the countless neighborhood bars known as bacari, where you can stand or sit with 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 an ombra or a small glass of wine, Veneto prosecco, or spritz (a fluorescent cocktail of prosecco and orange-flavored Aperol). All of the above will cost approximately 1.50 to 6€ 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 though it can make a great lunch, don’t rely on it for a light dinner. 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.
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.
Eating Al Fresco in Venice -- 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.
Venice's principal open-air market, Mercato Rialto, 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. The vendors are here Monday to Saturday 7am to 1pm, with a number who stay on in the afternoon. Behind these stalls are a few permanent food stores that sell delicious cheese, cold cuts, and bread selections. At the market's farthest point, you'll find the covered fresh-fish market, still redolent of the days when it was one of the Mediterranean's great fish markets. The fish merchants take Monday off and work mornings only.
Campo Santa Margherita in Dorsoduro, 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. A conventional supermarket, Punto Simply (Mon–Sat 8:30am–8pm, Sun 9am–2pm), is just off the campo in the direction of the quasi-adjacent campo San Barnaba, at no. 3019. This is also where you'll find Venice's heavily photographed floating market operating from a boat moored just off San Barnabà at the Ponte dei Pugni in Dorsoduro. This market is open daily from 8am to 1pm and 3:30 to 7:30pm, except Wednesday afternoon and Sunday.
Given its aquatic roots, you won’t find much in the way of green picnic spots in Venice (if you are really desperate for green, you can walk 30 min. past San Marco along the water, or take a vaporetto to the Giardini Pubblici, Venice’s only green park, but don’t expect anything great). A much more enjoyable alternative is to find one of the larger campi that have park benches, 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). The Punta della Dogana (Customs House), near La Salute Church, is a prime viewing site at the mouth of the Grand Canal. Pull up on a piece of the embankment here and watch the flutter of water activity against a backdrop deserving of the Accademia Museum. In this same area, another superb spot is the small Campo San Vio, near the Guggenheim, which is directly on the Grand Canal (not many campi are) and even boasts two benches and the chance to sit on an untrafficked small bridge. A bit farther afield, you can take the vaporetto out to Burano and then no. 9 for the 5-minute ride to the near-deserted island of Torcello. If you bring a basketful of bread, cheese, and wine you can do your best to reenact the romantic scene between Katharine Hepburn and Rossano Brazzi from the 1955 film “Summertime.”
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.
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.