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Monday, 5 September 2011

The London Foodie Goes to Italy - Venice

A Long Weekend at La Serenissima

One hour and forty minutes from London Stansted, Venice has never been as affordable or accessible as it is now. As the number one tourist destination in Italy, however, it is also one of the hardest places to escape tourist tat unless you have sound advice - happily we had some.

Among the most stunning cities in the world, Venice merits pushing the boat out a little as regards accommodation and food. It is all too easy to spoil the experience with mediocrity (which will never be cheap in La Serenissima anyway).

The price of a good meal in virtually any other city in Italy will buy you a dreadful one in Venice, unless you know where you are going. The same applies to hotels, with demand far outstripping supply.

Made up of 118 islands, Venice is divided into 6 districts known as sestieri. We stayed in the Northernmost sestiere of Cannaregio which we found ideal being fairly quiet and residential but with lovely bars and restaurants. It is also within easy walking distance of the main sites such as Piazza San Marco.

Before we arrived in Venice in the 4th week of July, many of our friends warned us that Venice would be unbearably hot, smelly and crowded. In fact, we found no part of Venice was malodorous, and apart from the main thoroughfare from the railway station to Piazza San Marco (which was like Oxford Street on Christmas Eve), the rest of the city appeared surprisingly tranquil.

Where We Stayed

Palazzo Abadessa is a gorgeous 15th century mansion in the northern district of Cannaregio which has been sympathetically renovated into a four star luxury hotel. Tucked away only a few metres from the nearby busy shopping street of Nova Strada, the Palazzo has 15 rooms decorated with silk- lined walls, frescoed ceilings, original Venetian paintings, antique furniture and Murano chandeliers.

It has a lush garden where breakfast or pre-dinner cocktails are served. The Palazzo has two magnificent reception rooms. The first of these, on the ground floor is where guests are welcomed as they walk in from the garden. There are impressive Venetian stained glass windows, chandeliers and Persian rugs, and the room overlooks the canal from which water-taxis can be hailed.

The first floor reception room is even more striking. It leads on to several of the grandest bedrooms, and is furnished with Murano glass objects, huge oil paintings, and exquisite antique furniture. Domestic photographs of the owners Batista and Maria Luisa, to whom I chatted briefly, are dotted around, reminding us that this is a former family home, a Residenza d' Epoca, not just a hotel.

A sneaky peek at one of the nicest rooms as it was being cleaned
Our room overlooked the garden, and was quiet, large and attractively furnished. Discreetly modernised, the air-conditioning was concealed unobtrusively above a wardrobe. The double bed was antique, huge and very comfortable. After seeing so many  garishly decorated rooms online, we were pleased to have found Palazzo Abadessa, a tastefully luxurious spot in one of the most attractive Venetian sestiere.

Breakfast was served outdoors in the garden. The buffet included a variety of fruit, yoghurt, cheeses and cold meats, pastries, cakes and fruit juices. It was a generous spread and a lovely location in which to enjoy it.

Room rates range from €250 to €450 including breakfast. For more information about Palazzo Abadessa or to book, visit their website here. I thoroughly enjoyed my stay at this Residenza d'Epoca, and highly recommend it.

Hotel Palazzo Abadessa ****
Residenza d'epoca
30121 Venice
Cannaregio Calle Priuli 4011
Phone +39 041 2413784
Fax +39 041 5212236

Where We Ate

Palazzo Abadessa does not have a restaurant, but luckily, only a 3-minute walk from the hotel, we booked a table at Vini da Gigio, a family run restaurant, that was highly recommended by various friends for their fantastic Venetian wine list and food.

The restaurant is extremely popular and booking in advance is essential. It overlooks one the City's many canals, and is simply decorated with a warm and welcoming atmosphere. Interestingly, Vini da Gigio has an open plan kitchen which is rather uncommon in Italy, but which provided me hours of entertainment as happily we were seated nearby.

The restaurant has two menus - one for fish and seafood and another for meat or vegetarian items. The menus are short and a couple of daily specials are also offered on each. Unsurprisingly, the wine list was extensive and rather pricey but still included some reasonable options at around €15 to €18.

For antipasti we ordered a small platter of Deep Fried Baby Razor Clams €16 which was delicious and crispy, and perfectly accompanied the bottle of Prosecco with which we started.

For primi, we had three different pasta dishes. These were beautifully al dente, simple and flavoursome. The Chestnut Tagliatele with Duck Sauce (Tagliatele di Castagne con Ragù d'Anatra) @ €13 was excellent with a wonderful richness from the slow cooked sauce.

The Tagliolini with Mixed Mushrooms (Tagliolini con Funghi Misti) @ €13 was also great with a generous mix of meaty wild mushrooms in a buttery sauce.

I hadn't tried Bigoli before, a thick spaghetti-like pasta with a hole running through the centre, traditionally made with duck eggs, and so I ordered Venetian Bigoli with Cheese and Pepper (Bigoli Veneti con Cacio e Pepe) @ €13. Cacio e Pepe (Romano Pecorino cheese and pepper) is one of my favourite pasta sauces and is also very easy to prepare, and Vini da Gigio's was no exception.

For main courses, Dr G went for Calves Liver Venetian Style with Polenta (Fegato alla Veneziana con Polenta) @ €18 - the liver had been cut in strips, fried with onions and served in a delicious sauce of its own juices and wine. It was tender and went well with the accompanying white polenta.

The Lamb Fillets with Seasonal Vegetables (Filetto di Agnello con Verdure di Stagione) @ €19 was also good - the fillet had been lightly bread crumbed and cooked to perfection.

The best main course in my opinion was the Braised Ossobuco of Veal (Ossobuco di Vitello Brasato) @ €19. It had been very slowly cooked in a rich tomato sauce and served with yellow polenta. The meat was unctuous and tasted divine.

To accompany our mains, we shared a bottle of 09 Valpolicella Ripasso from Torre D'Orti @ €18 which was a robust red with great structure and good complexity for its price level, and a perfect match to this type of food.

Of all the meals we had in Venice, Vini da Gigio was by far the best. I would very happily return and I thoroughly recommend Vini da Gigio (Cannaregio 3628A, Fondamenta San Felice, Vaporetto Ca' d'Oro, 041 528 5140/fax 041 522 8597). It is not a budget restaurant though, a 2 course meal will cost around €30 per person excluding drinks.

Another restaurant that we tried to get into was La Zucca but unfortunately it was booked up for all the evenings that we were there (Calle del Tintor, Sestiere Santa Croce, 1762, 30135 Venice, Italy, +39 (041)-524-1570, www.lazucca.it/).

What We Did

There is so much to do in Venice in terms of sightseeing and cultural activities. A visit to the stunning Palazzo Ducale and L'Accademia to see one of the finest European art collections, and the famous Piazza San Marco are some of the best known highlights.

The weekend we happened to be in Venice was during the Festa del Redentore which meant that most hotels and restaurants were fully booked with Italian tourists (for a change!).  A massive firework display ended the festivities on Saturday evening at Piazza San Marco which was great to witness.

Having visited many of the sites on previous visits, we decided to spend a very leisurely weekend walking, island hopping and eating. One fantastic new discovery this time round was Gelateria Grom. Now, we all know that artisan Italian ice creams (gelati artigianali) are some of the best in the world but the ice cream I had at Grom can only be described as the best I have ever had.

Grom only uses 100% natural ingredients from Italy (pistachios from Bronte in Sicily, nougat from Asti, fruit from their own farm called Mura Mura) - the ice cream flavours were intense but fresh with a wonderful creamy texture that blew my mind away. Grom is in major Italian cities and also in Malibu, Tokyo, Osaka, Paris and NY. And I just hope that a London branch will be opening very soon. I cannot recommend Grom highly enough and if you get to travel to Italy and enjoy ice cream, Grom is the place to head to. For a full list of branches, see here.

One of the most enjoyable things to do in Italy in my opinion is to have coffee and cake at some of the many Pasticcerie (patisseries/cake shops).  Like the cuisine, each region of Italy will also have their own cakes and snacks and there is no better way to discover this than visiting the local pasticceria

In Venice, I saw a small circular pastry (called pizzeta) with a rich tomato sauce, cheese and anchovies being served at nearly every cafe. The pizzeta was served warm and was delicious with either a strong cup of Italian coffee or an Aperol Spritz, a local cocktail of Aperol, Prosecco and a dash of soda water.

Another heavenly sweet was a cigar-shaped biscuit that was deliciously crisp and filled with creamy, sweetened ricotta and crystallised fruit. I cannot recall its name but if you ever get to see it in your next trip to Venice, I thoroughly recommend it.

I have been to Venice many times before but I feel that this latest visit was the most enjoyable to date. Highlights of this trip were Palazzo Abadessa Hotel, Vini da Gigio Restaurant, Gelateria Grom and the many glasses of Aperol Spritz I enjoyed while wandering the beautiful scenery and canals of Venice. I hope to have a repeat visit before too long!

The London Foodie was a guest of Palazzo Abadessa


  1. The cigar shaped sweet is konwn as a canoli, and is an Italian specialty.

  2. Sounds wonderful! Bill and I are heading to Venice on our travels in November and still looking for a hotel, so thanks for the tip.

  3. @ Lynn - thanks Lynn, good to know what it is called!

    @ Greedy Diva - I recommend Palazzo Abadessa if you can get a room there, they are nearly always full as there are only 15 rooms. Give me a call or email me and I will be able to give you some otehr tips.

  4. Lovely, I feel like I just went on a virtual holiday! Have only been once, over a decade ago when backpacking around Europe. It was July in fact, and it was packed! Would love to go back now, armed with suggestions. Thanks!

  5. *sigh* looks amazing, I almost licked the screen. I regret that they haven't invented smelling and tasting computers yet.
    The hotel looks lovely, there are so many rip off places in Venice that it's good to know about a nice one!

  6. That Palazzo looks A WORLD away from the convent (!) I stayed at when I was last in Venice (It was the cheapest place, it operates as a youth hostel type place for females). Great tips and one for you - Grom has a branch in Paris as well - good for a gelati fix when in the City of Light...

  7. It looks so romantic! The food and specially the ice cream looks gorgeous! Great tips for accommodation too x

  8. This post reminds me that I visit to Italy is now overdue!

  9. True~
    Ice cream in Italy is always yummy!


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