We went to Venice for a week and never ate at Harry's Bar.
Yes, we shunned Harry's, the good but overpriced hangout that is every tourist's way to buy a piece of Hemingway's Venice. We had made a reservation, but were saved by the post- Carnevale blues. We arrived to find the door barred, a sign explaining that the help was simply too tired to open the place. This is an Italian habit familiar to anyone who actually believes that museums and churches will be open at posted times.
So why didn't we go to Harry's on one of the other six nights we were in Venice? The Experienced Traveler had been there on earlier trips--he didn't have to go. And, anyway, we found decidedly better places to eat, even to dine repeatedly, as in the case of the Caffe Orientale, which the Experienced Traveler declared to be the best restaurant in Venice. Founded by Mario, a graduate of the wondrously sumptuous Cipriani Hotel, the Caffe Orientale is staffed largely by his family--his brother invents many of the recipes, as does his mother, who shops for the freshest food, while another brother is between kitchen and dining room.
The cuisine is as exciting as any in Italy, with Mario announcing to you exactly what's available that evening. A sample meal:
Begin with grilled sardines with onions (frequently a special) and then follow with spaghetti seppie , with black squid cooked in its own ink. Have a friend order the risotto with chicken or the risotto with saffron (each grain both individual and yet part of a perfect whole), and then the mixed seafood grill. How and what gets mixed depends on the catch of the day.
Caffe Orientale is located on the Rialto, across the canal from the touristy San Marco area, down a serpentine series of streets and alleys from the soaring Frari, the medieval Franciscan church that is a treasure house of Renaissance art. The Caffe decor is starkly modern, yet richly Italianate--gold and silver striped pillars, minimal but comfortable chairs, and, in winter, a shimmering fireplace. In warm weather, food is served on a terrace overlooking a canal, with a landing place for the water taxis that bring patrons from Venice's more traveled precincts.
Caffe Orientale is not yet in most guide books, but the people who first know such things surely know this special place. Do take the water taxi, even though it's expensive, unless you really know your way around. Venetian cartography is famous, but Venetian maps are infamously incomplete.
Dinner for two, with splendid local wine, should cost approximately 120,000 lire (current rate of exchange: about 1,331 lire to the dollar), or half as much as Harry's for food twice as good. In summer, prices are somewhat higher, especially if you eat on the terrace. Call ahead--Mario will greet you with genuine warmth and an unforgettable meal.
Caffe Orientale, 2426 S. Polo. Phone 719-804.
"So why not Harry's Bar for lunch?" the Venice Novice asked. "We will, we will--someday," the Experienced Traveler replied.
But on our second day in Venice, our first lunch, we stumbled across one of those legendary trattorias that exist only in traveler's hopes and made-for-TV movies. Call this one "Millie Abroad" for the smiling Brooklyn expatriate. Millie had come to visit Venice seven years before--and stayed to marry the fellow whose family had owned the Trattoria Da Ponte for 30 years.
The menu is simple, the pasta freshly made and imaginatively sauced. The Venetian Novice loved the lasagna with nutmeg and bechamel and the agnolotti with spinach and prosciutto in a cream sauce. The Experienced Traveler favored the spaghetti with red peppers in a tomato sauce and especially the bigoli , spaghetti with onions and anchovies.
There was a risotto fegato , cooked with liver--one of the different rice dishes offered every day; get there early, around noon, because Millie's mother-in-law and aunt only make it once. Gnocchi with a chunky tomato sauce enriched with fresh basil was special, as were the rice and fish balls.
Da Ponte is a real neighborhood place, on the Rialto, not far from the Ca Pesaro Museum, next to San Giacomo dell'Orio. It's an easy walk from the S.Stae Vaporetto stop--walk straight down, away from the water, turn right at the second street and walk straight ahead. You will cross a small bridge and there you will find Millie busy at work but delighted to see and chat with fellow Americans.
As for the prices, they're hardly worth mentioning: in the neighborhood of 20,000-30,000 lire for lunch for two, including the trattoria's priciest red wine.
Trattoria Da Ponte, Calle del Tentor.
We could have spared one night for Harry's, but by now it was a point of principle not to go--especially for the Experienced Traveler, who wished to return to a literal hole-in-the-wall recommended to him six years before. Da Arturo is a few dozen confused steps from the Teatro La Fenice, Venice's historic opera house, on the Calle Degli Assassini.
Ignore the menu and ask the proprietor to pick. Or start with three mixed salads--eggplant, roasted peppers, finely chopped vegetables, each in different dressings, all tart but not bitter. For the second course, share two or three pastas: spaghetti with gorgonzola, or with carciofi (the green sauce reinforces the artichokes) or spaghetti siciliana (a spicy dish with tomatoes and black olives).
The tagliatelle with radicchio demonstrated what most American restaurants do wrong with this rosy, bitter lettuce. One main course, veal in mustard sauce, is a standard, brilliantly prepared, while another, pork chops with vinegar, is a rediscovered Venetian standard of long ago. Order it through pursed lips--they will soon smooth out into a satisfied smile.
The Chianti Riserva from nearby Tuscany is a perfect complement to the very definite tastes of Da Arturo, where dinner for two, with wine, will run about 130,000 lire.
Vini Da Arturo, 3656 Calle Degli Assassini. 86-924.
As we left Venice and our water taxi zipped past Harry's Bar, the Venetian Novice was a little concerned that she still hadn't seen the inside of this landmark institution. The Experienced Traveler promised a drink there on the next trip.
As Harry's disappeared in the morning Venice mist, the Experienced Traveler reflected that if the Orientale had been around decades before, dining in Venice for Hemingway would have been a moveable feast: Perhaps a pre-dinner Martini at Harry's, and then a long night's repast at Caffe Orientale.