A cook's tour of the canals

Venice has a reputation for poor food at high prices. Not if you know where to look, writes Fiona Duncan.

It's often said Venice is a poor place for food. But that's only true if you're prepared to look no further than your nose - or rather, no further than busy St Marks Square and the Rialto. Armed with the right addresses, you'll find a growing clutch of places specialising in local cuisine; tiny retreats with a great neighbourhood feel.

The osterie, trattorie and bacari (wine and snack bars) where the Venetians themselves eat and drink are often buried deep in quiet backwaters. Many are tiny: it's best to book at all times of the year.

As for fine dining, there is only a handful of places worthy of your money; the two best, described below, are both hotel restaurants close to St Marks.

Here's my selection of the best places to eat in the city:

ALLA MADONNA

This famous trattoria, tucked down a side street by the Rialto Bridge, opened in 1954 and makes a great choice for a large group of friends. Always busy, often with a queue outside, it's memorable not so much for its traditional dishes as for the bustle, the old-fashioned ambience and the swift service from uniformed waiters. Speed is the key here: you can be in and out inside an hour.

WHERE Calle della Madonna, San Polo 594. Phone +390 41 522 3824, www.ristoranteallamadonna.com.

AL PORTEGO

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For a typical and good-value Venetian bacaro (wine bar), try this upper-floor, wood-lined place with prettily curtained windows and a separate eating area for those who want to be removed from the buzz.

Choose from the range of cicheti (snacks) or hot dishes such as pasta e fasioi or bigoli in salsa, or simply stand at the bar with the locals and have a glass of wine.

WHERE Calle de la Malvasia, Castello 6015. Phone +390 41 522 9038.

ANICE STELLATO

On a romantic canal in a slow-moving corner of Cannaregio, this simple, family-run osteria has gained a reputation for traditional dishes that are carefully cooked and subtly flavoured. You might try carpacci di pesce (thin slices of tuna or salmon dressed with olive oil and fragrant herbs) or tagliatelle with prawns and courgette flowers, or the fish risotto. Whichever, you'll find excellent cooking at good prices.

WHERE Fondamente de la Sensa, Cannaregio 3272. Phone +390 41 720 744.

ANTICHE CARAMPANE

Don't even think of venturing to Antiche Carampane without working out the route (details on the website). A long-time favourite with city dignitaries and their wives, the white-walled restaurant, hung with pictures, is both cosy and elegant and the seafood, especially the delicate fritto misto di pesce con le moeche (soft-shell crabs), is beautifully cooked. Service is brisk but warm.

WHERE Rio Tera de la Carampane, San Polo 1911. Phone +390 41 524 0165, antichecarampane.com.

CORTE SCONTA

Despite its cult status, especially among British visitors, no recommendation of Venetian places to eat would be complete without this well-known restaurant. Choose the tasting menu and expect a parade of little seafood dishes: marinated anchovies, soft-shell crab, spider crab pate, schie (tiny shrimp) with polenta, garusoli (spiny-shelled snails), sarde in saor, latti di sepie and more. Then perhaps a primo piatto of pasta made on the premises; you are unlikely to have room for more. But be warned: it may come across as a humble trattoria but the prices are high.

WHERE Calle del Pestrin, Castello 3886. Phone +390 41 522 7024.

DALLA MARISA

Marisa comes from a family of butchers and her wonderful menu is mainly meat-based, an antidote to the many fish restaurants in Venice. Dishes include the unusual risotto con le secoe, made with a cut of beef around the backbone, bollito misto, tripe and succulent ragouts. This is a small, no-nonsense place with tables inside and on the footpath. Once found, it will become a favourite.

WHERE Fondamente di San Giobbe, Cannaregio 652b. Phone +390 41 720 211.

DE PISIS, HOTEL BAUER

With sensational views - perhaps the best in Venice - there is simply no more romantic a place to dine than on the terrace of De Pisis. Not only is it seductive, by candlelight and under moonlight but the food lives up to the setting. The delicate, widely influenced dishes make a refreshing change from the usual Venetian diet. Choose from the seasonal tasting menu (which is highly recommended), the traditional Venetian menu or short a la carte menus. The desserts are particularly delicious.

WHERE Campo San Moise, San Marco 1459. Phone +390 41 520 7022, bauervenezia.com.

MET, HOTEL METROPOLE

Of the half dozen or more hotels along the Riva degli Schiavoni, this is my favourite. Still in private hands, it has endearing touches (the owner is a collector; everywhere you look are carved angels, lecterns, church pews, crucifixes, fans) and a core of twinkly-eyed staff who have been there forever. But while the hotel retains its personality, it has also kept up with the times with the arrival of the Zodiac bar and the Met restaurant. You can dine in the intimate wood-panelled former chapel where Vivaldi taught orphan girls to sing, the velvet-hung salone or the shady garden.

WHERE Riva degli Schiavoni, Castello 4149. Phone +390 41 524 0034, hotelmetropole.com.

VINI DA GIGIO

 Vini da Gigio is not secret and nor should it be, for it is one of the best-value restaurants in Venice, filled with locals, with a cosy yet buzzing atmosphere and colourful owner. The comfortable dining room and small tables are ideal for groups of four or five and, though it's always busy, the service is courteous and you never feel hurried. Specialities include raw fish antipasto, beef carpaccio, meatballs and masorino alla buranella (Burano-style duck). You must leave room for pudding.

WHERE Fondamente San Felice, Cannaregio 3628a. Phone +390 41 528 5140; vinidagigio.com.

- The Telegraph, London

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