Kate Gibbs samples bars and restaurants favoured by the locals among Venice's network of canals.
The writer Truman Capote once remarked that going to Venice was like eating an entire box of chocolate liqueurs in one go. Rich, in all the ways. Luxurious. Inducing a little giddiness, perhaps. It is, as well, the romantic idyll.
It's no wonder 18 million tourists pile into the floating city each year.
Chocolate metaphors aside, Venice is not known for its epicurean strengths. But amid a sea of tourists, residents of the sinking city manage to carve out a home town for themselves via a pastiche of restaurants and bars hidden throughout the intricate network of streets, passageways and canals.
Venetians know the best places to eat and drink. One authentically local pastime is bacaro snacking. The small and crowded food-and-wine bars are short on tables but habitues typically stand by the counter to consume local wine by the glass and fresh titbits known as cichetti, the Venetian version of tapas.
Salt cod or baccala is beaten into a creamy whip with olive oil and milk; tender baby octopus is served fried or fritto, or warm, tossed with bitter purple radicchio leaves. Artichoke hearts, risotto in cuttlefish ink, the Venetian soppressa salami, polpette (meatballs) and even nervetti - boiled and chewy bits of calves' hooves served with olive oil and parsley - are bacari specialties.
In Venice, maps fail. To be in this city is to be disoriented, as if in a labyrinth of romantic cliches and real-life rabbit holes. But getting lost is the whole idea - it's how a traveller will make discoveries. Stumble, for example, on Mascari in the Rialto Market, where whole candied citron, saffron, condiments containing white truffles and local quince mustard are bought to fill local kitchens.
Find Cantina do Mori (Calle dei do Mori, near the Rialto Market), a bacaro that since 1462 has been famous for its ambience and legendary visits by Casanova.
Sample tramezzino, a sandwich found all over Venice that encloses an infinite variety of stuffings, from truffle-laced prosciutto to grilled vegetables, often slicked with mayonnaise. Here, tramezzini are stuffed with truffles or goose breast and accompanied by a glass of ombra.
Osteria al Mascaron (Calle Lunga Santa Maria Formosa 5225) is a short walk from Piazza San Marco in the Castello district. It's a popular spot with excellent wines, long queues outside and a front door completely plastered in guide-book recommendation stickers. And in the winter months a caffe corretto, or espresso "corrected" with the addition of grappa (found all over town) is a warming solution to the cold weather.
To combat the city's reputation for high prices and mediocre food, a consortium of restaurants has formed the Restaurants of Good Welcome or Ristoranti della Buona Accoglienza (veneziaristoranti.it). Under this umbrella, restaurants pledge pricing transparency and commit to culinary traditions.
Among the outstanding members of this club is Osteria Alle Testiere (Castello 5801; osterialletestiere.it), a tiny, 20-seat restaurant known for its seafood and wine. Sweet spider crab comes laden with herbs, brandy and scallops with wild fennel. Owner-chef and recent cookbook author, Bruno Gavagnin, will help pair the extensive menu with wine.
In summer Venice is a torrid, tourist-overwhelmed city. Visitors clog its famous bridges, swell its gondolas and vastly outnumber locals turning the city into a floating Disneyland, a Venetian-masked, kitsch shadow of its real self.
In the cooler months, pigeons peck about in ones and twos. The light is either brilliant and clear or grey and water, sky and land merge. It's brisk and damp but much easier to explore (and get lost), all the while pretending to be a local.
Catch the high-speed train from Rome to Venice (3hr 48min) on the Trenitalia line. A second-class ticket will cost $116, or a Eurail Select Pass is better value — from $475 first class or from $403 second class — if you plan to travel further, as it allows five days' travelling over two months in three neighbouring European countries that are part of the Eurail network; raileurope.com.au.