Italy: Savour the flavours of Venice

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In Italy's most romantic city, it's the fresh, local produce that seduces Mark C O'Flaherty

If I lived within walking distance of the Rialto Market, I'd never buy groceries anywhere else. As someone who acquires cookbooks on a seemingly weekly basis, the ancient mercantile heart of Venice feels like the most visually seductive and stimulating place on earth. This isn't a Disneyfied attraction for tourists: this is where Venetians come for their weekly and daily shop.

On a golden Tuesday morning in late summer, the sun shines through crimson flags bearing the image of the winged lion of St Mark, across stalls full of the fishing spoils of the Adriatic, laid out on ice like fine iridescent jewellery. Stallholders sip their mid-morning spritzes in the shade while fabulously wizened nonnas in elegant pussybow-collared blouses shop for still-twitching crustacea, just-fished prawns with butterfly markings, and steaks from Mesozoically vast swordfish. Multicoloured spices are plated up in Missoni-like patterns in the window of Drogheria Mascari, and in the fruit and vegetable market the sweet smell of 20 different types of tomato drifts over beautiful, deep purple artichokes, boxed like dark velvet roses.

"So! What are we going to make?" asks Enrica Rocca. She's not so much a chef as a force of nature, with a mane of curly hair and several generations of Venetian blood in her. When Rocca isn't feeding 500 guests for Venice in Peril benefit galas, she hosts intimate day-long cookery classes that start with the creamiest cappuccino in the city – at Caffè del Doge – and then move on to the market, where she's greeted by name at each stall. She surveys what's good, explains why that is, bags it up and then takes her students back to her state-of-the-art kitchen, fashioned out of the old laundry in her family's palazzo. From the window, Enrica tells me, had I a rod, I could fish fantastic grey mullet from the canal below.

It's more of a party than a class, although visitors do learn the vital importance of generosity with salt: "If you don't eat junk food, salt is fine. And when you cook pasta, the water should be as salty as the Adriatic." Her insider perspective on dining in the city is priceless. A one-day class is one thing, but a week's holiday based around Enrica's tips keeps the dreaded "tourist menu" at bay, guiding you away from the Caffè Florian and towards local favourites – although there are still some inescapable, excellent clichés to enjoy.

"The best bellini in Venice is on the rooftop of the Hilton," she tells me over a spritz at Osteria alla Alba, a graffiti-covered bar several alleyways off the main tourist beat of the Rialto. Later that week I dutifully take the ferry across to the Molino Stucky Hilton, once a vast 19th-century red-brick flourmill, now a grand hotel, and still a powerful, strikingly industrial presence on the banks of Giudecca, and the lift up to the Skyline terrace.

The view across the water to St Mark's is glorious and the sunset painterly, but alas there aren't any peaches.

"I wasn't happy with them today, so we're not making bellinis," says Marino, the manager. Instead, I have two stupendous martinis – one fresh apple, one fresh basil – which send me floating on a warm cashmere-soft cloud back across the water to another of Enrica's recommendations, L'Osteria di Santa Marina. My waiter rattles off the day's specials and I order a large plate of raw seafood and the tagliolini al nero di seppia alla busara. The jet-black pasta dish with squid is complex and wonderful, the pesce crudo, too. Over several trips to Venice, I've developed an obsession with raw prawns, whose soft and rich texture and flavour bear no relation to their cooked siblings. And at Santa Marina – a mid-range restaurant that shouldn't cost you more than £50 per head – they're particularly excellent.

I get my bellini the next day at the Cipriani – the best-known hotel in the city, its rooms and gardens oozing elegant, classic, matter-of-fact wealth. This is as rarefied as Venice gets. Its bellini, first created by Giuseppe Cipriani in the 1940, is the stuff of legend. Regular guests – and the most privileged of locals – are greeted in hushed tones at the poolside by title and surname. Walter, the head bartender, has been here since the 1970s, and remembers Enrica's father and uncle well. ("Both very good customers, and big drinkers," laughs Enrica.)

If you ask him nicely, Walter will make you a bellini the old-fashioned way, painstakingly hand squeezing each white peach and blending it with raspberry, lemon juice and a one-third measure of Nino Franco Valdobbiadene prosecco. At home, I make mine by adding a shot of peach nectar from a carton to whatever sparkling wine I have to hand. I'll never do that again and dare to call it a bellini.

Some of the Venetians' favourite bars and dining rooms are just a few steps from the main tourist thoroughfares. The Metropole Hotel, adjacent to St Mark's Square, is a family-run hotel and one of the loveliest places to stay in the city, with a tranquil garden and romantic, antique-filled rooms, walls swathed in heavy embroidered fabrics. It also has a two Michelin-starred restaurant, MET, which locals adore. Chef Corrado Fasolato doesn't have a single tasting menu; he has a whole book full of them, themed on ingredients from the Veneto. There's nothing staid about the MET experience – staff wear Gucci ballet pumps and rock'n'roll frock coats – and the flavours are modern and revelatory, from scallops with a flourish of Parma violet to wholewheat bigoli pasta with sardines in oyster stew. A basil and tomato consommé prepared in a stove-top espresso-maker has the whole table in raptures: "Alchemy!" declares Enrica.

Halfway down the Grand Canal, the restaurant at the Philippe Starck-designed hotel Palazzina Grassi has, after months of residents-only exclusivity, opened to the public. You can sit at the counter while chef Luigi Frascella cooks with a mix of Japanese and Italian styles resulting in what many – including Enrica Rocca – claim is the best food in all of Venice. "I buy all my fish in Santa Margherita Square rather than at the Rialto," says Luigi. "It's more expensive, but it's entirely local." He serves up a succession of exquisite plates: a raw fish with yellow tiger-stripe iridescence that he says is "like a turbot, but exclusive to Venice"; a cuttlefish dish surrounded by ink ragu; malfatti ravioli with walnut, ricotta and aubergine. He puts an Italian spin on tempura, creating his batter with prosecco and polenta. The whole evening is inspired and destined for Michelin-starred greatness.

There are less rarefied specialities to enjoy in Venice. "You must go for mozzarella in carrozza at Rosticceria Gislon," advises Metropole owner Gloria Beggiato, after my dinner at MET. "It's a typically Venetian sandwich." I find Gislon in an alleyway close to the Rialto: a bustling but largely unlovely counter-service café which reminds me of a place in Edinburgh called Café Piccante, home of the bleary, after-midnight battered-sausage supper. I try both varieties of deep-fried mozzarella "carriage" – one with ham, one with anchovy – washed down with an Aperol spritz, and they're so greasy that afterwards I feel I could turn a palazzo wall transparent just by breathing on it. A half-sandwich would suffice.

Many of the vegetables I pass in the Rialto Market after my visit to Gislon still come from nearby islands out in the lagoon, although farming isn't as big an industry as it used to be. Similarly, locals' restaurants out on the islands are disappearing. Trattoria alle Vignole, on the island of Vignole, is one of the few still in business. You get a water taxi or private boat – it's not on any vaporetto route – to the gates of its garden, and eat al fresco in the shade of its trees.

Tourists seldom make it this far from the banks of the Grand Canal. On my visit, I joined a table of locals who feasted on giant horse steaks, jet black pasta dishes, razor clams and stuffed, battered zucchini flowers. The menu was a comprehensive overview of brilliant and basic Venetian cooking, and the experience of eating there was as Italian as can be. At the end of the meal the captain of my boat finished his flute of prosecco, downed an espresso he'd decanted into a glass of sambuca, and motored me back at high speed to Enrica's kitchen.

On my last evening in the Rocca palazzo, I deep-fried tiny prawns and ate them straight from the pan, hot and crunchy. Then I prepared a fresh tomato sauce with cherry tomatoes ("so you don't have to bother with any peeling – they boil right down") and a risotto nero with squid. As a group of five we roasted mackerel in caramelised soy sauce, pan-fried calamari with parsley, lemon and chilli, and simmered fagioli beans with rosemary, their marbled white and fuchsia patterns making the shelled fagioli resemble the most beautiful pieces of jewellery.

Nothing was complicated, everything was wonderful. "What goes in, comes out," said Enrica. "Nothing more or nothing less." Venice may be one of the most historic and ornate cities in the world, but the secret of its food rests in its freshness and simplicity. And, of course, the salt. Never forget the salt.

Travel essentials: Venice

Getting there

* The writer travelled with easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyJet.com), which flies from Gatwick to Venice Marco Polo from £38.99 one way. British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) also flies to Marco Polo from Gatwick and Heathrow. Jet2 (0871 226 1737; jet2.com) flies from Edinburgh, Manchester and Leeds/Bradford; Bmibaby (0871 224 0224; bmibaby.com) flies from East Midlands. Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) flies from Stansted and Bristol to Treviso airport, with a bus link.

Staying there

* Hotel Metropole, Riva degli Schiavoni 4149 (00 39 041 520 5044; hotelmetropole.com). Doubles start at €244, including breakfast.

* Palazzina Grassi, San Marco 3247 (00 39 041 528 4644; www.palazzinagrassi.it). Doubles start at €319, room only.

* Hotel Cipriani, Guidecca 10 (00 39 041 520 7744; hotelcipriani. com). Doubles start at €930, including breakfast.

Cooking there

* Enrica Rocca runs full day cooking classes on Tuesdays for €280 per person; evening classes on Wednesdays cost €180 and Monday evening wine pairings €200 (00 39 338 6343839; www.enricarocca.com)

Visiting there

* Caffe del Doge, San Polo 609 (00 39 041 522 7787; caffedeldoge.com).

* Osteria all'Alba, San Marco 5370 (00 39 340 124 5634).

* L'Osteria di Santa Marina, Campo Santa Marina (00 39 041 528 5239; ristorantiveneziani.it/smarina).

* Rosticceria Gislon, San Marco 5424 (00 39 041 522 3569).

* Skyline Rooftop Bar, Hilton Molino Stucky, Giudecca 810 (00 39 041 272 3311; molinostuckyhilton.com).

* Trattoria alle Vignole, Isola Vignole 12 (0039 041 5289707; trattoriaallevignole.com).

More information

* en.turismovenezia.it; 00 39 041 529 8711;

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