Alimentary canal: you can eat badly in Venice / Getty

The man who pays his way

At Lidl, some shopping trolleys carry the slogan: "Why not try something you can't pronounce?" The discount supermarket is trying the same message with food that Ryanair has been offering for years with air travel: the airline seeks to entice us to Bydgoszcz, Szczecin and other eastern European destinations comprising implausible collections of consonants that would achieve stratospheric scores in geographic Scrabble.

Having a culinary adventure in Spain, Sweden and Singapore (but not Szczecin) enriches your travel experience - at the moment, many of us are far too unadventurous.

In any Mediterranean nation you can probably pronounce "menu turistico" well enough for a waiter to understand that you would like an unappetising salad or lump of indistinct animal parts under the name of pâté, followed by a similarly generic slice of meat, or piece of fish, with soggy vegetables, rounded off with whatever dessert didn't sell well last night. As with McDonald's – which has a role to play in sustaining tourists with familiar food and clean loos – your eating experience is not likely to reflect local cuisine nor be a highlight of your stay.

The easiest city in Europe in which to eat badly and pay dearly is Venice. The crumbs of territory sprinkled across the lagoon comprise a living museum almost entirely dependent for sustenance on tourism. Happily for the survival of this repository of culture and spirituality, we flock there at an average rate of half-a-million visitors a week. This week was well below average: late November and early December is the ideal time to see the city in its naked beauty, and Monday's early flight from Gatwick was only half-full.

I was on a mission to learn how to identify a good, local restaurant, or at least learn which establishments to disregard. I sought the advice of Barbara Tiozzo, proprietor of Locanda Orseolo – an ancient hotel close to St Mark's Square, yet hidden away from the tourist mainstream. The first clue, she says, is timing: "Tourist restaurants offer meals all day long, whereas a real Venetian restaurant has a lunch-time and dinner time. It's a good way to differentiate."

Look out, also, for men wearing straw hats set off with colourful ribbons: "If you see a gondolier seated at the table that means that it's probably a good place." When the sun joins the traffic heading west out of Venice at the end of the day, find a bacaro where you can sample cicchetti – "small tapas; with fish, vegetables and, in many places, a glass of wine". The Rialto area is especially rich in them.

We visitors are partly to blame for some dismal dinner offerings because we equate Italy with pizza and pasta. They are reliably good dishes in their locations of origin, Naples and Sicily, but are not the norm in the north, says Barbara.

"Every region, every city in Italy, has its own specific food." One problem with Venetian cuisine is appearance. "It isn't so easy because of dishes like squid. It's a black dish, because of the ink, so it doesn't appear too delicious," she says.

"Sometimes tourists have to just be brave and give it a try," she says, echoing Lidl's philosophy.

Beware of squid row

So, you follow Ms Tiozzo's advice and seek out a good place to eat. You finish dining on something inky that you can't get your tongue around, figuratively speaking. But your problems may only just be beginning. The Guardia di Finanza instructs diners: "You must ask for a tax document to be issued." Surely it's your business whether you bother to pick up the receipt? But the tourist is an unwitting pawn in an anti-tax evasion campaign to get restaurants fully to declare their revenue. If, when asked by an inspector outside the restaurant, you can't produce a receipt detailing your dinner, you face a squid row at best and a fine at worst.

How about a picnic instead? Well, beware of snacking in St Mark's Square. Posters warn: "The entire area around St Mark's Basilica (throughout St Mark's Square, Piazzetta dei Leoncini and up to the quay) is a no-picnic area." The penalty for saving a few euros by constructing your own lunch is €500. Even by the astronomical standards of ice-cream prices revealed by last year's "gelato-gate" scandal, that would buy you just 31 cornettos.

Pizza in our time

By the end of my stay I was thinking, surely Venice is the European city that least respects alimentary rights? But I was also thinking, it's mid-afternoon and I'm peckish, and I certainly don't want to pay airport prices for a snack. The answer can be found at Tre Ponti, the coincidence of three bridges just two minutes' walk from the Piazzale Roma and the airport buses.

Majer is a bakery – a Venetian institution that, even at 3pm, barely had room for a single tourist given the crush of 19 local customers already inside. Espresso is just one euro a shot and the cakes represent patisserie heaven. But I asked the lady behind the counter what I think is the appropriate question in almost any alimentary circumstances: what is best to eat today?

The result is not always agreeable, producing tripe in Le Puy and raw jellyfish in Tokyo. Would she commend something from the narrow intersection between baked goods and seafood with tentacles? I secretly hoped not.

Happily, she pointed at a slab of pizza that was a work of modern culinary art: decorated with pancetta, dabs of tomato and paper-thin sliced courgettes. It passed the tests for texture, aroma and flavour with flying colours, and I flew home with even more of a taste for Venice.

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