Florence & Venice

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Florence is the cradle of the Renaissance; Venice, threaded with canals, is that most serene city of Gothic palaces. Both are renowned for their excellent cuisine. Florentine cooks choose the thickest, juiciest cuts from the Chiana valley's snowy white cattle, brush them with olive oil and cracked peppercorns, and slow-grill them to perfection to become the mighty bistecca fiorentina. Venetian chefs cruise the ancient loggias of the Rialto market with an eye for the finest fish and shellfish caught that morning, which they will put in their famous fresh-seafood medleys. So basically we're talking about one town famous for its steak and another for its seafood. Neither comes cheaply.

We're here to help.

Below are a dozen of the best cheap meals these two capitals of Italian culture have to offer. We've got everything from a pizzeria in Venice to a stall in Florence's food market; a Venetian tavern where Casanova took other men's wives for romantic trysts to a candlelit Florentine trattoria suitable for a romantic dinner.

At all of them, you can get a full meal, including first and second courses and wine or water, for under E13 ($14.04). The prices quoted here are based on the exchange rate of E1=$1.08. To call Italy from the United States, dial 011-39 before the numbers listed below. Buon appetito!

Florence loves its food. When Brunelleschi was erecting the cathedral's great dome, the engineering marvel of its age, he installed a trattoria up in the fabric of the dome itself so the workers could enjoy a full meal on their lunch breaks. Here are the joints where latter-day laborers, market workers, and farmers in town to sell their harvest find inexpensive, filling meals of traditional fare.

Trattoria Mario

Via Rosina 2r (on the north corner of Piazza del Mercato Centrale), 055-218-550, www.trattoriamario.com. Closed for dinner and on Sundays. E8.45-E12.90 ($9.13-$13.93). No credit cards.

Tucked into a side street behind slightly pricier trattorie surrounding Florence's central food market, this unabashedly old-school trattoria doesn't seem to have changed one iota since Mario Colzi opened it in 1953. His son, Romeo Colzi, Romeo's wife, Patrizia, and brother Fabio refuse to alter the simple tiled walls, glassed-in kitchen, ancient wood ceiling, and culinary traditions (tripe on Mondays, fish on Fridays, etc.)-or the habit of shoehorning strangers into already packed tables to make new friends and enjoy genuine Florentine cooking at the lowest prices in town. The menu is hand-printed at the door and on the wall, and changed constantly to include such everyday delicacies as mezzelune al rag- (half-moon cheese ravioli in meat sauce) and coniglio al forno (roast rabbit). Even if you order both the most expensive first course and second course on the menu and have wine, you still ring in under E13-practically unheard of in Florence.

Le Mossacce

Via del Proconsolo 55r (halfway between the back side of the Duomo and the back of Palazzo Vecchio), 055-294-361. Closed Saturdays and Sundays. E10.70-E15.80 ($11.56-$17.06).

You can tell this is a working-class trattoria: It's only open weekdays, and you have to thread your way past the bar to the single tiny room in the back to sit elbow to elbow with strangers at tables stuffed around a busy open kitchen. Most primi, including the tagliatelle, rigatoni, and minestrone, are E4.20; for cannelloni (Florence's famed meat-stuffed pasta tubes) or cheese ravioli it's E4.70. To stay strictly within our E13 limit, order boiled or roasted chicken for your second course. If you're willing to go a little over budget, the field opens up to include succulent involtini (thinly sliced veal wrapped around veggies, then stewed) or spezzatino (a goulash-like stew)-pretty much everything except the cheapest bistecca fiorentina in town, which weighs in at E12 to E14 and is well worth the splurge.

La Mescita

Via degli Alfani 70r (at Via dei Servi, two blocks north of the Duomo, one block southeast of the Accademia), no phone. Closed for dinner and on Sundays. No credit cards. E10.55-E12.65 ($11.39-$13.66).

Mauro's tiny, one-room joint is a happy compromise between a fiaschetteria (see box, p.94) and a trattoria. You set your own table and retrieve your own dishes from the bar's high glass counter. It's open for wine by the glass and panini (E1.60-E3.50) from 8 a.m. but doesn't start serving hot dishes until 11 a.m. These include delectables such as fettuccine alla lepre (noodles in a hare rag-), penne alla rustica (pasta quills in a heady pesto of oregano, capers, and zucchini), saltimbocca (veal layered with sage and prosciutto), and scaloppine alla pizzaiola (veal drenched in mozzarella and tomato sauce).

Nerbone Mercato Centrale

(inside the central market, between San Lorenzo and Piazza del Mercato Centrale), 055-219-949. Closed for dinner and on Sundays. No credit cards. E3.50-E7 ($3.78-$7.56).

A stand-up lunch at Nerbone is something of a rite of passage into true Florentine dining. Since 1872 Nerbone has occupied a corner stall inside the Mercato Centrale food market (itself a limitless supply of picnic goodies). Many market workers and other regulars wolf down their food while standing at the bar; those without a stall to return to often prop their elbows on the bar and spend an hour nursing a small beer. More leisurely diners take their trays and grab one of the few tables set in an alcove across the corridor. The menu is simple: trippa alla fiorentina (diced tripe stewed with tomatoes and sage); panino con bollito (a boiled-meat sandwich that's bagnato, or dipped quickly into the bubbling meat-filled pot, before being handed over); pappa al pomodoro (a thick bread-and-tomato soup); and salsicce con patate (sausage atop a mound of boiled potatoes).

Trattoria La Casalinga

Via Michelozzi 9r (in the Oltrarno, on a side street between Pitti Palace and Santo Spirito), 055-218-624. Closed Sundays. E10.85-E13.65 ($11.72-$14.74).

One sign of an otherwise unremarkable trattoria truly favored by the locals: People actually line up and wait for it to open. The old vaulted rooms of La Casalinga open into blandly modern ones, heritage of an expansion several years back that sucked the spirit out of the place (but the food is still both cheap and good). It's tough to break the E13 barrier here, so feel free to order anything ... la carte, be it ribollita (a stewlike vegetable soup), tortellini in a rabbit rag-, polpette al forno (giant baked meatballs), or faraona arrosto (roast guinea fowl).

Trattoria Antichi Cancelli

Via Faenza 73r (on the main hotel drag two blocks east of the train station), 055-218-927. Closed Mondays. E12 ($12.96).

This endlessly popular trattoria's location-nestled amid the cheap hotels near the train station-belies its quirky atmosphere. Ancient wine bottles, garlands of garlic, and framed placemats with artistic doodles line the walls under vaulting of hand-cast bricks. Steaks come not on a plate but on a cutting board, and main courses include a complimentary side dish (usually roast potatoes or boiled spinach). The most inclusive E12 men- turistico in town gets you a choice of among roughly ten primi (tortellini in broth, pennette in tomato sauce, or Tuscany's storied ribolitta) and ten secondi (veal piccata with lemon or under tomato sauce, Florentine tripe stewed with tomatoes and sage-just steer clear of the dry and tasteless grilled chicken), plus a dessert of macedonia (fruit salad) or gelato, and wine or water. The food's not particularly outstanding, but it's the closest you can get to a true restaurant experience for E12.

Venice presents a particular challenge. Not only is it the priciest city in Italy, but seafood is included in nearly every traditional dish. As I pondered which restaurants to include, I realized none of the usual suspects fit the bill. The tried-and-true cheap eats of Venice can feed you very well for E15 or E16...but E13? I could picture only pizzerie and cicchetti bars (see box, p.97).

I ended up going local: I asked masons and fishmongers, gondoliers and budget hoteliers, the guy at the newsstand and the plumber fixing my hotel's water heater. Many laughed in my face: "A full meal for E13? In Venice? Impossible!" A few told me their secrets, where they and their cronies went for lunch. I sampled a dozen; six made the grade. These are the best E13 meals in all of Venice.

Cantina Do Spade

Calle Do Spade 860, San Polo (it's hidden: cross the Rialto bridge to the San Polo side, go through the little market and then dogleg a few feet left to keep walking straightish down alleys and passages until you see a profusion of chalkboard menus around the doorway), 041-521-0574, www.dospadevenezia.it. E10-E15 ($10.80-$16.20).

A few years ago, Giorgio Lanza expanded his venerable cicchetti bar of 1415. He added more tables, started offering a full menu, and reopened the back room where Casanova once wined and dined his romantic conquests (it has a back door so the famed lothario could slip out should any husbands show up). After a few years and many old customers' clamoring (well, okay, I clamored), Giorgio has finally brought back his five-alarm, tastebud-searing do spade sauce. It graces one of the many bruschetta menus (E10-E11), each of which pairs a slab of peasant bread topped with squid, tuna, or shrimp with a main dish, perhaps baccal... (dried cod), or sausages and polenta. He also offers several E13 to E14 menus that let you mix and match a few genuine Venetian dishes-pasta with peas or baccal..., fried sardines with onions and polenta, sausage and polenta, or pasta with roasted veggies. A E15 menu offers spaghetti with clams (Giorgio's pride keeps him from using frozen seafood) followed by baccal... or calamari and polenta.

Rosticceria Teatro Goldoni

Calle Teatro 4747, San Marco (at Ponte del Lovo, a block east of Calle dei Fabbri on the main route between San Marco and the Rialto), 041-522-2446. E13 ($14.04).

A rosticceria is basically a tavola calda (literally "hot table," a sort of cafeteria with excellent pre-prepared dishes) that also serves roast chicken. This joint behind plate-glass windows near the Rialto has been around since 1950 and goes above and beyond typical rosticcerie by offering a vast array of choices, plenty of seating, and a particularly ample E13 tourist menu. This comes with half a dozen choices each for both primo and secondo-meat-filled cannelloni alla bolognese, pasta and beans, lasagna, one quarter of a roast chicken, breaded veal cutlet alla milanese, mixed fish fry, pork chop-along with a salad, fried potatoes, or veggies; bread and fruit or cheese; and a cup of coffee.

Osteria a la Campana

Calle dei Fabbri 4720, San Marco (just a few blocks north of Piazza San Marco en route to the Rialto), 041-528-5170. Closed Sundays. E12.75 ($13.77).

It just says Osteria in the window, and from the door you can see only the bar. The wood-paneled dining room hidden to the left has curtains in the windows as if to keep the tourists who wash up and down the busy street from discovering this budget eatery. Venetian dialect buzzes from the tightly packed, tiny wooden tables. There's no menu; waiters just rattle off the day's pre-prepared dishes when you sit down (come early before the good stuff's gobbled up). They operate under a true home-cooking mentality: If the rigatoni's tomato sauce is flavored with tuna, then the fried polpette (meatballs) will be tuna as well. Dishes change daily: perhaps pasta with prosciutto and peas, bocconcini (morsels) of veal cooked tender in milk, or batter-fried fish. The sfuso (table wine) is from the Friuli, and if soccer season is on, so is the TV up in the corner.

Ae Oche

Calle del Tintor 1552, Santa Croce (just south of Campo San Giacomo dell'Orio), 041-524-1161. E8.50-E12.90 ($9.18-$13.93).

This perennially popular pizzeria is far enough from the tourist centers-about halfway between Campo San Polo and the train station-that it's packed with mostly Venetians. It's done up as a sort of ersatz American roadhouse, rock music playing softly, the rough-planked walls painted with peeling old sports-team logos, classic American signs from the era when Pepsi cost 5>, and a large map of Yosemite. A meal of pizza-more than 90 to choose from-and beer runs E8.50 to E11, though you could also squeak into our price range a fuller meal of fusilli in a tomato and basil sauce followed by a grilled chicken breast with spinach.

Vini da Pinto

Campiello Beccarie 367, San Polo (cross the Rialto bridge to the San Polo side and keep walking straight until you see the fish market on your right, just before the first bridge), 041-522-4599. Closed Mondays. E13.70 ($14.80).

How fresh is the fish? You could lob a clamshell from your outdoor table and hit the guy who sold it to the chef that morning-Venice's main fish market sprawls under a brick-and-marble Gothic loggia a few feet away. Fishmongers and other neighbors have jostled at Pinto's bar since 1890. A few curious tourists file past them into the blessedly air-conditioned dining room beyond, where they can sit in designer chairs under ancient wood beams. But what really counts is the food: simple, but good and filling. The E12 menus include everything but drinks-once you add E1.70 for water or E2.50 for wine, you're a wee bit over budget-served on one plate, either spaghetti alla bolognese with a grilled steak, seafood-studded spaghetti pescatore with fried calamari, or a generous slab of lasagne alla bolognese with a breaded veal cutlet alla milanese.

Trattoria Cea

Calle del Prestin 5337-5422/A, Cannaregio (just south of the Fondamente Nuove), 041-523-7450, www.trattoriacea.it. Closed for Saturday dinners and on Sundays. E13 ($14.04).

You can sit on straw-bottom chairs inside, listen to Italian radio, and play elbow hockey with the local workmen who pack the place at lunchtime, or you can snag one of the four lovely outdoor tables ranged around an ancient marble wellhead, under an arbor thick with leafy vines. Most everyone orders the fixed-price menu, which offers choices such as pennette in rag- or a rich vegetable soup to start, followed by a mix of roasted meats, sarde in saor (fried sardines in vinegar-a Venetian specialty), or oven-roasted pork, with a salad or vegetable side included.

Florentine fiaschetterie: The original wine bars

Florence's traditional fiaschetterie are modest little wine-shops-with-a-bar named for the fiaschi, or straw-bottom flasks, in which Tuscan wines were once delivered from the vineyards. Although these flasks are now only used to hold cheap table Chianti and destined to become candle holders, at a fiaschetteria you can still get a sandwich, a platter of meats and cheese, or even a simple dish or two along with your tipple.

Many are not much more than holes in the wall. Florence's best, I Fratellini, is a six-foot-deep doorway where two young men behind the counter continue a 128-year tradition of whipping out scrumptious panini (E2.10) and pouring E.80 glasses of wine to be enjoyed while standing on the flagstones of this pedestrian street in the heart of town. It's at Via de' Cimatori 38r, off Via dei Calzaiuoli between the Duomo and Piazza della Signoria (055-239-6096).

Another classic is Antico NoS, where namesake Noah's drunkenness is reenacted daily by the winos who hang around this passageway in a slightly disreputable corner of town near Santa Croce. It's under Volta di San Piero 6r, off the very eastern end of Borgo degli Albizi (055-234-0838).

Few tourists bother hunting down one of the locals' favorites in the Oltrarno. Enoteca Fuori Porta has one of the best wine selections and the broadest menu. It's at Via Monte alle Croci 10r, hidden halfway up the hill and rising to the panoramic viewpoint Piazzale Michelangelo (055-234-2483). Le Volpi e l'Uva is newer and modern, but the wines are carefully hand-selected by the owner, who also serves excellent cheese and prosciutto platters (E4-E4.50) and teeny panini (E1.50-E2). It's just off Via Guicciardini on Piazza de' Rossi (055-239-8132).

Cicchetti: Venetian Tapas In the early evening, Venetians will duck into a b caro (wine bar) to prendere un'ombra, literally, "to take a little shade," but really to sip a glass of wine and chat. To complement their wine, many bars offer snacks-on-toothpicks called cicchetti-anything from a savory chunk of salami or pxt, on a roundel of bread to an anchovy filet wrapped around a pickled onion. Cicchetti cost E.75 to E1.50 each, although if they put together a platter the cost per piece usually comes down. You can stroll from one b caro to the next, sipping glasses of house wine and nibbling your way toward a full meal. B cari that don't turn into pubs later tend to close around 8 p.m. to 9:30 p.m., so if you're making this into a light dinner, plan it early.

One of the best and most atmospheric cicchetterie is the 1462 Cantina Do Mori, a long bar under low, wood-beamed ceilings near the Rialto market. Upended barrels serve as tabletops, and though it's widely cited in the guidebooks, Do Mori's staunch local clientele will never let the tourists take over. It's at Calle Do Mori 429, San Polo, just over the Rialto, through the street market, then dogleg a few feet left to continue straight; it's on the next block (041-522-5401).

Enoteca Cantinone Gi... Schiavi offers not only a broad selection of E1 cicchetti and inexpensive glasses of vino, but also a few dozen wines under E10 a bottle, so you can take an ombra home with you. After your snack, walk to the far end of the fondamenta to see one of the last surviving squeri (gondola workshops) in Venice. It's at Fondamenta San Trovaso 992, Dorsoduro, over the Accademia bridge, your first right; when you hit the first canal turn left and follow it halfway down. The bar's across from a small bridge (041-523-0034).

Though Vino Vino serves cicchetti, it really leans more toward being a full osteria, offering little wooden tables and a few dishes prepared by the chefs at its parent restaurant, the pricey Antico Martini down the block. True to its name, it also boasts one of the best wine cellars in Venice, with many excellent selections available by the glass. It's at Ponte delle Veste 2007, San Marco, just south of La Fenice opera house (041-523-7027).

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