Alan and I had a wide array of eating experiences the last time we were in Venice, but the bottom line was that the most satisfying meal is not necessarily the most grand nor most expensive.
There was a popular cooking show hostess who had a segment on Venice right before we left, so we thought it would be fun to follow her lead. However, it turned out that her name gave her freer access to the special foods, and her obvious lack of concern for cost did not suit everyone’s budget.
For instance, Harry’s Bar is an absolute institution in Venice…almost on par with the Basilica San Marco and the gondolas. It truly does have that faded ‘30’s clubby look, as if Hemingway might very well be the slouching man with his back to you. The TV show had featured a simple grilled cheese sandwich — something that’s almost impossible to find in Italy. However, it was not on the menu. The least expensive thing on the menu was a 25-euro (about $32) club sandwich. We asked about the grilled cheese. The waiter was shocked it wasn’t listed and said of course they served it. Cost? 18 Euros, or about $23. Obviously it was not on the menu because they did not want to acknowledge in writing that they would have anything under $30.
A $23 grilled cheese can go either way. Your mind can convince your taste buds that at that price it simply MUST be the very BEST you’ve ever had, or your taste buds can tell your mind that even the very BEST grilled cheese ever — and I must admit that this was quite good — can NEVER taste like it’s worth $23.
And then there’s the Bellini – a drink invented at Harry’s, consisting of Prosecco (the local light sparkling white wine) and the juice from white peaches. Yes, you absolutely must have one, but it helps to be prepared for the small size and large price.
This sounds like I’m knocking Harry’s, but that is not my intent. They have a market….just like Manolo Blahnik shoes, which cost $500 for a few straps. On the one hand, Harry’s must price itself high enough to keep out the T-shirt/shorts/sneaker crowd who would want the waiter to take a photo of their sweaty family with the ever-elegant owner Signor Cipriani. At the same time, they want to attract their target clientele who will think nothing of ordering a $250 (per person) meal along with however many Bellinis they want, but insists it be in a place without the aforementioned riff-raff.
The difference between Harry’s and Blahnik, however, is that you expect expensive shoes to be beautifully designed and impeccably well-made, while this particular grilled cheese, though very good, was still just a grilled cheese. I’m certainly not suggesting that the $250 per person dinner wouldn’t be delicious. I’m just saying that if a $5 sandwich costs $23, then a $250 dinner would actually be worth about $54. You can get a very good meal for $54 per person and – call me jaded if you will – I must question whether the additional $196 could possibly be worth it. However in this case, that’s the mark-up for the pleasure of sitting in an iconic restaurant.
The opposite of expensive-yet-unsatisfying is inexpensive-and-VERY-satisfying, and Venice certainly offers those restaurants, too. Our favorite of this particular trip was Alla Vedova, where for 1/10th the cost we got a meal featuring fish as fresh as it could possibly be without swimming up to our table and jumping on our plates. This charming little restaurant was filled with locals, and was the kind of place you always hope to find, but so seldom do. When you do, you like to share it with friends, and then hope it doesn’t become an “institution” whereby it will double its prices and halve its quality.
I have no doubt that at some point, we will head back to Venice again for a few days — probably with friends who have never been there. If they’ve always dreamed of sipping a Bellini in the same room where Hemingway once sipped his, of course we’ll go back with them to Harry’s Bar. But we’ll make sure they’re well forewarned so that they can sit down with their wallets well forearmed.