Venice: Discovering a local legend

Published in NZ Sunday Star Times, October 4 2015

After an unpromising start, Pam Neville discovers an extraordinary restaurant hiding in Venice      

da marisa 1

“We are closed,” snaps an unwelcoming woman as we stick our noses into an unpretentious little restaurant fronting one of the quieter canals of Venice. It’s late afternoon and the door is open, but there is no opening for conversation.

We ask, politely, if she has a menu so we can decide whether to come back for dinner?

“No. We have no menu.”

Giving up and walking on seems the best option, but then our matriarch offers a morsel of information.

“Tonight, there will be fish.”

Directly opposite the nondescript doorway of the little restaurant, on the opposite side of the canal, is our hotel. Later in the evening, tired and hungry, we ask the receptionist whether this surreptitious little hole-in-the-wall across the canal is worth trying. The receptionist’s face lights up.

“The best in town! If you get the chance you should go!”

She is doubtful we will get the chance, as it’s almost dinner time already, but she telephones just in case. Yes, they can take us. We must go now, she says. They are waiting for us, and they won’t keep the table for long. Back we trudge, over the charming little arched bridge to the other side of the canal.

A pleasant young man greets us and sits us canal-side at inexpensive and slightly flimsy aluminium chairs and tables which have sprouted up along the canal path.IMG_0096

canale di cannaregioWithin minutes, all the tables are full with groups of laughing, hugging, chattering Italians. For many in this university/residential area north of the Piazza San Marco, this is their local.

At Da Marisa, or Dalla Marisa, or Tratoria da’a Marisa, depending on your dialect, the rules are simple. You arrive at 8pm on the dot (if you don’t, they will give your table to someone else), you sit down and eat whatever Marisa and her family decide to serve you, and you pay a set price – cash only – of 35 euro per person, which includes the wine.

“What sort of wine would you like?” asks the young man.  We begin to suggest perhaps a pinot grigio when he clarifies. “We have two kinds, white or red.”

It’s the Henry Ford approach, says my companion. You can have whatever car you want, so long as it’s a black Model T.

We choose the white. It comes in carafes, slightly foaming at the top, from big beer taps at the counter.

“Drink as much as you like”, says our waiter, cheerfully slapping down a second carafe. “We might start charging after you have drunk five litres.” He’s joking.  Or perhaps he thinks we are Australians.

And then the food starts coming. It is indeed fish, course after course of fish, with a creamy, swirly plate of polenta the only side dish. There may have been bread – I can’t remember -but there was so much fish that anything extra was unnecessary.

“Codfish”, announces the waiter as he smacks one of his armload of plates onto the table. After the lightly salted cod comes sea bass carpaccio, marinated in lemon and olive oil and garnished with roasted red capsicum. In quick succession comes more armloads of dishes and large servings. Baby octopus in a spicy red wine sauce, and stuffed mussels in their shells. Fish lasagne, silky and delicate yet filling, the stand-out dish of the night. Finally a platter announced simply as “fried fish”. There are squid, prawns and tiny flatfish.

Although we started out hungry, it is difficult to eat so much fish in one sitting. But our Italian neighbours do. There is not a scrap left on any plate. To finish off, we all have mascarpone with biscotti and amaretto to dip, and of course espresso, all part of the set price.

As quickly as it began, our evening is over. The whirl of laughter, chatter and hugs is now filtered through cigarette smoke as the locals untie their dogs from table legs and disappear into the darkness. It has been a two-hour fish frenzy, an extravaganza of seafood served in the simplest of manners.

Next morning, the tables and chairs have disappeared from beside the canal, Marisa’s door is shut, and there is only the faintest little painted sign to suggest that an extraordinary restaurant hides within. But every local, and quite a few tourists, know about Da Marisa. In 1965, Marisa opened her restaurant to feed workers along the canal, specialising in cheap cuts of meat from a nearby abattoir, and fish from the lagoon 100 metres or so along the Canale di Cannaregio. Today, it’s still a family affair with Marisa’s daughter Wanda running the kitchen. I don’t know whether the unsmiling woman of our first encounter was Marisa, or Wanda, or neither of them, but she was almost certainly a family member.

Venice is famous for its fish restaurants. Whether Da Marisa is “the best in town” as the hotel receptionist claimed, I have no idea. But the place is certainly a local legend, and it provided a couple of tourists from New Zealand with a wonderful food memory of Venice.

Da Marisa, 652b Cannaregio. The restaurant is open for dinner at 8pm several days of the week. On other days, it opens for lunch. Usually fish is served for dinner and meat for lunch. Bookings are essential, unless you are lucky. There is no website so it is probably wise to ask your hotel to book.

The hotel across the canal is Carnival Palace, carnival palace hotelIf you fancy something closer to Piazza San Marco, and self-catering, try Ca’Grisostomo, a canal-front apartment owned by Aucklanders.

Nearby: Mojita Bar, just along from Carnival Palace, is a tiny canal-side bar serving food all day, and always the classic Venetian aperitif, Spritz, made with Aperol. Around the corner heading to Piazza San Marco, at Cannaregio 1355, is Rizzo San Leonardo bakery, one of the most famous pastry shops of Venice. Pastries are made from recipes a century old, and Rizzo also has wine, bread, and ready-made lunch food.mojita bar

Tip: Choose your Venice accommodation based on transport. Hauling luggage long distances over paving stones is difficult, and water taxis are expensive. Try to be near a water bus stop for cheap, efficient travel. For transport from the airport, try to be within easy reach of an Alilaguna stop.

What to do next? Venice is a launching point for many cruise ship itineraries. The writer joined Seadream 1, one of only two small ships owned by Norwegian company Seadream Yacht Club, to sail towards Croatia and Greece. Small ‘boutique’ liners allow guilt-free cruising along the Guidecca Canal past Piazza San Marco. Bitter argument continues about giant cruise ships sailing close to the square and creating wash which damages the fragile old city. Venetian protesters swam in the Guidecca Canal to stop the passage of cruise liners in 2013, and the large ships were banned for several months from November 2014. Now the ban is lifted but protest continues, aimed at ships weighing over 96,000 tonnes. Fortunately our little Seadream weighs only 4300 tonnes, and makes little more wash than George Clooney’s wedding procession. SeaDream


  1. Denise Wolfe says:

    Hi Pam, Thanks for a great recommendation ,will definitely try to get to this restaurant on our next trip….loved the description made my mouth water!

  2. Fabulous advice, Pam – made me want to hope on an overnight train to Venice and try it all out for myself. Luckily there’s a super fish restaurant under the house here in Ventimiglia Alta but you certainly wouldn’t get away with only €35!