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"Come, we walk to your hotel," chef Dimitri Gris announces in a gesture of Italian gallantry, after I close down his restaurant CoVino. As we meander through Venice's labyrinth of passageways, the mirror-still canals reflect a hazy pre-dawn ghost town of closed green shutters and colourful flower boxes. The city is usually in bed, lights out, long before midnight – but Gris has the drive of a newer generation. Talk turns to why tourists in the millions flock here to feast their eyes on artistic and architectural masterpieces, but inevitably dine on overpriced, bad imitations of Italian food, none of it Venetian. "Pepperoni pizza, spaghetti with meatballs – this is not our tradition," he fumes. Then more unprintable words tumble out from under his neat, animated moustache.

VeniceVenice's traditional wine bars, or bàcari, serve up small plates of local fare, including these meatballs and calamari at Osteria Alla Ciurma.

Earlier in the night, I'd tasted Gris' tweaking of Venetian traditions at his tiny restaurant in Castello, possibly the city's least touristy sestiere, or neighbourhood. The sogliole in saor, with lightly breaded baby sole instead of the more typical sardines, was served alongside silky marinated caramelized onion and a square of white polenta so light and smooth it could have been whipped cream. Gris and Andrea Lorenzon, the charismatic host and owner who worked the room in suspenders emblazoned with happy faces, have reimagined historic recipes and combined them with an all-organic wine list and a just-us-friends vibe, to make CoVino the most exciting restaurant in town right now.

VeniceThe cicchetti at All'Arco are dished out with a smile.

While it's a sit-and-linger kind of place, CoVino bills itself as a bàcaro, a typical Venetian snack bar. Old-school bàcari are typically standing-room-only, frequently double as wine shops and serve small plates called cicchetti, made with specialties like seafood from the Venetian lagoon, sopressa salami and Asiago cheese. Venice's answer to Barcelona's tapas has been inspiring chefs farther afield, too: Chicago's Cicchetti, launched last December, melds Venetian-based dishes with Midwestern ingredients. London's Polpo opened in 2009 as a Soho nook masquerading as a Venetian bàcaro, and has since spawned three outposts. And San Francisco's popular Pesce has been serving sustainable Venetian-style seafood and cicchetti for over a decade.

VeniceIf the food isn't enough to float your boat, head out on one of the city's many canals.

Like finding your way through this watery maze of a city, it's not always easy to ferret out Venice's best cicchetti. After navigating wrong turns and dead ends, I arrive at one bàcaro to find that it's closed on Wednesdays, and that another stops serving food at a logic-defying 1 p.m. on Saturdays. But just west of the Rialto Market in San Polo, at minuscule All'Arco, run by father-and-son duo Francesco and Matteo Pinto, I luck out: Standing outside, I inhale a crostini with the most satisfyingly tart anchovies and sip a mineral and fruity DOCG prosecco from Valdobbiadene in nearby Treviso. Around the corner at Osteria Alla Ciurma, where locals are crammed inside, a tender polpetta in umido (meatball in tomato sauce) is filling and flavour-packed. Bar Mio on wide Via Garibaldi may be generic-looking, but it makes ultra-fresh tramezzini, triangular, overstuffed sandwiches on crustless white bread. They're perfect with a spritz, the city's signature drink of white wine, Campari and seltzer, served with a slice of orange and a jumbo green olive stabbed with a swizzle stick.

VeniceCoVino puts a modern twist on traditional cicchetti

One overcast afternoon in Cannaregio, home to the first Jewish ghetto, dating back to the 16th century, I follow a half-dozen grandfatherly types ambling into Cantina Aziende Agricole. This bàcaro, with wagon-wheel chandeliers and barrel casks of wine, has been owned by rowing aficionado Roberto Berti for over 35 years. There is much gesticulating and rapid gravel-throated discourse as the men knock back a few glasses of draft wine while I nibble a tasty prosciutto and mushroom crostini and sample a glass of dark, full-bodied raboso, produced near the Piave River. Far from the sightseers in St. Mark's Square, laundry flaps on clotheslines, kids kick a ball on their way home from school – and there's not a pepperoni pizza in sight.

VeniceWhen in Venice, do as the Venetians do, and stop in for a glass of wine at a bàcaro like Cantina Aziende Agricole.

Travel essentials

All'Arco, Calle dell'Ochialer 436, 39-41-520-5666
Bar Mio, Via Giuseppe Garibaldi 1820, 39-41-521-1361
Cantina Aziende, Agricole Rio Tera' Farsetti 1847, 39-333-345-8811
CoVino, Calle del Pestrin 3829, 39-41-241-2705
Osteria Alla Ciurma, Calle Galeazza 406, 39-340-686-3561



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