A visit to the Accademia and a traditional lunch at Ai Cugnai
Venetian winters can be extremely cold and pitiless, at least in my opinion (I hate the cold in general and would move to a city where it's always warm tomorrow if I could). This year, in particular, the temperature has been so low that, if you are planning to visit before February, I strongly advise you to take your warmest jacket and shoes! The good thing is that in this period the best activities all revolve around exhibitions, movies, theatres and, of course, food!
Today, in fact, I'm rapidly taking you to the Accademia museum, which holds one of the richest collections of pre 19th century art. The building is hosted in the ex Scuola della Carità and until 2004, the area that now is called new wing was actually the Fine Art Academy -the proper school-, which now has been moved to F.ta degli Incurabili. The museum is stunning and absolutely worth seeing. Unfortunately it is constantly under restoration, therefore it's quite probable that when you visit some rooms will be closed... still, trust me, if you love art, go!
Vito and I like to take our time and when we go we have our favourites, mine being the Sant'Orsola cycle by Vittore Carpaccio and his being Saint Mark's Body Brought to Venice by Tintoretto, something that alone would be worth the whole trip. Right now and until the 2nd of April 2018 there is also a temporary exhibition entitled "Canova, Hayez, Cicognara", to celebrate the bicentenary of the foundation of the galleries: Cicognara was the president of the Academy of the time, who, together with Canova and Hayez, worked hard to open a collection meant to have an international breath from the start (look here to book and buy tickets online). Anyway, I won't go through the entire exhibition, but, with more than 100 works, it is really marvellous!
I even had the opportunity to meet and have a little chat with Letizia Bonaparte, mother of Napoleon. I was just telling her how well she looked, when she replied that she is tired, at her age, of being tossed around from country to country and that she would have much preferred being in my shoes, especially when I told her I was about to have a fish lunch. Oh dear, so much wealth and so little freedom! Vito and I parted and headed to a nearby restaurant called Trattoria Ai Cugnai, definitely the best restaurant in the museum triangle, where you can enjoy a nice traditional meal at an affordable price.
The manager, Jimmy, is originally from Albania but has lived here for so long that I consider him Venetian (for me, Venetian is anyone who LIVES in Venice and understands and experiences the same reality I do); we even worked together when I was 18 (and I remember him being always very helpful and kind). Jimmy hired an all-boy staff, some very young, some with many years of experience, and the atmosphere is extremely positive and vibrating. The first thing I will tell you is: book in advance, whether you are planning to go for lunch or dinner, reserving a table is almost mandatory!
With regard to the design and the furniture, as previously mentioned, it's an all men place...the kind of restaurant that, if I had to base myself on its look, I would ignore, with the "traditional Venetian food" sign and lots of random objects and details. It does look touristy, BUT THE FOOD IS GOOD !!! The focus is not on the plating or on the presentation, but on the ingredients and on fresh fish. This is the place to go if you want to have a good, filling and comforting traditional meal and, anyway, I think that the decor adds a touch of positivity. The gondoliers that work close by go there for lunch almost everyday, and this is s good sign!
We weren't aware that the portions were going to be very generous, so we ordered a starter and a main each. To begin, we shared a revisited saor made with red onions and gamberoni, which was delicious, and a baby octopus salad with vegetables. We both agreed that the salad tasted much better than it looked, the moscardini were really good, boiled and dressed perfectly, and the veggies were tomatoes, French beans and celery.
Then I had a sea-bass fillet with more veg and, again, I have to say that the fish was lovely, fresh, well-cooked and tasty. The presentation may have been a little messy, but considering that I enjoyed what I ate it doesn't matter at all. After all, this is a real trattoria, with simple and fresh local dishes, and not a fancy gourmet restaurant where at the end you pay a very expensive bill but need to go somewhere else to fill your tummy!
Vito had fegato alla veneziana, this is liver in Venetian style. This dish says everything about a restaurant, in fact, if the liver is not fresh... the whole taste changes drastically. But at Ai Cugnai it was great, you could see it was fresh because it was pink (and not grey!!!! don't trust those who say that once the meat is cooked it turns grey...no way! it has to be pinkish and fresh), it was not at all bitter (if it tastes bitter it means it's not fresh) and it had a nice perfume. As for everything else, the portion was generous, well amalgamated with the sautéed onions and Vito was enthusiastic.
As usual, we skipped the dessert and had a grappa. We used to live nearby, so we knew we had to drink our espresso at the historic Caffè Poggi, just next door. With regard to the price, we spent less than 30 each for the four dishes mentioned, some red wine and the grappa, which is very good value for money.
So, when visiting one of the fantastic exhibitions in the so-called triangle of museums, Trattoria Ai Cugnai is the place to go for a taste of local culture and cuisine. Simple presentation, fresh fish and great service. Highly recommended!
Address: Dorsoduro, Calle Nuova Sant'Agnese, 857, 30123 Venezia VE
Phone: +39 041 528 9238
Other places I like close by: