Eat where the locals eat

By Frank Whitman

In the shade of the awning at the family-run Arsenis Taverna in Athens, the patriarch took the orders, the matriarch cooked and the daughters served the essence of Greece. 

Just a few blocks back from the big hotels and commercial activity of Syngrou Avenue, the restaurant seemed to be in another world.  Hosting a neighborhood clientele boosted by a few tourists like us, the restaurant felt like a local fixture. 

A starter of salt-cod spread came with freshly toasted bread. The smoothly textured mix was surprisingly mild, not salty or strong as it might have been.  A wedge of hearty Pastitsio, a lasagna-like casserole of tubular pasta and beef ragu enrobed in béchamel sauce, was satisfying.  A crisp-skinned whole branzino was accompanied by a perfectly balanced infusion of olive oil and lemon. 

A local white wine, impossible-to-pronounce or spell, was light and fresh, a good match with our seafood-focused meal. 

On our Viking cruise, Empires of the Mediterranean, there wasn’t much chance to dine ashore.  Destination-focused excursions sometimes offered tastings of local specialties, but in general, it was back to the boat for lunch and then dinner on board while steaming to the next port.  

Fortunately, we had a few extra days before and after our cruise of Greece and the Adriatic coast. The trip began in Athens and ended in Venice, two primo food destinations – both coastal cities offering lots of seafood, but from different points of view. 

While scouting the location of the world-famous Teatro La Fenice opera house in Venice we lunched at Hostaria ai Coristi.  Down a narrow calle a few steps from the theater, it was an ideal spot for dinner before the show in the evening. A delightful lunch started with a just-ripe cantaloupe lavishly graced with parma ham.  Then mains of tortellini with ham and lasagne sealed the deal.  Plans were laid to come back with our group of five for a light dinner before the 7:00 performance of La Traviata. 

Venice is a warren of streets and squares without rhyme or reason. It’s an  adventurous pleasure to just wander through, happening upon unexpected art, marveling at the shops, checking out the food scene and absorbing the stunning architecture. It’s helpful to have a destination to give the ramble some focus. 

I had heard about the Antico Gatoleto restaurant, an establishment featuring traditional Venetian dishes along with classic Italian cooking. We wound through busy shopping streets and quiet squares, across canals and through plazas, sometimes shaking off the flood of tourists and sometimes in the thick of the throngs. 

There is an astonishing number and range of eating options– gelato stands to restaurants, hand food to white table cloths. As we moved deeper into the city, gondoliers in their signature-striped shirts could be seen in restaurants, a local endorsement for sure. 

The forty five minute stroll from St. Mark’s brought us to Campo Santa Maria Novo, a charming square with flowers trailing from balconies above, the obligatory church, and cafe tables shaded by umbrellas. At the edge of the square on Ramo del Campaniel, the Antico Gatoleto occupied a favored corner. Inside, ancient wooden beams declared the ancestry of the building.  Outside, tables under umbrellas offered breezy shade. 

The Venetian specialties were mostly found on the Antipasti di Mare menu, so we ordered a too-large platter to sample them all: octopus salad; Venetian-style marinated sardines; Venetian creamed codfish; carpaccio of swordfish; tuna tartare; and marinated cuttlefish.  It was an expertly prepared survey of the local waters. 

Spaghetti alla busara added to my local seafood experience with whole prawns in a light, chili-laced tomato sauce. 

When taking a few pictures, the waiter directed me to the small wine room where an impressive array of Italian bottlings were on display, along with sommelier certifications for members of the staff. 

Of course we had a coffee in St. Mark’s Square (not at the legendary Caffè Florian but next door at the Aurora) while we watched the legendary bronze shepherds hammer out the hour on the bell at the top of the clock tower.   It’s a must-do experience. Later we had a cooling gelato on the Riva degli Schiavoni overlooking the lagoon while waiting for our boat back to the hotel. 

We spent a memorable two weeks, but some of the most vivid experiences were our meals ashore. A city food tour and some local restaurants are a great introduction to any destination.