Il Ridotto - An Honest Review
- Db Cooper Jul 13, 2010 02:48 PM
My fiancé and I had the opportunity to dine at Il Ridotto a couple of weeks ago. We were on a two-week holiday visiting Venice, Florence, and Rome. We chose Il Ridotto to be our centerpiece dinner of Venice based mostly on the rave reviews that the restaurant has received here on Chowhound. The reason I’m posting this is because there is a lot of hype about this restaurant on this board and I thought it might be valuable to bring a little different viewpoint. Therefore, I’ll just bullet point what I thought about the evening:
-First of all, this isn’t a French Laundry, Alinea, Per Se, or Le Bernardin experience (I’m from the USA so I’m using those restaurants as a reference). For those of you expecting food that will absolutely blow your mind and be worthy of the highest praise like those restaurants receive, you will be disappointed. It just isn’t in that league of restaurants. It is a good restaurant that has its hits and misses. I have a feeling that if it was reviewed for the NY Times, it would receive 1 star, maybe 2 at the most. I know that some of the more frequent posters on this site have endorsed this place as being the best in Venice. I just don’t believe that to be the case. I am having a hard time fingering why because several of the other suggestions in Florence/Rome were spot-on, but this one was off. I’m wondering if the uniqueness of the room (only 5 tables) and having Gianni serve the food causes them to overlook some of the flaws? It’s just a theory.
-As others have noted, it pays to take some time in the afternoon to head over and find the restaurant. It isn’t hard to find, but Venice can be a confusing maze especially to the first-time visitor. We were able to find it rather easily and planned our Gondola ride out so that we’d be done in time to go have a drink and then dinner.
-This place is no longer unknown by Americans. If you’re looking to eat with the locals or residents, you should go to Aciugheta Pizzeria and Wine Bar next door. Don’t worry, your food is still being made in the Il Ridotto kitchen and brought across the street. We visited Il Ridotto on a Thursday and everyone dining was an American and 4 out the 5 had chosen the restaurant based off Chowhound. It’s not a secret anymore.
-You will definitely get more out of this if you can speak and understand Italian. Gianni can speak a little English, but the rest of his staff really struggled to bridge the gap. It took almost five minutes with our server to explain we wanted the tasting menu. I totally realize that I’m a visitor in their country and I’m more responsible for learning the language than they are mine. Still, I’m enough of a realist to also realize that a great majority of American visitors won’t speak a great deal of Italian and of all the restaurants we visited over the two weeks, this was by far the most difficult experience we had with the language barrier. Call me the ugly American if you want, but we tried our best in Italian (very limited to basic words/phrases), Spanish (the fiancé is a Spanish teacher and very fluent), and English.
-Gianni is the star of the restaurant and a true character. While most of our conversation was limited to smiles and handshakes, you could tell he has a passion for what he does. And being as visible as he is, you don’t always have to speak the language to ready body languages, faces, and gestures. Plus, he whipped out an epic Mama Mia when some lost tourist walked in looking for directions to a hotel on the other side of San Marco. The highest of unintentional comedy.
-In regards to the food, it was hit and miss. I had the five-course fish menu and to be honest with you, there isn’t a single thing I had that truly sticks out in my memory that I ate that night that made me smile and say Wow. I remember each of the dishes being competent, good, but nothing worthy of the praise I’d read about. There was a fish ravioli, but I couldn’t tell you what the fish was or the sauce. I just remember it being heavy. The only thing that I really remember from my meal was a fillet of Branzino with individual braised vegetables being laid out around the outside of the plate. It was good, but nothing better than the one I’d had the day before for 7E. That’s ultimately my recall of my meal, good and competent food but nothing that stood out or was memorable. For a restaurant so heavily touted, I would have expected more. My fiancé had a couple of more memorable dishes. She had a parmesan flan that had a light, yet meaty tomato sauce. It was the perfect mix of flavors. She also had beef cheeks with a warm cheese polenta that both of us agreed was the best dish of the evening. However, she also had a course of egg noodles with a meat sauce. Where we come from, this is something that is served at Graduation/Birthday parties that take place in somebody’s garage. I get the take and the creativity of it, but it needed something more than nutmeg to elevate it from Garage Hot Dish. Again, none of the food was bad and I don’t want anyone to think that anything was totally gross or inedible. But, best in Venice? I just can’t say I agree.
-It is a great value. We received five courses plus an amuse and a shot of Grappa for 50E a piece. I know that may seem high, but Venice is an expensive city. You will not leave hungry either. The portions in the tasting menu aren’t much different than what you would get had you ordered a la carte. There were times I felt like Adam Richman on Man vs. Food trying to finish a dish and not leave any leftovers.
-The wine list is deep. There are many choices for each variety and they range in price from the affordable to the extravagant. Since the gal sacrificed and ate the meat course (she wanted fish, but wanted variety more), we went for a Barolo which was priced very affordably around 60E. I will say this was one of the better wine lists we saw in our entire trip.
-We both agreed that if we went back to Il Ridotto, we would pick a course from the primi and secondi menus and skip the tasting menu. You may want to do the same to have some more control over your meal and what you are eating. Gianni still serves you your food and explains what you are eating and most of the dishes that are on that menu are similar to the ones in the tasting menu.
-A warning about Grappa. It has a strong flavor that some may not enjoy, especially those who aren’t into shots. They served us a shot after our meal. It was a fine bottle, but just wanted to mention it for those who may not be into such flavors.
In the end, I want to again emphasize that I don’t feel Il Ridotto is a bad restaurant. It’s not. But at the same time, I think people need to be realize that this isn’t going to be a life-changing dining experience either. I don’t really think Gianni wants it to be that way anyway. He’s looking to serve good food in a creative way (for Venice where a premium seems to be paid to tradition) at an affordable price. That’s an admirable goal and one I think he is succeeding in for the most part. But he’s not aiming for the Michelin stars with this restaurant, at least IMHO. I think people would have a more enjoyable experience if that is what they know going in which is why I wrote this review. It's a good restaurant, but not yet a great one.
Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll write up some of the other places we tried. We ate very well in Italy and I have to thank people like Joe H, Jen Kalb, PBSF, and all the others who take the time to post their thoughts and experiences.
If there is a flaw of chowhound, I think it can be a flaw due to heart. We tend to respond to the human element, small places where the personality is on view or where there is an unusual story - and not always be analytical. Little places can get a lot of focus whereas deficiencies or inconstencies in the food can be downplayed. We often have fights over these places, Im thinking in NY, Mina and her various restaurants, Ali, restaurants improbably offering unusual cuisines in unlikely neighborhoods etc. Ive never been to Il Ridotto, but reports have been unevens, and it seems like its shaping up to fall into this category a bit. Sorry you got the short end of the stick but its great that you provided this detailed report and I look forward to hearing about the rest of your experience
I don't know how others read reviews on Chowhound, but I take them all as the honest expressions of one diner's experiences.
If a poster amasses enough posts, I can tell if I share their dining preferences or not. Some of the most "respected" posters on Chowhound have dining preferences I don't share.
My expectations of dining in Venice are always rock bottom (which may be unfair), but if a restaurant was recommended to me on the basis that the New York Times might give it 5 stars-- I learned a long time ago that the people whom the NYTimes hires to rate restaurants don't share my values in eating.
But I like hearing diners' candid accounts of their dining experiences in restaurants. Like Tripadvisor reviews, I try to read between the lines, and figure out if the reviewer and I are on the same wavelength when it comes to satisfying eating. So thanks for posting!
PS: And good for you for warning people about grappa! I have encountered some very refined versions, but they do tend to be rare!
Thank you for taking the time to write such a detail and excellent report. I have not been to Il Ridotto, therefore, I cannot comment on the specifics. I would just like to chime in with my general opinions on eating out in Venice. Each year, we spend couple of months in Venice and we’ve eaten at many of the more popular and often mentioned places. We have our favorites but none of the places that we’ve eaten at, we would considered top notch or “can’t missed” or truly memorable. The only great meals we’ve had were at Le Calandre in nearby Padua. When I read a glowing review of a restaurant in Venice, I remain skeptical and unlikely to rush there. It might be good but I know it will not be a life-changing meal
Venice is a very difficult city for dining out. The reasons are complex:
First and foremost is that most restaurants cater to visitors, especially at night where most Venetians commute back to the mainland or eat in. As more and more Venetians migrate to the mainland, the level of cooking has deteriorated. Venetian cooking is very simple and direct and mostly seafood based. Given the high cost of wild seafood, many restaurants have given up on obtaining the best, using farmed species or resort to frozen to keep cost down, thinking that visitors don’t know better or care. Most visitors stay only a couple of days and are rarely repeat visitors. This results in that most opinions are based on a single meal.
Second is that tradition in Venice is so strong that it stifles creativity; one will find most restaurants serving similar food. Can’t look at another bacala mantecato or sarde in saor. Venetians themselves are very conservative eaters, sticking to what they’ve eaten most of their lives. Because of this prejudice, none of my Venetian friends have eaten at Il Riditto or have any inclination to.
Third is that the Venetian restaurant scene is very stagnant. Given the dwindling population, there is absolutely no new investment in high-end restaurants. Two promising newer places are The Met and Da Pisis, both housed in luxury hotels. Most of the better places are small chef/family owned and have been in existence for eons. These places have their limitations, from small menus to variable service to the whim of the staff on a particular day. Newly opened places tend to be hip and informal, catering to young or university students or tourists on the go.
One has to temper ones expectations when eating out in Venice. There is much truth in Jen Kalb's comment about “a flaw due to heart” and Venice can have that effect. And we all can agree on is that why we enjoy a restaurant is very subjective. I can’t agree with you more that there is no Per Se, Le Bernardin, Il Pagliaccio or Alinea there.
I am very much looking forward to reading about your other dining experiences in Italy.
I think you will find that it most regions of Italy, the locals much prefer to eat the food they grew up on. They are very loyal to it, and proud of it -- even a bit defensive about it if you innocently praise the food of some other region.
For myself, I do find it life-changing to eat the classic local cuisine, and my disappointment in Venetian restaurants has been not to find the best of it there.
And while I appreciate the "flaw in the heart" explanation, I will also confess that I have always found Venice rather morbid, and don't really enjoy being there as much as I enjoy other places. I think the better explanation of people's tolerance of less than stellar dining is appreciating the enormous difficulty of running a modern restaurant in Venice, and the tremendous distortion 20 million tourists a year wreaks on every aspect of Venetian life.
There are always currents in Venice to ask tourists to please eat more locally -- in essence, be less demanding of the fragile environment and supportive of the disappearing native culture-- but that is really shouting against the tide. But it might be helpful if visitors could relish the treviso, squills, eels, pumpkins, polenta, the classics, and not look for the French Laundry experience , since there are so many other places in the world where the internationalized style of creative chef cuisine is available.
I do appreciate a diner helping to correct the record that Venice is not the place to go for creative cooking and the kind of destination restaurant experiences mentioned in this thread.
Very honest and intelligent review Db; nicely done. Thanks for posting.
Perhaps the best plan for a good meal in Venice is to keep two things in mind: never expect to have a 4-star experience as you might have in the US and stick with the smaller trattorias and wine bars. This is my philosophy when dining in Venice and it has not steered me wrong yet.
I still love dining in Venice for what it offers that is unique (mostly the seafood cuisine). I see it more as an exploration of something different and special, a view into the local food culture, more than as a boffo socko restaurant experience of some kind. If I look at it as enjoying schie, cannochie, scampi or fish risotto al go, made with the lagoon mudfish, or that amazing pumpkin flan from the chioggia pumplins at alla zucca, or dishes involving the stunning treviso radicchio, to taste the local veneto wines, etc it is still highly enjoyable. Ther is not much point in measuring Venice against anything but its own special things. Those have become more difficult to obtain as more Venetians move away and restaurant culture shifts, but they are still there to enjoy.
If often thought of going over to Mestre or down to Chioggia to sample the good restaurants there. Have any Hounds ever done this?
re: jen kalb
I appreciate everyone taking the time out of their day to respond and am thankful that the post was helpful to some people. The ultimate purpose of the post was to try and temper the expectations they have when they visit this restaurant because based on the posts I'd seen during my planning, my expectations were much too high.
I think there is a lot of truth in what PBSF was trying to get across. Venice is a city bound by tradition and the food reflects that tradition. If you understand that before you go and expect that in the cuisine, you will have a much more enjoyable experience. You can find really good seafood in Venice and we did in places like Trattoria Alla Rivette (one of the best plates of Mussels I've ever had and whole calamari served grilled) or Riva Rosa on Burano (fantastic fish risotto). But I really feel you need to understand that the preparations of these dishes are going to be bound by tradition and while that tradition may be tasty, it isn't going to be the "dining as theater" experience we associate with "Best Restaurant in ABC City" that we think of here or other locations in Italy.
The other thing is that Riva Rosa and Trattoria Alla Rivette didn't have the "juice", for lack of a better term, that Il Ridotto has on this board and I didn't go into those restaurants with the high expectations I had for Il Ridotto. That's partly my fault too which is why I thought I'd post this review. I feel like if I hadn't read those reviews and expected more (frankly, A LOT more), I would have had a much more enjoyable experience.
Ultimately, Venice will always have a special place in my heart. For those of you who have been there, you may know the spot on the quiet side of the Rialto bridge where you can sit on the steps and put your feet in the Grand Canal. There is a mural of the Madonna carved into the bridge and people leave flowers there. Our first night in town, it's where I took my gal about 11pm and popped the question. So we'll always have our own story to tell when it comes to Venice. To me, that city is all about history and tradition and your experience there will always be more rich if you can add your own personal layer to the story. Getting engaged on a beautiful moonlit evening beneath the Rialto will aways be ours.
re: Db Cooper
Perhaps expanding your research beyond Chowhound might have tempered your expectations. Michelin and Gambero Rosso, the most authoritative Italian food guide, both only give two forks to Il Ridotto.
If "life-changing" and "dinner as theatre" restaurants are what you are looking for, the Michelin three-stars - of which there are only six in Italy - might be your best bet. In Venice, Met, mentioned above but relatively rarely in this forum, has two stars.