BY AMIEE WHITE BEAZLEY
PHOTOGRAPHY BY NANNA DÍS

There is a reason the world’s most visited places are so popular, and Venice is no exception. Many locals, fed up with the crowds, high prices, and the dearth of industry outside of tourism, have left the island – taking Venice’s cherished customs and cultures with them.

Yet the authentic Venice is still there, if you know where to look. Hop a vaporetto from the main island, ride 35 minutes northeast, and you’ll find a place where traditions live on, fish and produce markets open their doors to generations of neighbors each morning, and friends gather over lasagne al forno and bottles of vino della casa at night. Before there was Venice as we know it, there was this “native Venice,” including three distinct islands – Burano, Mazzorbo, and Torcello – in the heart of the Venetian Lagoon.  Today, those who venture here find exceptional food, wine, and history away from the main island’s chaos. “It’s a must for getting away from the crowds of Venice,” says Chicago-based Virtuoso travel advisor Adamarie King. “Treat yourself to an island day: Take the ferry or charter a boat and visit the islands, stopping for lunch and shopping in between.”

Cruising the lagoon.

Burano

My exploration begins in Burano. There are no cars on these islands, just your own two feet – and, of course, boats.  Locals will tell you the area’s best seafood is at Burano’s fresh-fish market, because the fishermen stop there to sell their catches before going to Rialto Market. Burano’s menus are full of the lagoon’s bounty, including gray mullet, sole, sea bass, and eel, as well as moeche (soft-shell crabs), canestrelli (scallops), and schie (shrimp).

Where to Eat: The seafood tradition is best executed on Burano at the family-run Trattoria al Gatto Nero, aka the Black Cat. In this canalside space, tables brim with dishes such as pasta with spider crab and risotto “Burano style” – made with carnaroli or vialone nano rice. Nearby, at Riva Rosa, diners make reservations weeks in advance for the sole table at Altana, the restaurant’s private rooftop terrace, where they’re treated to fresh fish, homemade pasta, and one of the area’s most expansive wine lists.

Trattoria al Gatto Nero owner Ruggero Bovo cooks pasta with spider crab.

On Via Galuppi, Burano’s main street, visitors have their pick of pastry shops and restaurants, such as the Trattoria da Romano, operated by the same family for four generations, and Carmelina Palmisano, where I buy a bussolai, the island’s signature butter cookie. I nibble on the dessert as I stroll past wooden homes with colorful drapery hanging in the doorways, which protects residents from the sun – and the eyes of curious travelers.

Venice views from the wooden bridge that connects Burano and Mazzorbo.

Mazzorbo

Neighboring Mazzorbo is reached via a wooden bridge on Burano’s northwest corner. I meet up with Matteo Bisol, the 29-year-old son of Gianluca Bisol, patriarch of the Bisol prosecco family. He tells me this is where his family – already celebrated for their prosecco house in Italy’s Valdobbiadene region – is working to revive a nearly extinct wine-making tradition with Venice’s native grape, the dorona. Visitors can try the wine – known as Venissa – at the Michelin-starred Ristorante Venissa, a romantic space that holds just a dozen tables and is open in spring, summer, and fall. Venice used to be an active viticultural region, but that faded after the great flood of 1966, when it was believed that the city had lost all its remaining native grapes. That is, until 2002, when Bisol’s father discovered some on Torcello, a five-minute boat ride away.

Pasta as fine art at Ristorante Venissa.

Torcello (And That “Secret” Wine)

Torcello was once the area’s bustling trade capital, but only 12 residents remain today. They’re joined by a handful of shops and trattorias, including Italy’s famed Locanda Cipriani restaurant, which has welcomed everyone from Princess Diana to Elton John.

I meet Bisol in an old antiques shop hidden beneath the cathedral’s shadow. Bisol leads me behind the store, through a secret garden and past a set of iron gates, into a small patch of vineyard. “My father heard of dorona surviving here,” Bisol says as we pick grapes from the vine and pop them into our mouths. “One day, as he was approaching the island, he could see the distinct shape of the dorona leaf, and he asked to see the land.” The elder Bisol uncovered three vines of dorona di Venezia – the golden grape of Venice – and, with the landowner’s permission – grafted them, expanded this small vineyard, and transferred some of the vines to Mazzorbo.

After finishing its first vintage in 2010, the Bisol family now produces 4,000 bottles of this golden-hued wine each year. Each sells for close to $200, and the bottle, made in Murano with a 24-karat gold-leaf foil label pounded by the last goldsmith in Venice, has itself become a collector’s item. After a day of exploring Torcello, including a stop at the gardens of Ristorante Villa 600, I boat back to Mazzorbo for dinner at Ristorante Venissa. I dine among the vines, sipping a glass of Venissa wine and indulging in a meal of mantis shrimp, tortelloni in a delicate clam broth, and a fillet of sea bass paired with vegetables from the garden. Later, as I make my return to Burano, I watch fishing boats motor to front doors, nonne strolling arm in arm, and kids playing soccer in the piazza. The lights of Venice shine in the distance, but they feel a world away.

Stay

For the city’s most opulent afternoon tea, head to The Gritti Palace, a Luxury Collection Hotel, and its Bar Longhi, decorated with Murano glass lamps, eighteenth-century Venetian art, and marble countertops. The 82-room hotel, which overlooks the Grand Canal, also teaches guests the art of Venetian cuisine at its Epicurean School.

The 24-room Aman Venice mixes sixteenth-century frescoes and painted ceilings with soothing decor and sleek wood details. Downstairs, chef Davide Oldani puts a fresh spin on classic Venetian cuisine.

Hotel Londra Palace’s San Marco views have inspired guests since the hotel opened in 1853 – it’s said that Tchaikovsky wrote parts of Symphony no. 4 here. Today, the 53-room hotel showcases its nineteenth-century charm in rooms with brocade curtains and antique Biedermeier furniture.