La Serenissima’s coffee shops
In the early hours of the morning, black and white jacketed waiters set out tables and chairs in prime real estate in Piazza San Marco. And they’ve been going through the very same motion for centuries because Venice is steeped in coffee culture, boasting some of the most beautiful and historic coffee shops in the world.
Ever since the very first coffee shop opened in 1683, Venetians have enjoyed the hot drink from its very simple beginnings as beverage to its rise as power player. Venice was the center of trade. Every luxury imaginable passed through the Republic of Venice. Coffee was an art, and coffee shops integral to the city’s mercantile, political, and social scenes.
From one shop to more than 200 coffee houses operating in the city by the late 1700s, coffee dominated the city, in its hey day, St. Mark’s Square had 34 coffe shops of its own, all thanks to La Serenissima’s story as one of the great trading centers of the world.
Today, the grand caffè are still there. The Big Three- Florian Lavena and Quadri sit on the square itself, while wingmen Chioggia and Todaro are in the piazza adjacent. Though their reputations are seemingly overshadowed by exorbitant prices (you pay double to sit plus an added “orchestra” fee), each is a lovely time piece of history, architecture, design and coffee. And it’s about time you sat down.
Opened in 1720, Caffè Florian is the oldest caffè in St. Mark’s Square, and quite possibly the oldest in Europe. The beautiful decor tells yesteryear stories when Lord Byron, Carlo Goldoni, Wagner, Proust and others were habitue. In fact, legend has it that in 1757, the famous Venetian author and lover Giacomo Casanova, after making a daring escape from the prison in the Doge’s Palace across the square, stopped for a morning coffee at Florian before fleeing the city.
For me, Florian’s is home. When I worked at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, I swing by to the back bar for my Negroni sbagliato. I never sat in any of the lovely original decorated rooms with gorgeous frescos, wainscotting, mirrors and portraits, nor outside, until a few years ago.
What to Order
Caffè dell’anniversario (the Club Florian sandwich) and tiramisu, while perfect seated in the window seat of the Hall of the Senate.
Gran Caffè Quadri
I love Quadri for so many reasons, but in particular for its gorgeous interiors thanks to the Alajmo family who funded its restoration (and brought on Philippe Starck for some fun) and created a delicious bistrot menu. And I love Quadri’s history: the Quadri family acquired the tiny coffee house in 1775, and became famous for serving Turkish style coffee. Apparently it was the preferred coffee house of the Austrian army during the early 19th century occupation.
Today’s Quadri is a triplet threat of caffè, bistrot and a Michelin- starred restaurant. The cicchetti are fantastic, just like its original landscape paintings of Venice by 19th- century artist Giuseppe Ponga.
What to Order
Cicchetti and spritz while seated in the piazza
Carlo Lavena acquired his San Marco coffee house in 1860 and transformed it into the elegant Caffè Lavena. Musicians and composers like Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner were its patrons, earning it the nickname “caffe dei musicisti” – the musicians’ caffè. In fact, if you look carefully at the caffè’s 18th- and 19th-century décor of marble tables, velvet-upholstered wooden chairs and vintage mirrors, you’ll find Wagner’s seat marked with a commemorative plaque.
What to Order
Caffè Speciale (coffee with Amaro and whipped cream) while seated in the window seat on the mezzanine level or Wagner’s seat across from the bar
Gelateria al Todaro and Gran Caffè Chioggia
Just off the main square is Piazzetta di San Marco , best known for its full frontal view of the Doge’s Palace and home to newcomers Gelateria Al Todaro and Gran Caffè Chioggia. Chioggia opened in the mid-1800s in the Piazzetta di San Marco, across from the Doge’s Palace. Though it has original wainscotting, it lacks the charm of the Big Three, however, it has a great jazz line up which can’t be beat in the late afternoon and evening.
Todaro sits pretty on the corner of the piazza just across from the column of San Todaro, and has the best view of the laguna and San Giorgio. When it joined the scene in 1948, it was a gelato bar which is still its mainstay but it’s opened to coffee and light fare. I love visiting in the mornings for the neighborhood cafe vibe where at any time, you’ll elbow with moms, policemen, gondoliers. I also love
What to Order
In the mornings, go to Todaro for Coppa Amaretto Eis Caffè (coffee, ice cream, whipped cream) or a Caffè Latte Freddo (iced latte) while seated at a Lagoon-facing outdoor tables, and in the late afternoons, listen to live jazz at Chioggia with your Spritz Veneziano (Prosecco, Select, and soda water ).