Whenever I visited the intimate, humble Pesce on Polk Street over the past decade plus, I was consistently impressed with the impeccable seafood and Venetian focus. It evoked an escape to Venice, Italy (minus the unmatchable, magical setting), for its blessed ritual of snacking: cicchétti, or hot and cold bites preferably taken with drink.
Having just returned to Venice for a third time this October, the food at the expansive, new Pesce on Market Street (opened in August) is stronger than most meals I’ve ever had in Venice. Being the only Italian city I’ve been to where meals are generally subpar (I’ve traveled throughout Italy in four visits over the past 12 years), Pesce re-imagines Venetian food with California sensibilities.
The result is a better-than-ever restaurant with expanded menu, cocktails added to the already strong, Italian-centric wine list, and an inviting, spacious dining room exuding an openness the original restaurant did not quite possess.
I am most drawn to Pesce’s long bar. Pulling up a stool at the elegant marble countertop presents a European ethos, whether snacking on cicchétti or indulging in a full meal. It’s a comfortable perch from which to dine solo or with a friend, to eat a little or a lot, and to leave satiated.
Using all sustainable seafood, it’s no surprise that seafood is a strength here… as are pastas. Late afternoon/early evening cicchétti hour ($2.50-3 per bite) is a pleasure with a glass of Sardinian Vermentino or Lagrein from Italy’s Alto Adige region accompanied by the salty pleasures of cured fish roe (bottarga) in the form of a polenta fritter, or fried arancini balls oozing mozzarella from saffron-inflected rice.
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When ordering small plates, besides typically going for the most unusual dishes if applicable (and it is not here), I also consider range and variety (here, Pesce has plenty to offer). At Pesce, that may mean silky-raw hamachi crudo ($13) delicately accented by citrus olive oil, pink peppercorns and micro greens, or the tender crisp of green beans (fagiolini, $6) enlivened with garlic and red bell pepper.
Pizzette ($7-8), or mini-pizzas, are strong. Bubbling crust and quality ingredients speak to traditional Neopolitan pizza stylings, particularly in the case of a pizzette exuding subtle heat from Calabrese chiles in a pool of savory-sweet tomato sauce, punctuated by capocollo, paper-thin Italian pork salume.
Pastas are even better. Sleek, wide pappardelle pasta ($13) is meaty with braised duck, the tomato sauce imparted with porcini earthiness. Whispers of the sea come forth in a tuna Bolognese sauce over wheat bigoli noodles ($14), invigorated with Calabrese chili, a decorative chili plunked in the middle of the mountain of pasta. One of my favorite dishes from all visits was when they first opened but is not currently on the menu, being a seasonal summer dish: a side of crisp, white corn ($6), ultra-smoky and meaty with bacon.
Cocktails ($10) aren’t exceptional so much as gratifying, a fine alternative to wine or beer, with some local spirits prominent behind the bar. One pleasant aperitif or food accompaniment is City Lights, an amaro-heavy sipper of Punt e Mes sweet vermouth and Italian herbal liqueur Strega underscored by autumn spices.
There are other menu highlights, like plump, grilled mint-lime gamberoni (shrimp, $12) in a bowl of farro grain, but it’s the overall experience – one of casual elegance and ease – that leaves an impression. Service, if not exceptionally attentive, is relaxed, encouraging lingering and inspired conversation. Pesce improves upon meals I’ve had in the otherworldly, incredible, but touristy City of Love, Venice.