Tel: +39 041 528 9238
Address: Dorsoduro 857, Calle Nuova Sant’ Agnese
Notes: Closed Monday; no credit cards
Tables outside? No
Best approached as a stunt rather than a culinary experience. The place is staffed by a small team of old ladies whose apparent confusion belies a commercial ruthlessness. Watch the speed with which they clear the tables and push people through their doors. Ai Cugnai is a classic example of the dismal Venetian restaurant complex – they know that their entirely touristic clientele won’t be back so there is no return on them making the extra effort that might produce something memorable for the right reasons.
The food is just about tolerable. The mixed seafood starter – squid, sardines, prawns and something indistinguishable – was served too warm for comfort but was at least flavoured from the sea. The risotto was cooked. The salad was mostly green. The mixed seafood grill was (probably) grilled and had no doubt been underwater at some point. The sole wasn’t sole but was almost flat. Even the largesse afforded by a decent litre of house wine couldn’t produce anything like enthusiasm. More like irritation. And all against the background of tired formica wood panelling, uncomfortably cramped tables, and the faint aroma of sewage.
The comedy of the place might be enough of a lure for the courageous. The ladies, their thinning hair and unlikely shapes, are a genuine novelty. But it would be an expensive laugh and one that might not seem so amusing the next morning.
Good food has become much easier to find in Venice in the last few years. The best that can be said for Ai Cugnai, besides the coffee, is that if this trend continues then it will soon become a monument of how things used to be. In the meantime, it can safely be avoided.
Editor’s Note: I revisited this restaurant in April 2004 and although I do not agree with all of the above – apart from anything else there were many diners obviously having a positive experience the night I was there – it’s true that Ai Cugnai is not the finest in Italian cuisine. On the other hand, for a simple, unpretentious meal it can be good and the atmosphere is bustling and warm. The house speciality granseola (spiny crab) is a good though fairly pricy antipasto at €14.
John Prodger has emailed me to add his comment: “Your review of Ai Cugnai is a bit harsh; we visited in March and although this is not a top class establishment, it has character and a certain charm. The food was good and the prices reasonable, for Venice.”
However Heather Redding agrees with our reviewer: “As a fairly frequent visitor to Venice I am in the process of recommending restaurants to a friend who is about to make her first trip. I came across your review of Ai Cugnai and thought I would add my comment. I first came across this place over 10 years ago and over the next seven years enjoyed a number of simple and reasonably priced lunches. But I was extremely disappointed by my visit last autumn after an interval of three years. We decided to forgo the somewhat pricey fish antipasta and instead opted for just a pasta course – a decision that seemed to meet with mild annoyance. The dishes were truly sub-standard. My spaghetti vongole was meagre and consisted mostly of empty clam shells and was so oversalted as to be almost inedible. My husband’s portion of lasagne was equally tiny and was dry and tasteless. Eating here IS a novel experience but really that is now the best that can be said about it.” – Helen Wright, March 2009