I had lunch at the oldest café in Venice. It dates back to the 1700s, has become a tourist hot spot — and wasn't worth the high bill.

florian caffe
The author had a pricey brunch at Florian Caffe in Venice.Marielle Descalsota/Business Insider
  • Caffe Florian claims to be the oldest café in Italy and the second-oldest in Europe.

  • Once popular with some of history's most famous names, it's now a tourist hot spot.

  • I spent around $76 on a main, drink, and dessert, and it wasn't worth the steep prices.

Caffe Florian claims to be the oldest café in Italy, and the second-oldest in Europe. It's also the stuff of legend. The Venetian café was where some of history's most revered writers — including Goethe, Lord Byron, and Charles Dickens — hung out. And in more recent years, modern celebrities — from Elton John to Clint Eastwood — were spotted.

The café, founded in 1720, has had a reputation for being where the bourgeoise socialized. So, as a tourist in Venice, walking up to the corroded, gilded entrance of the café felt intimidating.

I spent three days exploring Venice in late February. Unlike during the summer when the streets are often crowded, there weren't many people around at the time. It was frigid cold outside, with a light fog drifting over San Marco Square. I was freezing, but after perusing the café's menu — where I caught a glimpse of the sky-high prices — I began to have second thoughts about heading inside.

I could see why the café remained so popular, even 300 years later — its picturesque interior was perfect for photos.

florian caffe
The interior of Florian Caffe.Marielle Descalsota/Business Insider

Despite my hesitation, a few seconds later, a waiter — dressed in the café's signature white coat and bow tie — invited me inside. The atmosphere was bustling, with staff rushing in and out of the kitchen.

Near the entrance, dozens of tourists crowded the café's storefront, perusing the many trinkets on offer — from Florian-branded perfumes to brightly colored leather bags. There was also a selection of refreshments like sweets and a variety of coffee and tea on sale.

The dining hall was adorned with intricate gold details and portraits of 10 famed Venetian figures — which include the artist Titian — flanking the walls. I sat at the corner of the café, at one of the dozen small, rickety tables. Set up next to a large glass window, I had a stunning view of San Marco Square, where I could see the plaza and the arched pillars and windowsills of the building across.

Unlike the high society clientele it was known for in the 19th and 20th centuries, many people dining there that day appeared to be tourists like me from Asia. A waiter approached me after five minutes to promptly take my order before rushing over to a family of seven. While the service was speedy, it felt impersonal for the café's upscale reputation.

I ordered the lasagna for 26 euros, or around $28. It turned out to be a letdown.

italian lasagna
Florian's lasagne al forno con ragu di carne.Marielle Descalsota/Business Insider

The selection of mains was limited, save for a mixed shrimp salad for 24 euros, eggplant stuffed with mozzarella for 25 euros, and prosciutto with mozzarella for 26 euros.

The lasagna, made with meat ragù and bechamel sauce, was served piping hot. It was topped with fresh basil leaves and a cherry tomato sliced in half — a classic rendition of the famed Italian dish.

While it was a decent-sized portion, the overwhelming flavor of sour tomatoes from the ragù sauce made it difficult to finish. Overall, it wasn't anything special and didn't taste much different from the lasagnas I've had at fusion Italian restaurants in Singapore.

The café specializes in desserts, so I got the pistachio and raspberry tart for 17 euros.

pistachio tart
Florian's crostata al pistacchio e lamponi.Marielle Descalsota/Business Insider

Several desserts were on the menu, including a tiny tiramisu cake for 17 euros and a set of five macarons for 18 euros. While these were tempting, I settled on the tart, dotted with green globs of pistachio mousse, six whole raspberries, and pieces of white chocolate.

The tart's crumbly texture balanced well with the smooth pistachio cream. The dessert was delightfully balanced with the sharp acidity of the raspberries.

While it was one of the most expensive desserts I had on my trip, it was worth it.

Finally, I ended my meal with the ice caffe for a whopping 19 euros.

ice caffe
Florian's ice caffe.Marielle Descalsota/Business Insider

The café served a variety of ice cream and coffee-based drinks, all tagged with steep prices. The most expensive drink on the menu was a vanilla and chocolate ice cream concoction with coffee liqueur for 23 euros. A regular cappuccino — which costs less than two euros on average in Italy — was six times as expensive at the café, priced at 12 euros.

I got the ice caffe, a thick, frappe-style coffee drink. While the ice-cold coffee was refreshing, the ice cream combined with the whipped cream was overkill and the drink tasted sickly sweet. The drink as a whole was too cloying.

Overall, the lackluster quality of the dishes at the café, coupled with the steep prices, made it a disappointing experience. The café's rich history wasn't enough for me to justify my 70-euro bill.

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