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Sunday, October 28, 2007

To Eat in Venice

I had read in several sources that the food in Venice is not as good as food throughout the rest of Italy.

Now, I've nothing to base that comparison on, as I've never been anywhere else in Italy, but I do have to say that I had one extremely fine meal that will rate in my memory banks right up there with L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon in Paris and the French Laundry in Yountville. And it happened by accident, too!

But I'll save that part for last. Most of my meals in Venice were grabbed on the go, as it seemed I was always en route to somewhere else, and stopping too long for food would interfere with my desire to see as much as I could.

But even the small snacks were delightful, if simple. The local coffee shops, a favorite being in Campo Santa Margherita and simply called Caffe, served a variety of delicious sandwiches with savory fillings. The slices of bread, as soft and white as Wonderbread, but with actual taste and texture, were filled with tuna, pork or shrimp and a variety of accompaniments, including Gorgonzola cheese, marinated red peppers, olives, or grated carrots. These simple sandwiches were as delicious as they were economical.

Pictured above is a cicchetti bar. Cicchetti are a variety of appetizer-like dishes, either served as salads or atop slices of toast. Seafood is a common element, including salmon and anchovies. We shared a number of cicchetti in a small bar near the Guggenheim Museum on our first day in Venice, while resting our feet a bit during that first stroll to get acclimated with our surroundings. Other favorite meals grabbed throughout the days were sweet cantaloupe voluptuously draped in thin layers of proscuitto (sweet and salty together is a wonderful thing indeed!), fresh warm bruschette with a topping of soft, sweet cherry tomatoes sauteed in garlic, olive oil and basil, and a tagliatelle with olive oil and mushrooms. All of this food reminded me that freshness and simplicity make the best dishes!

Gelato is ubiquitous in Venice, and all that I sampled was wonderful. We were lucky enough to be staying near Nico, which has a reputation of serving the best gelato in Venice. I had the Gianduitto (hazelnut) and took my cone to go while strolling along the Zattere, watching all kinds of boats roam up and down the waters between me and the Giudecca.

Okay, now for the pièce de résistance. I had been wandering the narrow alleys of Santa Croce and San Polo after having spent the morning in two incredible museums: Ca' Pesaro and the Palazzo Mocenigo (more on those later). I hadn't eaten anything for breakfast that morning (just hungry for beautiful sights and not food, I guess), and was making my way back towards the Rialto Bridge. On a particularly tiny alleyway was a small restaurant window that made me backtrack as I almost passed it by. Nothing in the window would indicate that this was a spectacular restaurant in any way, but after reading the menu in the window, I knew this was the place for me to reward myself after the morning's activities.

It was late, getting on towards 2pm, when I entered the almost empty restaurant, called Vecio Fritolin. The waiter, obviously a professional like the kind you would encounter in Paris, warmly welcomed me to a small table by the window. That's where the fun began.

My eyes glazed over at the menu choices, and my stomach responded with eager anticipation. While I read the menu, a basket of the most delicious, warm bread (three kinds that they make at the restaurant) arrived at my table, along with the spritz, an apertif of sparkling water and Campari served with a slice of lemon, that I ordered. I only remember one of the breads, although all were delicious. But this one was so fragrant with olive oil and studded with sunflower seeds that it left the other breads behind.

My waiter (pictured above) was the epitome of gracious service. I finally decided on an appetizer of soft-shelled crabs with Venetian polenta and a main course of pumpkin gnocchi with smoked duck. Believe me, this was a very tough decision. While I devoured the bread and savored my spritz, a woman came in to make her dinner reservations. Apparently, my little lunch hideaway was recently reviewed in the New York Times. Bingo!

Which is how I got my perfect pictures of the restaurant! Thanks, New York Times website! That is my nice waiter, above! (For all I know, he could be the owner. I was so engrossed in the place that I didn't make much small talk. Plus my mouth was full of that bread and I was trying to be demure.)

Let's just say that the chef created the culinary equivalent of tango bliss in my mouth. I swooned. What the hell is Venetian polenta and why do you want to dip your entire body in it? (Now I know that all polentas are not created equal and I will have to wander the world looking for this silky warm pudding again.) The crabs were incredibly soft and full of the salty flavor of the sea. The pumpkin/duck gnocchi: ridiculously good.

I did not lick the plates, even though I wanted to--badly. I did tell the waiter to please tell the chef that I wanted to marry him. I was totally serious. Which got a chuckle out of the waiter but did not produce the chef to my table, sadly.

It's probably a good thing I did not order dessert or else I'd still be there.


Tina October 29, 2007 at 9:07 AM  

I'm hungry now! Yumm! You describe Venice so beautifully - and I'm only on the part about the food! Can't wait to read the rest.

one correction though, if I may... it's spelled "cicchetti"...

Tina October 29, 2007 at 9:10 AM  

Sorry, one more...
"bruscetti" should be spelled "bruschetta" for singular and "bruschette" for plural
(and if anyone is wondering, prounounced broo-sKetta)

You can delete this if you want - I'm just really picky about Italian so ignore me if you'd like :-) I think you're writing so beautifully.

tangobaby October 29, 2007 at 9:17 AM  

Oh no, Tina! Your comments are very helpful and I appreciate your expertise immensely. I'll go back any make some teensy edits!

Thank you!