A Trip to Venice
The sheer utterance of this name conjures up images of romance and beauty, but not culinary treasures. This is strange because the Venetian lagoon is a very special place to have some of the world’s best seafood. One can feast on simply prepared superb seafood in Venice that cannot be found elsewhere. At its best, the molluscs, crustaceans and fish are sublime in Venice, and even if you feast for several days only eating seafood it is still not possible to taste all that is unique to Venice. The best of seafood is now scarce and costly, but, eaten fresh, it is delicately textured and incomparably sweet. In fact, those small creatures (such as local baby squid, soft shell crabs, tiny gray shrimps, bay scallops, etc.), are so tasty because of the peculiarities of the lagoon. As R. W. Apple of the New York Times remarked:
“The city’s fish and shellfish are sublime [...] especially those from the outer lagoon’s shallow, brackish waters, which are rich in plankton, fish egg and other foods, and regularly scrubbed by salt-water tides”.
Unfortunately, given the sheer abundance of places which cater to tourists, it is not always automatic to find places which serve pristine quality, fresh and wild local seafood. But they exist, and without spending a fortune, it is still possible to taste some of the unique tastes that Venetian lagoon can offer. The Michelin starred Restaurant Osteria Da Fiore is still the most refined place in Venice to eat well and savor some specialties. Yet, it would be a pity if you only have a meal there and not in other trattorias where you can sample the variety of shellfish. Keep in mind that best trattorias will never serve a great ingredient frozen or when it is not in season. Therefore, if you want to try the incomparable canoce or mantis shrimp or cigale de mer, you have go there in late fall. If you want the baby cuttlefish or seppioline which is unique in Venice, you have to go there in the summer (unfortunately at the height of the tourist season). I am not complaining about missing these two delicacies during my March 15-18 visit as we had some of the best seafood on earth in some of the most authentic, honest and scrupulous trattorias of Venice, namely:
15 March dinner: Trattoria Antiche Carampane;
16 March lunch: Osteria Antico Giardinetto;
16 March dinner: Da Fiore;
17 March lunch: Al Mascaron;
17 March dinner: Osteria alle Testiere.
All of these places are ingredient-driven in the sense that they shop daily in the local fish market near the Rialto Bridge and serve daily specials. Only Da Fiore and Al Mascaron have serious printed menus (in addition to daily specials), but they will all give you printed menus if you want. If they like you, they may also bring you some of the most exquisite specialties that they are reserving for regular clients. It is a good idea to watch what locals are eating and ask for the same. It is also a good idea to learn Venetian words for seafood, so you will not miss the opportunity to grab special items when the waiter recites daily specials in the beginning of the meal.
Our spirit was lifted from the very beginning as we arrived to Venice after a comfortable flight from Paris and took a water taxi to our small, cozy well-run Pensione Accademia - Villa Maravege. So our good mood, which was triggered by nice weather and blue skies on the way to the hotel, did not change once we were ushered to our room by the friendly staff. We had indeed hit the early days of Spring and the weather did not change during our stay.
The important thing in this trip for me was to hunt for the best ingredients rather than particular restaurants. I wanted to have local wild fish, canestrelli or baby bay scallops, cappelunghe or razor clams, seppie or cuttlefish, moeche or soft shell crabs, capparossoli or lagoon clams, granceole or spider crab, and wild local fish. Unfortunately some other specialties, such as the canoce, seppioline and schie, had to wait until the next fall when they would be in season.
All of my expectations were met and some more—with the only exception that I could not get to taste the so-called zotoi which is apparently a baby squid like creature unique to the region. It is so good that fishermen themselves eat it when they catch it! Next time, I will ask Signor Lolis, called Lolo, who is the owner of Giardinetto and who is a fisherman himself with a stall in the Rialto fish market.
Our first meal at Trattoria Antiche Carampane was excellent. This is a genuine trattoria frequented by locals and it was a nice surprise for me to find out that the Agopian family (their Italian last name is Librai) who own and run the restaurant are of Armenian origin. They had all come from Istanbul some time ago and the father still fondly remembers the great fish shacks of the Bosphorus. When we do not discuss politics, Turks and Armenians usually hit it off very fast and feel as if they have been good friends for a long time. In fact, we felt like house guests at this very cozy trattoria as various dishes cooked by the mother, Piera Bortoluzzi Librai, were placed in front of us by son Francesco. Everything was fresh and expertly prepared, but two things stood out: first, a platter of raw scampi (langoustines), simply showered by fruity olive oil and sea salt and served with a spicy arugula salad. The local scampi is much smaller than the imported scampi from Northern Europe which are selling for the half price. Not unlike the incomparable gamberi di San Remo that my friend Mikael can enjoy on a daily basis, scampis are a delight to devour when they are raw and pristine fresh.
The other great dish at Carampane was the best grilled cuttlefish (seppie) we had anywhere. It was so good that we wanted a second portion. Although they had turned off the fire, they restarted it and served us a second portion. I do not think the image below does justice to the unique taste of seppie at its freshest from the lagoon.
The rest of the meal was also very good, if not exceptional. We had a mixed grill of baby bay scallops, scallops (less good than the local bay scallop) and razor clams; a mixed antipasta plate of braised octopus, fried baby artichoke, marinated raw salmon and sardines (sarde) in saor and gamberi with soft polenta; deep fried soft shell crabs (good, but not on par with Alle Testiere); and good pasta with clams, shrimp and tomato. Desserts are homemade and good too, such as lemon sorbet and strawberry semifreddo. They also have a fine wine list for a restaurant of this size, and I fared well taking Francesco’s recommendation of 2002 Lis Neris from Friuli which was a blend of Pinot Gris, Chardonnay and Sauvignon. Given its more than fair prices, the quality of its seafood and its friendly nature, Carampane is recommended: 14/20.
The following day, as we had a dinner reservation at Da Fiore, I wanted to have a light lunch at the Osteria Antica Giardinetto. This unassuming trattoria had a good write up in the journal of the Espresso Guide, and the owner of the oldest wine bar in Venice, the Cantina Da Mori, had recommended this place especially for raw fish. We had met the owner Loris the night before and had agreed to meet in his stall at the Rialto fish market. We were a bit late and he had left the fish market to open his restaurant for lunch. His Osteria is very close to the fish market. He seemed genuinely pleased that we did show up and he wanted to seat us, not in the front room which is relatively fancy, but in the back room which seemed to be reserved for the locals. This is always a good sign. As soon as we were seated, he brought some polenta with tuna mousse and two glasses of Prosecco and asked if we would like to try the raw fish platter. He also said that if we want grilled fish he only had small local sole (sogliola) and local wide orata, which were also quite small. He presented them in a platter and both fish looked pristine fresh with bright eyes, very firm flesh (I poked it) and bright red gills. I said, sure, we can have them simply grilled.
The raw fish plate arrived. It was served on the side with sea salt, 12 years aged balsamic vinegar and fruity olive oil. Loris had some suggestions about seasoning, and we experimented with various alternatives to see if seasoning improves or detracts from pure flavors. Here are the results:
- small scampi from the lagoon: do not season with anything;
- tuna belly: definitely nothing;
- branzino or sea bass: nothing;
- pesca spada or swordfish: season with a little salt;
- cernia: season with a little salt (this is a deep sea rock fish which is meaty and reminded me of lotte);
- pescatice or rospo (lotte—monkfish): season with a little salt;
- mezzancole or large prawn: season with a little white pepper;
- seppiolina or small cuttlefish: season with some balsamic vinegar.
Well, these results are incontrovertible as I tried every single item with balsamico too and had to agree in the end with Lolo that only the cuttlefish married well with it. Lolo’s eyes widened when I told him that in the States people eat oysters with horseradish and ketchup. Venetians, who are the hereditaries of one of the most refined civilizations and forms of governance known to man, are experts in expressing thoughts and emotions with their eyes without uttering any pejorative expression. I think Lolo would even think that Japanese sushi is over seasoned, and if you can get seafood as fresh as this, he may be right.
While we were having our “scientific” experiments with various condiments, a very bad thing happened. A local showed up and he was served a gorgeous looking pasta. He was eating it with such a gusto that I could not help but request Lolo to bring us the same. The pasta turned out to be Squid Ink Linguine with Raw Scampi, Tomatoes and Basil. I am glad that I asked for it because it was one of the truly memorable pasta dishes of Italy. The linguine was very firm and sweet tasting due to squid ink which is very light despite its appearance to the contrary. The local scampis are of very high quality and the bigger imported versions which Lolo brought me for a comparative tasting lack the sweet and pure flavor profile of the local ones. This was truly a “piece de resistance” pasta dish.
The grilled fish was served with potato fondants seasoned by poppy seeds. I particularly liked the sogliola which tastes very different than a true Dover sole but on par. The orata, for some reason, was translated as gilt-head bream to English and is a spectacular fish if you can get a wild and relatively large one with enough fat. In my opinion, it is best from the Aegean sea (Turkey and Greece) and the Mediterranean sea has its Daurade Royal which is a great fish. I once had a superb wild orata cooked for two in a salt crust in Positano at the Hotel Sirenuse. The local one from the Adriatic is good, but I did not think it has the finesse of the Mediterranean version, but it is still good though.
Obviously, Antico Giardinetto is highly recommended. My only qualm is that they have a small kitchen with two people working in it. One of them was working in the same dining room where they seat locals and he was shelling the meat from the local grancevole or spider crab. At the same time, the restaurant has a large menu. So I would recommend this gem of a place, with exceptionally fair prices to those who will order the raw fish platter and then ask Loris for his recommendations: 15/20.
Da Fiore can be a pain to reserve. I had requested our hotel to reserve it for us, which is something I never do as I like to interact on the phone. We then asked our hotel to change our 8:30 pm reservation to 9:30 in order to have 7 hours in between our lunch and dinner to get hungry. It worked. When we got there I was quite astonished to see that they seated us in the inarguably best table, which is a corner table overlooking the canal and a Gothic palace, and where you can seat next to one another. I did not think our hotel to have such leverage, as Pensione Accademia is a modest place compared to Danieli, Gritti, etc. So perhaps it was either pure coincidence or eating late—as I like anyway—has its cache in Venice.
At any rate, given the good weather, great food and some new small places that we had discovered (such as the Santa Stefano Church which is decorated by Veronese frescoes), one could not have been in a bad mood. And if you are in good mood, I guarantee that unless one dislikes pristine seafood prepared with creative touches and nicely plated, having a meal in Da Fiore will only enhance your good mood. In fact, this is my second time at this restaurant with consistent results. All dishes range from very good to excellent and attention to detail and the overall level of refinement distinguishes this restaurant from the competition. Both of our appetizers were very good: the Orata Marco Polo and the Scampi con Lardo. The former is an interesting take on the traditional saor dressing in the sense that it is served with baby leeks, instead of onions and also with pine nuts and raisins. This nod to Sicily is particularly welcome in the relatively insular Venice, and the grilled polenta served on the side can only pass as the textbook example of what polenta should taste like and it is a benchmark against which others should be compared. My only qualm about this dish is that I would have preferred the traditional pickled onions over the leeks as the latter was overly refined in a dish which needed more punch.
In return, the Scampi con Lardo was beyond any reproach. The freshest scampis were wrapped in lardo di colonnato, which is one of the most interesting charcuterie products that one can only find in Italy and is very different than what French call lard (that is closer to high quality artisanal bacon), grilled for a second to melt the thin lardo and then placed on triangular toasts. Served with cherry tomatoes and deep fried rosemary branch, this was a textbook Italian appetizer in terms of deceptive simplicity, pure taste and refined details.
I still recall the superb risotto with gamberi and asparagus from my first visit to Da Fiore. This time, however, we chose two pasta dishes: Spaghetti in Cartoccio and Pappardelle with Saffron and Oysters. Portions are quite large, and they only serve some of it and then offer the second serving if you like it. Both pasta dishes were very good and we asked for second servings as the unserved portions of the pastas were kept warm on the side, which is thoughtful on their part. The pappardelle was served with steamed fin de clairs from Brittany (local oysters are not as good) and strips of pancetta. The second pasta, pictured below, was baked in parchement in a glazed oval shaped earthenware casserole, and when they cut it open some enticing ocean aromas filled the room. It turned out that they had baby bay scallops (canestrelli), mussels, scampi and also rascasse, a very firm rock fish which is a sine qua non element of true French bouillabaisse. Also served with baby artichoke hearts and cherry tomatoes, this was another outstanding pasta dish.
One can always count on very fresh fish at Da Fiore and you can not go wrong irrespective of what you order. We had one order of bisato (eel) which was grilled to perfection over bay leaves. Skinned, boned, butterflied and grilled, two long pieces were cut from the filet and served with fantastic radicchio di treviso. The eel from the Adriatic has a complex and interesting taste and it should not be missed. Da Fiore’s version ties with the grilled eel of Villa Fiordaliso at Lake Garda, which serves the eel with caramelized endives and whole roasted garlic.
The other dish we ordered, local branzino (sea bass) wrapped in tender cabbage leaves, steamed and served with stewed apples and 25 years old balsamic vinegar, is a classic of Da Fiore. This is the second time that I tried this refined, creative dish and memories held—except the fact that the portion was smaller and when we shared the two fish dishes I could not savor the wild and extremely fresh sea bass (the texture was very soft and flavorful and juicy) as much as I wanted.
Desserts are good and very light, not surprising considering the general cooking style of this restaurant. The fried cream, which is a Venetian specialty and is flavored with cointreau and served with vanilla ice cream, was delicious and feather light at the same time. The homemade clementine and lemon sorbets (the latter with crushed licorice) were fantastic.
The wine list is a little pricey and we chose a 2003 Sauvignon from Sanct Valentin (Aldo Adige) which I like but is extremely intense and not to everybody’s taste. It was 58 Euro as opposed to 35 Euro in most other comparable restaurants.
Da Fiore is definitely recommended, if you spend a couple of days in Venice. It is not cheap (our bill, including two glasses of Prosecco was 282 Euro), but given the quality of raw materials and quite subdued, intelligent cooking and delicious dishes, I believe prices are on par with comparable restaurants, such as the Villa Fiordaliso that I like very much. Besides, Signor Maurizio Martin, who oversees the dining room, is a gracious host: 16/20.
The next day we had a 9:30 dinner reservation at one of my favorite trattorias in all of Italy, Alle Testiere. Therefore, we opted for a small lunch at a traditional trattoria, Al Mascaron. This is a very popular place with locals and both traditional dishes we ordered, Seppie con Polenta and Spaghetti con Vongole Veraci, were textbook examples of those classics. The former dish is braised in its own ink and served with grilled polenta. If I get such fresh cuttlefish in the US (almost impossible) I would probably have a heart attack from over-excitement, but in Venice one starts to expect this level and gets used to it. The clams, called capparossoli, are local and shipped to other places in Italy from Venetia (they are impossible to find outside of Italy) and are more subtle and tasty than the ubiquitous but still very fine Manila clams. I do not think the pasta was homemade at Mascaron, but they were very generous with clams. They use quality olive oil and fresh parsley in the pasta. A single pasta portion was large enough for two. The sepia, on the other hand, pictured below, was an appetizer, but the generous portion was large enough to count as a main course.
Our final meal of the trip was at Alle Testiere. I had earlier praised this restaurant, awarding it a 16 on the stringent ranking standard. I am happy to report that not only memories held, but I learned more about the background of this extraordinary trattoria by speaking more to the co-owner and sommelier Luca. Three of the four appetizers that we tried, the exceptional moeche (we ordered 2 portions as each portion contains four soft shell crabs) and the grilled capelunge or razor clams were as exceptional as the first time. I have eaten nowhere else these ingredients of the same level as one can have in Venice. My earlier report regarding Alle Testiere described the preparation of these two appetizers. I find the soft shell preparation one of the best examples of quintessential Italian cooking in the sense that Italians prepare creative, intriguing dishes with an intelligent use of spices (here cumin) without making them overcomplicated and fussy.
The last appetizer, canestrelli or local bay scallops, was outstanding. They are even more sweet than the great Nantucket bay scallops I had at Manresa in Los Gatos, California, possibly the most interesting (because the chef David Kinch is inspired and on the rise) and one of the best restaurants in America. The nice thing about having bay scallops in Alle Testiere is that even if you are (reluctantly) sharing them with your companion, there are plenty of them with all their glory and coral attached. Chef and co-owner Bruno grills them alive on the shell and douses them lightly with a light olive oil, just the right amount of salt and a little parsley.
Pasta dishes at Alle Testiere are not as refined as the ones at Da Fiore, but they are equally tasty and well conceived. We had Gnocchi with Granceole (local spider crab) and Penne with Rana di Pescatrice Cheeks (monkfish, lotte) and Radiccio di Treviso. Both were remarkable in terms of the quality of the pasta, quality of ingredients and the blend of elements where each retain their identity, but the sum is greater than the parts. The gnocchi in fact is always high quality in Venetia, very light and fluffy. Bruno cut them like small button mushrooms and uses the roe of the spider crab, which is very tasty (unlike scallop roe which is neutral), and blends them with tomatoes. Everybody should taste the spider crab in Venice which is more subtle than spider crabs from the Atlantic. They use a good amount in pasta and I can see that pairing them with gnocchi rather than another form of pasta was a wise decision to express the sweetness of the crab against the more neutral potato base from which the ethereal tiny dumplings are concocted.
The penne was equally good in that the meaty, highly prized monkfish cheeks stood against the incomparably pleasant earthy bitterness of the radicchio, and the monkfish stock based darker sauce of this dish glued the two main elements together and imparted a rustic, substantial quality to the dish. The female side of the British couple in the next table found this dish to be “too bitter”, referring to the braised radicchio which is prized in Italy, but which may strike many unsuspecting palates as too assertive. Italians, on the other hand, love to hunt for wild herbs and edible plants and are used to the earthy-bitter taste of vegetables and they dislike the sanitized overly neutral taste of vegetables that English speaking people eat. Venetians are especially fond of verdure or vegetables in unadulterated form and the local radicchio di Treviso pairs extremely well with meaty deep sea fish and rock fish.
When I made my reservation I had requested Luca to reserve a whole fish for the two for us. I crossed my fingers and wanted it to be a branzino as I could not fill my desire for this noble fish with the small portion at Da Fiore. This must have been an instance of a meeting of the minds as, upon finishing our pasta, Luca presented a whole sea bass of approximately three pounds for my inspection. There is not much to say about a perfectly grilled local wild branzino except that if you develop a taste for fresh wild fish prepared whole you will find it hard to enjoy small portions served in two and three star Michelin restaurants when you order tasting menus. At any rate the sea bass was firm, juicy and flavorful, and each bite brought back memories of childhood prior to the time farming became the norm for this popular fish. I thought that the sea bass chosen by Bruno for us from the fish market the same morning was caught within 24 hours prior to serving. I asked Luca if this was the case. No, it was not true. Luca told us that the fish was actually caught in the wee hours of the night, but not of the same day, but the preceding night. So the fish was more like two days old, but it was kept in salted water and never put on ice. Bruno and Luca have their own fish monger in the Rialto market which is an assurance to having a high quality supply, albeit in small quantities which befit a restaurant of such a small size. The pictures below show the fish after grilling whole. It was simply served with lettuce and exceptional quality local olive oil from Bassano from a small producer named Zanta.
Both desserts were fine at Alle Testiere and I especially enjoyed the Green Apple Panna Cotta. The wine list, on the other hand, is very strong in local wines and wines from Friuli with intelligent selections and attractive prices: 16/20.
The worst thing about going to Venice is that, one has to come back!