Osteria alle Testiere
The seafood of Venice and the Adriatic coast to the south is one of the very best and unique in the world. However, it is not always easy to find authentic restaurants which make the best use of fresh and local ingredients. One restaurant that had been recommended by some frequent visitors of Venice with discriminating palates is Osteria alle Testiere. This place was on my radar screen for a long time, but we have never had a chance to get to Venice. Finally the opportunity came up when we were spending three days in the beautiful Venetian town of Verona, where one of my favorite contemporary writers, Tim Parks lives. I recommend very highly his non-fiction “Italian Neighbours” for those interested in Italian culture. We drove to Venice from Verona, parked the car around Piazzola Roma and then happily walked to the restaurant as the public boats or vaporettos were on strike. Alle Testiere is a small trattoria with only 6 to 7 tables. The room is charming in a natural way without any artificial attempt to make it look “cozy” for the outsiders. These tables fill quickly and one needs reservation even for lunch. Dinner reservations are very hard to get, so the restaurant does have multiple seatings for dinner during the high season. We were seated by a young waitress in a nice corner table and then a friendly (but without artificial excess) person came to take our order after reciting the daily specials. His name was Mr. Luca. It turned out that he is the co-owner (the other owner is Bruno, the chef) and also the wine buyer. Luca speaks both English and French fluently, which made our communication easier. A few months later, in a more recent visit, we would learn that Luca is a consummate professional and he discovered Bruno’s cooking as a client. When the two joined hands, they turned a cute neighborhood trattoria into arguably one of the two best restaurants in Venice (the other being Da Fiore) and into one of the very best Italian seafood places. Although there is a written menu posted outside, Alle Testiere buys its seafood daily from the open-air fish market near the Rialto Bridge. Therefore, the menu changes daily depending on the availability of fresh and seasonal products. When Luca recited the six daily antipastas, or entrees, it turned out that they are all favorites of mine and some of them can only be had in the Adriatic. We ended up choosing five out of six beauties.
We started with the baby soft shell crabs (moeche), served at room temperature. Indescribably juicy and subtly seasoned, they were by far the best soft shell crabs I have had. Bruno rolls them in breadcrumbs and quickly fries them. He then marinates them in a zesty blend of olive oil, fresh pink grapefruit juice, orange juice and sea salt. Before serving them with a side salad of agrumes, the crabs are slightly rubbed with cumin. The result is so appetizing and tastebud tickling that in our most recent visit in end March we were elated to find them among the daily specials again, and we ordered a double portion!
Then we had the grancevola or the spider crab which is an especially sweet and delicate creature of the Venetian lagoon. The preparation was classic, boiled, and the meat meticulously picked from the shell. The crab was squeaky fresh and was served inside the shell with its roe. Our server brought a bottle of Tuscan olive oil and pepper to the table as the only seasonings. The olive oil was very peppery and delicious and I soaked it up with my bread before she grabbed the oil back.
Then we had a favorite clam of mine: razor clams, or couteaux in French, called capelonghe in Venice. They were grilled in the shell with a touch of olive oil, herbs and salt. When I have them in the US, these clams are much larger and the meat more chewy, less interesting. The simply prepared version in Testiere is especially recommended to those who tried them in haute cuisine places, such as Gagnaire and Lucas Carton to see the quite unique taste of these clams when one devours dozens of them which are so fresh from the lagoon.
We continued with scampi or langoustines. The unfortunate trend nowadays, especially in 3 star French restaurants, is to experiment with variations of tempura (Lucas Carton version is especially unsuccessful as it is oily and too thick) or to offer the delicate creature as a foil to bring out the best in caviar (Ducasse—very decadent but not particularly a langoustine dish—rather a caviar dish). The Testiere version was not the most imaginative preparation I have seen from langoustines which all seafood lovers adore, but a very good one. Indeed a dash of imagination helped to bring out the sweetness of the local Adriatic scampis and balanced it with some acidity as this dish was served in a broth with sweet/crunchy touches provided by red onion and orange infusion. As can be seen from the image with their antennas intact and their bright shining colors, these langoustines were of pristine quality and ultra-fresh.
Our final appetizer was the moscardino or baby octopus. The season was over for seppioline or baby cuttlefish which is to die for if you can get it fresh in Venice. Alle Testiere prepared a creative but not fussy dish from the baby octopus by making a cold and first rate gazpacho with grilled baby octopus. The result was a minor masterpiece in terms of color, textural contrast and appetizing taste.
Unfortunately, this was all for the appetizers. At this point Luca came to our table and asked if we still wanted pasta dishes. I shook my head in disbelief. We were barely starting. How could not one have the middle courses? From a list of 4 pasta dishes we chose rigatoni with anchovy and thinly sliced artichokes (a variation on more traditional Venetian staple bigoli in salsa by substituting artichokes for onions) and tagliolini with white Alba truffles. The white truffles were first rate: firm, aromatic and abundant. The rigatoni dish was quite good, but I did not think that it was necessarily better than the traditional version with onions. The tagliolini was homemade and firm, but not as stunning as the versions in Piemonte (such as at the Restaurant Antine) where they use high quality farm eggs which are almost orange in colour.
At this point our server asked whether we wanted any dessert. I must have given the type of stare that can freeze one’s blood that she asked for Luca’s assistance to understand why I looked unhappy. How can you expect us to leave without trying one of the daily special main courses that you recited at the beginning of the meal, I told Luca. Charming Signor Luca obliged and recited the specials one more time. The problem is that I am and was missing all he has recited so we ordered a mixed grill consisting of fresh wild prawns or gamberi, the rare cigale de mer or cannocchia, baby sole from the lagoon (sogliole), San Pietro (Saint Pierre, John Dory) and coda di rospo (lotte, monkfish).
No farm raised fish is served in this restaurant. I would say that both shellfish and fish were equally fresh and grilled just right. Even the potatoes and zucchini you see in the picture below were first rate. The only afterthought I had was that, given how interesting and subtle tasting the cigale de mar or cannocchia is, I should perhaps have ordered a separate portion of them since we had the chance to savor this very unique (and seasonal) delicacy from the lagoon. They are only available in very late fall and winter.
I wanted to have lemon sorbet afterwards. They had a light lemon torte instead. I should add that the 2002 Vogler Sauvignon Blanc from Aldo Adige matched well with the appetizers and, incredibly, with the truffles. The rather aromatic Verdicchio, which is the house wine there, did go well with grilled fish.
For those who are looking for first rate fish and shellfish from the lagoon, prepared simply, executed proficiently, and with a dash of imagination which never goes overboard, Alle Testiere is very highly recommended. It is justifiably popular with both locals and discriminating visitors and let’s hope that prices continue to remain fair and quality so high despite their popularity.