Attitude adjustment—Venetian style

Succumbing to the cuisine of The Most Serene Republic.

Attitude adjustment—Venetian style


There’s a riddle the Veneziani tell that sums up how they feel about their city and their food: Why did Venice build a bridge to Terra ferma (the mainland)? So the rest of Europe wouldn’t feel like an island.

I didn’t quite get it, because the only Venice I knew was the one mobbed with tourists from May to October. Hoping to avoid this scene, photographer Roger Paperno and I arrived mid-November to profile 18 family-run cafés and bacari for our travel book Café Life Venice, the third in our series on Italian cities. The criteria were simple: We had to like the owners and what they served.

Command center: behind the bar at Pasticceria Ballarin. Photo: Roger Paperno
Command center: behind the bar at Pasticceria Ballarin
Photo: Roger Paperno

The good news is we found a small, manageable number of tourists. The bad news—a lot of overpriced, awful food floated around out there. Here’s one of our barely edible meals: rusty lettuce dressed with wine vinegar and slightly rancid olive oil, a watery minestrone soup (mostly celery), and pasta in tomato sauce that tasted like canned spaghetti. I panicked. “Roger, I think we’ve got a big leak in our gondola. We’re not going to pull it off this time.” He replied, “No problem.”

We settled into Ca’ Gottardi, a comfortable hotel in the Cannaregio quarter run by former gondolier Vittorio Costantini and his charming family. His daughter Tatiana told us about La Cantina, an enoteca/bacaro next door. It’s owned by Andrea Zanatta and Francesco Zorzetto—two very cool guys who’ve managed to create an unpretentious place that attracts Venetians and tourists like bees to honey. When I sat down to talk with them, and they discovered it was my first interview for the Venice book, they said, “Ah, tu sei una vergine.” (Ah, you’re a virgin.)

Andrea, the charming one behind the bar, did his best to offer something that pleases from his excellent selection of wines, including vintages from the north and south of Italy as well as Spain and France. Chef Francesco, a tad temperamental with a sense of humor as dry as a glass of Verdicchio, worked from the raised, open-cooking area at the side of the bar, where he creates various piatti (dishes). “There is no specialty of the house,” he said. “A cook should not serve up food like it’s coming from a factory. You go for his spirit and what he wants to create.”

Un buon caffè: Diego Ballarin plus an excellent cappuccino Photo: Roger Paperno
Un buon caffè: Diego Ballarin plus an excellent cappuccino
Photo: Roger Paperno

Francesco could be a little unpredictable, depending on his mood and what was available at the nearby pescaria, or fish market. Nevertheless, the guy was good. We tried his marvelous crostini: canocchia (a small crustacean) and onion sauce, raw tuna with asparagus, tongue with fresh horseradish shavings, and salted beef with smoked ricotta and chopped pickle. Then we moved on to the octopus with white celery, swordfish charred in a sauce of curry and black sesame, and turbot drizzled with a mixture of olive oil, lemon, and salt.

One evening, after closing, we spent time with Andrea smoking good cigars and sampling his special grappas until the wee hours. He talked about how much he loved Venice and its unique character—the silence and the labyrinthine walkways that snake through the city next to slivers of water.

It was during a ramble down the strada principale, the main drag between the train station and the Rialto Bridge, that Ballarin called to us. Inside this cheery, stand-at-the-counter bar/ pasticceria, we met the Ballarin brothers— Luca, the handsome one; Diego, the industrious, smiling one—and Andrea and Michele, who make all of the pastries around the corner in a cramped laboratorio.

The pastries are superb—in the biscotti department: crunchy (and ubiquitous) pan del doge, orange-flavored baicoli (“little jokes” in Venetian), zaletti made with cornmeal and lemon peel or raisins, and sweet S-shaped busolai with a slight anisette flavor. In the not-to-be-missed, words-will-fail-you department, there were the certosino al cioccolato—which looks like a heavy chocolate-covered fruit cake but is instead light and nougaty with bits of candied fruit—and the rondelle d’arancio, candied Sicilian orange slices dipped in the finest dark chocolate.

And so, Ballarin became our daily stop for a morning brioche and cappuccino. It was not just the pastries that drew us and many Veneziani. The pasticceria also serves excellent coffee in a city that, surprisingly, is less than a mecca for good coffee, even though its first coffeehouse opened in 1683. This is probably because the Venetians have always been more interested in wine than coffee.

Front window: Osteria al Bacareto Photo: Roger Paperno
Front window: Osteria al Bacareto
Photo: Roger Paperno

It wasn’t long before we began running into folks we knew, and I discovered another Venice—a small town of about 40,000 people. At one enoteca, we saw dapper Giorgio Rizzo in meditation over a glass of Amarone. He owns Bar Aperol at the foot of the Rialto Bridge. It’s an efficient place, and the only one in Venice open almost all night. This hole-in-the-wall bar cranks out about 1,000 of Giorgio’s excellent involtini (rolled sandwiches) per day, including tonno (tuna), mozzarella e olive, and provolone e rucola.

Near Piazza San Marco, I literally bumped into Emilio DiGiulio, the salt-of-the-earth owner of Osteria al Bacareto. It was at his neighborhood osteria/bacaro, off Campo Santo Stefano, that I learned a simple trick to eating well in Venice—eat what the locals eat. Avoid tourist-trap pizza and tomato-based dishes, because tomatoes are not part of la cucina tipica Veneziana. Instead, order Emilio’s spaghetti alle seppie (pasta in squid ink sauce), bigoli in salsa (buckwheat pasta with anchovy sauce), fegato alla Veneziana (liver with sweet onions), sardine fritte (breaded sardines fried in olive oil), and baccalà mantecato (salted cod fish on toast, creamed with olive oil). All of this I liked a lot, except for the baccalà, which is salty and fishy—an acquired taste that I have not yet acquired.

I now see La Serenissima (The Most Serene Republic) in a different light. I love to visit in winter and, after a dinner at La Cantina or Emilio’s, wander the back canals of Cannaregio—the colder and foggier, the better—bundled up in my new Italian wool coat, and pretend like it’s the year 1500. The shimmering canals reflect the faded opulence of ghostlike, 1,000-year-old palazzi. Venice seduces, and endures.

Joe Wolff ’67, M.A. ’72 is the author of a series of travel books with photographer Roger Poperno.

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