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Venice By The Cook

By Nancy Lewis
The Washington Post
Sunday, May 25 1997; Page E01
   


I wanted to go to Italy to cook.

After years of traipsing through food markets from Rome to Venice to Cortina and ogling stalls piled high with plump scarlet tomatoes, purple artichokes, tiny green lettuces, exotic razor clams, inky squid and homemade pasta of every shape and color, I wanted to do more than look.

The perfect vacation, I decided, would be to live in an apartment surrounded by the glory of Venice, shop every morning at the Rialto market and cook to my heart's content every evening. I could almost smell the chicken roasting in the oven and hear the thwomp of corks erupting from wine bottles.

I set out on my first culinary pilgrimage a few years ago. Now, just back from my sixth, I can hardly wait for the next. The produce is just as temptingas when I tasted my first Italian tomato, the sea creatures just as mouthwatering, and Venice -- La Serenissima -- is just as romantic.

Over the years, I've learned a lot about Italian cuisine, specifically Venetian, but I've learned even more about Venice and its generous people and about how the way to a city's heart can be through its stomach. I didn't know that when I spent months planning that first trip -- selecting the "perfect" cookbooks and the "indispensable" utensils I would take with me.

On a brilliant September day, just as a hurricane was barreling up the East Coast, we flew off to Rome on our way to Venice. I had with me two cookbooks; a new three-quart Cuisinart saute pan; a paring knife, tomato knife, utility knife and 10-inch chef's knife -- all carefully wrapped in a heavy apron tucked inside my checked baggage. Don't worry, a Venetian friend had told us, the kitchen in the apartment he had found for us was stocked with all the equipment we'd need. I wanted to be prepared, just in case.

The apartment overlooked a back canal in the residential San Polo district, near the breathtaking Titians in Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari and the acres of Tintorettos at San Rocco. Rebuilt from the ground floor of a medieval artisan's shop, the apartment was strictly Italian modern. There were red ceramic-tile floors throughout, a living room with windows that opened onto the little canal, a bedroom fitted with ample closets and, best of all, a minuscule but perfect one-person kitchen -- or so it seemed.

The tiny sink had a tiny cabinet overhead that held a dish-drying rack; the water dripped directly into the sink and straight out to the canal. A tiny refrigerator was tucked under the tiny work counter, and next to that was a wonderful full-size stove with gas burners and an electric oven that even had a rotisserie. In the tiny cabinets above, my companion, Gene, and I found an espresso pot and some salt, two medium-size red pots, a saucepan with a capacity of about two cups and a nonstick skillet with the thickness of aluminum foil.

I was undeterred. After all, the cookbook author Marcella Hazan -- who lives in Venice -- had pronounced that you can cook anything Italian in a three-quart saute pan. And I had mine.

Early the next morning, to the sound of bells from the Frari and San Rocco and a dozen other churches, Gene and I were up with the natives and off to the Rialto market, following the arrows that serve as Venetian road signs.

Saturday morning shoppers were stocking up for the weekend, and with my meager Italian vocabulary of vegetable names and the only two quantities I could pronounce, kilo and mezzo kilo, I was soon laden with plastic bags filled with tomatoes and celery, lettuces and potatoes, onions and carrots, garlic, parsley, pasta, prosciutto, a chunk of Parmigiano Reggiano, a couple of slices of veal, a half-dozen eggs, tubes (yes, tubes) of mayonnaise and fresh unsalted butter.

We bought a plastic colander, a plastic cutting board and a couple of hand-carved wooden spoons from a vendor's cart and started the long walk home. Soon, though, the overloaded bags began to cut into our fingers, and my arms ached from the load. Gene was in much the same shape; he just didn't complain as much.

The cool of a September early morning had given way to the heat and humidity of midday; by the time we reached the apartment, we were exhausted and dripping with sweat.

Gene made a run to a postage-stamp grocery around the corner for mineral water, cold Cokes (I'm from Atlanta) and a couple of cartons of fruit juice. I had just enough time to put everything away before we had to get ready for the wedding that had brought us to Venice a month earlier than we had intended. That evening, we dined with the wedding couple at an idyllic inn on Torcello, an island at the farthest reach of the Venetian lagoon.

The next morning, we had our first meal "at home." I was moderately successful poaching eggs in the foil-thin skillet and toasting slices of bread in the oven. Served with some prosciutto and a few cherry tomatoes still clinging to the vine, it was a sumptuous and inexpensive brunch.

We set our transistor radio on the window ledge, tuned to the American military channel, and ate leisurely, serenaded by soulful jazz that was interrupted only by lazy oars and little outboard engines from the small boats that could navigate in our own canal. A high brick wall that enclosed the garden of a Renaissance palazzo formed the other side of our canal and served as a sun perch for local cats. Below were moored a few fishing boats and all manner of exotic little craft, apparently in assigned parking spots.

Afterward, we spent much of the day exploring the secret crannies of our neighborhood, then wandered more familiar territory around Piazza San Marco and the Riva degli Schiavoni, the broad promenade that separates the Doge's Palace and the Bridge of Sighs from the shimmering Venetian lagoon.

All the while, though, I was thinking that come twilight I could finally concentrate on preparing the first of what I hoped would be many home-cooked Italian meals. It would be simple: sauteed veal scallopini, boiled potatoes, carrots and sauteed artichokes, accompanied by a small lettuce and tomato salad and some regional wine.

At first the annoyances seemed minor. Almost immediately I ran out of counter space -- which consisted of a 30-inch-wide span of stainless steel atop the thigh-high refrigerator. I compensated by rotating prepared ingredients onto the small dining table and even onto a nearby bookshelf. I peeled the carrots and put them in one red pot; the potatoes went into the other. The veal and artichokes shared the saute pan.

Then disillusionment set in. The perfect lettuces of Saturday had turned mushy in the refrigerator vegetable bin. The perfect tomatoes had gone soft in the hours since breakfast. The cooking process itself became a major stove-top shuffle.

Unlike American gas stoves with burners of equal strength, each burner of a typical European stove has a distinctly different purpose, and only one of ours put out a significant amount of heat. To get water boiling, the pots with the carrots and potatoes had to be started on this burner, then transferred to a lower-intensity burner. Two burners produced only enough heat to produce a slow simmer; the flame on the fourth was concentrated for doll-size pots and coffeemakers and not sufficient to keep a big pot boiling.

By the time the artichokes were sizzling, so was I, with frustration and disappointment. The veal had cooked too long, the carrots not quite long enough; the salad was limp. The meal was edible, but hardly the bella cucina I had hoped for.

The next month turned into a succession of less than successful shopping experiences and less than stunning homemade meals. There was the stuffed chicken we bought at the teeming market in nearby Padua and hauled back on the train only to find it tough and stringy and crammed with a cloyingly fatty stuffing. There were the gorgeous wild mushrooms, purchased another Saturday for Sunday dinner, that turned limp and watery overnight. There were the luscious-looking tortellini acquired on a day trip to Bassano del Grappa that disintegrated in boiling water.

And my quaint notions about daily marketing? Well, they were quaint.

Daily shopping is essential in Venice, not a romantic luxury. Food sold in the morning is meant to be prepared at noon, or that evening at the latest. In any case, there was no space in our refrigerator to allow stockpiling of fresh foods, even for a couple of days. Provisioning chores weren't onerous, but they were unending, and we spent many more evenings eating out than we had planned.

Still, we made some fundamental discoveries and had a few brilliant culinary successes. The succulent vongole veraci (Venetian clams) were a revelation, as delicate a marine morsel as I can ever hope to savor. We bought them by the kilo and longed for more. The plump tomatoes, once we learned how to shop, extended the flavor of summer into late October. The eggs and fruit and yogurt that stoked us at breakfast and the tasty prosciutto and fresh Emmenthaler we kept on hand for sandwiches tided us over thriftily between outings at a growing number of Venetian restaurants that we came to think of as our own, as the flocks of tourists fled for the season.

My trusty three-quart Cuisinart pan, and assorted other items, have made the trip to Italy five times more over the past five years, but I no longer have illusions about three-star meals. I know now that light and simple meals are best for the vacationing cook. Pasta with a simple tomato or butter sauce has become an eat-at-home staple, as have sauteed chicken breasts, steamed clams, seared fish from the lagoon, garlic-tossed scampi, the occasional scaloppine and salads consumed on the day of purchase.

That first year taught us, too, that the means can justify the ends. Living in one neighborhood for a month or more at a time and strolling its campi (squares), snacking at its bars and buying from its merchants makes you a local, worthy of a cheery greeting and serious attention. A few return visits to a trattoria or a butcher or greengrocer can transform the most dour proprietor into an ally, eager to lead you to the best of his tables or suggest the freshest of his wares and not watch the scale too closely. Indeed, the greatest lessons of our seasons in Venice are not culinary, but of how to harmonize with the workaday rhythms of neighborhoods and a world so different from our own.

Even before we began our extended stays in Venice, Gene and I had made a half-dozen trips there. We had visited the great churches and galleries and sampled the top restaurants and stayed in the best hotels. What we saw, and loved, was a tourist's Venice, which becomes with each passing year a little more like an adult Disney World on the Adriatic. But we knew little then of the mysteries behind its facades, and the five different apartments where we have stayed in recent years have allowed us to plumb the pathways of totally different sections of the city -- from the markets and shopping streets that throb with life, to San Michele, the cemetery island.

We have learned about the 7-Eleven-size supermarkets where well-dressed women drive mean doll-size shopping carts with murderous abandon. About the bells in the campanile that ring at 7:30 each morning summoning Venetians into the streets. About the trash collectors who whisk away the white plastic bags from your doorway every morning and disappear before the fog has lifted. About the politicians who gather at Al Bacareto for long lunches in smoke-filled rooms. About how butcher shops are closed every afternoon except Friday. About the commercial fishermen who still use only hand lines -- not nets.

We have learned about the special cakes for St. Martin's Day in November and the fervent crowds that throng beneath the massive dome of Santa Maria della Salute two weeks later to light candles and pray for sound health. About the acque alte (high water) that sends everyone searching for their hip boots and floor squeegees -- about how to clean up the mess with "sweet water" (any clean water that isn't from the sea). About the 50-cent commuter gondolas that criss-cross the Grand Canal from early morning to dusk. About the truck-barge that pulls up every afternoon to restock Venice's largest tiny supermarket (two 7-Elevens). About the simple joy of walking out of one's apartment after washing the supper dishes to a nearby campo for a cone of gelato. Or of pausing day after day to be entranced again by a timeless work of public art -- such as the luminescent Bellini Madonna at San Zaccaria or the Veronese organ doors at San Sebastiano or the saints tumbling from the heavens at San Pantalon.

We learned, too, that the quickening footsteps behind you on a black night are not those of a mugger but of someone a little late for the opera or for the boat to the Lido. Most of all, we learned that nothing in Venice moves faster than human pace, even the accellerati water buses, which, in truth, are anything but.

For several years, our stays in Venice coincided with the Thanksgiving season, and we found that while Venetians were aware of the holiday, they had a hard time grasping the significance it held for Americans.

"Does it have something to do with the war?" asked a waiter at Harry's Bar, the watering hole and restaurant that is as famous as any of the city's monuments. We tried to explain about the Pilgrims and how their first harvest evolved into a national day of feasting. But the notion seemed to lose something in translation, or perhaps it was hard for them to understand how anything could be called a tradition that dates only from 1620 -- two centuries after Venice's heroic age. Nevertheless, Arrigo Cipriani -- the second-generation owner of Harry's Bar -- never fails to feature turkey (tacchino) on the menu for Thanksgiving weekend. But cornbread dressing and sweet potatoes and cranberries and pumpkins they never heard of, so I started baking American pies for Harry's waiters to mark the day. The first year, I made a giant apple pie from Granny Smith apples I found at the Rialto market. I hadn't brought a pie tin, and the shops there carried nothing similar, so I made the pie in a large nonstick frying pan.

The next year, I planned early and brought a few cups of pecans and some canned pumpkin and sweet potatoes with me. But our apartment that season had no oven -- not uncommon, we have since learned -- so I ended up baking pies for the waiters in Harry's kitchen, with a bevy of cooks carefully tending them as they bubbled in commercial ovens. We had the first slices, then they were gone in a flash. Three pies, 12 waiters, nine minutes.

The next day, we had lunch at the nearby Monaco Hotel, whose manager, Gianni Zambon, had heard about the pecan pies and confessed a craving he had been unable to satisfy since he had managed a Cipriani-owned restaurant in New York years before. We sent him a piece, and the next afternoon, at Zambon's urging, I taught the Monaco's world-class pastry chef my old Southern recipe. Finally, I knew I could cook in Venice.

Nancy Lewis and her companion, Gene Bachinski, were married on their most recent trip to Venice, and the only cooking she did was to produce two pecan pies for Gianni Zambon.

WAYS & MEANS

Venetians have always lived the good life, though mostly at home. Unlike people in Paris, which has restaurants that date back centuries, Venetians have historically dined at home, quite elegantly, if simply, thank you very much.

But many restaurants now specialize in traditional Venetian cuisine, focusing on the freshest of fish, seasonal vegetables and simple preparations. For years, Harry's Bar (San Marco 1323, Calle Vallaresso, 011-39-41-528-5777) has set the standard in food, service and the special ambiance of an international restaurant -- for a price. A full dinner runs at least $150 for two people, including wine, though special daily menus can reduce that price by a third, especially at lunch.

Over more than a decade, we have eaten virtually everything on the menu, and lots of things that aren't. We have never been disappointed. If I had to choose my favorite, I'd pick the chicken-mushroom-sweetbread croquettes (about $3 each) that appear as bar food before lunch and again before dinner. Or the egg-and-anchovy sandwiches (also about $3). Heavenly morsels that even those with the most limited budget can afford.

Through the years, untold numbers of employees have left Harry's Bar to open their own places, many quite successfully, many offering their versions of Harry's mainstays. Few even approach the original. But Venice offers many other fine eating establishments as well.

Take Da Remegio (Castello 3416, Salizzada dei Greci, 011-39-41-523-0089), a fish restaurant on a main street behind the San Zaccharia Church. Locals fill the dining room every day, with rarely a leftover chair for an inquisitive tourist. (But if you do get in, as we did after a half-dozen tries, the fish is faultless.) Lunch for two with wine is about $60.

One of our favorites is Al Covo (Castello 3968, Campiello della Pescaria, 011-39-41-522-3812), tucked away on a sheltered street near the Arsenale. It's a cozy, sometimes frenetic place where Venetian-born chef Cesare Benelli and his Texas-born wife, Diane, serve artesanel Italian food. The prosciutto is apt to be from a family that limits its annual production to 650 hams, far too limited to supply a place like Harry's Bar, which uses a couple of hams a day.

Al Covo's fish and shellfish are from fishermen who ply the waters only for the Benellis, using lines, never nets. Cesare can give lengthy expositions on the differences in taste between the rouget (red mullet) that feed on the bottom and those that don't. In fall, he prepares ancient recipes featuring waterfowl that he and his friends have shot in the lagoon (beware the buckshot).

Cesare chooses his wines as carefully as his fish, and one is likely to be surprised at the small prices in comparison to the big tastes. A full dinner for two with wine is about $100. Al Covo also offers a three-course fixed-price lunch, without wine, for about $22 per person. The menu for the special, like the regular menu, changes daily.

Osteria Da Fiore (San Polo 2202, Calle del Scaleter, 011-39-41-721-308) has been called the best restaurant in Europe by food writer Patricia Wells. I don't agree, though it is a very fine, family-run dining spot that marries the cool elegance of the upstairs dining room of Harry's Bar with the superb fish of Al Covo. Its celebrity makes getting a reservation at the last minute difficult, if not impossible. The food is impeccable, but Da Fiore lacks the polished service of Harry's and the rustic coziness of Al Covo. Dinner for two with wine is at least $125.

For more everyday fare, try the pizza at Trattoria Pizzeria San Toma (San Polo 2864, Campo San Toma, 011-39-41-523-8819), in the small campo just off the vaporetto stop of the same name. The pasta dishes are good, too, though not necessarily Venetian or even northern Italian. And Gene always manages to purchase a half-loaf of the heavy-textured, yeasty bread, which is made from the same dough as the pizza crust. It's offered with any entrees other than pizza. The costliest pizza is about $10. Other entrees are more.

Or stop by Trattoria Da Fiore (San Marco 3461, Calle Crosera, 011-39-41-523-5310), a family-run trattoria just off Campo San Stefano. Enter the door on the left to find a small, sparsely furnished bar where you may encounter a gaggle of very unlawyer-looking lawyers sorting out the legal complexities of the day. Two dining rooms are on the right, with antipasto choices arrayed on a front table. The fish here is fresh and crisply fried, even the calamari; the veal cutlet is exemplary and the salads are tart and ample. Dinner for two with wine is about $60.

And a gem of a bar -- that special Italian combination of a Starbucks, a tavern and a mini-diner -- is Bar San Marco (San Marco 881, Calle Fabri, 011-39-41-523-7756), a short walk off Piazza San Marco. The two owners are former Harry's Bar waiters, but their fare is strictly original. The panini (small sandwiches) are perhaps the most savory in the city, offering combinations that range from slivers of prosciutto with rich fontina cheese to diced tomatoes and arugula to grilled eggplant and mozzarella cheese. You can stand, or if you are lucky there will be a space in the four-table seating area, carved from a crook in the building and featuring burnished woods and tufted leather banquettes, all in the area of a good-size bathroom. Panini are $3 to $6 each, and just one may be enough for a meal.

The grand hotels along the Grand Canal offer their own versions of Venetian cuisine. Perhaps the best is the dining room of the Hotel Monaco and Grand Canal (San Marco 1325, Calle Vallaresso, 011-39-42-520-0211), next door to Harry's Bar. The Monaco is an exquisite, padded-tablecloth alternative to the hustle and bustle of Harry's downstairs bar area. Take a seat by one of the large windows that overlook the busy entrance to the Grand Canal, or on a warm day dine on the terrace and watch the tourists clamber into waiting gondolas as the sunlight or moonlight shimmers on the canal. Dinner for two with wine is about $100.

INFORMATION: Italian Government Travel Office, 630 Fifth Ave., Suite 1565, New York, N.Y. 10111, 212-245-4822.

-- Nancy Lewis

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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