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Where the Venetians Dine

By Nancy Lewis
The Washington Post
Sunday, August 9, 1998; Page E02

Sunday is the day Italian families indulge in long, luxurious lunches, mostly in places that tourists have never heard of. That's especially true in the Veneto, the region around Venice. And the patrons are often Venetians, off for a day in the country to escape the hordes of weekend day-trippers that overwhelm the city.

As annual visitors who have come to think of Venice as our second home, my husband, Gene, and I have also come to dread the weekend crowds, and have adopted the local custom of heading out as they float in. Three of our favorites, all within a 90-minute drive from Venice, all negotiable with a minimum of Italian (try the Marling Menu-Master), all small enough to make reservations necessary and all places where it is unlikely you'll hear any other customers speaking English:

A place by the side of the road: The official name is Al Castelletto, but everybody calls this dusty-rose hued trattoria Clemy's, for owner Clementina Viezzer. Sited near the foothills of the Dolomites and featuring a large outdoor garden for seasonal dining, Clemy's, which practically juts into a busy local highway, is rustic and welcoming. The big front room is dominated by an open fireplace where most of the meats are cooked on a gridiron. There is a second, smaller room on the right and a sun porch in the rear. Clemy, with her dog Eva, presides over it all, often from a low chair near the grill.

There is no menu, though at least one waiter can translate the day's fare into English. Still, it's hard to comprehend what one may be ordering. The assorted appetizers may include platters of polenta and sausage, crepes with grilled radicchio and bechamel, glorious marinated tomatoes and fresh burrata (more ethereal than mozzarella), creamily scrambled eggs with asparagus, marinated slices of fillet of beef--all served family-style. The pasta dishes are hearty and so copious we usually have to skip them to save room for the main course.

And oh, what main courses: great slabs of grilled veal or beef steak or filet or pork shanks or mounds of local vegetables. No cookout was ever so good. Dinner for two, with wine for one, cost us about $65.

The wines are mostly local, but who needs more when the vineyards for most of Italy's Prosecco production are almost within sight. And those people crowded around the tables are as apt to include the granddaughter of the last king of Italy as the local mayor.

Al Castelletto, Via Castelletto 15, Follina, telephone 011-39-43- 884-2484.

A place by the railroad station: The secret to a good meal at Da Conte is simply finding the place. We rode around for half an hour before finally locating it. It's literally behind the Mira railway station, but not on the main highway.

Housed in a butter-yellow building that had no sign at all when we visited in the spring, the interior is washed in the same buttery shade, and its atmosphere is just as light and airy. Da Conte is the personal domain of Giorgio and Manuela Zampieri: They make everything, including the breads and desserts, and personally serve all the customers who fill two small rooms.

Manuela, who is in charge of the cooking, uses only the foods of the seasons: the tiniest artichokes, spaghetti-thin asparagus, plump porcini. The fish and shellfish change with the seasons, too, and are apt to complement silky, impossibly thin homemade pasta. The meat dishes are sophisticated, but also seasonal. I had a wonderful venison dish and Gene had baby lamb chops that were tender as butter. The zabaglione--the lightest I have ever eaten--was served with wild strawberries. Once again, dinner for two, with wine for one, cost about $65.

Giorgio prides himself on his wine selection, mostly from small, wonderful vineyards whose products never leave the area.

Da Conte, Via Caltana 133, Marano Veneziano, Mira, 011-39-41-479-571. A place between the mountains and a lake: Alpago is a region at the foothills of the Dolomites known for spectacularly steep cliffs that attract climbers from around the world, and incredibly engineered roads that produce breathtaking vistas at every turn.

The area is accented by a sparkling alpine lake, Lago Santa Croce, and just past the lake is the tiny hamlet of Puos d'Alpago. Nestled in the center of the village is an old locanda (small inn) that serves some of the most spectacular food in all of northern Italy.

The recipes are actually ancient ones, specialties of the region that can rarely be found even in home cooking these days because of the intense preparation they require. Brothers Renzo and Aldo Dal Farra are dedicated to preserving the local cuisine and their menus feature dishes that are so complex they seem strikingly contemporary, but aren't. Renzo's wife, Mara, is in charge of the dining room and speaks some English.

The menu is small, but all the dishes we had were exquisite. The best buy is a six-course tasting menu that includes cover (bread and linens), service and wine, for about $50 per person (minimum of two).

Stuzzichino, the tiny starter that began our meal, is a kind of crustless egg and cheese quiche that simply melted in the mouth. The appetizers were a slice of rolled and stuffed rabbit for me and a dish of smoked pork for Gene. We had exquisite asparagus ravioli and homemade egg-rich macaroni with a lamb ragu. The main courses were a venison and bean salad for me and a leg of baby lamb for Gene. Every morsel was delectable.

Locanda San Lorenzo, Via 4 Novembre 79, Puos d'Alpago, 011-39-43-745-4048.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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