16 December 2007


I cannot fully express what a total thrill it is to undertake a shopping expedition to Rialto – far better than I ever imagined it would be. Even better if you plan to entertain a guest or two for supper. It goes something like this…

Get up early and have your coffee, then dress in layers. Put on your rain ducks – you’ll be traipsing through fish guts soon. Grab a good, sturdy canvas shopping bag.

Make your way to Rialto, over the bridge toward the market area. Veer right through Campo San Giacometto. Throw a salute to the little stone hunchback for luck. Head for the old porticos and proceed into Campo Cesare Battisti.

Stop at al Marca for a bracing cold glass of one of the Veneto’s white wines and a tiny mackerel sandwich. (Yes, I know it’s pretty early in morning to be drinking, but everyone else is doing it too!) This little snack sustains you while you make your way through the market and prevents you from overbuying. (Remember: never shop when hungry!) Spend only a minute or two flirting with the two cute barmen. They will make it very difficult to depart.

Before you move on, pop into Casa del Parmigiano next door and buy a sliver of some costly, wonderful cheese you’ve never tried before. Don’t forget its name – say it in your head when you eat it. Make up your mind whether to gobble it up right away, or savor the anticipation of enjoying it later. Quickly now – time to go!

Peek into the horse butcher’s shop – see if you’re ready to try cooking Trigger yet. No? OK. There will be time for that later. Further along, admire the hanging poultry still wearing their feet and heads, bright red combs and wattles intact. Even better than Chinatown.

Now the real fun begins. Proceed past the fruit and veg stands – you’ll get to them later – and take yourself among the fish vendors within the red-shaded arches of the Pescaria. See everything from the piles of lively schie scrambling over one another like so many small, grey spiders, to the pale-coral canoce waving their feathers, to the clattering crabs fiercely fighting to escape their buckets, to the inky baby squid and slippery, mottled octopi, to the squirming eels and the pearly scallops still clinging to their beautiful rose-colored fan shells, to the big-and-flat-as-a-dinner-plate rombi and the glittering silver branzini and the golden-faced orate, to a whole, garrotted swordfish being sliced by an impossibly huge knife into translucent steaks for lucky Venetian husbands’ suppers. What will it be for you tonight?

Try not to get dizzy from all the recipes whizzing around in your head. Maybe you want the whole sgombro baked in a crust of coarse salt…yes! No! The orata stuffed with fresh herbs and lemon, and then grilled… No… The slices of snow-white coda di rospo roasted in parchment paper with bits of perfect tomatoes and slivered shallots… No… Come on, choose! Elbow your way in there and shout out what you want!

Time to visit the produce market. Take inventory by making one full trip through before you come to any decisions. You don’t want to buy something at one vendor, only to find that another has the same thing, but better quality and cheaper. This is just an exercise for fun, though: everything here is perfect, like something out of a photo shoot for Saveur. You can’t make any mistakes. Everything you choose will be fresh and delicious. So go crazy. Be careful not to touch anything unless the vendor says you may. Buy every tasty thing you crave (remembering your limited cupboard and fridge space!), then be amazed to see how few euros you have actually spent.

Right at the edge of all this, bubbling along with gondole and vaporetti and traghetti and taxis and workboats and the occasional water ambulance, sirens blaring, is the deep-aqua Grand Canal, wide as a river. At your every turn, it waves and sloshes and glitters and winks at you, a vivid reminder that you’re not shopping at the A&P in Anytown, U.S.A.

Take a minute to listen to the Venetians’ jokes, the bargaining, the arguments, the frank laughter, the flat dismissals. Hear the seabirds’ complaints through all that, and even the occasional canine skirmish or catfight. Smell the air, too – it’s carrying a hundred scents, strange or delicious or disgusting. Feel the slight damp breeze on your face, the sun on your head. Isn’t this fantastic? Can you ever recall being so utterly in the moment?

It’s hard to leave now, but head home with your moist treasure trove and plan your wonderful supper. It will turn out beautifully. And Rialto will still be here tomorrow, just as it has been for about 1,000 years or so. You can do it all again then, if you so desire.