30 June 2008

Lord Byron slept here

My lovely friend “S” likes to be useful. She sets quite a store by this, and she’s darn good at it. I thought of her so many times last week because I found myself with many opportunities to be useful, too, and well beyond my usual restaurant recommendations and meager Italian assistance. For example…

Not far from my house I bumped into an elderly German couple who could not find their way between La Fenice and their little hotel just past Campo San Luca. They were about to tear their map in two between them when I got involved. But the problem was that map – an advertisement was obscuring the way to their destination. Mrs. was satisfied with the directions I gave, but Mr. seemed suspicious, unconvinced… so I said it all again, exactly the same info, but a bit slower. His face softened. And then he said something very unexpected in his German-tinged English: “It is nice to hear a gentle American voice explain it.” I was very moved.

That night, while watching the Italy-Spain soccer match, I met a pair of pretty freshmen from Columbia University. Their first trip to this romantic city, it was easy to tell by the stars in their eyes. The only thing missing for them was – Hello! Where are the boys?! Amazingly enough, I knew just where to send them for that. And for the good, cheap pizza.

The next day I saw a very young, very polite, and very stressed Iranian man trying to communicate with two Australian smart alecks who were clearly doing more harm than good. He needed to locate his hotel, but he had only a sestiere address (almost useless! – you need a street name too). He had a telephone number, but no cell phone and zero Italian. I made a quick call and learned his B&B was just behind my house. Then, as we walked together, he expressed his great relief. He had left his wife and elderly in-laws back at the railway station while he scouted the route through town for them and he had feared he might fail. How gallant! As we parted, I was paid for my effort with a brilliant smile. (Not my first payment for such services, by the way. One time I was paid in cheese for some restaurant suggestions.)

At the fish market I met an Ohioan couple with lots of heavy luggage. He was a restaurateur, she was a lovely blonde, and they were certainly lost. The problem? They had exited the vaporetto at Rialto Mercato instead of Rialto, which put them on the wrong side of the Grand Canal. No wonder their map made no sense! I walked them over the bridge and got them headed toward their hotel. Later that evening I saw them again! This time they were searching for a particular restaurant that I just knew would disappoint them. I convinced them of that and took them to nearby Enoteca San Marco instead. I have no doubt it was a splendid meal.

Another day I met a pair of Asian kids who also had a wrong-side-of-Rialto problem. Following them on the Strada Nuova, I overheard their frusration with Venice’s arcane address system. He admitted he wasn’t even sure they were on the right street, which made her sigh tiredly. That’s my cue! They were way off-track for people seeking Campo San Polo. I explained the long route back to and over Rialto Bridge, and the directions beyond, which made them both sigh tiredly. Then it hit me! We were only a few steps from the Santa Sofia traghetto station – a cheap-and-cheerful solution that would be a real and memorable Venetian experience for them while also shaving off about twenty minutes of their walking time. From mid-Canal they waved to me, utterly delighted to be teetering in the traghetto.

The next evening I was in the Piscina getting email when I spied another couple, two women this time, squinting and craning their necks and coming dangerously close to a real lovers’ spat. These two were operating from a scribbled to-do list, most of which I could not read. And they spoke no English. There followed a long, halting conversation in Italian. I figured out one of them was a Lord Byron fan: she wanted to visit his home. She chattered on, absolutely convinced it was quite close, while I wondered how in the world I would ever direct them all the way to his Grand Canal palazzo from where we stood, or even explain that it’s private and not accessible to visitors. Then, again – a bolt from the blue! I realized she was searching for Byron’s first home in Venice, which is, indeed, in the nearby narrow calle. (I know this because my friend “E” had tipped me off when I first moved to the Piscina back in September.) As you can see above, the ordinary residence door is not marked in any way. No wonder the ladies missed it! It was great fun to be one of only a handful of people in Venice who could actually point it out for them. And weren’t they lucky that they happened to meet another Byron fan there in the twilight?

So why am I telling all these seemingly self-congratulatory tales? Well, certainly not to say, “Ain’t I great?” It’s to show more of La Serenissima’s magic. Last week – like no other I have ever had – made me realize I have a lot to offer Venice’s visitors. (And “S” is right – it’s wonderful to be useful. The pleasure was all mine.) I have toyed with the idea of a private concierge service long enough. Seems like I’m being shown the time has come to give it some serious attention.

28 June 2008

What luck!

Honestly, sometimes I cannot believe my good luck. Wednesday night I found myself in a house seat at La Fenice for a beautiful production of Death in Venice, and later enjoying cocktails and dinner with several crew and cast members, including the star. How on Earth did that happen?

A few weeks ago I was out in the Piscina, getting my email (my modem is still out of commission!), when a gentleman passed through. He stopped to ask me about the “hot spot,” and we chatted for a bit. I thought him a bright and interesting fellow right away. And I learned he was a cast member of Death in Venice – a pretty impressive accomplishment in itself.

It turns out he was much too modest. The gentleman was Marlin Miller and his role was that of Gustav von Aschenbach. He was generous enough to offer me a ticket for the show. But when I got there, a video camera was occupying my seat.

“Scusi, Signora,” the usher bowed and apologized profusely. He asked would I mind terribly to take instead… this seat… just right over… here? One, right on the aisle, with a full, unobstructed view! It was a haunting production, nearly all in blacks and whites. My friend (who carries almost the entire show by himself) gave a vivid, poignant performance. Afterwards I picked him up at the stage door. Again he was generous enough to invite me along for the gathering with his friends.

Seriously, do you know anyone luckier than me?

26 June 2008

Real estate: Ca’Dario

My “Home Sweet Imaginary Home” on the Grand Canal is this infamous late fifteenth century Byzantine palazzo, Ca’Dario. Why? Because everybody knows it’s cursed and has been for centuries. Byzantine, indeed! Ca’Dario’s history is one of business deals gone bad, families split, fortunes lost, untimely deaths, even the occasional haunting.

Elegance is fine, but I like theatrics, mystery, drama, lurid tales, notoriety. If I am to bear the considerable burden and expense of maintaining a Venetian palazzo, I must insist that it have a fascinating, colorful history that I can talk about at my dinner parties and, if possible, a resident ghost or two.

25 June 2008

Real estate: Ca'Faisan

Early on the journey up the Grand Canal one can see this jewelbox palazzo with the name Ca’Contarini-Fasan or Ca’Faisan (apparently the Contarinis were fond of hunting pheasant). But since the nineteenth century, those who know Shakespeare’s Venetian tragedy Othello have called it “Desdemona’s house.” Indeed, many guidebooks and the gondolieri refer to it as such, although there is nothing in the way of facts to support the idea.

Still, that clever Venetian author Alberto Toso Fei, speculating that the Bard just might have visited Venice during “the lost years,” reasons that Ca’Faisan could have earned its soprannome in this way…

Shakespeare’s play opens late at night with a pair of evil tattletales outside Desdemona’s house, shouting to her father about her elopement with Othello. The whole point of engaging in such a charivari (old-style public denunciation of offensive behavior, such as a mixed-race marriage) was to get lots of attention and spread the story around quickly. Ca’Faisan is certainly close to Piazza San Marco, the most populated place in town, and it’s also situated directly on Venice’s busiest gondola route. Gondolieri have always been Venice’s most efficient “grapevine,” so a little shouting here would go a long way.

Fei also notes something eerie about the house: one of the wheels of the balcony decoration “turns” in the wrong direction, reminding us of the wheel of Fate, an idea that appealed greatly to Shakespeare. Perhaps this strange architectural error reminded someone of the ill-fated Desdemona, wrongly accused of infidelity and murdered by her husband, thus marking this house as hers. Look above and decide for yourself.

One time I asked my friend “E” which of the palazzi on the Grand Canal she would most like to own and inhabit. She answered instantly – Ca’Faisan. She likes its convenient location and Bacino view, as well as its compact size and graceful beauty.

And my choice...?

23 June 2008

Shopping: the produce

Have I shown you the gorgeous farm stands that I frequent when Rialto is closed?

And did I mention that one of them is a boat?

Nothing prepared me for Italy’s produce, for the vast variety of citrus, pumpkins, beans, pears, potatoes, greens, grapes, artichokes, and melons. For all the different and utterly perfect tomatoes. For the two-bite, super-sweet, seedless clementines with skin so thin that you can eat it too. For the chubby, oily walnuts. For the big, red, pointy cultivated strawberries and the little, pink, roundy wild ones. For doll-size pears, not much bigger than a large olive. For the cheap and hyper-aromatic herbs that don’t go limp or get slimy in the fridge.

My list of things tasted for the first time is still growing: those costaluto di Marsala tomatoes, small, black, tough-skinned pumpkins, big, flat spadone beans and flamingo pink-speckled borlotti beans, cavolo nero (Roman black cabbage), cedro (Sicilian citron), peretti (coppery mini pears with a slight taste of almond) and pere coscia (pretty little yellow pears, perfect to bake in flaky pastry jackets), valeriana (a lot like mache or lamb’s lettuce but much cheaper), Chioggia beets (the slices look like Brach’s peppermints), “coco bebys” (watermelons only slightly larger than a grapefruit) and another smooth little melon with bright lemon-colored flesh, giant-leafed borage that’s cooked and eaten as greens, fragola grapes (like small, tight, double-sugary Concords), leggy Treviso radicchio, lime green-skinned, neon orange-fleshed miyagawas, a particular basil that smells just like a Christmas tree, snowy white asparagus, stinging nettles and bruscandoli (wild hop buds) for risotto, skinny purple artichokes, zucchine tonde (pale green, ball-shaped squash), sea kale...

There is only one thing I miss in this department, and it’s something utterly American: pecans.

20 June 2008

“...a gentleman, white of fur...”

The coffee-sipping feline subject of this lively, na├»ve painting on the front of a bar opposite ai Frari is not a cartoon character. This is – rather this was – “Nini,” and he was no ordinary mouser.

Perhaps the most famous cat ever, Nini was a white tom who lived at that particular bar at the end of the nineteenth century. His owner, being a shrewd Venetian businessman and one with a typically Venetian sense of humor, managed to make it fashionable for visiting dignitaries to call on his cat and sign his visitors’ book.

When Nini passed on in 1894, there was a somber ceremony. No less a scholar than Horatio Brown wrote a flattering poem about him. A sculptor created a figure of him. A funeral march and a long ode on his death as well as many fawning tributes from artists, poets, and musicians (including the title of this post) were added to the long list of illustrious names already scribbled in his book (Pope Leo XIII, Czar Alexander III, the King and Queen of Italy, and Giuseppe Verdi among them).

Alas, that amazing memory book is no longer kept at the bar. But for many years customers could peruse it simply by asking for the privilege in a suitably serious and reverent fashion. Jan Morris, in her The World of Venice, finishes this story far better than I can:

“It was all done in a spirit of dead-pan satirism that was essentially Venetian, and you had to look very hard in the eye of the barman as he wrapped the book in brown paper and put it carefully away, to detect a distant thin flicker of amusement.”

If you visit Nini’s bar, don’t ask the barman what happened to the book, nor whether it shouldn’t be found and added to the city’s archives for its obvious historical value. You’ll just annoy the bejeezus out of him. Trust me on this.

17 June 2008

Beauty & the beast

Can anyone tell me who this unfortunate soul was, and why his wildly goofy image is posted at the base of the campanile (bell tower) of a church in Castello? He’s right over a little door, which (I imagine) opens to the stairs that lead up to the bells. One cannot help thinking of Quasimodo…

Venetians have always had a wicked sense of humor. It’s even funnier that this fellow should live in this particular spot: the church is Santa Maria Formosa, so named because in the 7th century St. Magnus had a well-publicized miraculous vision of a cloud that formed itself into the unmistakable image of the Virgin Mary. He reported that she had a very (ahem!) shapely body. Indeed, the church was built in the 11th century with decidedly feminine curves, intended to commemorate that slightly profane vision. And inside is Palma Vecchio’s painting of St. Barbara, long considered the perfect representation of Venetian female beauty.

Hmm… I think I detect a little glint of lust in his eye! The one that isn’t looking the wrong way. Or is it the other one?

15 June 2008

I'll try anything once.

OK, so you just know I had to taste the bovoletti. And yes, it turns out this is snail season. These are actually pests – they show up while the carciofi (artichokes) are growing. They must be plucked off the plants. Some brave farmer (much like M.F.K. Fisher’s first oyster-eater) figured out they are sweet and tender when gently cooked. So I guess this was a case of “When Life hands you lemons…”

If you buy bovoletti, remember to keep them in a vented container from which they cannot escape! Otherwise you’ll have snails all over your kitchen: they are slow but determined creatures (and kinda cute, which makes it hard to kill them later). According to my fishmonger, who considers himself something of an authority, this is the way to cook them:

Bring a pot of water to a near-boil. Run cold water over the bovoletti in a colander several times to get rid of all the slime. They will tuck themselves tightly into their shells. When the water almost boils, turn the flame down very low. Absolutely do not put a speck of salt in the water! This will make tough, curled snails that are impossible to remove from the shells. Add the bovoletti. Do not permit the water to boil – it should just simmer. Watch carefully. The bovoletti will float to the top like gnocchi when they’re done. Scoop them out as they pop up. Drain well. Pluck them from their shells and eat them with (what else?!) finely minced garlic and parsley warmed in good olive oil or butter or both, maybe a trace of lemon juice. No salt necessary, but cracked pepper is good.

My verdict? Tasty, yes, but a lot of fiddling around for a small payoff. About seventy bovoletti yielded only a scant half teacupful of snips of snails, and a final slurp of very good broth.

13 June 2008

Shopping: the seafood

What a joy it is to plan meals and purchase foods here! I’ve already told you about Rialto, but I thought you should really see some of the beautiful fish sold there. Smaller but still very tempting arrays are available at fish stands in other neighborhoods too. The sea creatures for sale…

By my count there are at least six kinds of octopi and octopus-like things, from tiny, inky moscardini to the piovra with a brown-speckled head the size of a kid’s water balloon. That number doubles if I include squid and all the different squid-like things.

Among shrimp-like things the variety seems endless. The glassy-grey schie are the itty-bittiest, and peachy-pink canoce are almost the largest and the weirdest – all big “eyes” and fat tail with a big, pink bone down the middle. Mazzancolle, scampi, gamberi, and gamberetti fall somewhere in between. And there are still more kinds.

Crabs run the gamut from near-translucent moleche (little softshells) to big, spidery, concrete-shelled granseole, depending on the season. Clams come big, small, teeny, and straight razor- shaped. The latter are really something special. Venetians prefer their small, sweet native, or “true” clam – vongole verace. Sometimes there are cockles or winkles. Often there are live Maine lobsters, too. But oysters of any kind are rare and priced accordingly when they do show up.

And the fish? Please! You name it! The most noble is the sleek silver branzino (sea bass). The cutest is the tiny, glittery alice (anchovy). The ugliest is surely the monkfish, coda di rospo (“tail of toad”), but it could well be the tastiest too. The creepiest thing is any of the eels, whether alive and wriggling in a plastic bucket or stripped of all skin except on the snake-like, mean-eyed head.

Seeking strange things? Lately vendors have offered thousands of bovoletti (tiny land snails), all slowly escaping over the walls of their styrofoam prisons, their little antennae wiggling wildly. Excuse me – snails are not seafood!! Where in the world did these things come from? Is it “snail season” somewhere in Italy? Or are they farmed, like salmon?

Important to remember: no fresh seafood is ever sold in Venetian supermarkets. So if you’ve got a taste for a pretty little oval sogliola (sole) or a bowlful of big black cozze (mussels) for supper tonight, you’d better get yourself over to your local fishmonger before noon. And if it’s a Monday, just forget about it.

11 June 2008

Updates, errata, etc

“…and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it.”

Here are a few updates and corrections of errata:

Remember Van Gogh at Shanti Daan? I was passing on bad information I had received from an otherwise reputable source when I told you that shop is owned by a lovely woman of the same name. (I should have fact-checked!) She herself contacted me and advised me that her name is Antonia, and her partner is Stefano. She couldn't have been sweeter about it. (The post has been corrected.)

Remember my complaint about the feeding of the pigeon pests in Piazza San Marco? The sale of packets of feed has been suspended amid a feeble protest from the vendors. It remains to be seen if the ban will be permanent. I understand they have tried this before. Meanwhile Venetians and tourists alike continue to tempt the birds with their sandwich crumbs and bits of grissini (breadsticks).

Remember the pretty pink and possibly haunted palazzo on Lido? I guess the movie star’s probate issue has been settled. On my way to the mercato last Tuesday I noticed the gate was unlocked and wide open, but I saw no one on the premises. Yesterday there was a demolition crew inside the house, working furiously. Dust was flying, grubby curtains lay in a heap on the porch. Can’t wait to see what they do with that gorgeous garden, where lots of dark red rosebuds are just about to bloom.

Remember the scented mock orange hedge I showed you? My friend in New York says that is not mock orange, but I’m certain that’s what the Los Angeles nurserymen call this very common shrub. Can anyone provide more information?

Remember those strange but yummy little tomatoes? I sliced a few for an insalata Caprese and – lo and behold! – two of them yielded enough seeds to give me a good shot at growing a small crop of these pomodorini next year… if I’m living someplace where I can’t buy them. (If I am still here, some lucky gardener out there will get them.)

Remember my "warm, charming, handsome" coffee vendor? It turns out he was only the latter – and not so much the other two things. Not at all.

By all means, let me know if I've goofed up anything else...

09 June 2008

Spritz! (Yuk!)

No matter how long I live here, and no matter what I do, there is one great obstacle that prevents me from ever becoming a true Venetian. And that is this pretty cocktail, affectionately known as a spritz. By twenty-to-one, it’s the preferred drink here at the giro hour, or any other time of day for that matter. I see Venetians knocking these things back like cold water all day long. But a nastier concoction you have never tasted. If they locked me in the dreaded pozze (the “wells” – the darkest, dankest cells of Venice’s old prison) and would not let me out until I downed a spritz, I might well be stuck there for days.

The spritz tradition began early in the nineteenth century, when Austrian occupying troops found Venice’s wines too strong for their taste, so they cut them with water or seltzer. How the jump was made to adding another spirit to the mix is a mystery that no one has yet been able to explain to me. (I think it was probably the influence of an aggressive advertising campaign from the folks at Campari. Remember the gigantic, red neon “CAMPARI” sign that once dominated Lido’s waterfront?)

Today the correct recipe is one part dark red Campari (which tastes like the bitterest, nostril-fuming, miserable cough syrup ever made), one part prosecco (a sparkling wine, very like champagne), and one part seltzer, plus a sour green olive on a skewer and perhaps a lemon twist. (Real Venetians promptly eat the olive and drop the skewer on the ground.) Ice is optional, but if included, it’s minimal. This version is referred to as “bitter,” pronounced “bitta.” “Bitter,” indeed! For those seeking something a little sweeter, there’s also a gentler version called “Aperol,” which features the neon-orange liqueur of that name. Same recipe, but garnished with a slice of blood orange. In some grittier watering holes, the barman skips the prosecco and just fizzes up the hideous alcoholic syrup with a double squirt of seltzer, thus erasing the last trace of the original tradition of cutting wine with water.

As a rule I see older Venetians ordering “bitter,” and students and young people “Aperol.” But I can promise you, either version of this innocent-looking drink is an upchuck waiting to happen. And didn’t we all learn in high school about the disastrous hangover effect of mixing different forms of alcohol? As we say back in Michigan, “Ish!”

There is only one Venetian drink that’s worse than a spritz, and that is the sgroppino, a weird mix of melted lemon sherbet, prosecco, and vodka. Many an old-school restaurateur will proudly present you with a complimentary pony glass of this hateful yellow foam after dinner. Smile and pretend to enjoy a sip, but trust me, do not swallow anymore of it than you absolutely must.

07 June 2008

His & hers

Dear me! The things one sees when peering into Venetian shop windows!

Here we have a pair of matching his and hers… um… well… I’m sure you can figure it out. (“His” looks particularly uncomfortable, don’t you think?)

04 June 2008

Right now!!

I adore risotto. I love it so much that I’m tempted to bathe in it sometimes. And what’s not to love? Rice, a classic carbohydrate, slow-cooked and intensely flavored with specially matched, often luxurious ingredients, and sometimes butter or cheese (or both!), all blended into a silky, comforting nursery food for grown-ups. Spoon it up! Risotto is sustenance that works on many levels. The trouble is, it’s not so easy to find in restaurants and it’s a bit of a nuisance to make at home (although my Italian friends swear by their pressure cookers for this task).

But risotto fanatics can show up for lunch at ProntoPescePronto across from the fish market and get their fill. Created by the fellows who gave us Osteria alle Testiere (many would say the city’s best restaurant), this small, sleek food boutique specializes in tasty little dishes that showcase the market’s best fresh seafood. (There are also a few fancy groceries and some good bottles of wine.) It’s a chic and refreshing change from the city’s usual midday panino or tramezzino. Here you can mix and match, pick and choose, then take your selections away, perfectly packed, or stick around and enjoy them subito (immediately) with a nice glass of wine.

And now there’s risotto every market day! I like it when Bruno posts his handwritten sign to announce that it’s ready to be dished up (at 12:15, to be exact).

02 June 2008

Just my humble opinion...

These strange, ridged Sicilian tomatoes (their name sign reads Costaluta di Marsala) began showing up at Venice’s produce stands about a month or so ago. Usually they were hard and sickly yellow-green, sometimes with a tinge of copper. Many were puny, smaller than an egg, like these. I paid them no attention whatsoever… until I noticed the Venetians greedily snapping them up by the sackful. Live and learn!

They don’t look so special but they are, without question, the most delicious tomatoes I have ever eaten. I consider myself something of an expert, having grown up biting into big, red, juicy Michigan “beefsteaks” right from the field and still hot from the sun. But these babies have a flavor so intense, it almost made me weep. They remind me in a sweet-tart way that a tomato really is a fruit. The only problem with them is that it’s tough to be patient while they sit on the windowsill and get ripe and rusty-red.

How best to enjoy them? That’s easy! Room temp, sliced, served alongside a split-open burratina (a soft little ball of mozzarella that was hollowed out and stuffed with uncooked curds, which continued to ferment in there and become creamy and runny), a few small leaves of fresh basil, a twist of black pepper, and the best olive oil one can afford. Taste before you salt! And don’t forget a thick, crusty slice of fresh ciabatta to mop up the juices and curds left in the bowl. Perfect!

Gardeners reading this, I know just what you’re thinking. But alas, they have no seeds to be stashed away for next year.