29 July 2008

Tango night

What you see here is the regular Tuesday night tango get-together in Campo San Giacomo dall’Orio. I don’t know how long this has been going on, but I've been around Venice long enough to say with a sigh, “It’s not like it used to be.”

Not so long ago tango night was a small local affair, strictly for Venetians. Their little orchestra would play, without amplification, all the Buenos Aires classics and a few improv pieces. Perhaps eight or ten couples would come to dance under the strings of colored lights. The ladies were all made up and nicely turned out, often wearing hats (and on chilly evenings, their coats as well). It was just like something out of a Fellini movie.

But tango became popular again, and the past few years have seen a proliferation of classes in Venice. Now folks of all ages and nationalities turn up to promenade or just practice their steps, mostly to recorded numbers, although there is live music after ten o’clock. Even the tourists have caught on to the tradition, some taking to the floor wearing their Crocs, with their backpacks still strapped on. Not my idea of tango attire, for sure!

One thing hasn’t changed though: me. I still just stand around and watch, green with envy because I haven’t yet found a willing partner who would permit me to join in the fun.

27 July 2008

Shopping: the meats

In the U.S., the butcher sells meats. Period. Here in Venice it’s a matter of what kind of meat you want to buy. Sometimes the macelleria will offer a variety of meats, maybe even some special prepared items like polpettine (meatballs), spiedini (skewers, sometimes with mixed meats), and rolls of meats stuffed with herbs, cheeses, and other tasty things. But not always. It’s not unusual to see a Venetian butcher offering only five or six cuts, all of one kind of animal. Overall there’s much more choice in meats here than in the U.S., but one must travel around town to take advantage of it. Fortunately, that’s fun for me.

Shopping for beef? Back home we have two categories, depending on the age of the animal when slaughtered. Here there are at least seven. All the organ meats and the oddest parts you can imagine are also sold, as well as ossi puliti (“clean bones”) for stock. (I don’t know why, though – Venetians all use very good European bouillon cubes for their stock. So do I now.)

Pork? Heavens, yes! Every possible cut. The product is rich pink and very tender. At least four age categories in this case. Also a distinction is made between maiale (pig) and suino (hog). But it’s likely one must go somewhere else to get sausages. And cured meats of any kind come from yet another place, the salumeria, which might also sell cheeses, and even olives.

Lamb? Again, certainly available, but curiously, there are very few cuts sold. There are riblets, but rarely chops. I’ve even seen mutton occasionally. And during Festa della Salute, Venetians traditionally enjoy a dish called castradina, made with meat from a young castrated ram. I’m told it’s tender and very tasty. In November I’ll try it.

Poultry? There are some birds here I had never seen before. You can also get their feet and faces, or you can choose a bird with everything still attached and the head tucked under the wing. I have seen goose once or twice, but rarely is there any duck (although there are duck eggs – perhaps that explains the shortage!). Sadly, the poultry here is often stringy and dry. I can’t recommend it, other than the small, fat, juicy chicken that’s called a gallina – even better than our poussin. Oh, yes! And I love the rosy, perfectly plucked quails. Just over a euro apiece! When butterflied, they cook up quickly on the grill. I suggest throwing some oiled radicchio right alongside them.

Rabbit? Could show up anywhere that other meats are sold. Usually locally bred, it’s certain to be tender and delicious with the most minimal preparation and cooking time. It’s just a little bit disconcerting when the full body of the animal is offered, skinned and missing ears and feet. I prefer to buy the unrecognizable lombattina (the saddle), nicely sliced with the chunks still attached to the spine.

Maybe horse? I don’t like to think about this too much, but there are a surprising number of shops that sell only burgundy-colored horsemeat. They seem to do a brisk business. I myself have only had the lightly-smoked, air-dried, shredded horsemeat called sfilacci. It’s real yummy mixed with robiola (a creamy, tangy cheese) in a little sandwich.

Then there’s a whole other kind of shop for meats called a rosticceria. Gotta love this! They offer spit-roasted birds of all types (including pheasant!), plus already-cooked sausages, ribs, chops, and roasts of all kinds, whole or by the chunk (including the incredible, peppery, herb-stuffed, slow-cooked whole pig called porchetta), plus ready-to-reheat pasta dishes like lasagne and cannelloni, plus single portions of deep-fried potatoes, fish chunks, chicken parts, and shrimp, plus grilled and/or marinated vegetable salads, plus little one-bite goodies like cherry peppers stuffed with tuna and cipolline (tiny, flat, sweet onions) stuffed with anchovies, plus...

Oh dear me! How long until lunch?

25 July 2008

Natale in luglio

That is to say, “Christmas in July.”

This is July 25th, and my neighbor (who works as a hairdresser in her apartment across the calle) has been playing loud Christmas music all week. Not just some classical stuff that would pass as quasi-highbrow easy listenin’ at anytime of the year. No. I mean real Christmasy stuff: “All I Want For Christmas” and “Santa Baby” and Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” and pa-rum-pah-pum-pum and fa-la-la-la-la! And, by the way, it’s all in English and she’s obviously Italian! (Most of the time she plays Michael Buble over and over and over again – go figure!)

Lately all I can think about is how to finagle another winter here in Venice. So what can this strange choice of musical entertainment possibly mean? Is my neighbor just another ordinary Christmas nut, counting the days until the yuletide season during these hot, sweaty Venetian summer hours? Or is my lady La Serenissima (currently in one of her b*tchy, withholding moods) mocking me? Nyah, nyah – All of this and all of us will still be here come December… but you won’t – nyah, nyah! She can be like that sometimes.

Believe me, this is not making things any easier for me.

Christmas in July indeed! Bah, humbug!!

23 July 2008


Last evening I had a small, dull mission, to deliver my CV to a gentleman I know who might have a job for me, come September. I knew he’d be at his restaurant in Campo San Giacomo dall’Orio. I was tired and not much in the mood for a vaporetto trip, but…

I got off at San Stae, and as I neared the campo, something familiar and dear came to me – a whiff of barbecue smoke! I turned the corner into the fondamentaEccola! The air was a blue haze, full of promising scents. Lucky old me! I had stumbled into Chiesa San Giacomo’s summer festival, traditionally celebrated with good, old-fashioned barbecue cooked over the half-drums. Ribs ribs ribs!! plus chickens, sausages, chops, and “all the fixin’s.” I landed in Paradise, and right at the dinner hour!

Granted, the ribs weren’t my beloved baby backs – more like the Fred Flintstone variety. And there was no spicy-sweet BBQ sauce to lick off the fingertips. But the fire was being tended by obvious veterans and someone back in the kitchen knew the value of a good dry rub, so the juicy bones had the requisite crispy, blackened bits I adore. What an unexpected treat to find so far from home!

Under the strings of colored carnival lights, my fellow picnickers and I made short work of our portions, paying no attention whatsoever to the quick summer shower that dampened us, nor the really loud disco music that made conversation impossible but dancing irresistible. We didn’t care. We had barbecue!

21 July 2008

Festa del Redentore

This weekend all of Venice celebrated Festa del Redentore, the high point of the Venetian summer. It’s a festive occasion, but also one of great gratitude. Redentore means “redeemer.” In the context of the holiday, it refers to the Chiesa del Santissimo Redentore, designed by Palladio in 1577 and completed on Giudecca Island in 1592 as a pledge in exchange for deliverance from a plague that had killed 50,000 Venetians.

On this holiday tradition calls for building a bridge atop a string of boats for the pilgrimage to Redentore. Originally planks were laid across a row of 80 seagoing galleys. Nowadays the sectioned bridge is supported by pontoons, like the one built for the Festa della Salute (see November post), but much longer because it stretches across the vast Giudecca Canal from the Zattere to the church. For several summers I have wished to be a part of this celebration, to cross the bridge, and to see the lavish fireworks display over the waters on the eve of the holiday. Finally the time came…

Saturday evening, under a big, orange moon, the Bacino sparkled like a Christmas tree, spangled with the colored lights of hundreds of boats great and small. Both banks of the Giudecca Canal were festooned with strings of yellow lanterns. The crowd onshore began gathering well before sunset, but we all had to wait until almost midnight for the fireworks display. It certainly did not disappoint! Venice spared no expense for a spectacle that rivaled any I’ve ever seen in the U.S. Amid the booms and whistles, the Marangona tolled from the campanile in the Piazza. Dazzling!

Yesterday afternoon I made my pilgrimage to Redentore. At first I was refused access to the bridge – everybody was – because its engineers had detected some structural damage. But later we got the “thumbs up” and I set out for Giudecca. Spirits were high. Boats of every description crowded the waters on both sides, many chasing the regatta contenders and then looping back to pick up friends and picnic needs.

What great fun it was to cross the slightly-rocking bridge with the others, to stand where it’s impossible to be on any other day of the year. On the other side the serene, elegant Redentore stood in contrast to the festive atmosphere on the fondamenta. There were candy and balloon vendors doing brisk business. And there was a “pesca” – a drawing to benefit the church, but one in which every ticket purchased wins one of the prizes, which are mostly “white elephants” donated for the cause. (One grandmother took home a sand pail & shovel set; her grandson won a nice lampshade. I suspect they made a swap later.)

I had to go back after dark, to walk the bridge once more when it was near-deserted and its lamps were casting sharp little shards of light on the choppy waters. Halfway back, a burst of rain and a few glaring forks of lightning made a dramatic ending to my first Redentore celebration.

[Note to self: Next year find a date who has a boat, or at least access to a party on one. I hear all the boats head over to Lido after the fireworks, to wait for sunrise…]

18 July 2008

Roman holiday

Just got back from a little field trip to Rome. Yes, I know I said I wouldn’t leave Venice for a whole year, but there was a double temptation I just couldn’t resist.

My lovely friend Federica (who’s Venetian at heart, but lives in Rome with her nice family and four gorgeous dogs) had invited me many times to come stay in her studio apartment at Piazza Navona. How often does one get an offer like that?! All I needed was the right occasion.

That came in the form of a concert. Last evening – a beautiful, warm Roman evening – my friend Craig played selections from his Secret Spaces CD in an incredible 30 BC ruin, La Tomba (“tomb”) de Cecilia Metella on the Appia Antica, near the catacombs. (What you see here is the back wall of the “stage” through a wide arch that served as the proscenium.)

There under the stars, in the cobalt blue twilight, amid the sound of cicadas and the occasional flutter of doves’ wings, just a hint of woodsmoke in the air, I heard my gifted friend play "Venetian Snowfall." It is a delicate and elegant composition inspired by one of my sweetest memories, a dream-like snowfall I had all to myself late one January night a few years ago – in fact, an event Craig had predicted would occur for me. When I returned from Venice, he had written this piece. Somehow he knew…

Afterwards Craig and I were treated to a splendid late supper with two other charming gentlemen at a fascinating taverna on that ancient way, one that few non-Romans would ever have the chance to visit. I was even able to keep up with most of the Italian spoken at the table.

Again I ask: if this is really my life, how did I ever get so lucky?

14 July 2008

Italian lesson: scarlatto

I have already shown you this, La Serenissima’s splendid flag. I especially like its blood-red foundation, that particular color being my very favorite.

I recently learned that the recipe for the blazing scarlet (scarlatto) dye the Venetian Republic used for the signature color of her official buntings and draperies, as well as her flag, was once a fiercely guarded secret. To keep any would-be snoops away from the dyeworks, city fathers spread false rumors of terrifying hauntings and other horrors in the vicinity.

Lately I’ve had a small terror hanging around, haunting me: the possibility that I might not manage to find a way to stay here in Venice after September. No ghost could possibly cause me more sleeplessness!

I talked about this with a cool-headed Venetian friend, who reminded me that today I don’t really have any idea what will happen in this regard, good or bad, and many things could change between now and October. He suggested I have been stressing myself needlessly, worrying about something that might never even come to pass.

His colorful word for such an unfounded fear as mine: scarlatto.

12 July 2008


Even the missing pet flyers are more interesting here in La Serenissima.

Apparently Signor Fabio’s pappagallo cenerino (little ash-grey parrot) disappeared somewhere near the bus station. One wonders if Mr. F and his bird were headed out of town, or merely meeting someone else’s bus…

10 July 2008

Guarding the turtles

Here’s a lion few Venice visitors ever see. From his leafy bower in the middle of a little pond on Viale Giuseppe Garibaldi, he stands guard over a few hundred turtles and some khaki-colored carp. So lush is his mini-jungle in summertime that one could easily miss him. I like his neutral attitude, his calm gaze (but I do wonder, what’s up with that Something About Mary hairstyle?).

When winter comes, somebody drains the pond and takes its inhabitants somewhere else. Most of the foliage falls away. Then, among the bare branches, the life-size lion can be seen in his entirety. And even though there are no water creatures to guard, he maintains the serene watch. If he misses the turtles, he doesn’t show it.

08 July 2008

The rummage sale

This very unglamorous scene is my idea of great fun. It’s the weekly rummage sale of secondhand clothes and household linens at the mercato on Lido. Every Tuesday morning the truck brings in a fresh load of goodies. When the piles thin out, the ladies root around in their boxes and bring out a few more armloads of stuff. Almost anything here can be snatched up for a mere two euros (lined wool blazers and winter coats go for three to five euros). Occasionally the deal is even better – any two items for three euros.

I like to elbow my way in among the other bargain-hunters and see what I can dig up. Sometimes it can be quite a tussle – these Venetian dames don’t mess around when they’re shopping. You have to have a good eye and quick reflexes. There’s no try-on room or mirror, so your choices must be wiggled on over whatever you’re wearing, and you have to trust your fellow shoppers to tell you ‘si, bella’ or ‘no, no.’ More often than not I walk away empty-handed. But today – che buona fortuna! – I got myself a new linen sheath dress for under three bucks!

So far I’ve purchased that dress, a Levis jean skirt, four miniskirts (three of them lined!), a Swiss cotton/wool knitted chemise, a pearl-encrusted lace bustier, some hand-embroidered fabrics for making sachets, and a pair of mosquito net curtains for my apartment, all for less than twenty euros. See? Great fun!

06 July 2008

At Florian

Yes, I know it’s hopelessly old-fashioned, stuck in the past, a dinosaur. I know it’s moldy and crumbling in places. I know it’s full of Euro-trash, and now Russia-trash. And I know it’s ridiculously over-priced. I know all that.

Still, sometimes on a warm, romantic evening, I have the sense that Florian, particularly its orchestra stand, is the very beating heart of La Serenissima herself. Two other orchestras compete with this one – three, if you count the one around the corner. But somehow they seem… less Venetian to me.

In part, there’s a historical reason for that. When the Austrians occupied Venice they preferred to frequent Quadri across the Piazza, so the Venetians rather pointedly gave all their business to the older Florian (the doors of which never closed for hundreds of years). From here they would politely listen as Quadri’s orchestra played Wagner’s overtures, but they always withheld their applause in subtle protest.

Nowadays I find Florian’s orchestra is just a bit more dignified, a bit less fawning than its rivals. It plays a little more opera and a little less Hollywood and Broadway (although all four orchestras have shamelessly over-the-top versions of New York, New York and My Heart Will Go On, as well as some gaudy tarantellas). As for me, I confess it here. When I catch a few notes of Con Te Partiro or Mi Mancherai coming from Florian, I always pause and listen. There under the stars, amid the Piazza’s draped arches, it’s enough to bring a tear.

04 July 2008


To slightly adjust Winston Churchill’s famous declaration, “If there is no gelato in Heaven, I will not go.” In my opinion, it just wouldn’t be Heaven without this heavenly treat.

Top quality Italian ice creams have very little air blended into them, so they have a more intense flavor. Their density gives them a richer “mouth feel” (that’s an industry term, not just something I made up), which makes them more satisfying (according to people who study such things). And the best makers are quite fussy about the quality of the foods and flavorings they use in their gelati. They shun artificial and out-of-season stuff. For these reasons alone, ice cream addicts – like myself – are just happier in Italy.

Let me make this a little more interesting for them. Here’s a tour of Venice’s most delightful gelati, organized by the sestieri (the six boroughs or counties of the city)…

Upon arrival, go straight to a chic new place in Castello called Riva Reno. The door sign just reads ‘gelato’ – small “g.” Usually you’ll find two chocolate choices (regular and dark) made with costly red cacao. You might also find saffron gelato speckled with sesame seeds. Try Contessa (hazelnut and almond with bits of amaretti and caramelized almonds), Mango Heera (fresh Indian mango with tangy yogurt), Alice Mascarpone (mascarpone with streaks of hazelnut praline called gianduja), or Leonardo (pinenut dotted with whole toasted pinenuts). I’m waiting to try Otello (chocolate zabaglione, Marsala wine, and little chunks of Barozzi torta cioccolata). I like the creative thinking here, and these pretty names, almost as much as the exceptional flavors and topnotch quality. These are stunning, memorable ice creams, velvety and dense. Those who are serious about gelato need to come here more than once or twice.

Travel a little farther east and visit il Pingouino, right on the Bacino waterfront. The house specialty is “Mamma Mia” – vanilla-fresh peach studded with bits of almond macaroons. But a word of warning… get there early because it sells out fast.

In Dorsoduro, find Gelateria Lo Squero across the rio from the squero (gondola repair yard). The choice of gelati here depends on what lovely things came to market and caught the eye of the master maker in back. Hope for pompelmo rosa (pink grapefruit ice cream, not sorbet – seems weird, tastes great) or maracuja (passion fruit). There might be chocolate flavored with something special, such as dates. Or pony up the extra half-euro for the premium Sicilian pistacchi. I guarantee you’ve never tasted a better pistachio ice cream. And you can take a nice walk on the nearby Zattere while you enjoy it.

Also drop by Gelateria il Doge in Campo Santa Margherita for their range of flavored cioccolata fondente (dark chocolate) ice creams. Con peperoncino has a fascinating hint of chile pepper, and con arancia is perfumed with Sicilian blood orange. But avoid the one with rosemary and lavender – it’s a lot like chocolate-covered potpourri, or maybe “Carpet Fresh.”

Close to my house in San Marco, on Calle della Mandorla, there’s Igloo, which offers a real gelato joy – fig & mascarpone. Yes, it tastes very much like that lovely fresh cheese, extra-creamy and not overly sweet. (I just wish they wouldn’t strain the fig seeds out before freezing, because I enjoy that little gritty crunch. But they insist it would be unpleasant to eat.) The other special treat here is their delicate, pale pink watermelon gelato. I’ve never seen this one offered anywhere else.

When you’re in Cannaregio halfway between Rialto and the railway station, stop in at il Gelatone (“the big ice cream”) and get something out-of-the-ordinary. Their honey-sesame gelato will remind you of the Middle Eastern candy called halvah. They also make a very good liquirizia (licorice) gelato – don’t be put off by its drab khaki color if you enjoy that particular taste. I’m rarely willing to forego gelato for sorbet but on a hot day, their aniseed-mint sorbetto is a strange, cooling delight.

Cross the Grand Canal to get to San Polo. While wandering the “peopled labyrinth of walls” (that’s Shelley, not me) you’re bound to pass Majer. If it’s wintertime, don’t miss their deceptively simple, elegant cinnamon gelato. You’ll wonder why this flavor isn’t in everyone’s ice cream case. In warmer months try the fragrant green apple, and in autumn there’s only one right choice – fresh pear.

For the true gelato adventurer, the best place is in Santa Croce, and it’s called Alaska. Here the very imaginative Carlo Pistacchi (“Charlie Pistachios”) makes about a dozen little batches of whatever strikes his fancy everyday. He is ultra-particular about his ingredients: for him, this is art. Go boldly, and do not fear the strange flavors. His sedano (celery) gelato is surprisingly refreshing in hot weather. His carota (carrot) flavor is somehow familiar and friendly (think ‘carrot cake’). In autumn there might be a cardamom-scented choice, which marries nicely with the pumpkin one. If you go for spiciness, there’s wasabi gelato featuring the jade green, ultra-hot Japanese horseradish. Often there is zenzero (fresh ginger), with pungent shreds to thrill the sinuses. That one pairs perfectly with his melon or pear flavor. As a purist, I usually prefer a single scoop, one taste at a time. But here it really pays to double up so you can mix and match. Oh! And Signor Pistacchi’s semi-frozen granite (thick, icy drinks like American “slushies”) are the very best around. He sprinkles fresh basil shreds on the cantaloupe one.

So, fellow freaks, I’ve covered the whole city, but if you still need a fix on your way home, the very best fior di latte (“flower of milk” or plain sweet cream with no vanilla) gelato is – surprise! – just a few steps past the security gates at the airport! You can leave Venice with a little taste of Heaven still lingering on your lips.

02 July 2008

What’s wrong with this picture?

File this under “bad ideas.” In my short stay here I have become convinced that mega-size cruise ships passing through the Bacino are a serious menace to the lagoon’s delicate ecosystem, and Venice herself. When I see one towering over San Giorgio Maggiore and totally obscuring the whole island of Giudecca like this, I shudder.

But they are merely part of the problem, and less troubling to me than the so-called solution, the “oscillating buoyancy flap gates” currently being installed underwater. So proud are the city fathers of this effort! I’m told one can take a day trip to see the work in progress… (Anyone have the number for those bad boys of Greenpeace?)