Salted with ro­mance

In Venice, it’s the fresh lo­cal pro­duce that se­duces

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Indulgence - MARK C. O’FLA­HERTY THE INDEPENDENT

IF I lived within walk­ing dis­tance of the Rialto Mar­ket, I’d never buy gro­ceries any­where else.

To some­one who ac­quires cook­books seem­ingly on a weekly ba­sis, the an­cient mer­can­tile heart of Venice feels like the most vis­ually se­duc­tive and stim­u­lat­ing place on earth.

This isn’t a Dis­ney­fied at­trac­tion for tourists: this is where Vene­tians come for their weekly and daily shop­ping.

On a golden Tues­day morn­ing in late sum­mer, the sun shines through crim­son flags bear­ing the im­age of the winged lion of St Mark, across stalls full of the fish­ing spoils of the Adri­atic, laid out on ice like fine iri­des­cent jew­ellery. Stall­hold­ers sip their mid-morn­ing spritzes in the shade while fab­u­lously wiz­ened non­nas in el­e­gant pussy­bow-col­lared blouses shop for still- twitch­ing crus­tacea, just-fished prawns with but­ter­fly mark­ings, and steaks from Me­so­zoically vast sword­fish.

Mul­ti­coloured spices are plated up in Mis­soni-like pat­terns in the win­dow of Droghe­ria Mas­cari, and in the fruit and vegetable mar­ket the sweet smell of 20 dif­fer­ent types of tomato drifts over beau­ti­ful, deep pur­ple ar­ti­chokes, boxed like dark vel­vet roses.

‘ ‘ So, what are we go­ing to make?’’ asks En­rica Rocca. She’s not so much a chef as a force of na­ture, with a mane of curly hair and sev­eral gen­er­a­tions of Vene­tian blood in her. When Rocca isn’t feed­ing 500 guests for Venice in Peril ben­e­fit galas, she hosts day-long cook­ery classes that start with the creami­est cap­puc­cino in the city — at Caffe del Doge — and then move on to the mar­ket, where she’s greeted by name at each stall. She sur­veys what’s good, ex­plains why that is, bags it up and then takes her stu­dents back to her state-of-the-art kitchen, fash­ioned out of the old laun­dry in her fam­ily’s palazzo.

From the win­dow, Rocca tells me had I a rod, I could fish fan­tas­tic grey mul­let from the canal be­low.

It’s more of a party than a class, although vis­i­tors do learn the vi­tal im­por­tance of gen­eros­ity with salt: ‘‘If you don’t eat junk food, salt is fine. And when you cook pasta, the water should be as salty as the Adri­atic.’’ Her in­sider per­spec­tive on din­ing in the city is price­less.

Aone-day class is one thing, but a week’s hol­i­day based around Rocca’s tips keeps the dreaded ‘‘tourist menu’’ at bay, guid­ing you away from the Caffe Flo­rian and to­wards lo­cal favourites — although there are still some in­escapable, ex­cel­lent cliches to en­joy.

‘‘The best bellini in Venice is on the rooftop of the Hil­ton,’’ she tells me over a spritz at Os­te­ria alla Alba, a graf­fiti-cov­ered bar sev­eral al­ley­ways off the main tourist beat of the Rialto. Later that week I du­ti­fully take the ferry across to the Molino Stucky Hil­ton, once a vast 19th-cen­tury red-brick flour mill, now a grand ho­tel and still a pow­er­ful, strik­ingly in­dus­trial pres­ence on the banks of Gi­udecca, and the lift up to the Sky­line ter­race. The view across the water to St Mark’s is glo­ri­ous and the sun­set painterly, but alas there aren’t any peaches.

‘‘I wasn’t happy with them to­day, so we’re not mak­ing bellinis,’’ says Marino, the man­ager. In­stead, I have two stu­pen­dous mar­ti­nis — one fresh ap­ple, one fresh basil — which send me float­ing on a warm cash­mere-soft cloud back across the water to an­other of Rocca’s rec­om­men­da­tions, L’os­te­ria di Santa Ma­rina. My waiter rat­tles off the day’s spe­cials and I or­der a large plate of raw seafood and the tagli­olini al nero di sep­pia alla busara. The jet­black pasta with squid is com­plex and won­der­ful; the pesce crudo, too. Over sev­eral trips to Venice, I’ve de­vel­oped an ob­ses­sion with raw prawns, whose soft and rich tex­ture and flavour bear no re­la­tion to their cooked sib­lings. And at Santa Ma­rina — a mid-range restau­rant that shouldn’t cost you more than about $75 a head — they’re par­tic­u­larly ex­cel­lent.

I get my bellini the next day at the Cipri­ani — the best-known ho­tel in the city, its rooms and gar­dens ooz­ing el­e­gant, clas­sic, mat­ter-of-fact wealth. This is as rar­efied as Venice gets. Its bellini, cre­ated by Giuseppe Cipri­ani in the 1940s, is the stuff of leg­end. Reg­u­lar guests — and the most priv­i­leged of lo­cals — are greeted in hushed tones pool­side by ti­tle and sur­name. Wal­ter, the head bar­tender, has been here since the 70s and re­mem­bers Rocca’s fa­ther and un­cle well. (‘‘Both very good cus­tomers, and big drinkers,’’ Rocca laughs.)

If you ask nicely, Wal­ter will make you a bellini the old­fash­ioned way, painstak­ingly hand squeez­ing each white peach and blend­ing it with rasp­berry, le­mon j uice and a one- third mea­sure of Nino Franco Val­dob­bi­adene prosecco.

Some of the Vene­tians’ favourite bars and din­ing rooms are just a few steps from the main tourist thor­ough­fares. The Metropole Ho­tel, ad­ja­cent to St Mark’s Square, is fam­ily-run and one of the loveli­est places to stay in the city, with a tran­quil gar­den and ro­man­tic, an­tiques-filled rooms, walls swathed in heavy em­broi­dered fab­rics.

It also has a two Miche­lin­starred restau­rant, MET, which lo­cals adore. Chef Cor­rado Fa­so­lato doesn’t have a sin­gle tast­ing menu; he has a whole book full of them, themed on ingredients from the Veneto. There’s noth­ing staid about the MET ex­pe­ri­ence — staff wear Gucci bal­let pumps and rock ’n’ roll frock coats — and the flavours are modern and rev­e­la­tory, from scal­lops with a flour­ish of parma vi­o­let to whole­wheat bigoli pasta with sar­dines in oys­ter stew. A basil and tomato con­somme pre­pared in a stove-top espresso-maker has the whole ta­ble in rap­tures: ‘ ‘ Alchemy!’’ de­clares Rocca.

Half­way down the Grand Canal, the restau­rant at the Philippe Starck-de­signed ho­tel Palazz­ina Grassi has, af­ter months of res­i­dents-only ex­clu­siv­ity, opened to the pub­lic. You can sit at the counter while chef Luigi Fras­cella cooks with a mix of Ja­panese and Ital­ian styles, re­sult­ing in what many — in­clud­ing Rocca — claim is the best food in Venice.

‘‘I buy all my fish in Santa Margherita Square rather than at the Rialto,’’ says Fras­cella. ‘‘ It’s more ex­pen­sive, but it’s en­tirely lo­cal.’’ He serves up a suc­ces­sion of ex­quis­ite plates: a raw fish with yel­low tiger-stripe irides­cence he says is ‘‘like a tur­bot, but exclusive to Venice’’; a cut­tle­fish dish sur­rounded by ink ragu; mal­fatti ravi­oli with wal­nut, ri­cotta and aubergine. He puts an Ital­ian spin on tem­pura, cre­at­ing his bat­ter with prosecco and po­lenta. The whole evening is in­spired and des­tined for Michelin-starred great­ness.

There are less rar­efied spe­cial­i­ties to en­joy in Venice. ‘‘You must go for moz­zarella in car­rozza at Ros­tic­ce­ria Gis­lon,’’ ad­vises Metropole owner Glo­ria Beg­giato, af­ter my din­ner at MET. ‘‘It’s a typ­i­cally Vene­tian sand­wich.’’ I find Gis­lon in an al­ley­way close to the Rialto: a bustling but largely unlovely counter-ser­vice cafe. I try both va­ri­eties of deep­fried moz­zarella ‘‘car­riage’’ — one with ham, one with an­chovy — washed down with an Aperol spritz, and they’re so greasy that af­ter­wards I feel I could turn a palazzo wall trans­par­ent just by breath­ing on it.

Many of the veg­eta­bles I pass in the Rialto Mar­ket af­ter my visit to Gis­lon still come from nearby is­lands out in the la­goon, although farm­ing isn’t as big an in­dus­try as it used to be. Sim­i­larly, lo­cals’ restau­rants out on the is­lands are dis­ap­pear­ing.

Trat­to­ria alle Vig­nole, on the is­land of Vig­nole, is one of the few still in busi­ness. You get a water taxi or pri­vate boat — it’s not on any va­poretto route — to the gates of its gar­den and eat al­fresco in the shade of its trees.

Tourists sel­dom make it this far. On my visit, I join a ta­ble of lo­cals who feast on gi­ant horse steaks, jet-black pasta dishes, ra­zor clams and stuffed, bat­tered zuc­chini flow­ers. The menu is a com­pre­hen­sive over­view of bril­liant and ba­sic Vene­tian cook­ing, and the ex­pe­ri­ence of eat­ing here is as Ital­ian as can be.

At the end of the meal the cap­tain of my boat fin­ishes his flute of prosecco, downs an espresso he’s de­canted into a glass of sam­buca, and mo­tors me back at high speed to Rocca’s kitchen.

On my last evening in the Rocca palazzo, I deep- fry tiny prawns and eat them straight from the pan, hot and crunchy. Then I pre­pare a fresh tomato sauce with cherry toma­toes (‘‘so you don’t have to bother with any peel­ing, they boil right down’’) and a risotto nero with squid. As a group of five we roast mack­erel in caramelised soy sauce, pan-fry cala­mari with pars­ley, le­mon and chilli, and sim­mer fa­gi­oli beans with rose­mary, their mar­bled white and fuch­sia pat­terns mak­ing the shelled fa­gi­oli re­sem­ble beau­ti­ful jew­ellery.

Noth­ing is com­pli­cated, every­thing is won­der­ful. ‘‘What goes in, comes out,’’ says Rocca. ‘‘Noth­ing more [and] noth­ing less.’’ Venice may be one of the world’s most his­toric and or­nate cities, but the se­cret of its food rests in its fresh­ness and sim­plic­ity. And, of course, the salt. Never for­get the salt.


The Cipri­ani is Venice’s best-known ho­tel and its bellini, cre­ated in the 1940s, is the stuff of leg­end


Fresh seafood at the Rialto Mar­ket

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