With love from Venice

9 May 2010

Dear Derek,

I hardly need to tell you this, Seniore Lappano, but in Italy, restaurants are typically divided into three categories. There are osteria, wine bars where the populous gathers to drink many small glasses of vino bianco o rosso and nibble on a variety of small snacks that, in Venice, are called cinchetti. Ristoranti represent the another extreme, with many attentive bow-tied waiters and white tablecloths.

The trattoria lies somewhere in between, banking on a culture of delicious rustic cuisine. Nowadays these lines are blurred by those trying to bank on tourists’ false connotations. There are some who come to Venice – and there are many who come to Venice – and expect an authentic meal if they get a slice of pizza at a trattoria. They will get something, but authenticity and deliciousness are not it.

Venetian cuisine has for centuries been ruled by the sea. I walked by a pescaria on the Giudecca and saw grandmothers buying cuddlefish and tuna steaks cut from a whole tuna to order. Seafood risotto commands top billing as the city’s ubiquitous first course. But so often, as we learned getting fleeced in Trieste, ordering frutti di mare can get you a bland plate of expensive food. What to do? Trust the natives. In our case, the concierge pointed us in the right direction.

At Trattoria alla Vedova, where the definition of a true trattoria is honored, the Italian eating experience begins even as you approach the restaurant down a long narrow alley. Those that showed up without reservations, or without hope of reservations were littered on the doorstep, drinking wine and engaged in mild banter.

Just inside the door to the left is a small bar that might serve as register/reception area in North American restaurants, but here functions like an osteria; 20 or so people crammed in barking wine orders and grabbing cinchetti. I managed to push my way to the front and after a while go the barmaid’s eye. Now, I asked for uno amaro, thinking I’d start with an aperatif. What I got, however, was an uvo, a perfectly cooked egg, quasi-boiled, not quite hard. Apparently my Italian leaves something to be desired.

A note here: I got my drink, by the way, and I know how you are a fan of amari, Derek. If you ever have the chance, drink an amaro made by Nonino. They excel in grappas, but have one amaro that really set the tone of the evening.

Dinner, set among copper pots hanging from the ceiling, lacy handkerchiefs  for lampshades, and communal weathered farm tables, was fantastic and somehow seemed typical.

As an anti-pasto, we opted for a few palpette, the house-made meatballs that are easily the best I’ve ever tasted. A lighter meat – veal, likely, or pork, or a combination – is ground with a select few herbs and spices (is it? yes, fennel!) coated in a cornmeal/breadcrumb crust and fried to a hazelnut brown. Had you been there, Derek, I believe this meatball would have called your vegetarianism to question.

My pasta course was the bucatini alla amatriciana, a ode to Italian simplicity. Bacon, onion and parsley scenting a tomato sauce that lightly bathes a thick-gauged pasta. But all of this was preamble to the most interesting dish I’ve had in years. Calamari nero came to the table plated as if it were the final battle between good and evil. On one side a pool of creamy white polenta, on the other, a lake of calamari in black squid ink. The squid was extremely tender, something I never thought squid could be, and the sauce was truely different – salty, pungent, supported by a delicate frame of white wine, garlic and onions. It was gamy, if you think in terms of seafood and not antelope. I’m not even sure if I enjoyed it, but I know I’ve never had anything like it.

A small dessert of almond brittle and zobibbo, a Sicilian sweet wine, was in following with the deliciousness-through-modesty motif of the evening. The Italians show a great economy of ingredients and technique when it comes to cooking. How to do more with little is an excellent trick for anyone who cooks. It made me go back the next night to try and score another palpette. Too late, though, they were out by 10:30.

With love from Venice,

Trattoria Ca’ d’oro “Alla Vedova”
Calle del Pistor, Cannaregio 3912


One Response to “With love from Venice”

  1. Seniore Lappano said

    Dear Joe,

    1) I know little to nothing about Italy’s north – they are of a different class and frighten us Southerners (or at least make us a little uneasy)

    2) Nonnino – this brand I shall try, if only it existed in these parts…to Italy again!

    3) I had three homemade meatballs yesterday at an old Italian woman’s home in Montreal Nord. They were delicious.

    And Joe, grazie for this love-letter.


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