We love fish and shellfish so we were looking forward to our second trip to Venice. The food did not disappoint, even though we encountered an unpleasant surprise from an old favorite. With one exception, our dinner restaurant choices fell in the moderate to moderately high range. Our dinners tended to fall into one of two patters. We would share both an antipasti course and a pasta course, but we would order a separate secundi. Or we would share an antipasti course and a secundi course, but order separate pasta dishes. Desserts tended to be shared, plain fruit, or omitted entirely. Our lunches tended to be a shared antipasto and a shared pasta. Out of a seventeen day trip, I think we stopped for a mid-afternoon gelato only three or four times. (Neither of us experienced any change in the fit of our clothes, so I’ve got to assume that our walking and stair climbing did the job we intended it to do.)
The restaurants where we ate dinner all had someone who could speak reasonably good English. My menu/restaurant Italian is reasonably good – stumbling primarily on local ingredients or local pasta shapes -- so we could cope quite happily at lunch when we tended to eat a more local places where English was limited or non-existent. (This trip, I noticed a big improvement in my understanding of spoken Italian especially for directions. If the speaker could keep to the basic facts, I could understand sentences spoken at full speed. However, if the speaker added lots of extraneous information, I couldn’t keep up. In Ravenna, we received the longest directions from a shopkeeper who was only two doors away from our restaurant destination for the evening, Antica Trattoria Al Gallo.)
None of the restaurants in any city we visited necessitated dressy clothes. We ate outdoors every chance we could, but our clothes didn’t vary between indoor and outdoor restaurants. My husband looked acceptable in every place wearing short-sleeved sport shirts, Docker-type pants, and black slip on shoes with dark socks. Since the first two items describe his day-time touring outfit, his transformation was complete with a simple change of shoes/socks. My dinner outfits consisted of a choice of patterned skirts of a dressier fabric that coordinated with a variety of moderately dressy black cotton knit tops. I wore reasonably dressy slides with bit of a heel, although the soles had a thin rubber tread as a practical matter. Our level of dressiness was definitely the norm. Except for children/teens accompanying their parents to dinner, no one wore shorts at any of the restaurants.
We fell in love with Alle Testiere on our first trip to Venice. On this visit, we ate two dinners there, our first and our last nights. The first night we were joined by five friends from CA who were also in Venice. That night, the meal was a chaotic sharing of dishes, but the quality of individual dishes and the fun of meeting friends who we don’t see that often overcame any of the randomness of the meal. However, that evening, there was a glitch in my secundo that foreshadowed a major problem in our second meal at Alle Testiere. The first night, the restaurant was going to serve me a secundo-sized portion of the shrimp crudo they normally serve as an appetizer. However, the cook misread the handwriting on the order, mistaking “CR” (crudo) for “GR” (grilled). The mistake wasn’t worth making a fuss about, and the results were nothing short of exquisite. However, the hectic pace the restaurant sets for itself with two fixed seatings I think lends itself to the kinds of problems I experienced both nights with my secondo. As I’ll detail below, I didn’t feel the restaurant solved the problem the second night as well as they ought to have done.
Alle Testiere I: (Castello) For an antipasti course, we all shared little tastes of clams with ginger, mussels marinara, cuttlefish stuffed with citrus and ricotta, and Venetian fried mini soft-shell crabs in a marinade -- and for all I know there may have been more. My favorite dishes were the mussels marinara (amazingly light but intensely flavored sauce) and the soft-shells (fun comparing this fried and lightly marinated version to the blue crabs we get in the DC area). I wasn't wild about large cuttlefish stuffed with ricotta, sauced with citrus and garnished with lightly candied orange peel. The meat of the large cuttlefish was tender, but I was a bit put off by marmalade-like accents of the orange rind in the sauce.
Four of us shared a sinble order of the gnocchetti with calamari. Amazing! Ethereally light gnocchetti with an intensely-flavored sauce. There was also sharing of spaghetti with vongole veraci.
As I've mentioed, for my main meal, I ate split grilled prawns. When a dish consists of some prawns, olive oil, and salt and pepper, the ingredients have to be amazing and the cooking has to be perfect. Alle Testiere succeeded. Others in our group enjoying their seared tuna in balsamic vinegar sauce or scampi with black sesame seeds with mustard, but I can’t remember everyone’s secundi. We drank a delicious wine from Friuli, Schiopettino, that the waiter recommended. I think it cost under 20 Euros. (This set the pattern for our wine drinking. Each night, we would ask for recommendations from the local region. A surprising number of times in Venice, we were offered delightful wines from Friuli. Although every restaurant had an all-Italy wine menu, and we could have dropped big money on the famous wines, we were able to keep our wine costs quite reasonable.)
Alle Testiere II: By this time, our friends had left Venice. My husband and I shared a wonderful starter of grilled razor clams. Again, the fresh ingredients and the perfect timing raised this dish to extra-ordinary heights. We shared a lovely order of shrimp ravioli. My husband ordered monkfish with vegetables. His dish arrived perfectly cooked and deliciously moist. My seared tuna with balsamic sauce arrived unevenly cooked; one half of the slice was cooked completely through while the other half was properly seared with a raw inside. I called our waiter over to point out the problem. (I say “waiter” but I don’t know this gentleman’s official title in the restaurant. He is one of the two front-of-the-house individuals who was at the restaurant when we first dined there seven years ago.) He simply listened to my concern, but he walked away without any offer of a solution. A minute or so later, Lucca, the other principal came over to the table. He looked at the piece of fish and said that the uneven cooking was the result of uneven slicing. (Of course, that begs the question as to why the slicing was done in such a way that prevented the restaurant from delivering the promised seared tuna.) Significantly, he did not offer to fix the problem immediately by replacing my entree. I said that I didn’t think slicing could explain the extent of the difference. I listened to Lucca’s continued explanation of the results, but never volunteered to accept the dish. To me, fully cooked tuna is a major, major problem. Eventually, Lucca said the only solution would be to re-cook the dish in a rather flat voice. My husband was completely finished with his monkfish by the time my wholly satisfactory replacement tuna arrived.
(FWIW, I don’t think there was any problem with the slicing. At least there wasn’t enough of a difference to explain a sharp division between a section that was perfectly cooked and the one that was woefully overcooked. Based on my own cooking experience, I assume that the chefs did an inadequate job tipping a portion of the pan up from the flame or moving enough of the pan off the flame while finishing the sauce. Either of those reasons could explain the sharp line between the overdone and perfectly done sections.)
For dessert, we shared a portion of vanilla ice cream with spices including cinnamon, curry, black pepper, nutmeg and cumin. We loved the taste and even liked the close-to-melting texture. Lucca said he makes this ice cream at his house just before coming to the restaurant in the evening. He thinks the soupy texture is perfect, but he gets a lot of complaints about it.
I’d definitely go back to Alle Testiere our next trip to Venice, but I’d do so with high but no-longer magical expectations.
Trattoria da Fiore: We ate lunch outside here. Calle della Botteghe off Campo S. Stefano (San Marco) after a morning visiting the Accademia. The interior is quite romantic; the outside seating area simply consisted of a table placed in front of each of the two windows of the restaurant. We were definitely in shade although I can’t remember whether it was in the shadow of the building or under an awning. We shared an order of the mixed fish antipasti and an order of spaghetti with cuttlefish in its own ink. Yum! Inky black and intensely flavored. I know there were at least two shrimp varieties on the platter (cannoche and something else) a lovely scallop with its own roe, and lots more. Our two favorites on the platter were the sarde saor and the shrimp and polenta. Da Fiore’s version of sardines in sweet and sour was even better than the version that introduced me to the dish at Il Covo. The antipasto’s shrimp and soft polenta dish was amazing and amazingly simple. We had been to Charleston, SC in early April and had fallen in love with shrimp and grits at the Hominy Grille. Their version included copious amounts of cream, melted cheese, and diced bacon. (Other versions in other Charleston restaurants went on to over-embellish the dish with tomato broth or, even, tomato chutney.) How da Fiore manages to pack so much flavor into seemingly few ingredients was a mystery we enjoyed savoring. Note: This is a different restaurant from the very expensive Osteria da Fiore.
Vini di Gigio: (Cannaregio) This trip, we became increasingly confident traveling to all parts of the city and our willingness to walk 30 minutes to eat at this restaurant was an example. It offers only indoor seating, but we were fortunate enough to get a table under the large window in the second room. We skipped an antipasti course since we couldn’t agree on a pasta course that we were willing to share, and we certainly couldn’t eat all the courses in an Italian meal. I began with a dish that has already been swooned over on Chowhound, the penne with pistachio and gorgonzola. The swoons are wholly deserved. My husband is a huge duck fan so he ordered the kamut rigatoni with duck ragu. Also a huge hit! For a secondi, I had grilled cuttlefish. Fantastic. (You’re probably noticing that I’m a great fan of simple cooking that respects the ingredients.) My husband adores osso bucco, so he blissed out eating their stellar rendition. (This version would ultimately be trumped in Parma.) For dessert, we shared a cheese course: six tiny dollops of wonderful cheese served with a miniature dish filled with honey. The small quantity was perfect given the amount of food we’d already eaten and each cheese type was amazing. The drank another Schiopettino wine, from a different producer, at the recommendation of the server.
Trattoria Busa della Torre: (Murano) We were chandelier shopping on Monday which necessitated a trip to Murano, a thoroughly unattractive place, since one of the factories whose work we like had no showroom in San Marco. Still, we had a good day. On our walk to the Fondamenta Nuove vaparetto stop, we saw parts of Castello we had never seen before, made progress in our chandelier shopping, and had a delightful lunch on the island. This restaurant is located in the Campo San Stefano which is located in the middle of the island. The restaurant has two large outdoor seating areas with most of the tables covered by large umbrellas. Glass designer Giovanni Cenedese, one of the few glassmakers working primarily in contemporary styles, currently has a major glass sculpture in the middle of the campo, and we enjoyed looking at this while we ate. We began with a well-prepared and varied mixed cold seafood platter. I don’t believe this antipasti platter included any elements that were recipes (i.e. sarde in saor) but the variety was excellent, deliciously fresh, and properly cooked. We followed up with a dish of ravioli with a sauce of fresh tomatoes and basil. This dish was pleasant but not memorable.
Fiaschetteria Toscana (Cannaregio): We ate dinner outdoors at a veranda structure in the courtyard across the street from the indoor restaurant. The veranda is a lovely covered and landscaped structure built around a medieval cistern. (I don’t really understand the deal about private restaurants using what seems to be public property like streets and squares. Whatever the deal, for us, one of the joys of eating in Italy is the outdoor dining, itchy mosquito bites notwithstanding.) My husband and I wanted to begin our meal with a less-than-secondo-sized portion of fried soft-shelled crabs. My Italian was inadequate or the waiters “received” English was inadequate, but the waiter never quite understood what I was asking. Eventually, my husband and I ordered the dish as it was listed as a secondo on the menu. We told the waiter to omit the accompaniments (polenta ??) that are served with virtually all the secondi at this restaurant. The waiter got the sequence of our meal correct in that the crabs arrived first as a separate course. However, we were served a complete order, including vegetables which we ignored. I then, had slices of swordfish on top of slices of fresh lime with a sprinkling of capers. My husband had Venetian liver and onions. When my husband placed his order, the waiter’s face just lit up. He explained that liver and onions is a typical Venetian dish and that he’s delighted when people order the food of the real Venetian people. I didn’t note the wine we ordered.
Al Mascaron Osteria: Calle Longe Santa Maria Formosa (Castello): We ate here after a visit to the great church of Santi Giovanni e Paolo. The restaurant is a tavern-y looking place of two or three rooms crammed with locals. The menu was exclusively in Italian, and we were the only English speakers in the room where we ate. We began the meal with the mixed shellfish and vegetable appetizer. The vegetable selections included grilled zucchini, tomatoes, and peppers. The fish/shellfish selections included shrimp and prawns, anchovies, octopus, and something deliciously wonderful that we learned was the egg sac of cuttlefish. The fresh anchovies were a revelation. They tasted marinated rather than salted. The greatest compliment is the fact that my husband, a confirmed anchovy hater, was chowing them down with great enthusiasm. We ate too much at this lunch since all but one of the pasta dishes needed to be ordered for two persons. We ordered pasta with spider crab and tomatoes. Of course, we could have stopped eating when we got full, but the pasta dish – in particular the past itself – was lovely.
Al Sportivo: Camp Santa Margherita (Dorsoduro) We ate at this casual pizzeria after a morning spent strolling in the Dorsoduro, including a visit to Ca Rezzonico. It was raining lightly when we ate lunch, but we still managed to eat outside under a large, protective awning. Large umbrellas extended the under-cover reach of the outdoor dining area, but there was dripping at the intersection of this two coverings. (We were wholly under the awning.) We ordered two pizzas: one with eggplant, zucchini, and sausage and the other with proscuitto an porcini mushrooms. We preferred the eggplant combo, but the crust on both pizzas was really wonderful. The pizzas were larger than the hand gesture of the waiter had led us to believe and we had left-overs.
Agli Alboretti: (Dorsoduro) We had our least Italian meal here, and while the food was delicious -- sometimes sublime -- we decided this kind of experience is not why we like to eat in Italy. We had eaten lunch here on our last visit to Venice in 2000, and we remembered both the food and the vine covered pergola in the back with great fondness. We had heard that the current chef was doing very innovative things, and that was certainly the case. We decided to order the seven course tasting menu instead of creating a meal according to our usual pattern. I believe everything on the tasting menu was available in full-sized portions on the regular menu.
For this meal, we began with an amuse that included a piece of swordfish crudo, a sliver of marinated raw salmon, a demitasse of cream of vegetable soup with a chunk of John Dory, and a piece of smoked or dried something, although I’ve forgotten what. The influence of E. Bulli was evident in the use of strange cooking methods and in special purpose utensils for many of the foods. For example, the smoked something was impaled in a very short skewer, not much longer than a toothpick, which swung from a wire gizmo. The salmon was wedged between non-separated wooden chopsticks. (Obviously, a bow to sashimi. Since the chopsticks weren’t separated, I wonder if the restaurant wasn’t confident its patrons could use chopsticks. Anyone could have used the chopsticks in their non-separated form, but we separated ours and did the conventional chopstick thing. ) The best course was the first course: sturgeon mousse surrounded by a fence of sliced asparagus and topped with caviar. This was followed by an excellent slice of foie gras with fennel gel. Then, we had another cream soup – this time a Sicilian-themed soup of lemon with capers and anchovies. I know we were served pasta with scampi from reading my notes, but I have no recollection of the dish. However, I sure do remember the ironed filets of John Dory and Dorata. This course begins with a parade from the kitchen: out came people, including the chef, ingredients, and equipment. For this dish, the chef had placed four small fish fillets between two sheets of well-oiled parchment paper. He then proceeded to cook the fish by placing a hot, heavy old-fashioned iron on the parchment paper and pressing. (To envision the iron, think of the kind you might see in an antique store – the kind that is high enough to hold hot coals in a storage area.) The cooking process probably takes no more than five-six minutes. I asked the chef and determined that the action we witnessed represented the entire cooking process. The resulting fish was perfectly tasty, but hardly worth the spectacle. The less said about the next course – pork chops with apple sauce – the better. The dish was badly over-salted and the meat bordered on being dry; if any apples went into the making of the sauce, they were not discernible. (Here’s an instance in which we were glad to have ordered the Tasting Menu. My husband said that he would likely have ordered the pork if we had gone the regular menu route, and he would have hated his dish.) The next course included seven tiny slivers of delicious cheese. The dessert course was the occasion for another theatrical moment. A dessert plate covered with a variety of tiny desserts, each no larger than two or three bites was placed in front of each of us. The display included a pipe, an actual tobacco smoking pipe and a Chinese ceramic soup spoon. But we weren't free to begin eating until after the theater. That involved two people. A sous-chef held a bowl containing billowing nitrogen and the chef held a bowl of pineapple juice and, whatever else goes into sorbetto. The sous-chef would tip some nitrogen into the chef’s bowl. Using a huge whisk, the chef would beat the contents of his bowl. This pouring of nitrogen was repeated three times, until the chef was satisfied with the frozen consistency of the contents of his bowl. Upon completion, he spooned the resulting pineapple sorbetto onto a Chinese-style soup spoon on the dessert plate. But wait, there’s more. Remember the pipe I mentioned? The sous chef spooned a bit of nitrogen into the bowl of each pipe so the pipe was smoking as we began to eat our dessert. (My husband, a scientist told me the Kelvin scale temerature of liquid nitrogen. Let's just say it is cold enough to affect the climate of everyone in a seven-foot radius of the show.) We were invited to drink the rum contained in the bowl of the pipe by treating the pipe’s mouthpiece as a straw.
Although we had arrived when the restaurant opened at 7:30 p.m., at this point, it was past 10:30 p.m. We were exhausted after having spent the day touring the Frari Church, the Scuola Grande de S. Rocco, and Giovanni and Paolo. After having sat for somewhat more than 3 hours, no matter how lovely the restaurant, we had reached the point of diminishing returns. At some point, shortly after beginning dessert, we apologized and asked for our check. We were fully paid-up before we finished whatever we were going to eat of our desserts.
Wine report: When we asked the waiter to propose a wine, he recommended a bottle for 85 Euros. We politely declined and asked him to recommend something less expensive. He then proposed a Merlot. I believe that wine cost about 60 Euros, definitely a more palatable price although much more than we’d been spending or ended spending the rest of the trip. More than the price, we weren't thrilled with the wine and we asked him if he couldn’t propose a wine that was more reflective of Italian wine traditions. He suggested a Refosco for 50 Euros. We asked the waiter which he would drink with the meal, and he said the Refosco. So we did. While it was a lovely wine, it wasn’t a bottle over which memories are made.
Next report: Ravenna.