We Open in Venice

Ah, Venezia. The sinking city. City of pigeons. Merchant of. The list goes on…

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Like nirvana or an ivy-league school, getting into Venice takes work. Especially when your family has close to 11 suitcases. We left New York on Thursday night, July 7th, and flew on Delta across the Atlantic and landed early on a Venice morning. My mom insisted that I sleep on the plane to keep my internal clock healthy but I managed to squeeze in a few episodes of Julia Child on my laptop first. You’d think watching Julia Child on a laptop on a plane would bring quizzical judgmental stares but it’s oddly compelling plane material. I watched the lobster episode and the sausage episode and a stewardess bent over to tell me she loved Julia Child. The sausage-stuffing looked vaguely perverse so I quickly shut down and attempted to sleep. It’s hard to make yourself sleep on a plane but I think I nodded off a bit. We woke up in the Venice airport, found our suitcases (all 11 of them) and boarded a bus which took us to a boat which took us to our hotel. I loved pulling up to our hotel in a boat: it’s oddly surreal. We checked in and relished the view from our hotel room. That’s the pic you see above. Then we realized we were starving and made out for some grub.

One goal I had for myself on this trip was to not be a food tyrant. I was travelling with three other people–mom, dad, and brother–and as much as I would have loved to boss everyone around demanding meals in places I’d researched, I didn’t want to be hated so early on. So when mom recommended a place she’d been to the year before that was also featured in her “Top Ten Venice” book–Trattoria alla Madonna–I gave a thumbs up. But then it was far and dad said “let’s eat somewhere closer.” I did my best Cartman voice: “But I wanna eat at Trattoria Alla Madonna!” and my family caved in. I pulled the tyrant card early.

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Trattoria alla Madonna is located near the Rialto Bridge in a secret alleyway surrounded by touristy waterfront posers. The moment we walked in I knew we were in for something special. There were fresh fish displayed in a case up front:

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[I took a picture of these too which were placed next to the fish and I have no idea what they are. Anyone?

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]

So in we went in our airplane clothes (we were too hungry to shower or change) and we studied the menus which had English but written beneath the Italian so though they catered a tiny bit to tourists, it still felt authentic (and everyone there seemed to be local Venetians). Here’s Michael and I looking haggard and weary but you can see the restaurant behind us, to get a sense of the space:

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Lots of art on the walls that gave the place character. You can see the bread on the table which was just ok (in accordance with Rev. Patty–who left many helpful comments on my going-away thread–who says that the worse the bread, the better the food in Italy) and also two bottles of water: one naturale, one sparkling. Mom and dad like sparkling, Michael and I like naturale. When it comes to water, we’re quite dysfunctional.

I better stop being so wordy we’ll never get anywhere!

The food. I started with artichokes in olive oil:

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These were really simple and really tasty (two definitive adjectives for most Italian food I loved: simple and tasty). I must say, though, that were were some rough spots in the preparation: I nearly choked on a hard leaf. But the tender parts were great.

But here’s what was truly fantastic: the seafood risotto.

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If you fly into Venice someday and you want the perfect food overture to your trip, start with seafood risotto at Trattoria alla Madonna. It was perfect in every way. It’s been two and a half weeks and I can still taste it: savory, seafoody, a perfect balance of liquid and solid. The picture actually does it justice: go ahead and lick your screen.

Mom, dad and Michael frequently ordered the same dish when we went somewhere (I always try to order something different so I can taste theirs and compare) and here they all had linguine with seafood which they also gushed over:

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Seafood is the thing to eat in Venice. We left, our bellies full, invigorated and ready to face the day. Here’s the obligatory photo of St. Mark’s Square covered in pigeons and tourists:

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That’s about all the sightseeing we did at that moment because we were dead tired. We went back to the hotel and passed out. Hours later, we woke up, showered, shaved, waxed, brushed, combed and did everything a family must do to prepare for a fancy dinner. This fancy dinner took place at a beautiful restaurant chosen by my mother, the frequent finder of fancy food facilities right on the Grand Canal. It’s name? The Grand Canal!

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One theme you’ll find rampant in our fancy eating excursions abroad (and I say fancy to make clear that these aren’t places I’d go to if I were backpacking in Europe with friends) is the importance given to the view. My parents are big view mavens and Venice rewards their passion quite well as you can see in this photo of mom and Michael astride the great waterway:

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Luckily, the food at the Grand Canal restaurant was equally meritorious. We started with my parents’ favorite Italian appetizer: mozzarella caprese. That’s tomatoes, basil and mozzarella cheese. See photo:

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I loved this the way it was but the family insists on pouring on the balsamic vinegar. I may be wrong but I think that’s frowned on in Italian culture: at least when we went to Da Silvano, the waiter refused to soil perfect mozzarella with anything as astringent as vinegar. But I won’t judge my parents for coating their perfect mozzarella with syrupy fermented wine. To each his own.

Now I’m not some jive-ass food blogger who travels abroad and then doesn’t take notes on what he ate in the language of the country where it was eaten. For my pasta course, I ordered–get ready for this: “‘Bigoli in Salsa’ Alla Veneziana.” (Translation: Wholewheat spaghetti in a light anchovy sauce.)

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This was lovely: fishy and pungent. My dad found it too strong (he ordered one too) but I enjoyed it for its strength of character. This bigoli made a big ‘ole impact.

Then, for my main entree, a very fatty choice: “Fritto Misto di Pesce con Salsa Tartara; friture de poisson de l’Adriatique, sauce tartare.” (Translation: fried fish and tartar sauce.)

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Sometimes I like to show off when I order and this was a case of getting ahead of myself. I knew fritto misto was classic Italian because I’d seen Mario Batali do some fritting of his misto but all this fried fish was a little heavy. With that said, it was tasty. Not my favorite, but good nonetheless.

What was truly excellent was the dessert but not the chocolate one you see:

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The one on top—prepare for bad spelling: zabayonne. This was almondy goodness that surpassed Tiramasu in my allegiance for creamy Italian desserts. Everyone at the table devoured it. Highly recommended, assuming you can spell it better.

And now for some controversy. Eager to share in the customs of local Italians, I decided that I would drink coffee like they drink coffee: cappuchino in the morning and then espresso after a meal. As Amanda Hesser makes clear in “Cooking for Mr. Latte,” Italians find milk too heavy to drink after a large meal. Espresso is the perfect complement because it gets you your coffee fix without loading you up. I ordered myself one and my mother was enraged:

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Enraged, you see, because “you’ll be up all night.” Espresso to her and to most people equates with electric volt of caffeine. I’ve heard various theories–I even wrote about one where a waitress told us that espresso has less caffeine than coffee because caffeine dissolves in water and espresso has less water. In any case, I still went to bed without any trouble. Michael had one too (I’m a trendsetting brother) and he slept without problem.

What happened the next morning, though, can’t be blamed on the espresso though mom tried. We were both up at the very very crack of dawn. 5 am. Completely awake. No, no, it wasn’t the espresso it was the jetlag. I mean, ok, it should’ve felt 6 hours earlier but for whatever reason we were wired. We called mom and dad’s room and told them we were going for a walk. They were unconscious.

Many commenters, in my going away post, suggested that I see St. Mark’s square early in the morning. Perhaps it was one of their spirits, then, that woke us up so early. I’m glad they did. Look at this beautiful picture, now my desktop image:

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Compare that with the earlier St. Mark’s pic and it’s like night and day (literally and figuratively). Something really mystical’s going on. Thank you to whoever suggested I see that.

Now I printed out several things before I ventured over the sea: all your comments from my going away post, a few comments from an eGullet thread I started, and travel advice from the Babbo website. Here’s their piece on Venice written by Joe Bastianich (Lidia’s son and Babbo owner) and it’s a really nice plan for one day in Venice. It begins with this advice: “Should you make it in early, stop for a coffee at CAFFE GLI SPECCHI on St. Mark’s Square….”

Seems simple enough. Except no one–and I mean know one–knew what Cafe Gli Speechi was when I asked. I asked the conceirge, two police officers, three random people on the street and several coffee shop owners. Eventually, Michael and I wound up here:

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A redheaded Italian (is there such a thing?) behind the counter had never heard of Cafe Gli Speechi but as he spoke we noticed he was making delicious looking cappuchinos. Michael and I looked at each other and decided to stay there. We ordered two cappuchinos and two pastries and sat outside:

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Everything was terrific only I realized, when it came time to pay, that I had no Euros: only dollars. The redheaded Italian was really nice: he let me pay in dollars. I left a big tip.

We’ve reach a point in my post where it feels excessively long. We have some options… I can stop here and do a Venice Part Two tomorrow but then it’d be hard to catch up on all the other places I need to write about… we must persist, we must…

After this morning sojourn, we met up with mom and dad, ate a hotel breakfast and then explored the city. Michael, dad and I explored the big church in the square and climbed to the top. Check out the view:

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We then rode a vaporetto down the Grand Canal which is like a Venetian subway; it takes about 90 minutes and lets you see the whole thing.

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(Forgive Michael’s placid expression: he had a big cankersore and couldn’t smile. Poor guy.)

Hey guess what? It’s time I panned something. Most of my meals I’ve been bubbly so far, right? Well allow me to espouse my hatred of Harry’s Bar:

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Everyone says go to Harry’s Bar for the bellinis. Ok, we did that, here’s mom and dad with their bellinis:

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The bellinis were great: foamy, peachy champagne cocktails. The people who say “go to Harry’s Bar for the bellinis and nothing else” are right on the money. And money is where my hatred begins to fume. You would not could not should not believe how expensive the food at Harry’s Bar is. Oh my God. I mean my eyes literally fellt out of my head. For a plate of risotto it’s like 60 euros. That’s like $70. For ONE PLATE of risotto.

I’ve eaten expensive food in my day but never that expensive in terms of what you get for what you pay. Here’s dad with his money-bleeding seafood risotto:

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I tasted it and it had curry in it and it was interesting and all but never in a million years was it worth $70. I ordered fish soup because it was reasonable at 40 euros. Here it is:

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It tasted like water and there was nothing redeeming about it. I hated the food at Harry’s Bar and I hope never to go back—bellini or no bellini.

How’s that for a pan!

But here’s a happy excursion. That afternoon I went alone to the Peggy Guggenheim museum which I loved:

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I don’t know much about Peggy Guggenheim but I love modern art and here you can see Dali and Magritte and others in Peggy Guggenheim’s actual house. Here’s her grave:

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She’s buried next to her cats or dogs, it’s difficult to tell.

[There’s actually this very moving room in the museum that’s filled with creepy childlike art and you realize, after reading the placard, that this is the art of Peggy’s daughter who killed herself.]

I ate some mediocre gelato on the way back. No need to go into it:

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But alas, friends and troopers who’ve read this far (really, how did you do it?) we’ve come to our final meal in Venice. At the beautiful Hotel Cipriani which you must take a special boat in order to enter. Here’s the big sign you see when you pull up:

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We spent some time walking around the grounds; check out the pool:

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And check out these grapes:

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Soon we were sat in the hotel’s restaurant: Restaurant Fortuny. Here’s mom and dad with the menu:

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(Notice mom’s Venice dress? She really dresses the occassion.)

This was another view-happy restaurant with a beautiful view of the water. This was also another fancy parent restaurant that was delicious but not recommendable for the budgeted student traveller. I started with an appetizer of (and again I took notes, I rock so hard): “Tortelli di cappesate con salsa zenzero e limone” (homemade ravioli filled with scallops, ginger and lemon sauce):

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Very light and very lovely. A good mix of flavors and textures. (How will I ever find enough adjectives to describe the food I ate on this trip?)

For my entree, I don’t know if my notes correspond with the food I ate: “Nocette di vitello al ‘vin santo.'” However that translates, it was veal with foie gras on it.

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Delicious but very very rich and heavy. This will also be a theme. (Oh, notice the truffle on top. Again, like the truffle I had at Babbo, it was disappointingly unintense but still nice to experience.)

For dessert they brought us bonbons:

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We had a tiramasu:

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And then this plate of treats:

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Would you believe it? That’s the final plate of food we ate in Venice except for the food we ate the next morning at breakfast. Then we borded a tiny boat that took us to a dock where our giant cruise ship awaited us. Yes, believe it or not, the Venice eating was just the pre-gaming for the two week culinary Superbowl we’d endeavor once aboard. Are you ready to get fat? Tune in tomorrow for Dubrovnik. I’m off to another night of jetlagged slumber. What a huge post! And this is only the beginning!

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