Monday, June 24, 2013

Italia - Venezia

You know, I didn't think I was going to enjoy Venice. It just sounds so hokey and touristy.  I've already been to the Venetian in Vegas, can't be that much different.  But we were travelling with family, and it was one of the stops on the itinerary. I would soldier on and do my duty.

Coming in via train, it doesn't look like much. But take five steps out of the station and you are on the grand canal with a flurry of boats motoring in every possible direction, houses seeming to magically float on the water, and the bustle of tourists trying to scurry off to their hotels. This is a special place in the world - there is nothing else quite like it. No cars and no scooters, only boats. It lends an amazing peacefulness to the city, especially once you get a few blocks from the grand canal and the water ways are no bigger than a few feet across.  At night when all the cruise ships have left you feel like you have the place to yourself. 

The first real market we saw in Italia. Beautiful, heaping mounds of produce.  The purple artichokes looked so good you'd want to eat them right on the spot. I've never seen anything quite like them. Everything comes in from the mainland here and it all delivered via boat. It is an endlessly flowing stream of crate after crate of food, wine, beer, and on and on. Considering how much goes into getting something on your plate, it's amazing it's not more expensive.

Venice feels like you are in Disneyland, only it's actually real.  There are so many beautiful boats. The vaparetto is the "water bus" and is the cheapest (€7 for a one way ride) around. There are also the gorgeous water taxis like the one above - shiny wooden hulls like something out of a Bond movie - that will gladly take you wherever you want for €40 - €100. Best bet is to just get a good pair of walking shoes and hoof it - it's not that big of a city.

Dinner our first night was at a tiny locals only spot way off the main drag, recommended by the owner of the apartment we were renting. Osteria Al Portego offered a great apertivo tasting of random local seafoods. The dinner menu was a bit more substantial with some hearty pastas and whole fishes.

Ever wonder what the difference is between an osteria, trattoria & ristorante is? Neither did I. But we found out anyway.  In Italia they are not necessarily interchangeable.  An osteria menu tends to be short, with an emphasis on local specialties such as pasta, grilled meat or fish, and often served at shared tables. A trattoria is less formal than a ristorante, but more formal than an osteria. There are generally no printed menus, the service is casual, wine is sold by the decanter rather than the bottle, prices are low, and the emphasis is on a steady clientele rather than on haute cuisine. A ristorante on the other hand will have white table cloths, proper silverware and a formal wine list. The food is not guaranteed to be any better. Ristorante basically charge more for similar food, and tend to prey on tourists. Buyer beware. 

A beautiful plate of fresh mozzarella with sliced artichokes and tomatoes, on a bed of arugula. I never thought of using arugula for a caprese, but it goes really well this - better than basil even. The peppery bite of the arugula greens is a great contrast to the creamy mozzarella and sweet tomatoes.

Some spicy little prawns with pappardelle pasta. A little bit of work getting the shells off, but totally worth it.

Mmmmm….spaghetti with clams. This is one of my absolute favorite pasta dishes - I feel complete having had it in Italia now. Beautiful little clams, releasing their sea brine just at the right moment to create a salty, luscious sauce. Perfectly cooked spaghetti and just a sprinkle of parsley.  Simplicity in it's purest form. 

Lunch by the canal; a few bites and a couple beers in the sunshine.  Big hunks of mortadella with pickled peppers, wedges of taleggio with figs, slices of cured salami. I don't really see how you could improve on this.

Oh, let's not forget about the gelatto.  After lunch we stopped at Gelateria Nico on the waterfront with an amazing view of Giudecca island, just to the south of Venice. 

Another plate of ham?  Si!  Dinner on night two of Venice is off to a good start. 

Pasta fagiouli soup.  With almost no chunks of pork or solid beans to speak of.  The taste was spot on - a deeply flavored crock that brings to mind a slowly simmering soup being tended to with love by little Italian grandmother.

Buried under that sauce is an irresistibly good piece of eggplant lasagna. Layers of thin sliced roasted eggplant, sandwiching alternating layers of mozzarella and ricotta. Incredible.

Half the fun of Venice is just getting lost in the alleys. Every turn leads you down another corridor that looks likt it has remained unchanged since the Venetians ruled most of the Mediterranean. People hang their laundry overhead, smoke cigarettes out the window on lazy, hot afternoons, and  pull their boats up to their front doors. This is a place like no other. 

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