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Gypsies, crabs & thieves

Part 2 of a 2007 Italian travelogue

by Thor Iverson

A Romanesque interlude

Gypsies crowd in on all sides. I’ve got one hand over the pocket with the coins, another in the air, poised to strike. My wallet, thankfully, is safely tucked in a pouch under several layers of clothing, but I’d rather the predatory groping not start (maybe if they looked like last night’s cabbie…). What I haven’t been able to stop is the pressing-in, the rapacious closeness that’s intended to precede the actual theft.

Finally, I’ve had enough. I start shoving. Hard. “Get away from me,” I hiss, pulling my hand back once again and balling it into a fist. But it’s no use. They’ve seen this act before, and they outnumber me. Exasperated, I just walk away…and thankfully, they don’t follow.

All I want is a subway ticket. Should that be so hard?

A Gothic overlook

After so much struggle, the subway ride itself is surprisingly calm. We emerge into a vast courtyard, slightly warmed by the morning sun and already filling with swarms of people and pigeons in equal number. Theresa attaches herself to the end of a rapidly lengthening line while I do a little bit of exploring through an altitudinous open-ended shopping gallery, its artistic and decorative opulence somewhat hard to fathom. For it is, despite all the frippery, simply a mall. I guess this is how they build them in Milan.

[mall][street from duomo]

Joined once more with my wife, I look up. And here it is: the famous Duomo. Or rather, half of it, as the lower portion is obscured by what appears to be the last stage of a restoration project. Well, at least someone in Italy is cleaning their buildings…

[duomo roof][duomo interior]
[duomo roof arch][duomo roof]

Thankfully, it’s the upper half that’s visible. Because, after all, it’s the top portion that draws people here. The interior of the cathedral is nice enough – and it’s certainly vast – but it’s the incredible detail up on the roof that is so inspiring and impressive. It’s a beautiful day for a walk in the sky. And so, up we go.

[duomo roof][duomo]
[duomo roof][duomo roof]

Liberty on track

Time is short, and we scarf a pair of tastily indifferent panini at the Milano Centrale train station, puffing a bit from hauling our overabundant luggage up the staircases, before entering the spacious debarkation area. It’s been a long while since I’ve been on a train (October 2001, the Paris-Avignon TGV…I think), and to my surprise I find that I’ve missed them. There’s a certain romance to a train journey that’s lost in a plane or a car, and only the most claustrophobic and dire stations don’t have their own momentum to add to the journey. Centrale is, once one disentangles from the crowded commercial entrance, anything but claustrophobic; in fact, it’s rather grand, yet on a scale that doesn’t quite approach Milan’s majestic Duomo.

Some of the romance dissipates when we find ourselves seated too close to a small pack of the loudest teenagers we’ve ever heard. (Well, we are in Italy.) And to be sure, the scenery along the Milan-Venice route is not the most beautiful in the world, with only a few vineyard-covered hills near the end of the journey providing visual interest. Still, it’s a restful and smooth trip, and as we pull into the Santa Lucia station in Venice – a surprisingly unattractive construction in this city of endlessly lovely architecture – I feel energized.

Of course, the city might have something to do with that.

Acqua vitae

We drag our luggage down the steps as the backpack-clad youth of the world (well, Europe and Asia…how many Americans can afford to be here right now?) mingle and laze in the station courtyard, while a live performance of Glenn Miller enlivens our environment.

Glenn Miller? In Venice? Yes, and Gershwin too. Talk about your cultural displacements…

And now follows one of our most epic bad ideas. Had we a lick of sense, we’d pay the larcenous tariff to hire a water taxi. But no, we’re too parsimonious for that. So on to the vaporetto it is, banging into a score of harmless passengers and blocking what seems like half of Venice’s tourists from entry with our overlarge bags and an empty wine shipper. (For all those whose toes, shins, and knees paid the price for our lack of largesse, we’re sorry.)

It’s hard to really enjoy the scenery surrounded by luggage, but for a while that doesn’t matter, as we’re on the slightly less compelling southern route, wheeling around the parking lot and past the cruise ship docks. This functional “underbelly” of Venice is the sort of thing they really shouldn’t let tourists see…it’s not that it’s unusually dirty or seedy, it just doesn’t fit in with the image (and certainly, Venice – the city of masks – is very much about image). We then turn east, with the low sweep of Giudecca on our right and the busier Zattere (which forms the southern quay of the Dorsoduro) on our left. Both are pretty, but they ease one into the city’s relentless beauty, unlike the immediate and breathtaking visual assault of the Grand Canal. But then, halfway down the Canale della Giudecca, the parade of sights starts. First, the restrained façade of Il Redentore. Then, the scaffolding-hatted peak of Santa Maria della Salute, which peers across the water to solitary and serene San Giorgio Maggiore. And then, finally, the Dorsoduro tapers to an end, revealing the churning crowds boiling forth from the Piazza San Marco onto the Riva degli Schiavoni, with a host of unmistakable landmarks all around them.

Immediately and without warning, the memories come flooding back. Those memories are why we’re here. A quick, three-day stopover in Venice many years ago did more than whet my appetite, it created a flaming hunger to return to this most beautiful, and yet almost achingly sad, of cities. Will eight days be enough to satisfy this desire? Or does Venice itself create this sort of peaceful yearning?

The two year itch

Once past the touristy center of Venice, our vaporetto is less congested, making our return to land an uneventful one, mostly free of shin-banging and muttered dialect curses. We walk through a peaceful green park on the edge of the Biennale Gardens – and of the many things that come at a premium in Venice, foliage is certainly one of the dearest – and emerge on the wide but largely untouristed via Garibaldi. Here in the eastern Castello, the bustle of sites and sounds seems miles and decades away (though this is an illusion; we’re merely in a pocket of calm between the major historical landmarks and the bustling facilities of the Biennale exhibition), and all the noise and cares of the mainland drift away with the ebb of the tides.

At the end of a narrow alley – and anyone who’s been to Venice knows how the word “narrow” must be redefined – we reach our destination. We’ve rented an apartment rather than a hotel room, the better to take advantage of the many enticing markets (and, to be sure, avoid some of the oppressive currency discontinuities between the euro and the dollar). It’s a little dark, though thankfully not windowless, and we were lucky to get it at all, as the presence of the Biennale exhibition has rendered a lot of the more enticing rentals unavailable. The owner – slim and attractive, but then that’s hardly unusual here – meets us, we sign some papers, and we are now as much Venetian residents as anyone not named Dandolo or Mocenigo…at least for the next eight days.

The afternoon has passed and early evening has arrived, so we hurry back out the door to do a little shopping. Tomorrow’s Sunday, and most everything will be closed, so this is a necessary procedure. The via Garibaldi has filled with locals doing their last-minute weekend market-hopping, and we follow them to produce stalls, cheesemongers, a butcher, and a local grocery (the aisles of which further redefine “narrow” in the Venetian context; anyone wishing to pass pretty much has to ask someone else to leave the store). A little wine is purchased, though not of particularly good quality; I’ll have to rectify that at the first opportunity. Then we’re back at the apartment, unpacking, resting a bit, and finally getting ready for dinner.

[canal at night]

Parking lot
[eating moleche]

The remains of the moleche

Behind the curtain

Venice has a bad reputation for dining. It’s not that you can’t eat very well here, it’s just that far too many restaurants – and certainly the vast majority of those clustered around the major sites – don’t really care if you do or not, because they’ll still make money by the pallet-load. I strongly believe that, perhaps more than any other well-known destination, Venice requires very careful advance planning in order to have a good time: when to go, what to see, when to see it, why it’s so important to get away from the teeming masses, and most of all where to eat. Because so many people come here, there are very few “secrets” among the best restaurants, but for all that this knowledge has been dispersed, it’s still surprisingly easy to get a table at most of the city’s finest…a few days’ notice will usually do it.

Not so our destination tonight. It’s been around for a while, which probably sustains its popularity, but Corte Sconta (calle del Pestrin, Castello 3886; the name means “hidden curtain” and it’s not easy to find without a good map) is always busy, and a week might not be enough advance time to secure a reservation. I called from the States three weeks ahead – the only restaurant where I felt compelled to do so – and just barely got us a table. As it is, we’re eating at 9 p.m., and we get the feeling an entire seating of tourists has already been through their meals, with a further refreshment of locals just barely starting to arrive.

Of all the places we ate on our previous trip, this is the only one to which we were determined to return. Not because the others weren’t good, but because this was an important, almost paradigmatic meal. I’d never had seafood like this before, and have only rarely experienced the like since; every dish was a revelation…simple, (mostly) local, and yet brilliant all the same.

We’re a little early, and so we stand at the bar with glasses of a lovely unlabeled Prosecco Amiable, the house wine (of which we drank two and a half bottles on our previous visit); just smelling it brings yet another flood of memories. Now, with more familiarity and…um…greater capacity, I could probably drink gallons of it, because if ever a wine style was aptly named, this is it. There’s a slight prickle, but certainly no obvious bead, and the wine is linear and utterly pure, with a little bite of rinds and skins at the end. It’s undiminished drinking pleasure.

At the table, we do as we did on our previous visit, and convince the waiter to just bring us whatever he thinks is best tonight. He asks us whether we’d like to conduct our evening in Italian or English (we choose the former, knowing he can slip into the latter if we’re truly confused), which is an offer I can’t quite remember receiving in France…

Raw red mullet is up first, thinly-shaved with vanilla and pomegranate seeds. I’m not a huge fan of the seeds (in any context), but the mullet/vanilla combination is extraordinary. Then: cured tuna, pristine and delicious. A small bowl of lagoon clams is next, full of tiny little morsels of elegant seawater, showing that – as so many of the city’s best fishmongers insist – the principal quality of the lagoon’s produce is not intensity, but rather subtlety. This is followed by spider crab with its roe, micro-octopi, and even tinier shrimp…so small they must have cooked for about a quarter-second before serving, like some sort of crustacean whitebait. Then there’s one of my favorite semi-local dishes, seppie (cuttlefish) – here served without its sweet ink – which precedes salt cod over grilled polenta, a larger and somewhat richer variety of shrimp, and some sort of tuna-based mousse.

[piazza san marco at night]

Goodnight, Marco

Dancing in the dark

After this deluge of dishes, we’re starting to fill up, but of course we’re not done. A plate of large white crayfish-like crustaceans (smoky with grill marks, which brilliantly offsets their inherent and fascinating sweetness) is next, followed by a plate of black spaghetti (the color comes from cuttlefish ink) draped with ultra-thin sheets of some sort of squid and sprinkled with florets of a local variety of broccoli that’s a dozen times more intense than anything I’ve tried back home. And then, to finish, the one and only thing we’ve specifically requested – because we know they’re in season, because we remember them from last time, and because they’re incomparably good – a flawless and utterly heavenly platter of deep-fried moleche (small soft-shell crabs, each no more than a morsel), which I still think is absolutely one of the greatest things ever pulled from the ocean.

The wine list is relatively long and stuffed with local bottles of interest, all for fairly reasonable prices (once one accepts the usual Venetian markup). I take aim at the higher end, since we’re having such a great time, and since such brilliant food deserves a wine to match, and receive a long and appreciative narrative from the waiter, who shares my passion for this particular wine.

Gravner 2002 Ribolla Gialla “Anfora” (Venezia Giulia) – So hard to describe, which is (to me) one of its most compelling features. Its brassy color precedes Rainier cherries, melon rind and rocks…a lot of rocks. And there’s significant and unmistakable tannin, more than one would ever expect in a white. In fact, I could easily see confusing this for a red wine, were the color hidden. The finish is long and mysteriously complex. Regular wine descriptors are somewhat insufficient here. I don’t know if it’s my failing, or that the vocabulary doesn’t quite exist yet. What I do know is that I love it. What a fascinating wine!

There’s no room for dessert…no room at all…but there’s always room for after-dinner drinks. With coffee from a moka (they don’t make espresso here, preferring this intense, licorice-like variation), I enjoy something a little stronger.

Aquileia “Centenario” Grappa “Gran Riserva” (Friuli-Venezia Giulia) – Oak-aged, and thus light brown, with enticing crushed flowers and a very elegant aroma. The wood smoothes things over to such an extent that I realize I prefer the raw but more exciting clear form of this spirit.

I didn’t think our last meal here could be topped. I was wrong. This is extraordinary.

After dinner, we take a sleepy but beautiful moonlit walk along the quay to the Piazza San Marco, stopping to listen to the din of competing bands at each café and watching dancing patrons in the square (which is almost shockingly empty), then head home, full of the city’s magical beauty and peace.

And fish. Absolutely stuffed to the gills with fish.

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Copyright © Thor Iverson