Ten years after shadow
Part 7 of a 2007 Italian travelogue
by Thor Iverson
The ten-year itch
If there’s a Venetian itch, I’ve scratched it. Even though this week has flown by – not the least because I spent a little too much of it semi-comatose – I feel like I’ve soaked up this famously wet city, felt some of its rhythms, explored some of its darker corners. And yet…
I still haven’t seen everything I’d like to see. So if there’s another trip, there’s more to do. And that doesn’t even count revisits; I’d like to go back to the Basilica San Marco, for example. And I’d like to spend a lot more time at the various fish markets, trolling for the true produce of the lagoon, pairing it with plants from the marshy plains to the west and north…and washing it down with overly-marked-up wines from a local cantina.
But it might be ten years before I’m here again. Maybe more. I look at the ever-expanding list of places I’d like to go, and while Italy makes a number of appearances, return visits to places I’ve been are difficult to justify. And it’s not like Venice in 2017 is going to be all that different. Maybe it’ll be a little damper; I’ve no faith that the Italian government will ever be able to execute a “rescue” plan, misguided or no. But what will have changed is me. How will I experience La Serenissima a decade later? Will it still hold the same inexplicable combination of epic and lurid appeals? I’m looking forward to finding out.
Alas, this is my last day here, and thus there’s little time to make up for any gaps in the serenity of my republic. But there are a few things left to do. And so…
The Ca’Mocenigo is one of the few semi-restored palazzi open to the public. Others are open, but more as museums. Most of the rest are closed. I’ve always wondered who owned these magnificent structures, and during the preparatory work for this trip, I’d learned the truth: no sane person can actually afford the upkeep to maintain these as functional living spaces. So, one by one, these grand, historical buildings fall into ruin or legal wrangling, and much is lost along the way. Can’t one of the many international Venice funds turn their attention to these monuments? The many churches currently under restoration are all well and good, but the homes of Doges and associated oligarchs are certainly worth the effort to preserve, aren’t they?
Anyway, the self-guided tour of this particular palazzo is short but reasonably informative, though the facilities seem overstuffed with paraphernalia, and once out the door it’s directly to the Rialto for fish, to the Castello for wine, and finally back to the apartment for a lunch of razza (skate) and delicious radicchio tardivo.
Vie di Romans 2000 Isonzo Bianco “Flors di Uis” (Friuli) – There’s presence here. Dense without being heavy, showing concentrated citrus rind and peat. The acidity is decent enough, but this wine’s true quality is a strength of character, exemplified by its fantastic persistence on the finish. Really striking. Probably fully mature, but that’s just a guess, as I’m no Isonzo expert.
After lunch, I head to the Doge’s Palace for a temporary exhibit on the deep historical links between Venice and Islam. It’s a fascinating collection, tracing the early years of mutually beneficial trade, the architectural and artistic borrowings, and the temporary alliances that long defined the relationship. It also details the long decline into open warfare, with brief but temporary reconciliations, to the point where even persistent and essential trade links had to be abandoned.
The true brilliance of the exhibit, however, is that it’s set in one of the palace’s great halls (the Sala dello Scrutinio), one filled wall-and-ceiling with massive murals. It is certainly no accident that the hall the exhibitors have selected is dominated by a massive, incredibly violent rendering of the Battle of Lepanto, with the Venetian navy in the bloody midst of slaughtering the Ottomans. The contrasts and ironies inherent in the juxtaposition make the exhibit come alive with energy.
A restorative and aimless, yet fulfilling, walk around the back streets and abandoned alleys of the city eventually leads to one of my chosen destinations for a little “shadow” nibbling and sipping, but it’s inexplicably (on a Saturday?) closed. This is one of the true Venetian experiences that I’ve somehow managed to miss, and the regret starts to build. Despondent, I head back to the apartment…and, along the way, remember that there’s a fine locale for cicchetti and wine just steps from the tiny alleyway that leads to “home.” It’s in full swing as I arrive, despite an overcast day and a chilly wind that brings both food and drink down to refrigerator temperature.
The tables are not numerous at El Refolo (di Lo Duca Massimilano, Castello 1580, on the via Garibaldi), and of course the locals all crowd around the stand-up bar, but the offerings are quite broad for such a tiny establishment. I ask, in halting and undoubtedly mangled Italian, for a mixed plate of local charcuterie, and the proprietor lights up with excitement at the opportunity to show his wares; this is not the last time I’ll experience this reaction, no matter how bad my Italian must be.
What arrives (quite a bit later; this baccaro doesn’t rush its food, which stems from the obvious pride they take in it) isn’t just a fine assortment of salty meats from around northeastern Italy, but also cheese, miniature sandwiches that include some of the local cures, and the ever-obligatory grissini. With it, I sample a lineup of unidentified, and bone-chillingly cold, but interesting wines by what I’d call the half-glass.
Though it theoretically goes against my nature, I like tasting wines this way, because it removes the most important datum (the producer), and leaves the variety and site open to examination on their own merits. So whether it’s an anonymous Brouilly on the streets of Paris or this sort of surface-level varietal sampling, it’s a way to focus the senses on the aspects of wine that come not from the hand, but from the land and the grape. There are some who think that wine was better when it was all like this, and on my more cynical days, I could be convinced to agree with them.
Nosiola (Trentino) – Intensely perfumed, though (oddly) more so on the palate than on the nose, with a limestone foundation and a tapering finish.
Schioppettino Amabile (Friuli) – I’ve never had this grape in this style before, and it reminds me of some strange cross between Bardolino, lacrima di Morro d’Alba, malvasia nera, and grape soda. Raw fruit provides a bite to the grapey purple fruit that’s mitigated by mild sweetness. It works very well with charcuterie, though it’s by no means a “serious” wine. But who needs to be serious all the time? This is fun.
Raboso Piave (Veneto) – Polished but still close to the earth, with red fruit on the ground, herbs, and a vibrant, complex finish. Really good. On this one, I get a hint of the producer as the bottle is wielded in front of me…something with multiple leading Ms. Yeah, that’s helpful.
Dinner – without wine, thanks to a barrage of sips that somehow added up to a full quaff – is a simple but beautiful plate of Adriatic gamberi, pink and delicate, but as sweet and succulent as lobster. It’s a culinary sendoff that befits a city more connected to the oceanic bounty than any other in the world.
And tomorrow? Tomorrow I get in a car and drive. Across land. My disappointment is tangible.
Copyright © Thor Iverson