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, its 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, tiny little 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.
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 (sometimes called “moeche”…they’re tiny 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). Décor is…utilitarian, but who cares when there’s food like this?
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 an excellent grappa.
I didn’t think our last meal here could be topped. I was wrong. This is extraordinary. (10/07)
Copyright © Thor Iverson