Our first night in Venice – Located right up the street from our apartment in the Castello “sestiere,” or quarter, the Osteria Oliva Nera was an obvious choice after our very delayed, late-night arrival in Venice, so we headed there just after our rental agent Silvia finished giving us a tour of our lovely studio apartment, home for the next ten days.
Despite the hour, well after 10pm, and its location on a very quiet street that is more for locals than tourists, the Osteria was still quite crowded, and the minute we entered, even though we were still a bit groggy from our twenty four hour fly-and-wait marathon from Colorado to Venice, we could see why – the atmosphere of this small, informal restaurant was incredibly welcoming, thanks to the very warm and gregarious owner/maitre d’, Dino. We knew we were in good hands as soon as we were quickly shown to a small table and given the menus, and Dino came over to discuss EACH dish in detail, to help us make our choices!
This osteria is a small, informal place with perhaps a dozen tables, that features a Japanese chef, as we found out from Dino, who had come to Venice to perfect his skills in preparing the local specialities, and who had evidently brought along with him a Japanese waiter and waitress as well. Even though the kitchen and service staff were global, the cuisine was most decidedly local, making this a great place to try dishes that were developed in Venice centuries ago, and that still find their inspiration in what is available from both the sea and the earth close to Venice.
Since we had hardly eaten in the past twenty-four hours, because of the delays we had experienced on both American and Alitalia, we ordered a full dinner, despite the late hour. For our antipasti, we had two dishes – Soar, a very traditional dish of fresh, local sardines delicately fried, and then prepared sweet and sour – with marinated and stewed onions, raisins and pine nuts – and also a creamy, soft polenta served with boiled local fish, minced and formed into an oval patty. We shared our first course, an amazing fresh pasta prepared in octopus ink and accompanied by heavenly langoustines. For my second course I had turbot prepared with shredded ginger and carrots, which gave the taste of the white flesh of the fish real depth and complexity, while Tali had sea bream, with fresh roasted, grilled artichokes which were then puréed into a thick, aromatic sauce. We shared a dessert of perfectly prepared Crete brûlée, chosen from a menu drawn freehand on the spot by Dino, in the shape of a flower, with each petal representing a dessert offering! To complete our meal, we sampled small glasses of Dino’s homemade orangecillo and lemoncillo, offered without charge, which tasted and smelled of the fresh fruit peels from which they were made. As if that weren’t enough, before we left, Dino presented Tali with a gift of a bottle of his own olive oil!
Our dinner came to about seventy Euros each, but priceless was the ongoing conversation we had with Dino and his wife Isabella, throughout our meal – conversations with those we buy services from are always a big source of what we learn about how people are actually living and feeling as we travel around the world, and tonight the main subjects of our chat were the Italian economy, and the state of the tourist trade in Venice. Dino felt that while business seemed a bit better in Venice than it was a few years ago, Venetians were still “standing, arms crossed, at the window,” watching and waiting to see how the economy fared this year, under the policies of the new, post- Berlusconi government. He also felt that local restauranteurs needed to be more hospitable towards tourists in order to survive, and that the high exchange rate of the Euro was hurting business in Venice, as his costs for fresh ingredients continue to rise ever higher.
After such a day of flight delays, both in Colorado and Rome, followed by the loss of our baggage somewhere along the way, a great meal was just what we needed to improve our attitude about having made this mid-winter trip to begin with, and we were very grateful to the Osteria for having provided one that exceeded our expectations in every way!
At our trip’s beginning, we stay close to home – So far, we are sticking to our local neighborhood in Castello… our apartment is perhaps only a five minute walk from St. Mark’s Square, but very un-touristy in feeling, with very little foot traffic, and stores that seem to cater more to natives than to tourists. There are also many wonderful restaurants here in Castello, some of the very best in all of Venice, and most are just a few minutes walk from where we are staying!
We selected one of the finest, Il Ridotto, for our second dinner. This is a small, elegant restaurant, with just eight or so tables set in a very modern decor – unadorned walls, exposed brick, and sleek contemporary chairs, very unlike the rough-hewn post and beam look of most traditional Venetian restaurants.
As it is a much more formal dining place than the Osteria we visited last night, there was none of the friendly chat in Il Ridotto that we had enjoyed yesterday, although the quality of the food was just as superb. We each had the chef’s choice of four plates plus an amuse bouche, a very good value at sixty euros per person – the chef selects four dishes from his menu, fish, meat, or both, sometimes serving couples the same dish, sometimes not.
We were given two different antipasti – the first was a plate of several small octopi prepared in a stew of fava beans and turnip tops, the second, langoustines served in a thick cream of cauliflower with crunchy slivered almonds. I had never tried octopus before, and I was surprised to discover that it tasted nothing like squid, as I had thought it might resemble – in the skilled hands of the Il Ridotto chef, the octopus was soft, not chewy, with a clean, vaguely crustacean flavor – delicious! The langoustines were also perfectly prepared, with the cauliflower cream making this appetizer quite substantial.
The first course was the same for both of us, tubetti pasta served in a stock reduced from cooking a local fish, called “Go,” along with tiny pieces of the fish itself, which had a similar taste and consistency to calamari, and aromatic herbs from the lagoon. Delicious, but not quite as stunning as the first course of fresh pasta in octopus ink at Osteria Oliva Nera.
We also each had the same second course, Branzino (sea bream), skillfully and deliciously prepared with celeriac and green mustard. It is fascinating to see how different chefs start with exactly the same fresh ingredients, and come up with such different preparations!
We had the opportunity to sample two different desserts, what Il Ridotto calls “our idea about tiramisu,” dense and richly flavored with coffee and cacao, and a thick chocolate soup, with a cocoa biscuit that had a hint of raspberry filling, and a generous scoop of ricotta and saffron ice cream.
Everything at Il Ridotto was prepared perfectly and served beautifully on oversized white porcelain plates. Half bottles of a very good chianti were an excellent value at just nine euros, and there was also a nice selection of wines by the glass.
After we dressed back up again in all of our layers, we took a late-night stroll around San Marco Square where, under the auspices of Carnevale, a very good jazz group with an excellent chanteuse were performing jazz and popular standards live, despite a very small audience willing to brave the bitter cold to listen.
Contemporary art beckons, but first, we eat traditionally – French billionaire businessman Francois Pinault owns, among many other ventures, both Christie’s auction house and Samsonite Luggage, but he is best known in Venice for having amassed one of the largest collections of contemporary art in the world. He has housed part of it in a 1749 neoclassical palace, Palazzo Grassi, which he had minimalist architect Tadao Ando retrofit to display large paintings, sculptures and films. We visited the Palazzo today, and we’ll visit Pinault’s second, even bigger art museum, also renovated by Tadao Ando, the 17th century customs warehouse building, Punta Della Dogana, in a few days.
Our spirits were buoyed this morning by a call from our apartment agent Silvia, who let us know that, finally, our previously- lost luggage was to be delivered in an hour! We waited in the apartment for it to arrive, and it was like Christmas when it finally did – so many gifts, neatly folded and ready to wear, and all just for us??!!! We unpacked and put away our clothes and then, much more warmly dressed, we headed out for a walk to the Palazzo Grassi, to feast on some very exciting art, collected with quite a discerning eye, with money no roadblock at all!
But first, along the way to the Palazzo, in the San Marco sestiere, we feasted on a terrific lunch at Trattoria da Fiore. This is a family run restaurant that is divided into two parts – on the left side of the entrance way is a traditional wine bar, where locals stop in for a spritz, a prosecco, or an ombra, which they enjoy with homemade cicheto, Venetian tapas. We went to the room on the right side of the doorway, which is a seafood restaurant specializing in traditional Venetian dishes.
We began with a medley of seafood and vegetable cicheto, perhaps half a dozen or so different “small plates” artfully arranged on one larger plate. In addition to sardines, which are served lightly fried almost everywhere in Venice, there were grilled vegetables, including artichokes and eggplant, marinated scallops with tomato and peppers, and several other small pieces of fish – all perfectly prepared and delicious!
We shared a fresh radicchio salad next – we had seen some beautiful heads of radicchio displayed for sale in a fruit and vegetable store close to our apartment, and we were eager to taste the Venetian version, quite different from the radicchio we can get in the U.S. – here in Venice, it’s almost a cross between endive and Boston lettuce. In any event, with some balsamic vinegar and salt sprinkled over it, it was delicious!
I next had a fresh pasta in a light and flavorful tomato and seafood sauce studded with pieces of lobster, while Tali had the mixed fried fish assortment, including Adriatic Sea favorites sea bass, bream, sole, molecche, and schille. Both plates reflected Trattoria da Fiore’s skill at sourcing the freshest daily ingredients, and preparing many different types of seafood at once, each type cooked for exactly the right amount of time. Including aqua minerale and cappuccinos, and delicious Carnevale pastries served without charge, our bill came to about thirty five euros each.
After this lunch feast and our visit to the Palazzo Grassi, we had a wonderful stroll through the streets of Dorsoduro finishing up at the second part of Pinault’s Collection, at Punta Della Dogana, which we will visit the day after tomorrow. On the walk back, we stopped in at the Coop, a busy grocery store, and bought the ingredients for a salad, some pasta, and fruit, as we were too full from lunch to eat a full dinner. We carried the bags from the Coop back to the apartment with us, and had a late dinner to complete a wonderful day.