It was not just another cold day in Venice. Today the sky was slightly grey and the sun was coming out slowly, gently. It became a precious light, guiding us through the lonely streets of Venice. The winter season brings a distinct stillness, and if we stop, we can hear the locals breaking into their dialect. We now feel Venice belongs to us somehow.
Day after day, I have been delighted to meet the Venetians. People who have taken me under their wing and opened their homes, their cupboards and their hearts, wanting nothing more than to share a recipe, a story or a laugh.
Setting up the cooking school here offers some interesting challenges. I have been working with Italian tradesmen, who work at their own pace before breaking for a long lunch in the middle of the day.
Today I found myself at the home of Roberto, my talented carpenter, who lives on the small island of Pellestrina. I spent the morning with his wife Viarella and one of the best cooks I have ever met – Nonna Giuseppina.
The Italian welcome is always outstanding and warm. We started with the grand tour of Viarella’s home. I looked at pictures of her son Nicola as a baby, who now works alongside his father Roberto. It served to remind me of the first steps we all take and the paths we follow to somehow become better human beings.
Then we enter the kitchen, which we would not leave for the rest of the day. I was given all the critical details and told why the food here was different.
“We do not cook like in Venezia “explains Nonna Giuseppina. “Here we carefully remove all the shells of each crustacean, each clam…”
“And we certainly do not eat the squid ink,” shouted Viarella.
I was introduced to another world, one that was far from the exquisite spices of Venice. Here, simplicity speaks for itself. The food is honest and true. Not too much or too little of anything – just right. The perfect pastasciutta gently tossed with the scampi was simply outstanding. The seppie in umido served with polenta was a dish that needed no additions. It was all perfectly balanced.
Returning home to Lido di Venezia, you can see the difference between the two worlds. At Lido, you see the beautiful houses and villas, which have been designed to accommodate taste and style.
And then the bell rings. My carpenter Roberto is here. As he enters my home, he simply requests an “ombra” – a traditional Venetian word for a glass of wine.
The name harks back to the days when Venetians would have their wine huddling in the shade cast by the Campanile di San Marco. In Venice you will certainly hear this word coupled with rosso or bianco, indicating which wine they wish to drink – red or white.
But the night did not finish there as we headed to Venice. Just four stops from Lido di Venezia, you will reach San Marco Square. A short walk took us to one of the best places to eat in Venice – Osteria alle Testiere.
We not only had a fantastic night there, but possibly the best food in town. Venice has become renowned for its touristic restaurants, making it a very difficult place to eat well.
At Osteria alle Testiere, we were surprised by its simplicity and the way it brought old recipes to life. Take for instance the molluschi al zenzero. The dish was enlivened with a touch of ginger. Venetians were very adventurous people, and while discovering the New World, they brought to Venice precious spices like ginger, saffron and nutmeg. The delightful flavor of nutmeg were quickly embraced by the neighbouring region of Emilia Romagna. The spaghetti alle vongole was a huge success, while the flavours of my branzino with orange still linger in my mouth.
The night rolled on. In the middle of January Venice is quiet, which means we can enjoy a good chat with the locals. Luca, our host at Osteria alle Testiere, offered us just that.
Luca had an eye for detail, making sure there was bread for each course. He also made sure our courses were treated with the correct respect so that we were transported to another world – the Venetian world.?
After devouring dessert, a decadent chocolate cake and a delicate cream caramel (“no whites, only yolks”), we were asked if we would care for some coffee or grappa.
Opting for the latter, my friend and I spent another good hour chatting about Luca’s interesting life style, the visit to the chiropractor, the birthday party of his daughter Virginia which was being carefully organized.
As my glass of grappa keeps getting filled Luca continues to deliver the magical flair explaining with details his adventurous Venetian heart.
A heart which was also craving for friendship, for a good old chat and for another glass of wine. For the local immigrant from Bangladesh who sells roses, he offered a beer. He listens to the music playing in the background and somehow it whispers the night is closing.
We look at the clock and my friend and I realise that it is past midnight, and all Cinderellas should be in bed by now. Yet, we stay. We have another glass of wine and talk about Venetian life. About how the stillness will change when the chaos of The Carnival begins.
We put on our coats and walk the streets of Venice, making sure we were whispering amid the silence in respect of the inhabitants dreaming of a new day.
We made our way to the vaporetto just in time to catch the last boat to Lido. Looking at the other passengers, we can only spot few locals who were also enjoying the lights closing in on Venice.
At our final stop, we can see our bikes waiting for the last ride home. The cold wind and the deserted streets make me feel the winter season is the best time I have ever spent in Venice.
As for la Dolce Vita, it should be croccante, just as Luca explained.
Where life is crunchy, where there is a bite for everything.
Where there is no fear and the desire to live.
Where we taste freshness at its best. The secret of life?
A good bite.
Just a simple, good bite.
I can easily finish this beautiful postcard with the way Venetians live. Dreaming…. Searching for something…. Not worried about the wind.
With so much love
Perche’ il sogno piu’ vero e’ quello piu’ distante dalla realta’, quello che vola via senza bisogno di vele, ne’ di vento. – Hugo Pratt.
Because the most truthful dream is the most distant from reality.
It is the one who travels without any sail or wind.