Venice: Eat, Sleep, Drink
A Moveable Feast
By: Charles Giuliano - Dec 18, 2007
Centro Culturale Don Orione Artigianelli
Dorso Duro, Zattere 909/a
Telephone: 041 522 4077
E mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Ristorante San Trovaso
Dorso Duro 967
Telephone: 041 523 9835
E mail: Giorgio.email@example.com
It would have been fun to revisit the five star Hotel Europa in Venice, with its terrace on the Grand Canal, where we stayed in the penthouse, in 1959, during a summer long tour with my family. The dollar was worth something back then and Dad packed a briefcase full of greenbacks, as well as, several boxes of cigars as he was determined that our first and only family visit would be done in great style.
Room service wheeled in breakfast of croissants, orange juice, and coffee with its terrace view of the Grand Canal and Santa Maria della Salute. It was a lifestyle that one easily gets used to. But such was not to be. It proved to be a once in a lifetime opportunity. The next visit to Venice, in 1975, while a graduate student, was spent in a closet of a couple's apartment. The owner attempted to slip his hand under the blanket while serving me coffee in bed. I slapped him off with a sharp reprimand. Every night when I returned from a day of touring he embraced me proclaiming "Venezia e bella, non e vero?" To which I responded "Si si" while pushing him away. Oh those Venetians. And watch your back, literally, during Carnevale.
For old times sake I searched the Europa website. But, darn, it was booked for the time that we planned to visit. There are doubles available for as little as 250 Euros but the suite we enjoyed back in the day goes for a grand a night, in Euros. Dad sure was a sport.
When we began to realize the difficulties of booking reservations, even in late October, it got a bit desperate. Our friends Vico Fabbris and Grace Consoli e mailed a tip sheet of recommendations for hotels and restaurants in Venice. Astrid tried a few e mails and phone calls with little or no luck. Everything was pretty much sold out other than just taking our chances with some generic listings. There were some temptingly cheap options on the Lido which is the last stop of the Vaparetto.
It was around 6 pm when I asked Astrid to call the monastery or Centro Culturale Don Orione Artigianelli. She was reluctant to do so as it would be around midnight in Venice. But I reasoned that somebody would be manning the reception desk. We got through and with a combination of his poor English, and my pigeon Italian, learned that it was sold out for the time we wanted because of a convention. We hung up, talked it over, and called back with a plan to come on a Monday rather than a Friday. That worked and meant a major adjustment to our itinerary as well as plans to meet Horst and Bettina Hiemer, Astrid's family, which wanted to join us for the weekend. It later worked out as we were able to stay until Sunday morning at Don Orione's.
Booking with Don Orione (my shortcut for the full title) proved to be a fabulous recommendation. While not cheap, at 130 Euros a night, it had, location, location, location. The former monastery is now a hotel and conference center. We never saw a priest or nun although there were crucifixes here and there. As well as a flat screen TV in the breakfast area which runs a video loop on the Saint 24/7. Over the next several days we came to know a lot about the Saint, his life, good work, and the global organization.
The entire facility was as spotlessly clean as a, well, monastery. The room was huge for the price and as quiet as well, a church, I guess. But no TV. Too pagan. A nice bathroom and a window overlooking a courtyard. One thing about Venice, overall, it is such a quiet city. Unlike any other. No cars or even bicycles. Just those incessant waves in the canals. With barges that carry stuff around, from fruits and vegetables, to the scaffolding and materials for the endless renovation and maintenance of an endangered, sinking city. There are jolly fleets of gondolas with rich tourists snapping photos. And drop dead gorgeous guys with their sleek water taxies for the super rich.
Having found a place to stay, just steps from the Accademia Bridge and vaparetto stop in the region of Dorso Duro, we set out to explore. Over the bridge there was a wonderfully scenic and romantic twist and turn to Piazza San Marco. It is one of the most expensive regions in the world so the advice is to look but don't touch. We did lots of looking. Poking about we found the small but famous Harry's Bar. I wanted to order a Bellini until the price proved to be equivalent to the cost of a meal in a trattoria. So much for the hangout of Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. And because it was getting late we made the terrible mistake of eating in one of the restaurants in a side street having looked at lots of posted menus. The meal was one of our few Italian disasters. The prix fixe Tourist Menu was meagerly and ordinary while the waitress was young, self absorbed, and nasty. Never again.
We decided to stop for tea and dessert at a small café near the Accademia. Another mistake. The waiter who was about to close for the day served us and then laughed when I commented on the price of a small glass of wine. He agreed that it was outrageous but he was not the owner and did not set the prices. "Welcome to Venice" he said whimsically. Oh well, when in Rome. Or Venice. What are you gonnah do. Faggeddahboutit.
The following night, we followed up on Grace's recommendation and found the Ristorante San Trovaso and, around the corner, the Taverna San Trovaso. There we took all of our wonderful meals the next few nights. Including a festive birthday celebration in the Ristorante on Friday night when we were joined for a raucous reunion by Horst and Bettina. After a day of sight seeing, and the dungeons of the Doge's Palace, on Saturday we gathered at the Taverna which I actually preferred, as more homey, and fun than the larger, and more formal Ristorante. It turns out that both restaurants, just a short walk from Don Orione were owned by the same organization. All for the global good work it seems.
On our first night we just showed up at the Taverna and waited for the doors to open. We were lucky to get a table up stairs as the restaurant was full in a matter of minutes. I grabbed the host and made a reservation for the next few nights. As "regulars" we got great seating on return visits and came to know the range of the marvelous menu. On the recommendation of Grace I tried the zuppa de pesce which was flavorful and well stocked if a bit overcooked. Astrid had similar comments about an order of several grilled varieties of seafood. The side of artichoke hearts was superb. On another night I enjoyed a delicious osso bucco, one of my favorite dishes, and recommended it to Horst. The linguini carbonara was terrific and memorable. But the most unique and sensational delicacy was the pasta nero, or black pasta, served in octopus ink. It's a bit gamey, and perhaps an acquired taste, but certainly is not to be missed and a specialty of the house.
On our way to the Taverna we passed the local wine shop. They serve wine by the glass as well as an assortment of snacks for one Euro. The wine is cheap but I noticed these large generic bottles with no labels on the bar and inquired about them. This was the "local" wine sold to regulars, like the owner of the convenience store, who seemed to be regularly popping in and out. How is it I asked? Drinkable was the answer. How much? Just 80 cents was the answer. "I'll try it" I said. And it was terrific. It was unfiltered and bit murky but it definitely had a local, hand made flavor, not at all commercial. The kind of wine that my family made back in Sicily. And, at that price, easily the best deal in all of Italy.
And, what fun as the many patrons of the busy little wine shop spill out into the walking path next to the canal. The wall serves as a kind of rustic table to set down drinks and snacks. There were little clutches of friends sharing the news of the day or setting off for dinner.
I was excited about sharing the experience with Horst and Bettina especially serving Horst a glass of "local" wine for eighty cents. With a straight face I passed it to him and carefully watched his expression. He is a renowned German actor and we often play together in a lively and inventive manner. Given the language issues there is a lot of pantomime in our bantering about. "So what do you think of the wine" I asked? There was a serious reflection, another taste, and then the pronouncement "It's good." At this point I revealed the prank and ordered a round of champagne for a toast before moving on to dinner.
Ah, Venezia e bella. Non e vero?