So what of the food in Venice? Well, as I mentioned previously the fact that pasta is not a northern Italian dish had led me to believe that I wouldn't see it on many menus. But that was most certainly not to be the case.
On our second day, we wandered up into Cannaregio, dipping into the Ghetto (Venice gave the world the word – it originally comes from the word 'getto' or 'gheto', which means slag in Venetian, and referred to a foundry that was located in the same the area that Jews were confined to on the islands) and then on to catch the vaparetto that took us, via the cemetary island of San Michele, to Murano, where the famous Venetian glass is produced.
The weather, which had been forecast to be cold, wet and even snowy during our trip, was glorious, so al fresco lunching was in order again for a simple cheese omelette. But food got a bit fancier later that afternoon, after we'd arrived back at Piazza San Marco via a vaparetto once more.
of the things we’d promised ourselves was a visit to Caffé Florian. Legend is the sort of word that tends to get rather over used, but Florian certainly qualifies. It first opened its doors in 1720 and is probably the world’s oldest coffee house in continuous operation – and in Casanova’s day, it was the only coffee house in the city that admitted women.
It’s sumptuous inside – but sitting outside is even more of an event. There (for a cover charge of €6 per person) you can enjoy a five-piece orchestra as you relax and enjoy the food and drink.
It also has a reputation for seasonality in all things – and they take this rather serious, as we found when we attempted to order Bellini’s (Prosecco and peach purée), to hear that, since peaches were not in season, it wasn’t available. We were not totally out of luck, though, as strawberries were available and make a Rossini.
One sip and it was quite clear that the strawberry taste was not artificial, but really was freshly puréed fruit.
And as for the dreamy little chocolate cake that I ordered …
There was something quite gloriously surreal and camp about the whole thing, with silver service and uniformed waiters, and the orchestra playing selections of Abba and then My Fair Lady. I can say without fear of contradiction that I had never entertained the idea that I would find myself sitting in the square that Napoleon described as “the drawing room of Europe”, drinking (in effect) a Champagne cocktail, eating a divine cake – and singing along, in my best Cockney, to Wouldn’t it be luverley, and with a grin on my face that would have done the Cheshire Cat proud.
That night, we tried another trattoria near the hotel and opted for a sort of full works Italian meal: anti-pasti, primo and secundo.
That meant some very nice prosciutto, that was not fully dry, with pears, which had been sliced in circles and was quite dry. My primo was a ravioli with buttermilk, so the menu said. I’m not sure what exactly the filling was – it was a pistachio green – but it was lovely. My secundo was sole – but when it arrived, it was four tiny fish, which was really rather fiddly and I couldn’t work out why you use such small fish when you can get far larger ones that actually have more to eat on them. So that was a bit of a let down.
The next day, we lunched again at the Fondamenta, where we’d eaten pasta on our first day. The Other Half had exactly the same again, while I opted for the spaghetti alla carbonara. It wasn’t the very best one I’ve had – that honour goes to Le Grande Café de la Bourse in Perpignan, where they serve it with a half egg shell holding a yolk on top, so that you can pour the egg onto your own pasta – making it the silkiest carbonara ever. But it was jolly decent anyway.
And after an afternoon when we got a vaparetto to The Lido (so that I could do my Death in Venice bit), we explored some of the narrow streets near the Ponte dell’Accademia and found yet another fascinating looking trattoria.
Fascinating it looked, but it was also quite clearly used by local people. And it wasn’t difficult to work out why.
I had calf liver with onions and figs, served with fried polenta. It was superb – wonderful, gutsy, simple food; quality ingredients prepared perfectly.
And it wasn’t the only such meal. The next day, lunching after wanders that had included a most enjoyable trip around the famous fish market just near the Rialto Bridge, we found a Sardinian trattoria. I ordered grilled lamb chops – hardly expecting a plate with five on it! But the real surprise was lemon to dress the meat – it worked beautifully and gave it a real freshness. And the polenta ‘crisps’, dressed with virgin oil and chopped rosemary, that we were served after we’d ordered were wonderfully moreish.
That night, for our last meal in Venice and as the weather finally fulfilled the forecasts, we had taken the vaparetto to Piazza San Marco, partly with the aim of visiting the legendary Harry’s Bar before eating. But as that was crowded, we changed our plans and went to look for food instead. What we found was a restaurant that was clearly aimed much more at tourists, but which had an interesting a simple menu. And here I enjoyed cuttlefish in ink with spaghetti – a veritable mountain of sweetness.
I might have headed to Italy with any expectation of eating much pasta, but what I learned was that, by and large, I’ve been undercooking the stuff at home.
And the overarching theme of the week’s food was that simple really is best.
Otherwise, I’m afraid that Italian coffee didn't seem to take much of a fancy to me – a couple of cups in a morning and I'd spend the next few hours desperately having to find toilets. Boy – I'd thought that French coffee was strong ...
And I didn’t get around to eating risotto or any Italian ice cream while we were there. But then again, there’s bound to be a next time.