Friday, 2 April 2010

Palladio and pasta

Every city you visit is in its own time zone – to some degree at least. So if you visit Barcelona, for instance, you have to adapt to the fact that the residents of that magnificent place eat late: 'Barcelona time' can mean sitting down for dinner as late as 10pm.

In Venice, dinner is much earlier – and rather logically, lunch is taken early too.

Our first full day saw us get up late after a much-needed rest, and only just make breakfast at the hotel. The next thing to do on such breaks is get transport sorted out: we picked up three-day passes for the water bus (vaparetto) and boarded one to take us, in round-about fashion, via the lagoon and then the Giudecca Canal, to the tiny island of San Giorgio Maggiore, where the Benedictine basilica, designed by architectural legend, Andrea Palladio, and built between 1566 and 1610 and a monastery are pretty much the only buildings on this tiny patch of land.

It was a delightful journey, followed by the first realisation that we still had some adjusting to 'Venice time' to do: the church was shut for lunch. After a stroll as far as one can stroll, and a stop at the island's tiny cafe for a bottle of water under azure skies, we caught another vaparetto and headed the short distance to the rather larger island of Giudecca, dropping off right outside another of Palladio's creations, Il Redentore, which was built to thank God for deliverance from a major outbreak of the plague.

Consecrated in 1592, it got the architect in a spot of bother, since it was apparently considered to have been a bit overly fussy in design. Which leaves you wondering just what the church rulers thought was simple – it's a magnificent example of light and space and perfect proportion that leaves you in no doubt as to why Palladio himself was such a hugely important figure.

And here too – since lunch had not seen it closed – we encountered something else for the first time: the presence of amazing works of art, in the context for which they were intended. In Il Redentore, there hang works by, amongst others, Francesco Bassano, Leandro Bassano, Jacopo Bassano, Palma the Younger and the workshop of Tintoretto.

Setting aside any real thoughts of lunch – not least because we simply were not ready for it – we ambled off to the other side of the island, strolling through quiet residential streets with washing hung high between the blocks of colourful buildings.

There was an almost secret (to tourists, at least) public garden (thank you, Time Out) overlooking the lagoon beyond; hazy islands visible in the near distance, most of them clearly containing institutional buildings.

It was beautifully peaceful, with little more to disturb the early afternoon than the sound as cormorants dived for food.

And thus, by the time we took the five-minute stroll back to the side of the Giudecca Canal, the main local eatery had finished serving.

We had a coffee and a fag and put our minds to this conundrum. Much as we would normally strive to avoid the main tourist areas for food, there seemed little choice but to get the vaparetto back across to San Marco and eat there. At least places catering specifically for the huge influx of visitors would not be running to traditional Venetian times.

We easily found a place, a matter of three minutes walk from San Marco itself, looking out on the lagoon and over to San Giorgio Maggiore. After weeks of dismal weather forecasts for Venice - up to and including snow – it was glorious; blue skies and real warmth. We sat out and ordered simple pasta: spaghetti with a plain tomato sauce for The Other Half, penne with Arrabbiata (a tomato sauce with red chili) for me, together with a demi of house red.

Pasta isn't really a northern Italian dish – it's more a southern thing. But while I might have expected, after pre-trip research, to find considerably more polenta, an absence of pasta would, in retrospect, have been a little like assuming that, because fish and chips is a speciality of northern England, it's limited to that part of the country.

We night have expected little – but in the event, were utterly delighted. Simple as you can get, gutsy and full of flavour. And the wine was lovely a light too.

Our first real meal in Venice (breakfast apart) and it was the perfect antidote to the constipation-inducing richness of the journey.

Whatever I'd expected; whatever I'd wanted, here was the start of a massive culinary lesson.

We sat for quite a while after; relishing the feeling of being pleasantly sated (rather than completely stuffed) together with the surroundings: even the general hubbub seemed natural and right.

When we walked back toward Piazza San Marco itself, it offered a first real opportunity to take in the extraordinary architecture and decoration of the Doge's Palace; covered in carvings and detail. And the next-door basilica of San Marco is no slouch on those fronts either – also boasting columns of many different marbles, 'rescued' by myriad Venetian merchants on their travels. They might have preferred trade to military endeavour, but the Venetians were certainly not averse to a spot of looting on the back of someone else's military adventuring.

The piazza also includes the San Marco campanile – the bell tower that collapsed in 1902 and was subsequently rebuilt as it had been. And on both the long sides of the piazza are loggia, which include, on the south side, Caffe Florian, one of the city's more modern legends. Although not really that modern – since it was established in 1720 and could well hold the title of the oldest coffee house in continuous operation.

The evening brought with it another food opportunity, and we headed to Nico’s, a small trattoria that we'd spotted on Friday night's introductory ramble through the city.

It was the sort of place that catered for a local clientele as well as visitors, and at least three generations of the family that owned it were on duty that night.

Again, this was simple food: a very fresh little salad of tiny octopus and celery formed an excellent starter. My main course was slightly disappointing – as much because I assumed that, when ordering “Sole alla Nico” it wouldn’t mean anything that I couldn’t eat. In the event, it was a sole alright (filleted before reaching the table by the restaurant’s patriarch, who carried out this task immaculately, with a fork and spoon), but unfortunately, as well as the lovely tomato salsa, it also had four mussels, and after two incidents some years ago, I cannot risk those lovely things.

It was a shame – but there was compensation ahead in my first taste of a tiramisu in Italy. Now coincidentally, in the weeks before our trip, the Good Food Channel had been showing several different series about Italian food, including Gary Rhodes’s Rhodes Across Italy. Shortly before we left, I’d managed to record the one that he’d filmed about food in Venice and the Veneto.

Watching that, I’d learned that a traditional tiramisu doesn’t actually have any booze in it. And sure enough, my first Italian tiramisu didn’t have any booze – but was utterly delightful.

So together with the sights and sounds of this extraordinary city, our first full day had been marked with excellent food – and food that gave an excellent demonstration of the fact that culinary simplicity is a wonderful thing.

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