‘But it’s a Venetian breakfast!’ my native friends exclaim when I bump into them outside Rialto’s fish market and give them the eye. They’re referring to the generous glass of white wine each of them are wielding, remarkably casually for 10.30am on a Friday morning.
It’s nearing the end of November, a special place in the Venice calendar, and the canal-flanked Republic is packed with pilgrims of two kinds; those seeking cultural salvation through a last-minute jaunt around the 59th Biennale and those looking for redemption of a more celestial, and dare I say satisfying, nature – at least as far as the stomach is concerned.
It’s no coincidence that festa, the Italian word for ‘party’, also means feast. The Italians have long understood food’s potential, not only as a social tool that brings people together, but also – let’s face it – as an insurance policy against that fourth aperol spritz.
This week’s feast is in honour of Santa Maria della Salute (Our lady of good health), whose eponymous, San Marco-adjacent basilica was commissioned by the Doge in 1631 after a deadly plague wiped out a third of the island’s population. Each year on 21 November, natives make a pilgrimage across a temporary wooden bridge to give thanks for their deliverance.
But deliverance isn’t the festival’s only grab; besides a frenzy of candle-lighting and an intense every-hour-on-the-hour mass schedule, the surrounding streets are flanked with balloons, street-food vendors and the year’s first whiff of oh-so-sweet vin brulè.
HEED THE CALL OF CASTRADINA
But for now, it’s breakfast – the Venetian kind, that is – and in keeping with celebrations, we join our friends for castradina at Rialto haunt All’Arco. Originally an import from Dalmatia, castradina is one of the island’s lesser-known specialities, cooked-up each year for La festa della Salute.
Made with smoked-and-seasoned mutton loaded with cabbage, you could say it’s the Venetian answer to the cure-all chicken soup. And while soup is, in fact, the dish’s conventional genre, local restaurants take pleasure in out-doing each other with new, innovative takes on this plague-ridding fare.
At All’Arco, that means hearty paninis, piled high with the recipe’s headliners, a welcome accompaniment to our pre-noon vino.
RETHINK YOUR SURROUNDINGS
Venice can be a tricky place for foodies to navigate. Throughout its maze of Calles and wrinkle-like Rugas, sorting the wheat from the tourist-chaff is no mean feat. But with a bit of perseverance (and in my case, a pair of clued-up Venetian pals) the rewards are plenty.
Not least at the Venice Venice, a Serenissma newcomer, nay, manifesto for post-Venetian style. Inside M’Art, the hotel’s all-day restaurant, one’s greeted by an atmosphere as slow as a gondolier’s lagoon-pushing paddle, many of which you’ll see gliding their way past the hotel’s al-fresco dining pontoon.
Menus that wouldn’t look out of place in a Brooklyn natural wine bar are displayed under glass tables – pop-inspired, full of fun-loving fonts and even funner food. We opt for sharing plates to tide us over till dinner; a starter of cicchetti – salty Venetian-style sardines topped with onions and pine nuts in a Scandi-esque smorgasbord twist, veal liver in gravy and a shot glass of creamy potato foam with Sant’Erasmo artichokes.
An additional helping of peppery pea risotto has us unbuttoning, though we vow to return the next morning for the old-meets-new-school (and delightfully kitsch) cart service of Moka and sugary fried pasties. On the way out we pause to admire Alessandro Saccardo’s black and white portraits of the local producers behind it all, which frame the interior dining space; farmers, fishermen, market traders, nonnas. True to tradition, this is the food that makes Venice, well, Venice, executed with a refreshingly forward-facing conviction.
They’re not the only Venetians teetering on the edge of the zeitgeist either. On the corner of Calle Larga, Venezia FC’s new merch outlet reads more like a high-fashion concept store. The blue-blood legacy of the classical city seems more modern than ever, with a new generation of lagoon-dwellers redefining what it means to be Venetian today.
EMBRACE BOLD NEW BITES
One stellar example of this can be found at Giorgione da Masa: a Venetian-Japanese joint tucked away in a Cannereggio corner. Interiors are cosy – rustic, even, not unlike your typical osteria. But there is nothing typical about Masshiro Homma’s katei ryori fare which combines the precision of a Tokyo-bound izakaya with the simplicity of a backstreet barcaro.
After scanning the handwritten menus, we’re set on the degustazione, a tasting experience that offers a little bit of everything. Since Japan and Italy (almost) align on the same latitudinal circle, the catches of each country are remarkably similar.
What sets them apart is the treatment. Waves of small plates are rolled out in quick succession; sardines in saor (it literally means ‘flavour’), marinated mackerel in onion soy, tender chargrilled squid. Palette cleansers of daikon miso soup and subtly pickled vegetables follow before a mouth-watering main of two-month fermented, yet citrusy-fresh Orata fish.
But it’s dinner’s final act that activates my inner Stanley Tucci, wide-eyed and cooing over half-eaten plates. The boozy Shōchū-infused panna cotta is a triumph, as is Masa’s (peculiarly savoury) take on traditional cheesecake. The most memorable, however – and bare with me here – is an unassuming scoop of gelato.
To describe it as a ‘journey’ would, for once, not be a frivolous estimation. It smells like gelato, feels like gelato, hell it even tastes like gelato. That is, until it doesn’t. Suddenly, it’s a cheese board, unmistakably Roquefort. The ideal dessert for the indecisive diner: two for the price of one.
The experimental theme of our evening rolls on into our final day on the island. This time, by name rather than nature. The sun has turned up to bid us adieu and Il Palazzo Experimental’s Adriatica restaurant makes a fine spot from which to enjoy it, perched as it is along Zattere’s glistening promenade.
While the Didion-esque Californian beside us laments the size of her mammoth cheeseboard, I’m left lamenting my empty plate, which just five minutes ago can you believe, was glowing with hot-pink lashings of whipped beetroot cream.
Luckily for me, there’s more – stracciatella pea and mint bombetta, beef carpaccio served with rhubarb and cashew caviar, and hefty sticks of fried, parmesan-sprinkled polenta. It’s the day of Salute, and families stroll past dressed to the nines, making their way to church. After an amaro to wash it down, we join them, candles in hand.
GIVE THANKS TO YOUR HOST
The Longhena-built basilica of Santa Maria della Salute is a sight to behold any time of the year; a dramatic domed space with ornate, polychrome marble floors, Josse de Corte altarpiece and eight radiating chapels. But especially today, as clusters of flames illuminate the interiors while a sombre chorus of Venetian voices chant Santa Maria, Madre di Dio, prega per noi peccatori.
Outside the church, however, sombre it is not. Children hyped-up on sugar-coated frittelle play while adults gather, spritz in hands, to celebrate their city, enduring as she is.
If there’s one take away from our weekend among the waterways, perhaps that’s it. In Venice, life depends on strong foundations and progress depends on respect for the past. It’s an ethos the new generation of Venetian tastemakers hold dear; to break the rules, you must first master them.
And us? Well, with time for one last toast in the steadfast city, ‘To good health!’ seems appropriate.
Seasonal seduction: why we love Venice in January