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Special Travel Issue | Italy

True Tables of Venice

Skip the Restaurants That Cater to Tourists in This Storied Canal City and Find Out Where to Eat and Drink Like a Venetian

March 30, 2003|Marlena de Blasi | Marlena de Blasi is a journalist and former chef who has written two cookbooks on Italian food and "A Thousand Days in Venice," a memoir. She lives in Umbria.

Ater a visit to this water kingdom in 1993, rather than coming home with some wonderful piece of Murano glass, a gold-rubbed cherub or a handmade Carnevale mask, I returned instead with a Venetian. A deep-voiced, blueberry-eyed Peter Sellers type, he followed me home, asked me to marry him, and together we returned to la Serenissima to live at the edge of the Adriatic Sea.

During the 1,000 days I lived there, I discovered how to eat and drink like a Venetian rather than a tourist. I eventually carved myself a luscious gastronomic route, marking the most genuine, traditional stops along the trail of la vecia cucina Venexiana--ancient Venetian cuisine--full of absorbing dishes imprinted with the same spices that were the prized booty of the city's trading epoch with the Arabs, Turks, Persians and Egyptians.

I trolled the markets near the Rialto Bridge, ogling the baroque, seductive heaps of fruits and vegetables and herbs and wild grasses--looking like a Caravaggio painting--from the agricultural plains that stretch out beyond the city. I'd stand amid the clamor of the fish hall, inhaling the dizzying perfumes of sea salt and fish blood, coveting every slithering, swimming, crawling creature for my kitchen pot. The spices, produce and seafood translate into lush heirloom dishes such as sarde in saor, fresh, briny-sweet sardines that are fileted, fried and laid to rest in vinegared onions and bay leaves, strewn with pine nuts and wine-plumped raisins.

I learned about the bacari, the traditional wine bars where Venetian gastronomic, social, political and sentimental life unfolds. I discovered which trattorie and osterie served the most authentic food, and early on learned to avoid those ever-present tourist restaurants where six-language menus spit out by computers hang in windows and the fish served up have long-dead eyes.

Though my blueberry-eyed Venetian and I live in Umbria now, Venice remains very much a part of our lives. And the gastronomic trail I laid 10 years ago is the one we follow still. Primal to learning how to eat and drink like a Venetian is to understand the ritual of andar a ombre--"to go for a shade." The story goes that in the early days, when St. Mark's Square was still a grassy expanse tangled with grapevines and cherry orchards, strolling vendors sold cups of wine drawn from barrels set on wooden carts, refreshment for merchants, nobles, seamen and priests. The carts assembled in the shade of the bell tower, and as the hot Venetian sun moved, so did they, following the slivers of shadow as they circled the tower. Hence a glass of wine from these vendors was called an ombre--a "shade." It still is.

Watch the Venetians and see that to take an ombre together with a friend once or twice (or more) a day is to renew the bond, to celebrate each other. They quaff a tumbler of prosecco or torbolino, custoza or tokay, local white wines. To keep company with the ombre are endless little bites called cicheti (chee-KET-ee): a bit of roasted polenta topped with a smudge of baccala (dried cod) whipped to a cream; tiny fried cuttlefish tossed whole into the mouth from the tip of a toothpick, letting the warm ink in their bellies wash slowly down your throat; half of a hard-cooked egg, its yolk orange as pumpkin and topped with an anchovy.

So when friends say, "Se vedemo piu tard," Venetian dialect for "We'll see you later," it is not an idle phrase. They probably will meet again soon at a wine bar to enjoy one another's company. And where better to start getting a true taste of Venice than at Do Mori.

Cantina do Mori

Nearly hidden on a little street inside the Rialto marketplace, Venice's gastronomic center, Cantina do Mori has fed and slaked the thirsts of merchants and citizens, blackguards and kings for 500 years. During my first forays around Venice, I would sidle up to the bar here with the fishmongers and butchers, the farmers, the chefs, the indigenous citizenry. I watched them, mimicked them, calling for my own tumbler of cold tokay at 9 a.m., shameless as a sailor.

I never could quite get the hang of tossing my head back and pouring the delicious stuff down in a single, long guzzle. The Venetians would slam an emptied glass on the bar, pull out the proper coinage and be out the door while I was still on my second, tentative sip.

Food will help, I thought. And so, again, I did what the Venetians do, calling for a pair of castraure--tiny, thumbnail-size artichoke hearts on long, slender stems, braised in white wine and lemon. Having dispatched them, I ordered little pickled onions wrapped in anchovies; a chunk of whiffy cheese; a tiny sandwich of smoked trout; then one smeared with truffle paste; another with a mash of wild mushrooms and cream.

I was almost feeling at home, but still too paralyzed to speak to anyone but the barman. I stood there, watching the diorama before me. But Venetians are intolerant of timidity, and soon they began talking to me. Then I was home at last.

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