Serendipity In La Serenissima

The hidden culinary gems of Venice

Lisa Hilton

Venice, Joseph Brodsky wrote, is “the greatest masterpiece our species produced.” Nowhere does one feel this more strongly than at the Biennale Pavilions in the Giardini, where the reliable poverty of the artistic offerings only serves to glorify the impossibly extravagant beauty of the vista behind them. Harry’s Bar serves a similar function. In this city of the eye, there is nothing to look at except the joyless grotesques who make up the clientele: Harry’s has no view, no focus beyond its own pomposity. If Casanova is the presiding genius of the rest of Venice, Harry’s will always belong to the late Michael Winner. You can eat a toasted cheese sandwich which the great director once declared “historic”, there is also a mixed salad which would be worthy of any British Airways Executive Lounge, and of course the famous Bellinis, invented by Arrigo himself, tepid and bland and violently expensive.

People who go to Harry’s only have themselves to blame, but like the Biennale, it makes what is outside so very much better. Yes, one can eat badly in Venice, as one can in any major tourist trap — the pizzas at the Rialto are indeed just as nasty as the ones in Leicester Square, but the difference is, you are in Venice. Despite the hardy perennial themes flogged out at the Pavilions, great art has not been, historically, all that democratic. It was made mostly by geniuses to be looked at by rich people. Grumbling that the grub’s a bit dull when you are eating with a view of the Grand Canal entirely misses the point. In Venice, the visitor can become the art, step into the canvas, lend their own flimsy mortality momentarily to the refractions of the lagoon and inhabit this otherworld more perfectly than anything the cack-handed hucksters of the Biennale could dream of conjuring with a couple of Seventies TVs, a nylon hairpiece and a blow-up of Britney Spears. This is the only installation worth seeing, ever, and a mediocre spaghetti alle vongole seems a reasonable price to pay.

And there are wonderful things to eat in Venice. The tumbling spiked mysteries of the shellfish at Rialto market, snails and tiny crabs, the artichokes bobbing ready in plastic barrels on the floating fruitstalls near the Scuola San Rocco, smears of salt cod on baked polenta, squid ink risotto black as a Byronic beauty’s eyes. Brioche con marmellata in the little square at San Basegio, mint ice cream from Da Nico on the Zattere, the almond-shellfish pasta on the roof terrace at the Danieli if you’re feeling extravagant and fat little fregole, the giant couscous that came to the city — like so much else — from Byzantium, with sardines at the Pane e Vino in the landlocked square of San Raffaele Arcangelo if you’re not. Everyone who loves Venice knows this — and everyone has a tip, somewhere that no one has heard of and no one can find, which makes the discovery all the better.

The British Pavilion this year has been furbished by Sarah Lucas, who claims to have set her sculptures in a sea of custard, inspired by the classic pudding îles flottantes — floating islands, geddit? I was going to write about the show, but I find that I don’t have enough life, so instead here is my current Venetian obsession. Go now, if you possibly can, before the Michelin inspectors do. Venissa is on Mazzorbo, one of the trio of islands, along with Burano and Torcello, which make up Native Venice, the most ancient of the archipelago’s settlements, once the garden islands of La Serenissima. You arrive on a wide canal, past a small farmhouse where Casanova once hid from the authorities, and step through some plain refurbished outhouses into a vineyard, with trellises of roses curving towards an abandoned campanile, Venice from a medieval book of hours. The Osteria, which presently takes just 30 covers, is a simple modern glass pavilion, from which four chefs, Sabina Joksimovic, Andrea Asoli, Michelangelo D’Oria and Serena Baiano, collaborate on perhaps the most beautiful and innovative food presently available in the city.

The menu focuses on the fish, game and vegetables of the lagoon, with as many ingredients as possible grown on the Venissa estate. Our six-course tasting menu began with “White and Green”, a palette of asparagus in tiny constructions of gelato, ice chip, sponge cake and jelly, brought together with a green wood sorrel sauce, with a blood orange sorbet on the side. The preparation may have been impossibly skilled and finicky, but the result was extraordinarily pure and subtle, an investigation across the tongue of all the ways this familiar delicacy can taste. Then a purple potato purée as a cushion for little scallops, enriched with their own roe. Like eating a creamed wave, maybe. Then four little gift boxes of pigeon ravioli, in a pasta dough of semolina, egg yolk and cocoa, with a strawberry velouté, a game and fruit pairing I had never tried, which exploded in the mouth with a flavour so intense it made us laugh with pleasure. Gleaming alabaster turbot roasted with artichoke and smoked salt couldn’t hope to compete, but the fish had a pre-Raphaelite austerity to it that Ruskin would have approved of, clean and clear and tasting perfectly of itself. Puddings were a raspberry soufflé with a goat-cheese ice cream, an absinthe-flower tart, a 90-per-cent chocolate ice cream with rose petals.

I took my friend Stow, the last unemployed Old Etonian after the election, and possessor of a famous nose. We drank Venissa’s 2011 white, made from the Dorona, the “golden grape of the Doges”, cultivated in these islands for over a thousand years, velvety, full of dryness and savour, and a twisted Amarone, and a rethought Soave for comparison, from a list Stow described as extraordinary, challenging and brave. He had a taste-off with the young and exceptionaly talented  sommelier and maître d’, Stefano, while I watched the sky turn purple with the knowledge of the city’s presence behind us, invisible across the water. Occasionally a ship’s mast crawled surreally through the vines. Venissa is possessed of an harmonious beauty rare even in Venice — if you can manage to eat there, you will never criticise Venetian food again. But though it is not impossibly expensive or impossible to get to, it will soon become impossibly fashionable, and Charon will load up his gondola and plough grimly across the waters with the thrill-seeking regulars of Harry’s and the shrieking hordes of the Pavilions.     

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