Bidding farewell to England with a meal to die for in Venice
“But how do you stand the tourists?” Everyone asks me this. When I say I’ve just moved to Venice, it’s the inevitable response. Such is the image of the poor, raddled bride of the Adriatic, her beauties buried under selfie sticks and cheap masks, her skirts besmirched by the effluvia of gargantuan cruise ships, her great plague churches, Redentore and Salute, defenceless against the new pestilence of mass travel. The right answer, I suppose, is “But how do you?” How do you bear the bottlenecks on the M25, the Central Line at Bank, the tat of Oxford Street, the painful nostalgia of Covent Garden? Given that no one in their right mind would hang out in Leicester Square on a Saturday afternoon, one simply applies the same formula — avoid Rialto in the day and San Marco between 10am and 4pm and the ravening hordes won’t bother you in the slightest. Perhaps in repeating the truism, the sceptics are merely observing Henry James’s diktat that there is certainly nothing new to be said about Venice, and better so, since “it should be a sad day indeed when there should be something new to say”, but the truth of the remark signals the real challenge of Venice — the sheer impossibility of writing about it. Everything that can possibly be said has been said already, and said better. Venice is overgrown by the mould of literature to such an extent that not a single new word is able to penetrate her dreamy, timeless walls. All that remains is quotation — as Gustaw Herling said.
The Venetian empire was founded in the seventh century on Torcello, out in the lagoon. In 1935, Giuseppe Cipriani took over the old tavern on the island and founded another. I shouldn’t attempt to describe the wonder of the mosaics at Torcello any more than the exquisite sweep of the Grand Canal, but the Locanda offers a verbal wrestle with perfection on a more human scale. Both readers of this column will recall that it has Views on Harry’s Bar in the city, whilst the various outposts of Cipriani from Manhattan to Istanbul are variously horrible, but Locanda Cipriani might just be the restaurant. All great restaurants share a psychological quality, whereby they convey to the customer, the moment she arrives, that their only intention and purpose is the giving of pleasure, and at Locanda Cipriani this is compounded with the most exuberantly beautiful setting, in its history and composition, that I, certainly, have ever seen. When I went recently, the walled garden, with the view over the lawns to the tower of the basilica, was boisterous with lavender and roses, the long, thickly leaved pergola brimmed with green thoughts in green shade and the moeche were still in season. These soft-shelled crabs are a refined and rather vicious delight — conventionally put in a barrel to ingest their own stuffing of flour, parmesan and spices before being deep-fried alive, and the Venetians go nuts for them. We ate six with a smooth glass of Soave and watched the butterflies in the poppies on the high bank which gives onto the lagoon.
The Locanda doesn’t attempt to do adventurous or innovative food; it focuses instead on the ultimate renditions of those same dishes which can be found everywhere in Venice. So the tagliatelle with young peas — puréed and scattered raw — is merely the best version of the dish you could ever eat. Ditto the shellfish soup, intense with saffron and a touch of conserved tomato, which left every bouillabaisse I’d ever tried looking rode hard and put up wet. Much of the Locanda’s produce comes from Torcello itself, or the neighbouring garden island of Sant’Erasmo. Once you have been overwhelmed by the Last Judgment in the basilica you can take a slightly surrealist stroll through the spiky beds of artichoke through which the boats glide. Zucchini flowers, the most friable of Italian summer classics, can often be disappointing — flaccid and greasy rather than ethereally crisp, but the proximity of garden and kitchen at the Locanda left their petals robust enough to withstand stuffing with ground scampi, and the merest suggestion of batter before being plated on a purée of more flowers and zucchini. The bells rang and the lizards played hide and seek and the scampi tasted like paradise, in the sense of elusive and impossible to believe in. Next, tiny little soles which looked so cheerful you felt they might start chatting were it not for the stern gaze of an august fillet of shimmering turbot. Nothing much else except a scattering of capers and a little black pepper, and of course the fish needed nothing more to taste exactly of themselves.
The Locanda is famous for its lemon- vanilla crespelle, sweet stuffed pancakes flambéed in Cointreau. Our waiter came and did the business with the pan and the flame and no one felt the need to be ironic about it. I had the gianduiotto mousse with tiny wild strawberries and whipped cream. Gianduiotti, the hazelnut chocolates made originally in Turin, were originally designed to be eaten singly, to slowly coat the inside of the mouth — the version here was much frothier, a flirty kiss of sweetness rather than a Nutella-flavoured snog. The puddings encapsulated the complete lack of self-consciousness in the Locanda’s cooking, its uninhibited disregard for fashion. Perhaps Torcello itself helps — time moves differently there, as the living eyes of the mosaics could tell us.
So if the stranger would yet learn in what spirit it was that the dominion of Venice was begun and in what strength she went forth conquering and to conquer, let him not seek to estimate the wealth of her arsenals or number of her armies, nor look upon the pageantry of her palaces, nor enter the secrets of her councils, but let him ascend the highest tier of the stern ledges that sweep around Torcello.
Ruskin wrote that, in his pensione on the Zattere. He wasn’t much of a gourmet, but he was spot on about Torcello.