Hidden down a hard-to-find lane in the sestiere or neighbourhood of San Polo, the restaurant’s location is such that there is little chance that overheated, foot-weary visitors to Venice will find this lovely little spot, let alone be asking for any of the three items mentioned.
But the often-repeated oversimplifications that “Venetian food is bad” or “Venice doesn’t have any decent restaurants” is pervasive enough for owners Francesco and his all-seeing mother Piera, and their friendly team, to post the declaration of war against the bland, pan-Italian slop that passes for food at some restaurants in the city.
Yes, it’s true. Many restaurants in Venice do serve rubbish food. But so do many restaurants in Paris and London. Venice also has some gems, and while it appears that travel and food writers are just waking up to that fact, we’ve been quietly enjoying Venetian food for the decade or so we’ve been visiting the city. On many an occasion we’ve forced a smile when someone has said that Venice is beautiful, but the food is appalling. How wrong they are.
Antiche Carampane is not alone in serving up superb Venetian cuisine, based on fresh seasonal produce, in an atmospheric setting, and with a characteristically Venetian attitude to hospitality that is warm and welcoming, attentive yet relaxed, and always passionate and informed. We know many restaurants producing fantastic food in Venice, whether they’re focused on the classic cicchetti (snacks) and distinctly traditional Venetian cuisine or, like Venissa, they’re pushing the local produce to new corners of Venice’s admittedly narrow but deep culinary world.
But there is something about the way Antiche Carampane operates that best exemplifies what makes Venetian restaurants and their cuisine so special. So when Francesco invites us to come to Rialto markets with he and his chefs and to see how the restaurant prepares for the day ahead, we can’t resist.
We meet Francesco and his chefs Lele and Adriano, who have been with the restaurant for 20 years and 15 years respectively, at the pescheria (fish market) at Rialto in the morning. Each day they head here to seek out the best seafood that the fishmongers have bought from the wholesale market at Tronchetto at 4am that morning. This, of course, excludes Sunday and Monday when the market is closed – so if you find a place that’s selling seafood on a Monday in Venice remember that the fish you’re eating is at least three days old. Don’t eat seafood in restaurants on a Monday? It’s a popular chef’s saying for a reason.
Francesco has his favourite fishmongers, Marco and Luca, who know exactly what he and his chefs are looking for – and it’s not just intuition. The guys eat at the Antiche Carampane nearly every day for lunch so they’re not going to sell Francesco inferior seafood. Marco specialises in seafood that is 100% local, coming from the Venetian lagoon or Adriatic, while Luca also buys in the best quality seafood from other parts of Italy, the Mediterranean and Northern Atlantic.
These days one of Venice’s signature dishes, spaghetti con vongole (spaghetti with clams), no longer appears on Francesco’s menu. He explains that there have been problems certifying exactly where the clams are coming from in the lagoon and fishermen have been caught harvesting them from contaminated waters near the industrial area. Rumour has is that a fisherman caught with a haul was given the option of eating the clams or paying the fine. He opted for the latter. Francesco smiles and shakes his head: “I’m not going to serve them if I can’t be sure where they’ve come from – my kids eat here in the restaurant.”
On the morning we visit the markets Francesco suggests we also buy our seafood as the fishermen are going on strike the next day to protest European Union moves to ban the fishing of the tiny prawns and crabs the Venetians love so much, a move that Venetian-born Francesco opposes.
“We’ve been eating these for centuries,” Francesco says, “Brussels can’t tell us to change our culinary traditions.” Indeed, the fritto misto or frittura mista (fried seafood) is one of the most fun dishes on their menu. The miniscule portions of deep fried seafood are served at the table take-away style, wrapped in a brown paper cone to absorb the oil from cooking, with the cone also serving as a container for the crunchy treats.
Francesco chats to Marco and Luca about what they’ve bought for the restaurant that day, based on the order they placed, and he and the chefs discuss what else they should buy based on what looks good that day. Francesco presses the fish with his fingers. We know how to tell how fresh fish are by the clarity of their eyes, and in Jerez we learned how to also look at the colour of the gills (they should be bright red), but Francesco also recommends we press the fish with our fingers: it should be quite firm but a little bouncy, yet not quite spongy, and definitely not soft nor hard.
When the guys have everything they need, we do a quick visit to the vegetable section of the market where asparagus and artichokes are very much in season, have a quick espresso at Francesco’s favorite stand-up coffee bar, then it’s back to the restaurant where the laborious task of cleaning, cooking and shelling seafood begins.
Back at the restaurant, on one burner in the kitchen, a pot of wonderfully aromatic fish brodo (stock) is well underway. “Fresh every day,” Francesco tells us proudly. Crabs are boiling too, their meat to be extracted after they have cooled down. More seafood cools down on the benches. Indeed every available space in the restaurant is covered in seafood that was in the ocean just a dozen hours earlier.
In the compact kitchen, Adriano and Lele, with the help of Islam, who has been on the team for five years, are filleting and portioning tuna and other fish, and watching the pots, while pastry chef Fabrizio, a fairly new recruit from Puglia, is making desserts that will hit the table in a couple of hours time.
Around a communal table by the bar, Piera and waiter Kiko sit shelling mountains of crustaceans – from time to time they’re joined by Francesco and other members of the kitchen team. Anyone who doesn’t have a task at a particular moment will sit down to help clean and peel. And while they work they chat. They do this every morning. You don’t get bored, we ask?
“It’s better than being in an office,” says Kiko, a young Al Pacino lookalike, but with a greater tendency to smile than smirk. “It’s just something we do and we accept it. Friends drop in to say hello. It’s nice.”
When we called into the restaurant when we first arrived in Venice, Kiko remembered us from our meal at the restaurant twelve months earlier – a sign that they care about their customers. That, and the warmth and friendliness of the team – the moment we arrived today, we were offered coffee and a seat (although there’s little room in the endearingly cluttered space) – is what sets Antiche Carampane and other good Venetian restaurants apart from the tourist places along the Rialto waterfront and around Piazza San Marco that give Venice’s dining scene a bad name.
As the clock ticks closer towards midday, we decide it’s time to get out of the way. The team always seems pushed to be prepped for lunch; the time from when the seafood is delivered to when the first guest arrives never seems enough. Indeed, the first time we ever ate here for lunch, the restaurant was crowded and abuzz with diners, yet Pierra greeted us from the same table where she sat shelling shrimps. Yet another sign that they take their seafood seriously.
Quality seafood couldn’t not be intrinsic to what makes Antiche Carampane special. After all, it was opened by the son of a fish wholesaler, Piera’s brother, Giovanni Bortoluzzi, in 1982. Just like Giovanni, who gave up a bank job to open the restaurant, Francesco gave up a nautical career to help his mother run the place after Giovanni died and she took over. But we ask Francesco what he thinks their secret is.
“My grandmother was a great cook and many of the recipes we use here were her’s. They are very traditional Venetian recipes. Giovanni was also one of the most knowledgeable men around when it came to seafood, and Lele worked with Giovanni,” he explains. “But…” he says, shrugging his shoulders in that typical Venetian way, “We just love good food and wine.”