Jun 22

Lessons in Venice on Wines of the Veneto

The wines found in Venice are as misunderstood by most travellers as the city’s cuisine – which is probably why we see more Sicilian chardonnays than Veneto soaves on restaurant tables.

Of course wine isn’t produced in Venice itself – although there are grapes grown on the lagoon’s islands and next year the restaurant Venissa on Mazzorbo will release its first vintage. Venice’s ‘local’ wine comes from around the region, so in keeping with our sustainable travel theme we decided to learn more about wines from the Veneto, and who better to teach us than some locals?

Lesson #1: A Basic Introduction
Our first lesson on Veneto wines comes from Lorenzo, the owner of MilleVini, a fantastic wine store in Venice, who we’re introduced to by the ‘cooking countess’ Enrica Rocca before her cooking class. Lorenzo gives the group a very quick introduction to the region’s most famous wines – with just enough information to better understand the vino that will be flowing at Enrica’s for the rest of the afternoon.

“The most famous Veneto wines come from the towns of the same name: Soave, Valpolicella and Amarone,” Lorenzo says, showing us some handsome looking bottles of the stuff at his store.

“Soave tends to be a fresh, light, dry white wine, although of course we can find delicious medium-bodied Soaves too, Valpolicella is a fairly light, easy-to-drink red which tastes of young cherries and pepper, while Amarone is a fuller red with flavours of plum, dried figs and very ripe cherries that is typical of over-matured wines.”

“Soave is made for fresh seafood, Valpolicella is great with many pastas, while Amarone – well, legend has it that it was created to drink with horsemeat stew! You know they used to call the people of Vicenza ‘cat-eaters’! – is great with meatier main courses and cheeses.” Done.

Lesson #2: Veneto Wines in Context
Our second lesson is with certified sommelier and master cheese taster, Rachel Erdman, who at the last minute leads our Context ‘Wines of Venice and the Veneto’ Wine Tasting in place of her husband, Mario Piccinin, a sommelier and master cheese taster, when he falls ill. We meet Rachel and two other participants, a young American couple, on Campo Apostoli, before moving to Mai Tardi Enobar, a small enoteche (wine bar), where Rachel guides us through a tasting of Veneto whites while we nibble on cicchetti (Venetian appetizers).

We begin with the quintessential Veneto wine, Prosecco. “Prosecco is really a pre-meal drink although it can go with anything,” Rachel tells us – a bit like Cava, it seems, which the Spanish winemakers we met a couple of months ago in Barcelona assured us went with everything.

“Prosecco is important culturally, when getting together with friends, business contacts, and family! A glass before lunch and before dinner is considered one ritual most people from the Veneto would never give up!” Rachel says.

Next we try another sparkling white, Durello, from the hills of Vicenza, which is left to distil longer than Prosecco and so has more of a bouquet; then a Soave Superior (‘Superior’ means it has more alcohol), and finally a still Durello, from those same hills near Vicenza. This time it’s an organic wine (which we discovered was very fashionable in Paris), which has that clarity and purity that’s so desirable in organic wines.

For our tasting of Veneto reds we move onto a new bar, the very charming and very local Ostaria Al Ponte, where the waitress delivers an interesting platter of Venetian snacks, including the artichoke that’s in season, assiago cheese, tuna in tomato and pepperoni.

We begin with a boutique wine called ‘A Mi Manera’ (My Way) made from Cabernet Merlot and Franconia, followed by a Valpolicella ‘Superiore’ (in the case of Valpolicella it has just 1% more alcohol, Rachel explains, while ‘Classico’ means it’s made in an older part of an area and is more traditional, and ‘Reserva’ is the very oldest), and finally a Fragolino made from strawberries. All are delish!

If there’s one wine people shouldn’t leave Venice without trying, we ask, what would it be? “Prosecco absolutely!” says Rachel. “As well as Cartizze, a more sophisticated version of Prosecco, made with grapes that come from just one particular hill in that growing area… and (of course) Amarone, which is really one of Italy’s top red wines, up there with Barolo and the Brunello.” That’s three, but whose counting?

Lesson #3: Veneto Wines, the Local Perspective
An interview with Mario Piccinin, whose mother and grandmother were sommeliers.

What makes Veneto wines special?
The variety of our terrain, climate and grapes, all in a region just under 20,000 km sq. The terroir (terrain and climate) is extremely important. Here in the Veneto we have distinct wine-producing areas such as the Valpolicella valley (home to Amarone), the gentle rolling countryside of Verona (Soave), the Berici hills near Vicenza, the area around Lake Garda (Bianco di Custoza), the green hills in the northeast surrounding Valdobiaddene and Conegliano (of Prosecco and Cartizze production), just to name a few! There are a wide variety of grapes that do well here, from local ones (corvina, molinara, rondinella, prosecco, friularo, etc) to international grapes like cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon, and merlot (which actually makes up 30% of all grapes grown), which result in a vast assortment of quality wines.

Characteristics that distinguish Veneto wines? Wines to look for?
Firstly, the variety of wines! For red wine lovers, the Veneto has young reds, meant to be drunk within a year or two from production, such as Valpolicella, Bardolino, Marzemino and Merlot, and the more robust and complex reds such as the Amarone, and Bordeaux blends from the Colli Euganei, such as Gemola and Arquà, from the producer Vignalta in Arquà Petrarca, which is really head and shoulders above the rest in this area. White wine-lovers should try Prosecco and Cartizze (both sparkling) and for still whites, Soave, Lugana, Bianco di Custoza, and Vespaiolo.

Best places in Venice to try and buy wine?
Mai Tardi Enobar in Cannaregio, on the main street between Campo Santi Apostoli and the Rialto – there are tables outside and the staff are very knowlegeable and friendly, and they have an excellent selection of wines and fantastic quality cheeses – as well as Osteria Al Ponte, on the border of Cannaregio and Castello, at the foot of Ponte Gallina (it has red doors and window frames), which is one of the oldest bars in Venice, and has great salumi and cold seafood dishes, as well as great wine, plus helpful staff, and a mostly local clientele. Also Al Vecia Carbonera, on the Strada Nova in Cannaregio, which has an excellent selection of wines and cicchetti. You can also buy wine at these bars at reasonable prices.

Best wine to buy?
A great Amarone. The difference in price makes this worthwhile. A 30-40 euro bottle here would go for upwards of $100 in the US for example.

Lesson #4: Matching Venetian Food and Wine
For many visitors to Venice, who are unfamiliar with the city’s unique cuisine, choosing the right wine can be a challenge. We asked Rachel for some tips on pairing Venetian food and wine.

Starters “Begin a meal with Prosecco on its own, although it can be paired with any cicchetti. It’s nice with the local baccalà mantecato (a cod spread) on polenta and young fatty cheeses like Asiago,” Rachel says.

Pasta and Mains “Other still whites like Soave, Lugana, Bianco di Custoza go well with other fish appetizers or seafood dishes in general,” says Rachel, “They won’t overpower a subtle grilled white fish like Cernia, orata or branzino, which Venetians prefer simply prepared. A Vespaiolo goes well particularly with egg and asparagus, or for example fresh tagliatelle with asparagus and shrimp. My mouth is watering!”

Dessert “Dessert pairings are easy,” says Rachel, “You need a sweet wine with a sweet dish, so this is one place where Prosecco would be out of place. We have lovely sweet wines that are never overly so, or cloying, such as Recioto di Valpolicella: a sweet red wine that’s great with simple dry pastries or cookies (dipping allowed!). Recioto di Gambellara, a recent DOCG-labelled sweet white from the area near Vicenza, is great with creamy desserts like panacotta, creme caramel, and torta alle mandorle, while Recioto di Soave, another sweet white wine, is good with fruit desserts, crostate, etc. If you have a very heavy dessert, a light sparkling wine such as Fior D’Arancio, a moscato bianco o giallo, from the Colli Euganei is a good match.”

Looking to learn more about Veneto wines?
• You’ll find Lorenzo at MilleVini , first lane on your left after you come off the Rialto Bridge stairs on the Cannaregio/San Marco side. Tell him we sent you by way of Enrica Rocca. While you’re there have a Spritz at the bar opposite.
• Sign up for the ContextWines of Venice and the Veneto’ Wine Tasting tour here.
• If you have time to visit Veneto wineries, Mario and Rachel run wine tours of their own. See their website.
• Our friends at Viator also offer Veneto wine tours, which you can find out about here.

Jun 21

Cooking with the Countess in Venice

“Is there anything we should know beforehand about the cooking course?” we asked our host Enrica Rocca. “Yes, cancel your dinner appointments for after the class!” Done. When you’re about to spend a day cooking with the Countess in Venice, you do as you’re told.

If you read our other post on eating in Venice, you’d know that we’re pretty keen to disprove the view that Venice doesn’t have any good food. Someone who is also dedicated full-time to busting that myth is Enrica Rocca, otherwise known as the ‘cooking countess’, who started running cooking classes to make a living when, as she admits, she didn’t even know ten recipes. She quickly learned. Enrica now runs cooking courses unlike any others we’ve come across.

We meet Enrica and the other three students at the Rialto Bridge and after some quick introductions head to a local café where Enrica introduces her course.

“I can’t give you a few recipes and expect that all of a sudden you will be able to cook,” she tells us. “Instead, what I do is teach you about the ingredients, show you where and how to buy them, and teach you how to treat the produce.”

Enrica asks us what we we’d like to cook – just seafood, or seafood and meat dishes? We’re all keen to cook both – ‘we’ being an American couple based in Europe, a droll Hugh Grant-ish English art dealer spending the spring in Venice, and Lara and I. Enrica appears to relish the fact we’ve chosen to mix it up. Espressos downed, we head off to the Rialto Markets where Enrica gets busy.

A whole mullet, tiny shrimps, prawns, clams, some tuna, and scallops in their shell are quickly procured. Enrica is admiring some seppia (cuttlefish) when a local restaurateur she knows chimes in: “The seppia, well, they’re as rare to find as a virgin in Venice, but they’re still delicious.”

Next we hit the vegetable section of the markets for some seasonal produce such as the beautiful San Erasmo island artichokes and stop at the butchers to procure some pork ribs and sausages.

That done, we cross over the Rialto Bridge where Enrica introduces her class to the time-old Venetian tradition of heading to a local bacari (Venetian bar) for a post-shopping spritz: Aperol (an aperitif), prosecco (sparkling Italian wine), a dash of soda, ice cubes, and a half-slice of orange. As we sip our oh-so-Venetian aperitif we get a quick introduction to the wines of the Veneto from Lorenzo, owner of the wonderful wine shop, MilleVini, across the lane.

Spirits buoyed and tongues loosened by our morning sip, we stroll back to Enrica’s light-filled loft-like home in the Dorsoduro area where we are gobsmacked at her kitchen with its massive prep area and seating around a kitchen ‘island’. It’s a stunning space in which to prepare food and demonstrate cooking techniques, and we’re all obviously excited about what lies ahead…

After being given my ration of prosecco, I was quickly put to work coating the gamberetti (tiny shrimps) with flour and quickly frying them in oil. This is one of our favourite treats at Antiche Carampane where they serve them in brown paper cones – “they’re like healthy crisps,” Enrica says – and Lara (who is busy occupying herself with prosecco-tasting and note-taking) is delighted. While eating these tasty treats, though, the last thing we’re thinking of is our health!

Other guests are put to work preparing the various ingredients, while I’m tasked with slicing the tuna to make sashimi-style raw fish that we drizzle with olive oil. While we cook, we feast on this – sublime! – and some local shrimps, gamberi sgusciati, which we also eat raw. “They’re very sweet,” Enrica says, “So we’ll just eat these with olive oil and some salt and pepper.” She’s right. They’re equally divine.

Venice’s cuisine has involved the use of exotic spices throughout its history, as Enrica earlier showed us at Drogheria Mascaria, the best spice shop in Venice, at the Rialto Markets, so Enrica enlivens the scallops with some freshly-sliced ginger before baking them. We each gobble down one (they’re enormous!) but everyone could have eaten a couple each, they were so delicious, but there’s still plenty more to come.

Many restaurants serve spaghetti con vongole (spaghetti and clams) with the clams in their shells – partially to let guests know that they haven’t just bought frozen clam meat. Enrica says that the spaghetti is cold before you’ve managed to get the clams out of the shells so she cooks the clams beforehand and removes them from the shell – it’s a simple tip, but practical cooking advice that makes sense. We make the sauce with fresh cherry tomatoes, white wine, a little peperoncino (dried chillies), and parsley, and eat it as soon as it’s ready, and it’s all wonderful. Enrica says it goes equally well with mussels as clams.

Next, we sear the pork over high heat. “It needs to be really brown to get the full flavour you want,” Enrica says. While this is going, she has us prepare the whole fish: we fill the gutted cavity with a mix of herbs, and place the artichokes and potato slices around the baking tray before spreading a very liberal dash of olive oil over all the ingredients. The fish in the oven, we add the sausages to the pork followed by plenty of water.

It’s a lot of food to eat and a lot of cooking but we’re working off the calories as we go! As Enrica says “That’s the theme of the day… too much of everything, and unless someone gives us proof that we’re coming back, I’m not moderating.” She’s true to her word.

The fish and pork dishes are both heavenly, succulent and favoursome, and as the wine and conversation flows, Enrica brings out some dessert wine and Venice’s lovely vanilla-flavoured biscuits to dunk in the wine for a sweet ending to the meal. The wine and the biscuits are a marriage made somewhere special. “Balance. Balance is the greatest word on the planet,” Enrica says, “Life is all about balance. Food and wine; work hard, play hard.”

Sometimes a formal, rigid course is the best way to get under the skin of a cuisine, but Enrica’s course is the complete opposite. The day was as much about the Venetian attitude to cooking, drinking and eating, and the Venetian lifestyle and culture, as it was about treating produce, measuring ingredients, and noting cooking times.

We had a blast but Enrica’s style of teaching won’t suit everyone, and she admits it, having had the occasional guest too rigid to enjoy a day cooking, drinking and eating while exchanging ideas about food, love, life, and the universe.

“Too many people take cooking too seriously,” Enrica says, “Cooking should be fun.”

She’s right, but that doesn’t mean that her cooking class didn’t have an impact. A couple of days later I find myself returning to the butcher’s shop to buy some pork and sausages to replicate her lovely pork dish. Is there a better compliment for a cooking course than that?

Enrica Rocca Cooking School
www.enricarocca.com

Jun 21

Venice Take-Homes: Distinctive Souvenirs

When you visit Venice, you can easily buy a Venetian mask, some ‘Murano’ glass made in China or an ‘I love Venezia’ t-shirt from any one of the tawdry souvenir stands that dot Venice and line Campo San Marco and the route to the Rialto Bridge. But explore the backstreets of San Polo and the Dorsoduro and you’ll find myriad shops selling beautiful things that make much more memorable and longer-lasting mementoes, from handmade leather handbags to bespoke stationery and made-to-order slippers.

Each day as we walked from our ‘home’ in San Toma to wherever we were going that day, I would discover wonderful boutiques I hadn’t noticed before, so many that I could easily write a book on shopping Venice. These are just a handful of my favourites.

VENETIAN SLIPPERS
The pretty Pied à Terre shop lies like a delicious surprise beneath the arcades behind the tacky tourist stalls at Rialto (on the markets side of the bridge). Here you’ll find handsome brocade, silk and velvet slippers in bold colours, inspired by 18th century Venetian styles (ask for the Venetian and Sabot designs), along with their famous Furlane slippers, which originated in the Friuli Venezia Giulia countryside early in the 20th century. As the peasants who worked the farms couldn’t afford leather shoes, they recycled rags, jute bags (used to carry seeds) and bicycle tyres to make the shoes. After WW2 rural women, desperate to make some money, travelled from the country to Venice to sell the shoes from their wicker baskets. The gondoliers realized the shoes were perfect for their work as the soles wouldn’t scratch their boats, and soon everyone was wearing them. Pied à Terre uses old tyres for the soles and rich fabrics (recycled whenever possible) are used for the uppers. Bring along your own fabric and you can get a pair made to measure.

VINTAGE MURANO GLASS
You may be able to find Murano glass all over the world (and in some cases cheaper than it will be in Venice) but, sadly, much of the glass in shops on Venice that is promoted as coming from Murano is actually made in China or Eastern Europe. The only way to truly guarantee that a glass product has come from Murano is to buy it from the island itself or look for the sticker verifying the authenticity of the product. The next best thing is to look for antique or collectible Murano glass, and another advantage of this is that the piece will probably be rare if not unique and have a lot more character than the patchwork dish you see in every second store. While there are many elegant antique stores all over Venice, especially in the San Marco neighbourhood, the price of a piece from one of these will probably be greater than the sum you’ve spent on your entire trip to Venice. You’re much better looking for charming little antique shops in the backstreets of San Polo, Santa Croce and the Dorsoduro, such as the idiosyncratic Meraviglie de Venezia Arte e Vietro which sells exquisite, authenticated Murano pieces from the 1930s through to the 1960s, such as kaleidoscopic paperweights, miniature vases, and vibrant pendants, along with other vintage jewellery and charming trinkets.

ECO-FRIENDLY JEWELLERY & ACCESSORIES
The shopping in Venice is easily as interesting as it is in Rome or Paris if you know where to look – or you take the time to discover. For idiosyncratic ethical pieces by young designers, my favorite shop is Dietro Langolo, opened late last year by Federica Serena and Sylvia Saltarin, two young Venetian architects looking for a career change. There are some unique products here by young Venetian designers, such as the Mela range of handmade, multi-functional colourful jewellery, belts and hair clips, made from recycled silicon and electric cable, and jewelery and bags made from recycled fabrics by Spanish-born long-time Venetian resident Irene Gomez. The shop also features interesting Italian products, such as the range of one-off t-shirts by Hibu from Milan and the handmade Milanese ceramics from Maria Vera. You’ll also find other interesting European products such as the recycled candy wrapper handbags from Mexico’s Nahui Ollin, and bags and belts made from recycled fire hose from Feverwear in Germany.

JEWELLERY & ACCESSORIES
Two of my favorite stores stand right opposite each other on the corner of a skinny lane in San Polo called Calle dei Saoneri. Il Mercante di Sabbia sells a carefully-curated, inimitable collection of jewellery, handbags and accessories, that includes everything from contemporary pieces of striking silver jewellery, retro-inspired handbags and vintage beads. Across the alleyway, Fanny is Venice’s Sermoneta, an elegant store stocking beautiful handmade leather handbags, belts and gloves. You’ll see scores of shops around Venice selling bags and accessories, but look closely and you’ll discover that while they might be imprinted with ‘Italy’ they’re actually manufactured in China; check the labels inside. Opt instead for a hardier, local, handmade pieces.

STATIONERY & POSTCARDS
Beautiful handmade leather-bound notebooks, address books and photo albums, and delicate hand-printed notepaper and stationery inspired by old Venetian designs, are to be found at the two shops of artisan Paolo Albi (who we wrote about here), where you can also order your bespoke business cards and stationery. You’ll also find pretty notebooks, calendars, and even Venetian recipe cards painted in watercolours by Venetian artist Nicola Tenderini, which you can buy direct from the man himself at his Rialto market store (see this post about Nicola and painting in Venice).

Jun 20

No Pizza, No Lasagne, No Tourist Menu

“No pizza, no lasagne, no menù turistico” says a sign posted outside Antiche Carampane, one of our favourite restaurants in Venice.

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.”

Jun 16

Paolo Olbi, Venice’s Master of Paper, Printing and Bookbinding

Bookbinder Paolo Olbi, and his typesetter Beppi, may be Venice’s last great artisans, making every component of their beautiful products  by hand in Paolo’s atmospheric workshop in Castello.

I first stumbled across one of Paolo’s shops on Campo Santa Maria Nova by accident and was immediately smitten by the leather-bound notebooks in the window with their fine leather ties.

This shop was closed, so I noted down his other shop on Calle della Mandola to see if I could find the source of these exquisite, traditional-inspired paper-products: note pads, address books, photo albums, stationery, and business cards. There, Paolo was at work in the backroom, embossing patterns into the leather covers of small notebooks, while his wife manned the counter out front, chatting to staff. She was busy and he was occupied, so I chose a few gifts while I waited.

A group of 20-ish Americans trooped in. One of the guys began thumbing through the notepads, apparently determined to buy one despite his friends’ bewildering attempts to put him off. “Don’t you think they’re, like, old-fashioned?” “Why don’t you get a Moleskin instead?” “They’re expensive, aren’t they? How do you know they won’t fall apart?” “How do you even know they’re made in Venice?”

Resisting the urge to thump the whiney young woman, I interrupted: “They’re cheaper than Moleskins, these won’t fall apart, their limited editions, and the man you see out back is making them by hand, so I think they might be made in Venice.” “What do you use them for?” she asked in response. The young guy took a few notebooks to the counter. Paolo’s wife looked appreciative.

When I showed an interest in what Paolo was doing and explained what we were doing, he suggested we visit him at his workshop the next day. There, Paolo and Beppi – with the wonderful help of his friend Paolo Lucidi, a glassmaker and artist, who translated for us – spent a couple of hours taking us through the whole process.

Paolo showed us how they create wood plates of the patterns for the book-covers, inspired by old Venetian designs and typesetting (Beppi’s role) by hand using old plates and type (which Terence, a book designer/publishing manager in a former life was thrilled to see), to binding the books (100%!) by hand.

Paolo even made us a sample cover while we were there – it takes him one hour to make a small notebook when all the pieces are prepared, while it takes him about five hours to make a photo album. He also shared with us a personal project he’s been working on for some time, a splendid one-off book on Venice’s palazzi, his ‘dream job’ he says.

Over a glass of vino at a local bar around the corner Paolo tells us: “I love my job. I’m the only one around doing this. I’ll never retire.”

Paolo is happy to welcome visitors to his workshop. He wants people to appreciate the traditional artisanal process and the value of his products. He is also keen to collaborate on book projects. Just call into one of his shops when you’re in Venice and make a time. Also make sure you buy one of his notebooks. Trust me, you’ll never use another Moleskin again.

Paolo Olbi
Campo Santa Maria Nuova 6061; 041 523 7655
Calle della Mandola 3653; 041 528 5025

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