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Friday, Sept. 17, 2004


Food fit for a doge on canals of Venice

Eating where the tourists eat is always a risky proposition, especially in a city like Venice, whose sole raison d'e^tre is tourism. Along the city's main arteries and tourist sites, the restaurants are often disappointing -- and sometimes even disastrous. But, as we found on a quick visit there earlier this month, with a little perseverance and a good map, there is also plenty of excellent food to be found.

News photo
The freshest of field and sea (above) are displayed in the stalls of the central market near the Rialto Bridge in Venice, located in the same location since medieval times.
News photo

At the smaller trattorie where local people like to congregate, and at the traditional wine bars known as bacari, you can order Venetian specialties that compare favorably with the cooking in any other region of Italy. Venetians, like so many of their fellow countrymen, especially in the affluent northeast of the country, understand the paramount importance of using fresh, seasonal ingredients.

Needless to say, Venetian cuisine is big on seafood. No other major city lies so close to the sea. And the place to see it all laid out is at the city's central market. Close by the Rialto Bridge, one of Venice's premier tourist attractions, the traders lay out their trestles each morning (except Sunday) under ancient porticos that date back to medieval times.

There are fish of every conceivable size and shape: sea bass and swordfish; mackerel, sea bream and sole; slabs of dark red tuna and buckets of live eels; small sharks (a local delicacy) and even the occasional ray. Octopus is plentiful, as are squid and cuttlefish. There are always several types of prawns and shrimp, including the bug-eyed mantis shrimp (shako in Japanese).

Shellfish are hugely popular, especially mussels, razor clams and the two kinds of vongole clam (both the regular type and a Venetian sub-species called veraci, which is particularly delicious). Apart from the large, flat strips of salted cod, the basic ingredient of a ubiquitous staple dish known as baccala mantecada, everything on sale is just as gleamingly fresh as you would expect from Tsukiji.

Next to the fish market are the produce stalls, with their colorful arrays of fruit and vegetables. Here you can find bulbous purple eggplants; bright red tomatoes trucked up from the south of Italy; bright green broccoli and gray artichokes hearts with their intricate spiral patterns. And as autumn arrives there will also be several varieties of wild mushrooms on display, especially the flavorful, dark-brown porcini from the nearby mountains (Venice is not so far from the Dolomites).

The action starts early at the Rialto market. Traders start unloading their boats at first light, and by midmorning the place is buzzing with customers. They scrutinize the food and chat with the stallholders, angling for the slightest price advantage and always demanding the very best quality, before scooping up their wares. By noon, the fish market is already winding down; by mid-afternoon it's all packed up, with the produce stalls closing soon thereafter.

Slow lane

Until recent years, the immediate surrounding area was dingy and insalubrious, especially after dark. Now old stockrooms are starting to be converted into stylish eating places, which are in turn attracting a more affluent demographic. The best of these is Bancogiro, a casual, friendly wine bar with a small counter and upstairs room where you sit at simple wooden tables under the arches of the exposed brickwork ceiling. There are also a score of outside tables that look out over the traffic of gondolas and vaporetti (water buses) on the nearby Grand Canal.

It has an extensive list of wines, many sourced from unusual regions. In the minute kitchen area, the master of the house, Andrea, calmly prepares dishes of remarkable finesse. Do not miss his carpaccio di branzino (raw sea bass), as fresh and gleaming as the finest sashimi, which is arranged on a bed of spicy young arugula leaves; ditto the delectable filet of S. Piedro (a whitemeat fish known in English as John Dory) served with porcini and orange farfili mushrooms.

Service can be snail-paced -- after all, this is a Slow Food-recognized restaurant. Just order up a plate of their wonderful olives and semi-dried tomatoes (among the best we have ever tasted), then sit back and enjoy the view.

Osteria al Bancogiro, Campo San Giacometto di Rialto, S. Polo 122, Venezia; tel: +39 (041) 523 2061; open 12-3 p.m. & 6-11 p.m.; closed Sunday evening and all day Monday.

All in the family

On the other side of the Grand Canal, right across from the market, you will find the entrance to one of the best preserved of Venice's bacari, the traditional wine bars where locals gather for wine and snacks. With its low ceiling, weather-worn bar and wall lined with ancient artifacts, Ca d'Oro has atmosphere in spades. But it also boasts a warmth and integrity that derives from its history as a family-run operation. Known to locals as Alla Vedova (Venetian dialect for "The Widow's Place"), in affectionate homage to its first owner, it is now run by her great-grandchildren.

You can settle in at the tables round the back and enjoy satisfying Venetian home cooking. We especially enjoyed their tagliatelli all'anatra -- hearty pasta covered with plenty of rich duck meat. Or you can prop up the bar, alongside the locals who come to quaff wine and nibble on the delectable tapas-style antipasti. Cognoscenti rate the polpette (deep-fried balls of meat and potato) among the best in Venice. Stick to honest places like this and you will never need to complain about the food in this magical city.

Trattoria Ca d'Oro (Alla Vedova), Ramo Ca d'Oro, Cannareggio 3912, Venezia; tel: +39 (041) 528 5324; open 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. & 6:30 p.m.-10:30 p.m. (Sunday 6:30-11 p.m.); closed Thursday and all through August. No credit cards.

Close as it gets

Back here in Japan, most Italian restaurants concentrate on the cucina of the three best-known areas: Rome; Florence and Tuscany; or Milan and the Lombardy region. The only Tokyo chef we know whose menu focuses entirely on the foods of Venice and the inland Veneto region is Stefano Fastro, whose eponymous ristorante at the top of Kagurazaka opened at the beginning of this year and has already joined the ranks of the Food File's favorites.

Although he produces excellent Venetian-style seafood dishes, Fastro's true forte lies with the meat dishes of the inland regions where he was born. He demonstrates that the best dishes are often the simplest, as long as the ingredients are as fresh as possible. An evening spent around the table here may not be as exotic as a trip to Venice, but in terms of the food, it's certainly the next best thing.

Stefano, Terui Bldg. 1F, 6-47 Kagurazaka, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo; Tel: (03) 5228-5717; open 11:30 a.m.-2.30 p.m. (last order) & 5:30-11 p.m. (last order); closed Sunday.

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