There are two things you can’t escape in Venice.
One is the city’s incredible beauty. The other is its incredible food. What’s best is when they both come together.
Not long ago I found myself in the Cannaregio district of Venice, the area least visited by tourists, where you still get a taste of authentic Venice. It’s the area to the left of the train station when you exit towards the Grand Canal.
I had booked a hotel near the station in order to get the first morning bus to the airport. I wanted to treat myself to a good meal and after I found Girardi, a highly recommended taverna on TripAdvisor, I set out for it.
But when I got there I found the restaurant was being renovated by the new young owner. We chatted a few minutes and I explained my dilemma to him and asked if he could recommend another place.
He thought for a minute and asked whether I liked fish or meat – I told him both and that I also liked a good wine list – and he told me I should go to Ostaria da Rioba, only a five-minute walk away. He told me to ask for his friend Andrea.
I followed his directions and set off through a 7-foot-wide alleyway, across a bridge, turned immediately right per his directions, crossed another little bridge and then walked 200 yards down along a narrow canal. The area through which I walked was reminiscent of a scene out of a movie, old Venice with no tourists, and I was enthralled by the whole thing.
When I got to the restaurant I found it was also closed. But just as I was about to walk away I saw that the staff was inside having their meal before opening. I tapped on the window and mouthed to those at the table “are you open?” The waiter who came to the door happened to be Andrea. I told him his friend had sent me and asked if I could have a glass of wine wile waiting at one of the tables along the canal.
That would be fine, he told me, and asked me to choose a table now because they would be full that night, something his friend had warned me about. I chose my table and relaxed with a glass of nice local wine, as a mother and her daughter looked down on me from their apartment window above the restaurant.
For the next 1½ hours I enjoyed my meal while watching a scene from my little opera unfurl about me. Families on their evening passeggiatas were engaged in animated conversations punctuated by occasional waves to friends puttering by in boats. Children played off to one side of the wide walkway as waiters moved deftly between the restaurant door and the tables alongside the canal on the other.
As twilight slowly settled in I could hear the sound of distant church bells flooding the neighborhood. The breeze had now turned cooler, quite a contrast to the hot sun that had burned me earlier in the day.
Almost on cue as Andrea handed me the dessert menu, a quartet of street musicians wandered down the street and begin serenading the crowd at the tables. I was surprised as they broke into Hello Dolly! and other American songs, as one of them walked about the tables accepting a few euros here and there.
They soon wandered further down the canal and in a few minutes I could hear them singing Happy Birthday at a little café at just about the same time a man selling roses began wandering about our tables.
I couldn’t help but think how the whole scene differed from what one would encounter in other European cities. There was no raucous honking of horns or blaring music from bars … it all seemed so refined. The night was quiet, the air filled only with conversation and soft music.
I thanked Andrea, paid my check and set off for my hotel. The two small bridges were now occupied by a half-dozen couples, doing what young Italian couples often do on dark bridges on dreamy nights, and I continued on my way back through the little alleyways. I soon came to a little shop call Pizza Del Arte, which was closed when I passed it earlier, but was now mobbed with Venetians getting their nightly fix. I thought how I’d enjoy tasting the pizza but knew it wasn’t going to happen.
I moved along and as I neared the station became dismayed by the din of tourists in the little gelato shops and bars in the little piazzas I passed through. “It’s sad,” I thought, “that they’re unaware of the wonderful experience they could have only 15 minutes away.”
If you go:
The Italian Government Tourist Board
630 Fifth Avenue – Suite 1965
New York, New York 10111
Tel: (212) 245-5618
APT of the Province of Venice
San Marco 2637, 30124 Venezia
Tel. 041.5298711 fax 041.5230399