Venice and the Voyage of Malvasia
Chef and author Faith Willinger moved to Florence more than 25 years ago. Since then she has been traveling back-roads of Italy in seach of artisans making the best food, wine, and goods. She writes about these people and their products. Among her cookbooks is the best selling guidebook Eating in Italy, the cookbook Red, White, and Greens, and the recipe and travel compilation, Adventures of An Italian Food Lover.
by Faith Willinger
Venice, descended from a great and most serene maritime republic, a pollinator of Mediterranean cultures, over 100 islands connected by bridges and boats, is closer in spirit to the sea than the solid ground of the mainland. Venetians have their own distinct language, customs, and gastronomic preferences. They frequently drink Malvasia, a perfect wine for local fish and seafood. The city’s relationship with the varietal dates from the 1200s. The name Malvasia was derived from Monemvasia, an island in the Peloponnese, where Venetian merchants scored a European exclusive for the delicious local wine, brought it home, and spread the grape and wine throughout Italy and the Mediterranean. In Venice it was an exotic import, offered in wine bars called malvasie (plural), patronized by both gondoliers and nobles. Other wine bars, called bastioni and magazeni, served domestic wine of poor quality, probably adulterated, for a lower class of customers, who also frequented furatole, hole-in-the-wall establishments that served food—soups and fried fish, but no wine. Malvasia vendors had their own guild, separate from that of ordinary wine merchants.
Since I love Venice and Malvasia, when I heard about a wine tasting in Venice called “The Voyage of Malvasia, Wine of Kings” I had to go. The event was the brainchild of the Venetian Buona Accoglienza restaurants, a group that includes most of my favorite places to eat in the city. The idea was to taste Malvasia wines from all over Italy, since the varietal has endless clones and biotypes and is made in many styles, ranging from dry and aromatic to sparkling to passito (made with raisins). The group chose winemakers dedicated to territory and varietal.
I arrived the day before the tasting, checked into the Wildner, my favorite accommodation in Venice, and had a late lunch in their dining room overlooking the San Marco canal (see photo, below).Host Luca Fullin is a member of the Buona Accoglienza group. He always has an interesting wine that I’ve never tasted that he wants to turn me onto. As usual, he did, to Insomnia, made by Marko Fon from the Slovenian side of the Carso, and it was simply fantastic. A plate of de-boned deep-fried sardines let me know I was really in Venice, followed by raw artichokes from the lagoon paired with scallops and a drizzle of extra virgin. Luca insisted that I taste a slim slice of apple tart with a scoop of gelato.
And then the America’s Cup teams sailed past the restaurant on the San Marco canal. Wow! The only thing that could top the experience was a visit to the Museo Correr (my favorite museum in Venice) with interesting exhibitions and the permanent Venetian Civilization section. Unfortunately, the gigantic Jacopo de’ Barbari map from 1500, a bird’s eye vision of Venice (when only birds had aerial views of the city), was on loan.
My evening plans were at Al Covo. I’ve known Cesare Benelli and Diane Rankin for almost 25 years and am still as thrilled with their restaurant as I was on my first visit.Cesare’s culinary style is Venetian Zen, made with seasonal local fish, seafood, and produce, dressed with super extra virgin. The wine list is amazing, a true joy to drink from. I was delighted to find Cesare and Diane’s handsome son Lorenzo waiting on tables—he’ll be heading to Bologna for University so I was lucky to see him. Cesare gave me a Malvasia preview, another impressive wine from Marko Fon, so I was excited to learn that he’d be at the tasting. How could anyone resist an appetizer called “Adriatic on the Plate”? I didn’t and was wowed by a platter of steamed fish and seafood—super-tiny schie shrimp, peoci mussels, canoce mantis shrimp, a split folpetto octopus stuffed with itself, latte di seppie (cuttlefish “milk”), garusoli snails pried from their shells, all served with a few strands of julienned raw vegetables and extra virgin, letting the lagoon speak for itself, in Venetian dialect. It was followed by a plate of baked canestrei, variegated scallops with their coral, flanked by squares of white polenta and then a taste of Cesare’s perfect deep fried mixed fish and seafood. Diane’s desserts tempt; I indulged in a mini-portion of deep-fried custard with fruit sauce.
I bumped into my friend Gilberto Arru at breakfast the next morning. He’s a journalist from Sardinia, knows all about the island’s foods and wines and was going to the tasting. He’d help me with the Sardinian wines. I walked along the San Marco canal, past the Naval History Museum (second favorite museum) to the Castello Gardens, the largest park in Venice with a restored greenhouse, where the wine-tasting would take place. I bought a ticket, 15 euros, for the tasting, souvenir wine-glass with carrier, and ticket for a plate of cicchetti snacks: hyper-Venetian sarde in saor (sardines with onions, pine nuts and vinegar), whipped salt cod, bigoli pasta with anchovy sauce, pasta e fagioli soup. I began by examining the Malvasia grape vines outside the greenhouse—they did look different. And then started to taste, beginning with the always-easy-on-the-palate (and wallet) sparkling Malvasia from Camillo Donati. My absolute favorite producers from the Italian Carso, Kante and Zidarich, were at the same table pouring their Malvasia, aromatic, tasting of the karst stone that it grows on.
I met Marko Fon and Josko Rencel, both on the Slovenian side of the border, with wines that resembled those of the Italian Carso—Marko told me his vineyards had been in 4 different countries, always in the same place. I chatted with Roberto Santopietro from Mongetto in Piemonte, exhibiting anchovies and savory and sweet jarred products, next to his brother Carlo, who presented their Malvasia di Casorzo, a sparkling red dessert wine that’s used like Moscato. On to the passito wines, Sardinian Malvasia di Bosa from G. Battista Columbu with Gilberto, who introduced me to the owners of an enoteca, Su Camasinu, in Bosa. Have to go. I concluded with Malvasia from Sicily’s Aeolian island of Salina from Giona Hauner and Slvatore d’Amico. Which was enough wine-tasting for me, since I’m not a spitter. Benjamin Zidarich had never eaten at Al Covo, a situation that I had to correct. We walked back to the restaurant, sat down, and were joined by amazing host Mauro Lorenzon (his wine bar is open evenings only) and chef Luigi Frascella (he’ll be cooking at Il Ridotto soon). We feasted on sautéed beverasse clams, short pasta with a creamy (but cream-less) baccalà sauce, gnocchi sauced with go goby fish, deep-fried moeche soft shelled crabs flanked by wedges of castraure artichokes, all served with Mauro’s Prosecco Costadila’. I barely made it to the train station on time.
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