Venice in Winter
The tourists gone, photographers Judith Goodman and Frank Van Riper discover a less-traveled Venice and capture its beauty, stillness, and alluring melancholia with their prose and images.
One of life’s subtlest acquired pleasures is the Venice of winter,” Jan Morris, the great travel essayist, once told me. This Venice is one “of mists and puddles, umbrellas and empty alleys and gondolas in the rain,” she said. To which I would add: streets of water and floating commerce, velvet shadows and footsteps echoing off paved stones in the post-midnight silence.
In other words, Venice without the Carnevale masks, without the summer crowds shuttled in on cruise ships, without the noise or the forced holiday hoopla. A place where one can spend a relaxed hour (or two or three) traveling from one enoteca or bacaro to another, sampling remarkable wines and even more remarkable snacks called cicchetti. Where one might while away an afternoon reading Il Gazzetino at a local watering hole where everyone really does know your name. This is the Venice enjoyed by Venetians and the fortunate few whom they’ve let in on the secret.
My wife Judith and I discovered this parallel Venice by accident. On a late honeymoon 28 years ago, then 14 years later, in 1998, we became so enchanted by the charms of winter in Venice that in 2000, we embarked on what became a six-year project producing our book, Venice in Winter.
Venice can evoke a palpable sadness that is reinforced by passing gloom and fog, and by rumors of its unavoidable sinking. This is reinforced, too, by a history that, for all its worldliness, is marked by medieval brutality and autocratic rule by powerful dukes, or doges, and, later, by French and Austrian conquerors. Yet one also senses a feeling of abandon and freedom in Venice—an air of possibility characterized by Henry James as a “repository of consolations.”
Today that contrast is manifest in something as simple as the silence and inevitable slowness of life lived on a lagoon at the cusp of the sea. The pace is different, the body clock set more to the tides than to a timetable. No cars, no subways, no crosstown buses. Lunch is three hours (many shops and offices are closed during that time) and a coffee break can just as easily involve a quick ombra (a shot of young wine) as it can a single espresso.
While it is difficult to experience this at high season, with its summer hordes, or among the Christmas or Carnevale revelers, it can be done. There is a small window in winter when Venice—arguably the most romantic city in the world—becomes even more appealing and reclaims itself as a living, breathing city.
You have to time your visit well—either early or late winter, or during the interval between the ten days of Christmas and before the manufactured frenzy of Carnevale. During this time, bereft of most tourists, escaped from the tyranny of European visitors in masks, and free of wandering Italian school groups in matching baseball caps, Venice again becomes La Serenissima, the Venetian Republic’s name during the eighth and 18th centuries.
Part of the reason is familiarity. Venice remains, in the words of writer Erla Zwingle, “a classic small town, trapped in the body of a monument.” People know one another, and it is not uncommon, even for a visitor staying no more than a few days, to run into familiar faces. For all its grandeur, Venice proper covers only three square miles, and because there are no cars, the locals mainly navigate by foot. The average Venetian enjoys the healthy benefits of walking, despite what even residents concede is not an especially “correct” lifestyle. Venetians smoke, and they love their wine and drink it throughout the day. They eat carbohydrate-rich pasta or rice at least once daily and they gulp strong espresso by the gallon.
On a typical Saturday at La Pescaria, Venice’s vast open-air fish and produce market, eels still wriggle in their baskets, the swordfish is displayed complete with spada, and couples wander about carrying shopping bags full of purchases.
A brief (or maybe not so brief) stop at a favorite wine bar is the perfect reward for a busy morning shopping. So one November day, we gravitated to the wine bar Al Marca, near the Rialto Bridge, with our friends Barbara and Giuseppe, having run into them at La Pescaria. Stopping by Al Marca was the popular agenda that day, judging by the throng of shoppers who crowded near the bar’s open-air stall or jammed its few tables amid loud conversation and laughter.
We navigated the growing crowd of locals and gestured to the barman that we wanted to try the artfully arranged cicchetti, bar snacks for which Venice is famous, displayed on the counter behind glass. Within what seemed like seconds, the four of us had our drinks and were enjoying our tidbits.
Cicchetti, though small, are not insignificant. Similar to tapas, each is unique and made with care to give every establishment, however meager, its own flavor, to appeal to its own following. A favorite at Venetian bacari is baccalà mantecato, a froth of salt cod served on a small triangle of toast. Another might be a killer trio of meatballs (polpette): meat, rice or tuna, each just one or two tasty bites. There are folpetti (tiny marinated octopus) and sarde in soar, a Venetian staple of fried sardines in a tantalizing sauce of vinegar, onion, raisins and pine nuts.
Wine, the lubricant of any post-breakfast meal, gains even more respect and attention at Venetian wine bars. As convivial as any other informal place for food and drink, wine bars have the distinction of offering superior wines by the glass, to be savored and compared. Venetian bars and caffès do not lend themselves to morose drunks or sullen loners. They are up-beat places that, unlike American watering holes, cater as much to ladies ordering hot chocolate or kids having gelato as they do to drinkers seeking a beer and a belt on the way home from work.
Perhaps because of America’s misguided experiment with prohibition, in the U.S. there is an unfortunate divide between the simple pleasures of alcohol and the simple pleasures of the stomach. To the average Italian, though, and certainly to the average Venetian, this is unheard of. More like a pub than an American bar, the Venetian gathering spot—whether a bar, caffè or enoteca—excels not only because it serves so many different things, but because it serves them so well.
Often it is a question of emphasis. At the elegant Le Café in Campo Santo Stefano, for example, the specialty is hot chocolate in numerous thickly delicious incarnations. Ladies of a certain age and station meet there regularly for this afternoon delight, while at other tables there might be young people drinking cappuccini, a businessman reading his newspaper over a beer and a sandwich, or a nonna treating her grandchild to an ice cream cone turned upside down in a paper cup.
Coffee, or caffè, is arguably one of the most important beverages in all of Italy, Venice especially, since it was through 17th century Venice that this nectar from the Arab world first spread throughout Europe. Fittingly, Piazza San Marco, which Napoleon famously called the drawing room of Europe, boasts several pricey, venerable, caffè emporia, notably Florian and Quadri, which face each other across the grand plaza. Having once spent $60 at Quadri for a double scotch for me and an ice cream sundae for Judy, I’d rather walk to Campiello dei Meloni and squeeze myself into tiny Pasticceria Rizzardini with dozens of other lively souls, not only for exquisitely made espresso, but for some of the finest pastries and cookies in all of Venice.
Near the Ghetto, the neighborhood where Jews were required to live under the old Venetian Republic, there is another bar with another specialty. The Bar and Gelateria da Nini, near Ponte Guglie, emphasizes simply wonderful gelato (the nocciola, or hazelnut, is not to be missed). Anyone looking for a stiff drink, quick coffee or a sandwich, though, will not be disappointed or slighted. Even at the smallest hole in the wall (and there are many in Venice) sandwiches are made from freshly sliced meat and cheese, either cut to order, or made shortly before and displayed on wooden boards behind glass. Sandwiches of hard-boiled egg or tiny shrimp often will be accompanied by a prodigious lathering of mayonnaise. Panini can be had at virtually any bar—a crusty envelope of bread filled with meat, ááá cheese and vegetables, made melting and irresistible in a special hot press.
It should be noted that larger caffès routinely augment these mordi e fuggi (eat and run) offerings with steam tables worthy of restaurants: pasta dishes, eggplant parmigiana and more that can be eaten at small tables and benches, accompanied by anything from a bicchiere of wine to a more expensive Coca Cola, beer, coffee, or even a double Scotch.
At the Pier Dickens pub in Campo Santa Margherita, which lives up to its name with a dark wood bar and ornately long beer-pulls, there is a land-office business in pizze, with good reason. The wood-fired crusts are thin and crisp, the ingredients delicious, and they go as equally well with a Guinness as they do with a Moretti or a quartino of red wine.
The line between restaurant, pizzeria, caffè and bar is blurred in Venice, as it is in most of Italy. Wherever you stop, even for the fastest pausa for a quick shot of wine or a brandy-fortified espresso, it is a visit to savor. Venetians tend to linger as long as they can for what one local resident calls “the Venetian buzz,” a slight day-long high occasioned as much by frequent wine breaks as by the sheer joy of living in Venice.
The term for a quick shot of wine, un’ombra, actually means “shadow” and refers to a practice by early wine sellers in Piazza San Marco, who peddled their vini from barrels on a cart, keeping to the moving shadow of the great campanile as the day progressed so that the wines, especially the whites, remained cool.
As far as cuisine goes, Venice does not have the same reputation for alta cucina as Bologna, Milan or Florence do. While Massimiliano Alajmo (the youngest chef to win three Michelin stars), from nearby Padova, just won a Michelin star for Ristorante Quadri (upstairs from the Gran Caffè Quadri in San Marco Square) six months after opening it, such lauded temples of contemporary gastronomy are rare here. This does not mean Venice lacks first-class restaurants. But in this city saturated with visitors, there is an unfortunate surfeit of tourist-trap eateries and once-proud places that are resting on no more than their laurels.
Looking for great places to eat in Venice is like hunting for truffles in Umbria: difficult, but ultimately worth the effort. One is rewarded not only with good food, but food that, like the espresso at Rizzardini, costs far less than that served at a world-famous venue.
Consider La Zucca, Dai Peochi, Vecio Fritolin, Busa alla Torre and Al Gatto Nero, to name a few of our favorite eating places gleaned from six years of on-and-off winter living in the city. Venetian friends recommended La Zucca and Vecio Fritolin. We stumbled upon Dai Peochi and Busa alla Torre almost by accident. Al Gatto Nero we discovered, then forgot, then re-discovered recently, to our great delight.
La Zucca means The Pumpkin and people mistakenly think of it as a ááá vegetarian restaurant. The only thing it does not serve is fish. It does vegetables splendidly, especially pumpkin flan, but also any manner of main courses. It is quiet and modern, with wood-slat wall treatment, and boasts a wonderful and affordable wine list. This is Venice without the antique frou-frou of the city’s grand stalwarts.
Equally unpretentious—and equally delicious—Vecio Fritolin is walking distance from our apartment near San Stae, and one of Venice’s best, most reasonably priced, seafood restaurants. Our landlords, Jack and Chiara, took us to dinner there one winter evening and we were amazed by the quality and variety of seafood, virtually all bought fresh every day from La Pescaria. The fritto misto was as light, delicate and flavorful as any I’ve tasted, and their other specialties—including their in-house version of baccalà mantecato—were wonderful. Fried soft shell crab also is a treat to this native New Yorker who has spent most of his working life within hailing distance of the Chesapeake Bay.
Trattoria Dai Peochi in the Cannaregio neighborhood was a find after a long morning of photography. We were hungry and the place looked inviting, neither pretentious nor touristy. One should expect well-made pasta anywhere in Italy, but this was wonderful. Even more wonderful, though, and what made Dai Peochi one of our haunts, was the fall-off-the-bone rabbit, or coniglio. So too, on Murano, the famous glass-making island, we found Busa alla Torre da Lele (At the Base of the Tower) within a few feet of the 19th century clock tower. Overseeing this lunch-only restaurant is an Italian Falstaff: red-haired, barrel-chested chef and owner Gabriele Masiol, also known as Lele il Rosso. Seafood, especially spider crab and fritto misto, are a must.
Finally, Al Gatto Nero on Burano. We went there on our honeymoon in 1984—postponed from April to November because I was a political writer back then, and 1984 was a presidential year. It was the first time I had eaten grilled eel and the experience was transformative. (The razor clams were a revelation, too.) Somehow, we forgot the name when we led our photo tour fourteen years later, but I was determined to find it again. “Dove il ristorante buono per pesce,” I asked some locals as soon as our group got off the waterbus. There was no question: Al Gatto Nero. I had the eel again and it was as wonderful as I remembered.
Photographer and author Frank Van Riper lives in Washington, DC with his wife and professional partner Judith Goodman. They are the co-authors of the bestselling book Serenissima: Venice in Winter from which this article is adapted. Commercial and documentary photographers, they also lead photography workshops in Maine and in Italy.
WHERE TO EAT
This busy wine bar near the Rialto Bridge regularly bustles with crowds of locals, and offers superior wines by the glass, as well as artful cicchetti.
San Polo, 213; tel.
39 039 924781.
Bar Gelateria da Nini
Near the Ponte Guglie, this popular gelato palace excels in Italy’s favorite ice cream, especially the nocciola. Cannaregio, 1306;
tel. 39 041 717894.
Here, only a few steps from Palazzo Grassi and Teatro La Fenice, the draw is the specialty hot chocolate, available in numerous decadent varieties. Campo Santo Stefano, 2797; tel. 39 041 5237201; lecafevenezia.com.
Osteria La Zucca
Low-key and affordable, this spot specializes in vegetables—their pumpkin flan is worth the visit—and
a range of main courses.
Santa Croce, 1762;
tel. 39 041 5241570; lazucca.it.
This small and cozy spot boasts a convivial atmosphere, exquisitely made espresso and some of the finest pastries and cookies in Venice. Campiello Dei Meloni, 1415,
tel. 39 041 5223835.
With a dark wood bar and ornate beer pulls, this pub also offers excellent wood-fired pizze. Campo Santa Margherita, Dorsoduro,
3410; tel. 39 041 2411979.
Trattoria al Gatto Nero
Memorable for its grilled eel and revelatory razor clams. Via Giudecca 88, Burano; tel. 39 041 730120; gattoneroburano.com.
Trattoria Busa alla
Torre da Lele
Just a few feet from Murano’s clock tower, this lunch-only restaurant
offers first-rate fried seafood. Campo Santo Stefano, 3, Murano;
tel. 39 041 5237027.
Trattoria dai Peochi
With top-notch pasta, even for Italy, this spot also offers memorable melt-in-your-mouth rabbit. Cannaregio, 2232; tel. 39 041 721555.
At one of Venice’s best, most reasonably priced restaurants, the fritto misto and baccalà mantecato are favorites. Calle Delle Regina, 2262, Santa Croce; tel. 39 041 5222881; veciofritolin.it.
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