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Venice, Italy, Dining
It is late afternoon in Venice, and you are standing on the Riva degli Schiavoni that runs along the Canale di San Marco and leads to the square of San Marco. The setting sun seems to be broken into millions of tiny orange mirrors by the wavelets that pave the waterway between this island and the other shore. Barely perceptible against the horizon is the Hotel Cipriani, arguably the most stylish and romantic hotel in this historic city.
And style is what the Hotel Cipriani is also all about. The broad V-shaped wake that catches the eye is left by a sleek, mahogany-veneered boat with discreet Cipriani lettering. It approaches the private landing on the waterfront near San Marcos Square to collect waiting guests and whisk them to the hotel. This secluded and beautiful establishment is the Venetian 'home' to Royalty, Heads of State, film star and well-heeled guests from all walks of life.
Along with the expected attributes that go with its 5-star rating, the Cipriani also offers, in a discreetly private setting, the essence of classic Venetian cuisine. Created from local produce, much of which could conceivably be found in any gondolier's kitchen, the deceptively simple dishes based on ancient regional recipes are prepared in a traditional way.
There is a remarkable factor about Italian cuisine that sets it apart from that of many other countries. Italian restaurants in London, Singapore, New York or Melbourne may well offer dishes that are authentically Italian.
But comparing one of their menus to that of the regional "House Menu" of any small restaurant in an Italian city, might give its readers a surprise. The listings on the two menus would be quite different, and even where, in some cases, the dishes may have a common name, it is possible that their preparation would be substantially varied. If, for instance, you ordered a pizza in Naples and one in Portofino, you would be served two totally different products.
In Italy, restaurants tend to concentrate on regional dishes containing local produce, often harvested within a 50 km radius of the establishment's location. Italian food as found in Italy also tends to be different to Italian food in France (for example) in another respect. The French emphasis will be on the meat, poultry or seafood, whereas the Italian will rate the vegetables every bit as important as the meat.
The reason for this is that Italian dishes have traditionally been the 'food of the people' rather than that of the aristocracy. Regional dishes have to be made from fresh produce easily available in the area, as locals have neither the time nor money to use anything but ingredients easily to hand.
The Cipriani follows this tradition by also concentrating on Venetian rather than Italian cuisine. To study the menu is to get a lesson in local food lore. In the Antipasti you can choose from such classics as Carpaccio classico con salsa Cipriani (thinly sliced raw prime beef seasoned with classic Cipriani sauce) or Sfogi in saor al vino bianco, con cipolle dolci, pinoli e sultanina (baby Adriatic soles marinated in a sweet and sour sauce, with onions, pinenuts and sultanas).
There are other marvelous Venetian specialties like Zuppa rustica di carciofi e patate (Cipriani's artichoke and potato soup) or Pasta e fagioli alla Veneta (Red bean soup with pasta, Venetian style). Pasta dishes naturally include tagliatelle nere con ragu di capesante, vongole veraci e asparagi (Home-made black noodles, with a scallop, clam and asparagus sauce) and no self-respecting Venetian menu would be complete without Fegato di vitello alla veneziana con crostoni di polenta bianca (sliced calf's liver, saut»ed with onions, served with grilled white polenta). The classic Cipriani chocolate dessert is topped with a tiny chocolate gondola that leaves no doubt as to your location.
And the setting is an elegant foil for the cuisine. The Cipriani's Venetian dining room features a peach-and-white color scheme with Murano chandeliers, Fortuny curtains, rich carpets in burnt-umber tonings, and windows that look out onto the sparking water. Alternately, dinner is served on the veranda in summer, offering the ultimate in alfresco dining.
After dinner, a chat with Mr. Natale Rusconi, the Hotel Manager of this marvelous hotel revealed to what a large extent the Ciprani and the cuisine of Venice and the surrounding area were intertwined.
"The founder of the Cipriani, Giuseppi Cipriani, was one of the major personalities of the Veneto area. He was a great exponent of Venetian dishes and in fact created some, like the Carpaccio you have just enjoyed." Rusconi explained. "He had to come up with a brand new dish for a function to be held here in honor of Carpaccio, the famous Venetian painter. A large banquet was planned to celebrate the inauguration of the exhibition of the artist's work and Cipriani created this dish, based on raw beef, which has now become a worldwide favorite."
"At this hotel we're trying to maintain traditional Venetian dishes, and in the process we pay very special attention to the quality of the produce. There is no freezer at this hotel except the one for ice-cream, and this forces us to resist any temptation to have anything but the freshest produce."
"Freshly-caught fish, garden-fresh vegetables and top quality meats arrive at the hotel each morning. This is essential as half of our dishes are based on the old traditional Venetian recipes for which freshness is a critical ingredient. One of my favorites is Sfogi. For this, the onions are saut»ed and mixed with vinegar and white wine with a little hint of spice -- usually cinnamon or cloves -- pinenuts and raisins. Some restaurants have changed the recipe but we stick to the ancient version."
He went on to tell us that this is a very typical Venetian dish and is always accompanied by white polenta. In Venice white polenta is used, not the yellow kind found in the rest of Italy. The white polenta is produced by using a special quality of corn that is white in color, the taste being much lighter than the yellow variety. Meat is sometimes served with yellow polenta, but with fish always white polenta. This is only found in two Italian regions -- Venice and Padua.
"Another very popular Venetian dish is calf's liver. This is also a very ancient Venetian dish." says Rusconi "The calf's liver is quickly saut»ed, mixed with onions, saut»ed again with just a little olive oil and parsley, and that's it. It is something very simple yet full of taste."
"Another favorite local dish is Ravioli con granciola scampi. There is a special quality of spider crab found here which makes for a beautifully light dish and is served with a salad prepared with olive oil and lemon juice. We also use this crabmeat to fill ravioli and then serve the ravioli over a sauce made with the scampi."
"Our chef, Renato Piccolotto, who has been working at this hotel for over 20 years, is a master at preparing black noodles with a special sauce made with clams, scallops and fresh tomatoes. Apart from the black noodles, one of the most traditional Venetian dishes is Black Risotto. Both are prepared by using the ink of cuttlefish. This is then combined with clams and scallops and served with small dices of potatoes."
Inquiring about the kitchen brigade, we were told that the Cipriani has sixteen persons working in the kitchen, including three pastry chefs. There are two separate kitchens, one for lunch and one for dinner, but the brigade very often moves between one and the other.
During the course of our conversation, Mr. Rusconi had explained that when the legendary Giuseppe Cipriani sold out of his shares in the Cipriani Hotel, he continued his career in Venice at Harry's Bar. This was where everyone from the Windsors and the Onassis family to the Burtons, Cole Porter, Ernest Hemmingway and Joan Crawford came for the ambiance of the most famous bar in the city, great drinks and marvelous food. Today, in the same location at the end of a little street that faces the water a stone's throw from St. Mark's Square, Arrigo Cipriani is carrying on the tradition of his father.
A handsome and instantly-likable man, Arrigo was happy to talk to us about Venice, its food and its drinks when we saw him the next evening. We had just enjoyed a delicious Bellini and asked him to tell us about this drink and its connection with Harry's Bar.
"Our establishment is famous worldwide for the four Bellini drinks that my father invented here. The first is made with fresh white peaches and the sparkling wine Prosecco, the Italian version of champagne that comes from the region around Treviso.
To make it, peel one kilo of white peaches, put in half a litre of water and lemon. You blend ice shavings with the peaches and you can add a little of fresh raspberry juice to give it a pink color. Add a little sugar, blend, mix with 1/3 cup juice, 2/3 cup Prosecco."
Arrigo went on to explain the three other variations. "There is Tiziano, which is made with grape juice instead of peach juice. In order to be completely authentic, the drink must be made from a special grape, Uva Fragola. Use one part chilled grape juice to three parts of chilled Prosecco. The third is Mimosa Bellini, made with one part freshly-squeezed orange juice with a little fresh tangerine juice to three parts chilled Prosecco. The fourth is the Rossini Bellini, which uses one part fresh strawberry puree to three parts chilled Prosecco."
The quintessential Venetian, Arrigo is an absolute mine of information when it comes to insiders facts and folklore about Venetian cuisine. "As well as being the Capital of the Venetian Empire and a great mercantile city, Venice went its own way from the rest of Italy as it was subject to many special outside influences."
"Seamen brought new ideas and trends, the powerful guilds were influential on the city's affairs, Slavs from Dalmatia counter-balanced some Italianate characteristics, Jewish bankers helped to give it gravity, and the aristocracy and clergy joined dedicated merchant prices, admirals and administrators in exerting their influence on the unique character of Venice."
"You must know that to the Venetian, good food has to be tasty. Even dishes that look deceptively simple have their flavor greatly affected by the way they are prepared and their ingredients selected. We certainly try and maintain this tradition at Harry's Bar."
An example of this focus on the finer points is Arrigo's insistence that only the very finest grade olive oil be used in his kitchens. But then he is equally fussy that such high standards also apply to his fish, meats and vegetables. Although Arborio rice is best-known and most frequently used for risottos, Arrigo feels that the best rice varieties are Vialone Nano Semifino, grown in the province of Mantova, and Carnaroli which comes from Novara, located between Milan and Turin.
This attention to quality comes through in all the dishes we were served. Between us, we enjoyed Fegato Alla Veneziano, con Crostini di Polenta Bianca, Ravioli con Granzeda in Salsa di Scampi, Tagliatelle Nero, Gnocchi, as well as that famous Venetian specialty, Sfogi in Saor.
As our dinner progressed it was clear why this small establishment, so unobtrusive that you could walk by a hundred times without noticing it, was so popular. The bar was full of people from every corner of the world. In many cities one finds such special places. They are natural meeting spots for those who, through their talents in the arts, in business, or in politics, occasionally manage to grab hold of the world, give it a little shake, put it down, and move on.
Harry's Bar is a classic in this regard, kept up to this remarkable standard by Arrigo. In dark suit and with dapper and charming manner, he mingles with guests, at the same time keeping a watchful eye on waiters, service and food, making sure that everything is maintained to his high standards.
Though he tries to keep the place as unpretentious as possible, there is a great deal of style about his main establishment. And this is also to be found at Harry's Dolci, the new low-key restaurant Arrigo has opened on the other bank of the canal. Harry's Dolci is a marvelous place to spend a rainy afternoon sipping fragrant coffee and eating the sinfully-rich cakes for which this establishment is becoming famous. At lunch and dinner a smaller range of dishes available at Harry's Bar is also served here in a less crowded and more leisurely ambiance.
In this city, where the tide of foreign visitors tends, alas, to spawn tourist restaurants of formidable mediocrity, we cannot talk about dining in Venice without mentioning one other remarkably excellent venue. At the Romantik Hotel Metropole on the Riva Sciavoni, Mr. Beggiato, the proprietor of the hotel, offers a buffet (including many Venetian specialties) unmatched in this remarkable city. This excellent hotel restaurant certainly warrants at least one visit, and is ideally located for a relaxed lunch after a morning's window-shopping in the fascinating and elegant little stores that line San Marcos Square and the boutiques that line the narrow lanes behind this.
A WORD ABOUT VENETIAN WINES
One only has to take the road from Venice that heads up into the Alps towards Austria to realize the incredible amount of wine that is grown in the Veneto area. Though it would be hard to find wines that would match those of France's Grand Cru vineyards, most Venetian area wine is of excellent quality.
The most famous wines of this region are the Cabernet wines produced in the Piave Vineyards around Treviso. They are excellent with meats and the following should be tried.
Reds: Merlot de Veneto, Piave, Raboso and Valpolicella.
Whites: Pinot Grigio, Prosecco, Riesling Italico and Sauvignon
(Hotel Cipriani: Giudecca 10, 1-30133 Venice; Ph: (39.41) 520 77 44; Fax: (39.41) 520 39 30)
Walter and Cherie Glaser are a truly global writing and photography team based "Down Under" in Melbourne, Australia.