Venice: Discovering a local legend

Published in NZ Sunday Star Times, October 4 2015

After an unpromising start, Pam Neville discovers an extraordinary restaurant hiding in Venice      

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“We are closed,” snaps an unwelcoming woman as we stick our noses into an unpretentious little restaurant fronting one of the quieter canals of Venice. It’s late afternoon and the door is open, but there is no opening for conversation.

We ask, politely, if she has a menu so we can decide whether to come back for dinner?

“No. We have no menu.”

Giving up and walking on seems the best option, but then our matriarch offers a morsel of information.

“Tonight, there will be fish.”

Directly opposite the nondescript doorway of the little restaurant, on the opposite side of the canal, is our hotel. Later in the evening, tired and hungry, we ask the receptionist whether this surreptitious little hole-in-the-wall across the canal is worth trying. The receptionist’s face lights up.

“The best in town! If you get the chance you should go!”

She is doubtful we will get the chance, as it’s almost dinner time already, but she telephones just in case. Yes, they can take us. We must go now, she says. They are waiting for us, and they won’t keep the table for long. Back we trudge, over the charming little arched bridge to the other side of the canal.

A pleasant young man greets us and sits us canal-side at inexpensive and slightly flimsy aluminium chairs and tables which have sprouted up along the canal path.IMG_0096

canale di cannaregioWithin minutes, all the tables are full with groups of laughing, hugging, chattering Italians. For many in this university/residential area north of the Piazza San Marco, this is their local.

At Da Marisa, or Dalla Marisa, or Tratoria da’a Marisa, depending on your dialect, the rules are simple. You arrive at 8pm on the dot (if you don’t, they will give your table to someone else), you sit down and eat whatever Marisa and her family decide to serve you, and you pay a set price – cash only – of 35 euro per person, which includes the wine.

“What sort of wine would you like?” asks the young man.  We begin to suggest perhaps a pinot grigio when he clarifies. “We have two kinds, white or red.”

It’s the Henry Ford approach, says my companion. You can have whatever car you want, so long as it’s a black Model T.

We choose the white. It comes in carafes, slightly foaming at the top, from big beer taps at the counter.

“Drink as much as you like”, says our waiter, cheerfully slapping down a second carafe. “We might start charging after you have drunk five litres.” He’s joking.  Or perhaps he thinks we are Australians.

And then the food starts coming. It is indeed fish, course after course of fish, with a creamy, swirly plate of polenta the only side dish. There may have been bread – I can’t remember -but there was so much fish that anything extra was unnecessary.

“Codfish”, announces the waiter as he smacks one of his armload of plates onto the table. After the lightly salted cod comes sea bass carpaccio, marinated in lemon and olive oil and garnished with roasted red capsicum. In quick succession comes more armloads of dishes and large servings. Baby octopus in a spicy red wine sauce, and stuffed mussels in their shells. Fish lasagne, silky and delicate yet filling, the stand-out dish of the night. Finally a platter announced simply as “fried fish”. There are squid, prawns and tiny flatfish.

Although we started out hungry, it is difficult to eat so much fish in one sitting. But our Italian neighbours do. There is not a scrap left on any plate. To finish off, we all have mascarpone with biscotti and amaretto to dip, and of course espresso, all part of the set price.

As quickly as it began, our evening is over. The whirl of laughter, chatter and hugs is now filtered through cigarette smoke as the locals untie their dogs from table legs and disappear into the darkness. It has been a two-hour fish frenzy, an extravaganza of seafood served in the simplest of manners.

Next morning, the tables and chairs have disappeared from beside the canal, Marisa’s door is shut, and there is only the faintest little painted sign to suggest that an extraordinary restaurant hides within. But every local, and quite a few tourists, know about Da Marisa. In 1965, Marisa opened her restaurant to feed workers along the canal, specialising in cheap cuts of meat from a nearby abattoir, and fish from the lagoon 100 metres or so along the Canale di Cannaregio. Today, it’s still a family affair with Marisa’s daughter Wanda running the kitchen. I don’t know whether the unsmiling woman of our first encounter was Marisa, or Wanda, or neither of them, but she was almost certainly a family member.

Venice is famous for its fish restaurants. Whether Da Marisa is “the best in town” as the hotel receptionist claimed, I have no idea. But the place is certainly a local legend, and it provided a couple of tourists from New Zealand with a wonderful food memory of Venice.

Da Marisa, 652b Cannaregio. The restaurant is open for dinner at 8pm several days of the week. On other days, it opens for lunch. Usually fish is served for dinner and meat for lunch. Bookings are essential, unless you are lucky. There is no website so it is probably wise to ask your hotel to book.

The hotel across the canal is Carnival Palace, www.carnivalpalace.com carnival palace hotelIf you fancy something closer to Piazza San Marco, and self-catering, try Ca’Grisostomo, a canal-front apartment owned by Aucklanders. www.cagrisostomo.com

Nearby: Mojita Bar, just along from Carnival Palace, is a tiny canal-side bar serving food all day, and always the classic Venetian aperitif, Spritz, made with Aperol. Around the corner heading to Piazza San Marco, at Cannaregio 1355, is Rizzo San Leonardo bakery, one of the most famous pastry shops of Venice. Pastries are made from recipes a century old, and Rizzo also has wine, bread, and ready-made lunch food.mojita bar

Tip: Choose your Venice accommodation based on transport. Hauling luggage long distances over paving stones is difficult, and water taxis are expensive. Try to be near a water bus stop for cheap, efficient travel. For transport from the airport, try to be within easy reach of an Alilaguna stop. www.alilaguna.it

What to do next? Venice is a launching point for many cruise ship itineraries. The writer joined Seadream 1, one of only two small ships owned by Norwegian company Seadream Yacht Club, to sail towards Croatia and Greece. Small ‘boutique’ liners allow guilt-free cruising along the Guidecca Canal past Piazza San Marco. Bitter argument continues about giant cruise ships sailing close to the square and creating wash which damages the fragile old city. Venetian protesters swam in the Guidecca Canal to stop the passage of cruise liners in 2013, and the large ships were banned for several months from November 2014. Now the ban is lifted but protest continues, aimed at ships weighing over 96,000 tonnes. Fortunately our little Seadream weighs only 4300 tonnes, and makes little more wash than George Clooney’s wedding procession. www.seadream.com SeaDream

Venice, so lovely

Some say it’s the loveliest city in Europe and I have no argument with that. There are a few too many tourists, far too many pigeons, and I’m told the pickpockets are expert. But these are tiny scratches on the overall beauty of the place.

New Zealand at the Venice Biennale 2015.

New Zealand at the Venice Biennale 2015.

And it's a wonderful place to spend a birthday.

And it’s a wonderful place to spend a birthday.

It's difficult to get a personal photo at the Bridge of Sighs nowadays

It’s difficult to get a personal photo at the Bridge of Sighs nowadays

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Gems of the Mediterranean

Dreaming of a sojourn on a Mediterranean island? You could join the rush to big and bustling Sicily, Sardinia, Crete or Capri. Or you could consider these lesser-known little gems.

Kastellorizo

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On the narrow waterfront promenade around the horseshoe harbour of tiny Kastellorizo, old Greek ladies dressed head to toe in black stop for a chat beside a group of men playing the universal boardgame tavli on a rickety table. A typical Greek village scene. But hang on a minute – these quintessential old Greek folk chattering away in their native language suddenly switch to broad Australian English. Mate, it turns out they are Kassies – children of Kastellorizo who were shipped to Perth after World War II. During the war, the British evacuated everyone to Egypt to dodge German bombs but in 1944 a huge fuel-dump explosion left the town and half its houses derelict. So instead of returning, most of the island population emigrated en masse to Perth. Now the Kassies and their offspring are returning, restoring houses as holiday homes and setting up businesses. There’s an Australia Square, A Kaz Bar and a SydneyRestaurant where I watch two young Kassies from Perth get married.

Kastellorizo is the most remote of the GreekDodecaneseIslands. In fact it’s much closer to Turkey than Greece. The town of Kos, in Asiatic Turkey, is a couple of kilometers away, whereas the closest Greek territory is the large island of Rhodes, 100kms to the east. Ferries run from both places to Kastellorizo.

 

Symi

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Arrival in Symi is the perfect Greek island experience. The harbour is a deep cove coloured that infinite, unfathomable blue peculiar to the Mediterranean. The waterfront is edged with tiled-roof buildings in tones of ochre, terracotta and cream. Shops sell sea sponges – until about a century ago, diving for sponges was the economic mainstay – and restaurants serve the local delicacy, Symi shrimp. A hefty stone staircase up the cliff leads to a second little town, Ano Symi, and the town’s museum. Symi was occupied by Turkey, Italy, Germany and Britain in the first half of the 20th century, before becoming Greek again in 1948. (A travel book called Bus Stop Symi, by William Travis, tells the tale.) A monastery on the opposite side of the island is the main tourist attraction. Symi is busier than Kastellorizo, being a mere 40kms on the ferry from Rhodes, but still quiet compared to most Greek islands. It shares with Kastellorizo the fact that it is closer to Turkey than Greece, although the two are 250kms apart. Ferries from Rhodes serve both islands.

 

Procido

procida procida 2Greece doesn’t have a monopoly on little-and-lovely Mediterranean islands. Off the coast of southern Italy are the FlegreanIslands which include the international playground of Capri, and the almost as popular – especially with Germans – island of Ischia. Just north of Ischia is the smallest island in the Flegrean group, Procido. A mere 4kms square, it lacks the thermal springs which attract the lolling tourists to spas on Ischia, and the stunning cliffs, the enormous wealth, and the Blue Grotto which attract everyone from everywhere to Capri. But Procido has charm: pastel houses in pink, white, yellow and blue; the scent of lemons; fishermen mending nets. There are beaches, walks, quaint towns, and a movie-making history which has led to an annual arthouse film festival. Il Postino:The Postman was filmed here, as was The Talented Mr Ripley.  Procido is reached by ferry from Naples or Ischia.

 

Elba

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Not so little, but still a gem, Elba is 15km off the coast of Tuscany, 250km north of Rome. I’m told it’s to be avoided in July and August when half the population of the Italian capital arrives, but late-May it is peaceful, beautiful, and full of quirks. From the U-shaped harbour protected by twin fortresses, an arch in a medieval wall opens to the town of Portoferraio. Today it is bursting with Fiat Bambinos, although that’s not a name these drivers recognise. Here the Fiat 500 is simply the beloved Cinquecento, and I’ve stumbled into a rally of the Cinquecento Club Italia which has 20,000 members. Fix It Again Tony is not a joke I’m prepared to risk on these frenetic Fiat-lovers. All is peaceful up the hill at Napoleon’s villa. The emperor was exiled here in 1814, a year before he met his Waterloo. While here, he designed a still-working sewerage system for Elba. He also left the world’s word-lovers with a great palindrome sentence. (A palindrome is a word or sentence that reads the same backwards as forwards.) When he first saw the beautiful island, Napoleon apparently said Able was I ere I saw Elba. Visitors can fly or take a ferry to Elba.

Montalcino : help a medieval neighbourhood

This is a delightful little town in Tuscany, a village stuck high atop a hill, and the home of Brunello, one of the best red wines you will ever taste. It’s a wonderful place to stay a while. I found it through the writings of Isabella Dusi who lives here. Find her at www.vanilla-beans-and-brodo.com  We rented an apartment with the help of Isabella some years ago and had a wonderful week in Montalcino.  Now Isabella’s neighbourhood is trying to preserve its history.  Have a look at this:

http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/lorenzo-s-blue-shoes-and-saving-the-secret-garden

I think the fundraiser which involves a week in an apartment in Montalcino for four people, with lots of extras, looks like a good deal. If you are planning a holiday in Tuscany it’s worth checking out.