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June 17, 2011 10:06 pm
The recently opened Venice Biennale has captured the headlines with photos of the artists, their installations and their symbiosis, or not, with La Serenissima.
The most talked-about restaurant news, however, concerns the invasion of one of Venice’s longest established rendezvous venues, Caffè Quadri in St Mark’s Square. Since January this has been under the capable management of brothers Massimiliano and Raffaele Alajmo, whose base hitherto has been the highly regarded Le Calandre restaurant in Padua, a drive of 30 minutes away (much less, I was informed, if Raffaele is at the wheel).
This gem of a building, which started life in the 16th century as a wine bar specialising in Malvasia and then became a coffee house, has seen builders swarm over its upstairs kitchen and restaurant. A few weeks ago it finally reopened; the next few months will also transform the ground floor café.
This is now an exceptionally elegant restaurant. The two rooms upstairs have been opened up to give the space a greater presence; and lighting from above is now focused on the tables so that nothing detracts from the view across to St Mark’s and the Campanile. The red side plates with their two small holes evoke Venetian masks while linen tablecloths are smartly tucked under the tables like bed sheets.
Although Massimiliano remains at the stoves in Padua, he writes the menu that chef Silvio Giavedoni executes adroitly while Raffaele hovers from table to table.
Two different antipasti, one of bright summer vegetables and another, described as a cappuccino della laguna, of rockfish topped with creamy potato purée and saffron, preceded a stunning risotto of red shrimps and pasta tubes with a pistachio sauce. Both main courses were chosen to accommodate the exceptional heat of early June: raw, chopped Piedmontese beef, wrapped in lettuce leaves with a dipping sauce of Venus clams, and thin slices of guinea fowl with a sauce of calves’ liver, alla veneziana. Other memorable touches included luscious cubes of fruit as petits fours and an excellent wine list.
My incessant questions to Raffaele about how exciting it must be to manage one of Venice’s most historic restaurants eventually persuaded him to give me a tour of the property. Standing in the front of the café, next to where a small orchestra was playing, Raffaele explained that Venetian bylaws prevent any café owner offering umbrellas or heating as well as any food that requires a knife and fork. And, while it is sensible that every chair in the square should be of the same design, it is a shame that those currently on display should be so unattractive. Could this be a project for the next Biennale, I wondered?
He laughed and added, “Come the high-water mark in November, this front entrance is completely impassable unless you’re wearing protective waders up to your thighs.” He assured me that the view from the restaurant on to St Mark’s under water is remarkable; I will choose to remember it bathed in the evening sunshine.
Had the sun been shining when we arrived from the airport at Venissa, a restaurant with six bedrooms on Mazzorbo linked to the island of Burano, then we would not have witnessed its chef, Paola Budel, experiencing power failures throughout lunch. She kept her attentions admirably focused on the cooking, which involved excellent raw ingredients. These appeared in a fritto misto of soft-shell crab; fillets of eel with a stunning anchovy purée; spaghetti with sardines and onions; and grilled scorpion with artichokes cooked three different ways. Breakfast includes honey from the nearby island of Sant’Erasmo.
Finally, for what has become a ritual on every visit, we had a dish of fritto misto at Vecio Fritolin, close to the Rialto, with the welcoming smile of Irina Freguia, a combination now enhanced by the skills of her young chef, Daniele Zennaro. As we sat in the corner, a well-known artist came in and called to the manager, “Ancora qua” (“Back again”), for what I discovered was his third dinner in three nights. Lucky fellow!
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