Vine and dine: the pensioners who supply a Venetian restaurant
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In the glamorous hurly burly of Venice’s Grand Canal it’s easy to forget that Venetian life includes fishermen and farmers as well as art historians and festival goers. And out towards Torcello, where the Veneti first settled when fleeing Attila the Hun and others, is an experiment in nurturing those original earthy and watery pursuits.
The little island of Mazzorbo is trying to revive small-scale agriculture, viticulture and vegetable growing, which is quite a challenge, particularly on the lower-lying islands where flooding by the lagoon’s brackish water is a constant threat. Even on the outlying islands, beyond the tourist honeypots of Murano and the cemetery island of San Michele, land that can be cultivated is scarce.
In the face of all these challenges a group of retired Mazzorbo fishermen set up allotments on a neighbouring island only to be forced to leave when they were threatened with eye-watering fines for having built an illegal tool shed. When Gianluca Bisol, scion of the great Venetian wine making family, heard about the frustrated allotmenteers he and his son Matteo offered them land beside the family’s Michelin-starred restaurant, Venissa.
Ten years ago the fishermen began their new allotments and, today, artichokes tower over chicory, lettuce, tomatoes, potatoes, all manner of beans, herbs (basil in abundance), courgettes, onion, chard, cucumbers and squashes. Figs, pear, plums and quince complete the cornucopia.
Some say that the vegetables taste better because of the soil’s salinity. Either way, it takes serious effort to maintain.
“The land needed a lot of work. We added plenty of compost and enforced flood defences to keep the salt off the land as far as possible,” explains Franco Tonello, the leader of the pensioners’ association.
Forty of the pensioners help to tend the productive gardens here and the local community is welcome to come and go as they please, using the restaurant’s land as their local park. Sculpture, by local artist Achille Costi, is dotted around the informal, unmanicured plot, walled on one side and with a picturesque campanile at the other.
“We all pay €14 a year for insurance. And anyone who wants to sells their excess produce to Venissa. Last year Venissa paid us a total of about €400 and that goes towards social activities such as local artist exhibitions. And once a year we are invited in to eat in Venissa,” says Tonello,
The allotments border Venissa’s vineyard which, like many organically-run vineyards, has a rose at the end of every row of vines, an early warning system for disease. The unusual thing about this vineyard is the grape variety, Dorona di Venezia, golden grapes grown almost exclusively in the Veneto. It was a rarity in and around Venice when Bisol senior spotted one in a Venetian front garden a few years ago and propagated it. The resulting golden wine, sold in black half-litre bottles of Murano glass and decorated in gold leaf, sells for €140-€880.
Matteo, who runs Venissa, explains that the whole operation on Mazzorbo is expensive, from their environmentally sensitive philosophy (even the electronic mosquito zappers are being removed in favour of screens around the restaurant) to their relative inaccessibility, half an hour’s water bus ride from St Mark’s. And then there’s Matteo’s desire to serve only local produce and to bring agriculture back to the lagoon.
“My ambition is to bring agriculture back to Venice and to try to get it to balance with tourism by using abandoned islands. Even now we use a lot of local produce: beef comes from the mainland but quail, duck and guinea fowl are farmed locally; and honey, oil, beer come from the lagoon.
“For the first few years we were losing €250,000 a year on average but in the last few we are breaking even,” says Matteo, who suggests a very, very light lunch overlooking his gardens.
Sous chef Chiana Pavan materialises and asks what we’d like. She and the chef, Francesco Bruttio, are philosophy majors. We ask for a light salad.
Eleven tiny but sensationally delicious dishes later (squid eye; minuscule quail liver meringue . . . you get the drift) there was no sign of salad. But every sign of Matteo’s determination to use local food and to involve the local community: “First it was luxury, then experience, and now I feel that people want experience which they can enjoy in the knowledge that it is in some way helping other people and being responsible for the environment.”
And so he is encouraging the type of people who can afford to eat at Venissa to stay a while and spend locally: “In Burano we have 13 rooms in five houses, fishermen’s houses. The average spend is about €800,” he says, breaking down the figure as two nights’ accommodation at €360; food and drink costing about €400; and souvenirs coming in around €40. It’s a snip when you consider that a room for two at the Gritti on the Grand Canal starts at around €700. And the Gritti doesn’t boast allotments, let alone a vineyard within walking distance.
Grandi Giardini Italiani introduced Venissa to Jane Owen.
Jane Owen is the editor of House & Home and deputy editor of FT Weekend. She will be speaking at the FT Weekend Festival, September 8, at Kenwood House, London. For more information, visit ftweekendfestival.com
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