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True Tables of Venice

Marlena de Blasi is a journalist and former chef who has written two cookbooks on Italian food and "A Thousand Days in Venice," a memoir. She lives in Umbria.

Ater a visit to this water kingdom in 1993, rather than coming home with some wonderful piece of Murano glass, a gold-rubbed cherub or a handmade Carnevale mask, I returned instead with a Venetian. A deep-voiced, blueberry-eyed Peter Sellers type, he followed me home, asked me to marry him, and together we returned to la Serenissima to live at the edge of the Adriatic Sea.

During the 1,000 days I lived there, I discovered how to eat and drink like a Venetian rather than a tourist. I eventually carved myself a luscious gastronomic route, marking the most genuine, traditional stops along the trail of la vecia cucina Venexiana--ancient Venetian cuisine--full of absorbing dishes imprinted with the same spices that were the prized booty of the city’s trading epoch with the Arabs, Turks, Persians and Egyptians.

I trolled the markets near the Rialto Bridge, ogling the baroque, seductive heaps of fruits and vegetables and herbs and wild grasses--looking like a Caravaggio painting--from the agricultural plains that stretch out beyond the city. I’d stand amid the clamor of the fish hall, inhaling the dizzying perfumes of sea salt and fish blood, coveting every slithering, swimming, crawling creature for my kitchen pot. The spices, produce and seafood translate into lush heirloom dishes such as sarde in saor, fresh, briny-sweet sardines that are fileted, fried and laid to rest in vinegared onions and bay leaves, strewn with pine nuts and wine-plumped raisins.

I learned about the bacari, the traditional wine bars where Venetian gastronomic, social, political and sentimental life unfolds. I discovered which trattorie and osterie served the most authentic food, and early on learned to avoid those ever-present tourist restaurants where six-language menus spit out by computers hang in windows and the fish served up have long-dead eyes.

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Though my blueberry-eyed Venetian and I live in Umbria now, Venice remains very much a part of our lives. And the gastronomic trail I laid 10 years ago is the one we follow still. Primal to learning how to eat and drink like a Venetian is to understand the ritual of andar a ombre--"to go for a shade.” The story goes that in the early days, when St. Mark’s Square was still a grassy expanse tangled with grapevines and cherry orchards, strolling vendors sold cups of wine drawn from barrels set on wooden carts, refreshment for merchants, nobles, seamen and priests. The carts assembled in the shade of the bell tower, and as the hot Venetian sun moved, so did they, following the slivers of shadow as they circled the tower. Hence a glass of wine from these vendors was called an ombre--a “shade.” It still is.

Watch the Venetians and see that to take an ombre together with a friend once or twice (or more) a day is to renew the bond, to celebrate each other. They quaff a tumbler of prosecco or torbolino, custoza or tokay, local white wines. To keep company with the ombre are endless little bites called cicheti (chee-KET-ee): a bit of roasted polenta topped with a smudge of baccala (dried cod) whipped to a cream; tiny fried cuttlefish tossed whole into the mouth from the tip of a toothpick, letting the warm ink in their bellies wash slowly down your throat; half of a hard-cooked egg, its yolk orange as pumpkin and topped with an anchovy.

So when friends say, “Se vedemo piu tard,” Venetian dialect for “We’ll see you later,” it is not an idle phrase. They probably will meet again soon at a wine bar to enjoy one another’s company. And where better to start getting a true taste of Venice than at Do Mori.

Cantina do Mori

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Nearly hidden on a little street inside the Rialto marketplace, Venice’s gastronomic center, Cantina do Mori has fed and slaked the thirsts of merchants and citizens, blackguards and kings for 500 years. During my first forays around Venice, I would sidle up to the bar here with the fishmongers and butchers, the farmers, the chefs, the indigenous citizenry. I watched them, mimicked them, calling for my own tumbler of cold tokay at 9 a.m., shameless as a sailor.

I never could quite get the hang of tossing my head back and pouring the delicious stuff down in a single, long guzzle. The Venetians would slam an emptied glass on the bar, pull out the proper coinage and be out the door while I was still on my second, tentative sip.

Food will help, I thought. And so, again, I did what the Venetians do, calling for a pair of castraure--tiny, thumbnail-size artichoke hearts on long, slender stems, braised in white wine and lemon. Having dispatched them, I ordered little pickled onions wrapped in anchovies; a chunk of whiffy cheese; a tiny sandwich of smoked trout; then one smeared with truffle paste; another with a mash of wild mushrooms and cream.

I was almost feeling at home, but still too paralyzed to speak to anyone but the barman. I stood there, watching the diorama before me. But Venetians are intolerant of timidity, and soon they began talking to me. Then I was home at last.

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A morning stop at Do Mori, often brief, sometimes lingering, became my ritual. The other regulars became my social circle, my ciceroni--my cultural instructors--and the nourishment taken from them feeds me still.

Alla Vedova

The old, shiny dark-green doors beckon from the end of a narrow street in the Canareggio district as though they are the doors to a place where you once lived, or dreamed you did. Open them and you are home. Welcome to Venice as it was, as it shall remain for at least as long as there are Renzo and Mirella Doni to keep the fires warm.

More than 120 years ago the great-grandfather of this brother-and-sister team opened a small wine shop (enoteca) where he dispensed the wines of his native Puglia to the locals. From father to son and father to son, the enoteca went on until Renzo and Mirella’s parents, Lina and Mario, inherited it and began offering ombre e cicheti.

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Venetians adored the place, standing in line to enter, then clamoring for more. So the kitchen began to offer a fritto misto, a crispy tangle of small fried fish served with a pool of creamy, hot white polenta, as liquid as a sauce. The dish became celebrated, so then others were set down by Lina: risotto cooked with vegetables or lagoon fish, bigoli in salsa (whole wheat pasta tossed in a mash of anchovies and onions), bigoli con sugo d’anatra (whole wheat pasta in a rich, gamey sauce of lagoon duck). When Renzo and Mirella’s father passed away, the place became known as alla vedova--"the widow’s place.” And that’s how it’s known still, Lina’s beautiful food surviving her.

Like a Venetian, begin at the bar here for a drink and bites of what must be the most delectable cicheti in the city, especially the polpette di carne: crisp fried cakes of ground beef and herbs. There is no menu, but the spectacular team of young Venetians who wait tables will take the responsibility for your supper as though you were a nightly client. In addition to the fritto misto and bigoli in salsa, don’t miss the risotto con nero di seppia, risotto turned dark and briny with squid ink. In fact, resist nothing, because Alla Vedova is one of those rare little houses where if one sits down with a good appetite and an open mind, everything will please. At the finish, ask Renzo to place a single crisp buranello, a buttery S-shaped cookie, into a glass of ambered dessert wine. Wait until the wine soaks through the cookie before eating it. Another Venetian ritual.

Al Mascaron

A hurly-burly place tucked on a little street just off Santa Maria Formosa square, no one seems to remember when this humble house began. It’s as though it was always there, like the churches and buildings of the quiet Castello quarter. Twenty-five years ago, when Gigi Vianello took it into his big, capable hands and gave it the name Al Mascaron (after the mascherone, the monstrous head, said to drive the devil away, that sits at the base of Santa Maria Formosa church’s bell tower), he pulled it even farther back into the past until his menu began to read like a Renaissance-era cookbook.

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Begin supper here with an artisinally made smoked, dried ham, called speck, sliced so thinly that it fairly melts into its cushion of roasted polenta. There is lush goose salami and crostini di fegato, little toasts brushed with chicken liver pate. If you’re offered a cold salad of poached clams and mussels, sheer and briny with a thread of olive oil and a fistful of wild lagoon herbs, say, “Yes.” And the potato dumplings with wild duck sauce--gnocchi al ragu d’anatra--that we ate when I first moved to Venice are still offered as often as the kitchen has time to prepare them.

As for Mascaron’s renowned fish dishes, well, all one need do--as I’ve done--is to follow Gigi around the Rialto fish hall even before the fishermen have finished unloading the night’s catch. He prods and pokes, pinches gills, sniffs, says, “Bah!” and trolls some more. All I can say is that what he presents on any given day might be the best fish on any table in Venice.

Harry’s Bar

During my first days in Venice, when we felt flush--or even if we thought we might feel flush soon--my new husband would say, “Let’s go to Harry’s.” Now, after going there for 10 years, it’s still romantic for us. First, we take a perch at the bar. “Two Bellini, please.” Who could resist the iced juices of crushed white peaches and prosecco, the local sparkling wine? We like to sit there and watch Claudio, who must be the earth’s greatest bar/showman, splashing the potion from shoulder height straight down into a row of waiting glasses.

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After a while we move off to our table. The crisp white cloth is snapped into place; the basket of fine country bread, sliced and barely toasted, is set down. A soft roll shaped like a snail, most of its weight in butter, is laid on the bread plate. The ceremony of dining at Harry’s is as ritualistic as Mass.

Here come the sarde in saor, lush sardines in their puckery-sweet bath. And the baccala alla Vincentino, a stew of cod and onions braised in white wine and milk, perfumed with bay leaves, shot with capers and presented with polenta. It’s a dream. Harry’s menu is full of seductions and seasonal treats. I always order and then change my mind with every plate that passes me: There goes the fish soup, zuppa di pesce, one of the best of my life, thick with sea bass and monkfish and shrimp, sparked with anchovy and garlic, baptized in cognac.

Always irresistible are tagliolini gratinati, homemade pasta tossed with a spoonful of bechamel, a handful of Parmesan cheese and thin strips of rosy sweet prosciutto, then baked to a golden crust. If not that, it’s risotto con carciofini, risotto with baby artichokes or risotto with white Alba truffles. Then more plates float by: monkfish with a sauce of radicchio and leeks, scallops in a bright pool of yellow and red peppers, pan-roasted veal chops, fegato alla Veneziana (calf’s liver and sauteed onions). How to decide?

It’s only at dessert that I become resolute for my favorite: torta meringata, vanilla-scented meringues stacked with sponge cake and whipped cream, the whole structure wrapped in more meringue, then gilded in a hot, hot oven. Someday I wish it could be my birthday cake, that they’d wheel out a whole one just for me.

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La Fiaschetteria Toscana

Close to the Rialto Bridge on a busy commercial street sits this glorious house, which was once the dispenser of ombre e cicheti to the shoppers and workmen of the neighborhood. There is a warm elegance about the place and its staff that is rare in Venice. Mariuccia Busatto, bolstered by the assistance of her husband and son, is the soul of the place, moving about the tables, caring for her diners as if she were a loving hostess at a dinner party. The menu is long and luxurious and resonates with offerings from the morning markets.

One might begin with sogliette in saor, small sole fried in the same Arab-style sweet-sour sauce of vinegared onions, wine-soaked raisins and pine nuts used with sardines; tiny squid (moscardini) with fresh tomatoes; crisply fried squash blossoms; soft-shell crabs (moleche) dragged through flour and sauteed in butter. The pasta course (primi) might be pasta e fagioli, or tagliolini with squid ink or with scampi and squash blossoms. Main courses (secondi) boast sea bass roasted whole in a crust of sea salt (branzino al sale) and fegato alla Veneziana, another heirloom dish that reflects the sweet-sour Arab imprint on Venetian cuisine. Here is the place to splurge on wine--the list is formidable, intelligent and honest--and on Venice’s most magnificent collection of international cheeses.

Vini da Gigio

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A generation or so ago, this charming, sunny space tucked behind the Strada Nuova was an enoteca where Venetians came to buy their daily quota of wine. But so affectionate were they about the place that they began to bring their home-cooked lunches and suppers with them to eat with their neighbors at a long wooden communal table. The house served wine and bread, and thus each day was celebrated with the sharing of plates and the raising of glasses. In 1981, Paolo Lazzari acquired the historic place and lovingly reconstructed it.

Sitting in the tiny room under the pale light of old ship lanterns, one is soothed even before the meal begins. Antipasti might include gamberetti con polenta, tiny shrimp sauteed in white wine and presented with roasted polenta; and misto crudo, a mix of raw seafood and crustaceans such as tuna, swordfish and scampi. More traditionally Venetian are fried razor clams and tiny fried sweet queen scallops and bay scallops. Risotto dishes are delectable, as well as branzino (sea bass) roasted with potatoes, olives and sweet tomatoes.

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GUIDEBOOK

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A Taste of Venice

Telephone numbers and prices: The country code for Italy is 39. The city code for Venice is 041. All prices are approximate and are computed at a rate of .90 euro to one U.S. dollar. Hotel rates are for a double room for one night and includes breakfast. Restaurant prices represent an average cost for a three-course meal for two without wine.

Getting there: Delta, Lufthansa, Air France, KLM, Swiss and British Airways all offer connecting service from Los Angeles to Venice. Venice’s Marco Polo Airport is located about 5 miles north of the city. The best way to reach Venice from the airport is by water; the frequent Alilaguna ferries charge about $11 per person.

If you arrive in Venice by car, park in the Tronchetto Island car park, about $16 for 24 hours. By train, visitors arrive at Santa Lucia Station on the Grand Canal and take a water taxi to the stop nearest their hotel.

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Getting around: Public transport in Venice is by vaporetto (water bus). The one to take for sightseeing as well as most destinations is the No. 1, from which passengers can admire the canal-side palaces. Most cost efficient is to purchase a 24-hour (about $10), 48-hour or 72-hour ticket. Children under 4 are free. For routes and timetables, www.actv.it.

Where to stay: Locanda Novo, Calle dei Preti, Cannaregio, 241-1496, fax 241-5989, www.locandanovo.it, sits just steps from the Rialto Bridge at the head of the Strada Nuova, which is rich in Venetian life, simple restaurants and shops. Rate: $143.

Locanda Casa Querini, Campo San Giovanni Novo, Castello, 241-1294, fax 241-4231, www.locandaquerini.com, near St. Mark’s Square, has 11 rooms in a homey atmosphere. Rate: $181.

Locanda Ca’ Valeri, Ramo Corazzieri, Castello, 241-1530, fax 241-5392, www.locandacavaleri.com, with rooms decorated in the Venetian style of the 1700s, is away from the crowds yet close to St. Mark’s Square. Rate: $176.

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Locanda Armizo, Campo San Silvestro, San Polo, 520-6473, fax 296-0384, www.armizo.com, a just-restored six-room residence on a quiet street near the Rialto markets with beautifully decorated rooms. Rate: $143.

Where to eat: Cantina Do Mori, Calle do Mori, in the Rialto market, San Polo, 522-5401. $11.

Alla Vedova, Ramo Ca d’Oro, Cannaregio, 528-5324. $66.

Al Mascaron, Calle Lunga Santa Maria Formosa, Castello, 522-5995. About $65.

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Harry’s Bar, Calle Vallaresso, San Marco, 528-5777, fax 520-8822, www.cipriani.com. About $200.

Ristorante Fiaschetteria Toscana, Salizadda San Giovanni Crisostomo, Cannaregio, 528-5281, fax 528-5521, www.fiaschetteriatoscana.it. About $100.

Vini da Gigio, Fondamenta San Felice, Cannaregio, 528-5140, www.vinidagigio.com. About $75.

For more information: Italian Government Tourist Board, 12400 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 550, Los Angeles, Calif., 90025; (310) 820-1898, fax (310) 820-6357, www.italiantourism.com.

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