It was a chilly late February. It was dusk. Paolo and I had just finished a glass of Prosecco in a small bar in Rialto near the antico mercato del pesce (fish market) in the commercial heart of Venice. Paolo insisted that we induge in “una ombra di Prosecco” (a shadow of wine)– a drink to prepare for the world of fantasy that lay before us.
Suddenly we were swept up a by a corteo (a travelling mob!) of masked revelers rushing and pushing their way to various pagan festivities throughout the city of Venice, We were immediately absorbed into the collective mayhem of what is known as Carnevale, an incredibly festive season that occurs before Lent typically in areas with a large Catholic population. In America, it is known as Mardi Gras.
The swelling crowd undulated like waves over small arched bridges and carried us into a labyrinth of dimly lit alleyways and terraces. Gondoliers clad in traditional black pants and stripped shirts, propelled costumed passengers through the still green waters of the side canals. Splashes of watery light bounced off the colorful, exotic garments of our fellow travelers. This was a Venice I had never seen. A bit frightening and certainly surreal, I held tightly to the sleeve of Paolo’s jacket afraid he too might be swallowed up into this teeming mob leaving me to find my own way back to our hotel. Like Gretel but with neither Hansel nor the crumbs.
Several bridges later, we ducked into a jam-packed bar – music blaring, dancers twisting and twirling frenetically, brilliant bursts of strobe lights giving all movement the illusion of slow motion – not unlike a flip book. A frivolity bordering on hysteria filled the room. One drink later Paolo whispered something unintelligible in my ear. Suddenly he pulled me toward the door, and though I still could not hear him, I was sure it was something like “Let’s get the hell out of here!”
Outside the revelers had thinned. Slowly we made our way back to the more controlled frenzy of Piazza San Marco. Though we were relieved it was over, we were equally elated with our amazing – though short-lived – Carnevale experience in arguably the most famous Carnevale city in the world.
The selection of a traveling companion, in my estimation, is the most important decision I make when planning a trip. Travel is more than just seeing sights. It is a thrilling way to piece together the many disparate parts of the world. Sharing new smells, new tastes, and new horizons with people who bring to them their own particular perspective heightens and enhances each and every experience.
Through the years I have been fortunate to visit Venice with many different traveling partners. It is with them and through them that I have sorted through the many layers of this most exotic and interesting city. It is their perspective I have shared and woven into my own.
Paolo was a fantastic traveling partner. His perspective was always one I valued. A true “humanist”, he has a voracious curiosity, which ranges from reading instructions on the back of a bottle to studying whole sections of the Encyclopedia Britannica and now the Internet. The categories of his interest are limitless. I had visited Venice many times before but never in damp, cold February and never to witness one of the world’s great festivals. It was that “texture” that Paolo infused into all the regions we visited. I would now remember Venice not just as a place but also as an experience.
We concluded our celebratory weekend with dinner at Antico Martini, a historic restaurant founded in 1720, located in a lovely lighted piazza next to the Teatro del Fenice. Although the menu focuses on fish like most of the restaurants in Venice, (fish is the mainstay of the Venetian diet), I needed a break from seafood and decided to order duck that evening. It was the sauce accompanying the duck that caught my attention. Made with Amarone, one of the region’s great red wines, its raisiny ripeness was a perfect match for the slightly gamey, rich taste of the fowl. Served with a slice of fried polenta and simple buttered green beans, I needed nothing more to happily complete our amazing Venetian experience.
Petto di Anitra con Salsa Amarone
Sautéed Duck Breast with Amarone Sauce
6 boneless raw duck breast halves (6 oz. each) with skin on*
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1-tablespoon olive oil
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon diced shallots
1/3 cup Amarone wine*
¼ cup beef stock
¼ cup freshly squeezed orange juice
1 tablespoon Balsamic vinegar
1-tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
Pat duck breasts dry. Score the fat layer with a sharp knife reaching all the way to the breast meat. Salt and pepper liberally then place skin side down in a hot skillet over medium-low heat. Render the fat for approximately 10 minutes. A golden crispy crust should form as the fat melts away. Turn the breasts over and sear another 6 – 10 minutes for medium-rare.
Take out of the pan and allow the breasts to rest under foil while you make the sauce.
Discard the duck fat or pour into a container for future use.
Raise the heat to medium. Add the olive oil and 1 tablespoon of the butter. Scrape up the browned bits from the sautéed duck breasts. Add shallots and sauté 3 – 5 minutes to soften and brown. Add wine, stock, orange juice, balsamic and thyme to pan and reduce over medium high heat for approximately 5 minutes. Add honey and mix well. Add juices from resting duck –add remaining butter one tablespoon at a time slowly incorporating it into the sauce.
Return the duck breasts to the pan turning them a few times to coat them with the sauce. The sauce thickens and takes on a velvety sheen.
To serve, slice the duck breasts on an angle into a quarter to a half-inch thick. On each plate, ladle approximately 3 tablespoons of sauce forming a small pool in the center of the plate.
*Most duck breasts are sold frozen
* You can substitute another full-bodied red wine
Light and color, two key qualities of Venetian art, became actual characters when I visited Venice in 1988 with my artist sister Karen. They “tagged along” in every museum, church and restaurant. I tend to be a “rusher” but with Karen I lingered more, noticed more. Her observational spirit demands time to thoroughly absorb all the visual information in front of her – even the peripheral matter. It is impossible not to be positively affected by her artistic sensibility, her careful attention to detail.
I loved watching her trace lacey lettuce leaves at the Rialto Erberia (vegetable market) along the Grand Canal – then delicately sketch the spunky stems of ruby red cherries all splayed out in bowls of deep cobalt blue. Or artfully outline row after row of perky peppers in every size and shape, their colors astonishingly exotic. The otherwise drab brown mushrooms and dull tan potatoes turned into artful nuggets in Karen’s sketchbook glistening handsomely in the watery early morning light.
The next-door Pescheria (fish market) was truly amazing. I had seen it on numerous occasions but with Karen I took more notice. Fish in shades of deep gold, pale green, silvery blue and luminous rose were stacked side by side almost unnaturally brightened by the early morning Venetian sun . Even the alici (anchovies) – small and grey and often unnoticed – gave off a proud luster. As she often did, Karen photographed sections of the market. I was certain I would see these fish again looking all colorful and ethereal in the background of one of Karen’s future watercolors. She is a collector of beautiful and interesting objects. Photos, sketches, pieces of fabric – even small souvenirs eventually reside in Karen’s studio waiting to be the inspiration for some portion of a painting. They appear in any number of ways – as the fabric in a peasant lady’s dress, a tie on some debonair man, a seashell on the beach or as a stunning backdrop for a gathering of colorful contemplative characters.
The Basilica San Marco is one of Venice’s main attractions. Tourists from all over the world stand in awe of its Byzantine opulence. In previous visits I have craned my neck to look up at the dazzling decoration of the interior – especially the gold and bronze tiled vaults and cupolas. With Karen, in addition to looking up, I spent a great deal of time looking down – mostly focusing on the areas of intricately patterned mosaic and marble floors. I had never noticed the complexity, the beautiful geometric designs; each motif more stunning than the last. In some way, they looked vaguely familiar. “In fact”, I said pointing to a rectangular section of floor directly in front of me, “I want a jacket in this exact design and color.” The mixture of apricot, sienna, aquamarine and raw umber was breathtaking. “Actually”, I added laughing, “I may already have one – a Missoni sweater that looks just like this!” We decided Missoni, the Italian fashion house known for its colorful knitwear designs, had to have (at some time ) been inspired by these floors. Past works of art – everything from the weave in a 17th century tapestry to the color in an 18th century stained glass window – are fair game to find its way into the collections of contemporary designers. A comeback is always a possibility; especially when the design is beautiful, has great composition and rhythm, and ultimately creates an emotional response in the viewer. With all those qualities, a return is almost a guarantee.
Café Florian in Piazza San Marco became our mid-afternoon hangout and Karen’s favorite sketching spot in Venice. We could easily understand why past patrons such as Lord Byron, Casanova, Goethe and Charles Dickens enjoyed spending time here: to be leisurely seated on rich velvet sofas; surrounded by delicate chandeliers, gold framed mirrors and walls lined with great art it was impossible not to be inspired. The café’s vantage point was also important to Karen. Karen’s subject matter is often narrative. Her characters are painted in a whimsical expressionistic style surrounded by luxurious rich patterns and waves of vibrant color. Her people drip with personality, style and eccentricity. Piazza San Marco was the perfect place to sketch the citizens of the world – from quirky pigeon-feeding tourists to elegantly dressed Venetians out for a leisurely afternoon stroll.
Convito’s markets and restaurants have always featured art; sculpture, ceramics and most of all my sister Karen Brussat Butler’s watercolors, many of which I have commissioned. Some are thematic with a wine or regional focus but most feature a rich assortment of marvelous people enjoying the arts of the table – food, wine and great conversation. Combining good art and good food, in my opinion, simply seems the right thing to do. The two are “molto simpatico.”
When I travel with Karen, I never know when one of the characters she has sketched during our journey will show up in a painting. Below, a gondolier she sketched during our Venetian trip sits at a table enjoying an espresso with two Italian ladies – one highly sophisticated covered in what looks like Bulgari jewels and the other a more artistic type anticipating the sweet taste of the cannoli resting on the table in front of her.
To escape the crowds in Venice we decided to have lunch on the island of Torcello at the lovely Locanda Cipriani, opened in 1934 by Arrigo Cipriani, owner of the internationally famous Harry’s Bar. The food is good but the atmosphere is better. Sitting on the terrace right next to a garden spilling over with roses and the scent of fresh herbs, we thoroughly enjoyed this little haven and the warm breezes of an impending summer. It was the perfect break from the crowds of Piazza San Marco.
I ordered Spaghetti con Acciuga (anchovies). According to our waiter, anchovy sauce over spaghetti is an ancient tradition in the Veneto region. I loved its simplicity. The combination of browned – caramelized onions, olive oil and anchovies was succulently delicious. It is not a beautiful looking dish – but beautiful to taste.
Spaghetti con Acciuga
Spaghetti with Anchovy Sauce
2 large onions (approximately 1# each) cut in half then into thin half moon rings
½ cup olive oil
½ cup veal or beef stock
2 ounces anchovy fillets chopped
freshly ground pepper
Heat ¼ cup of the olive oil in a medium-large skillet over medium heat. Add the onion slices and sauté, stirring occasionally, for approximately 20 to 25 minutes until they turn a rich golden brown.
Add the stock, stir into the onions and cover. Cook over low heat for another 5 minutes. Uncover, add the chopped anchovies and mash them into the sauce. Add the remaining ¼ cup of olive oil. Mix well. Cook for about 2 minutes. Add freshly ground pepper to taste. Serve over freshly cooked al dente spaghetti.
We spent our last day wandering the side streets of Venice searching for a little shop recommended in a fabulous shopping guidebook (since regrettably misplaced) as the best place to buy authentic Venetian glass beads made into lovely pieces of jewelry. On our search, we accidentally – but most fortuitously – stumbled upon a lovely piazza close to Campo San Stefano. Morning sun brushed its rays across the colorful facades of the buildings surrounding the piazza. Mozart’s Requiem Mass was being rehearsed in a nearby gothic church. Heavenly music filled the air. We stopped for a cappuccino and let the magic of Venice momentarily envelope us.
Eventually we found our shop. Their selection of Murano and Venetian glass beads was as described, completely amazing. Like two kids in a candy shop we sorted through them admiring their colors and designs. So light and delicate. The Asian and Muslim influences (Venice after all had been a trading port since the 8th century) were clear.
We purchased earrings for what seemed like everyone we have ever known. As we left the store, and were about to turn the corner heading back to our hotel, Karen noticed our clerk locking up shop. She rushed past us. Karen and I looked at one another and began giggling. “Guess we made her quota for the day”, Karen said.
That evening in a vine-covered courtyard we shared an especially memorable meal; a conclusion to our Venice experience. It was a time to review our impressions of this magnificent city. The restaurant, Corte Sconta, was recommended to me by winemaker Angelo Gaja so I knew it would be good. Each course was distinctive and delectable; a veritable adventure into the world of seafood. Especially memorable was the Sogliola in Soar (marinated fried sole – frequently made with sardines instead of sole). It is a classic Venetian dish traditionally served on the night of the Feast of the Holy Redeemer, the third Sunday in July. Usually marinated several hours or overnight, it is served at room temperature. I love its vinegary, sweet and sour taste. The addition of cinnamon, raisins and cloves brings to mind the strong historical trading connections between Venice and the east. It’s an exotic, Marco Polo kind of dish!
Sogliola in Soar
Marinated Fried Sole
Serves 6 – 8 as an antipasti
1-pound small sole fillets
2 large eggs
3 tablespoons milk
Pinch of salt
1 medium onion sliced into thin rings
1/3-cup olive oil
3 tablespoons butter
8 whole peppercorns
3 bay leaves
2 whole cloves
Pinch of cinnamon
½ cup white wine vinegar
½ cup dry white wine
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
For frying the fish fillets
1 ¼ cup unseasoned breadcrumbs
2 cups vegetable oil
2 tablespoons butter
For the topping
3 tablespoons parsley, finely chopped
1 medium glove garlic, minced
1/3 cup golden raisins, soaked
2 tablespoons pine nuts
Cut the fish fillets into pieces approximately 2 x 4 inches. In a medium bowl, beat the eggs, milk and salt lightly with a fork. Add the fillets and let marinate for 1 hour. Prepare the sauce: Heat the oil and butter in a heavy saucepan over medium heat. When the butter has melted, add the onion rings and sauté over low heat for approximately 4 minutes or until translucent. Add the peppercorns, bay leaves, cloves, cinnamon, vinegar and wine. Simmer slowly for 2 minutes. Add the water and continue simmering for approximately 25 minutes. Season with salt and pepper and set aside. Keep warm.
Heat the vegetable oil in a frying pan along with the butter. Spread the breadcrumbs on a sheet of waxed paper. Remove the fish fillets from the marinade one piece at a time and bread them on both sides making sure they are well coated. When the oil and butter are hot, gently fry the pieces until golden brown on both sides. With a slotted spoon, gently remove the fillets and place them on paper toweling. When drained, place them on a serving platter; pour the reduced sauce on top. Drain the raisins and sprinkle them on the fish fillets along with the pine nuts. Top with the chopped parsley and garlic. Cover the platter with foil and let marinate for at least an hour before serving.
Venice is so complex; it compels you to return – to unravel yet another layer, to discover yet another treasure. My artist sister Karen and my humanist partner Paolo brought art and intrigue to my Venice experience. My young children brought along wide-eyed wonder (It was my very first visit). And dear friend, the late Leslee Reis, brought to our culinary exploration of Venice, the same intensity and humor she brought to almost everything we shared. With each of my fellow travelers – and there have been many – Venice captures the imagination like almost no other city I have visited . Whether it was during high tides of autumn; the icy winds of winter; the hot, sticky summer or even on a cold dreary day in early April, walking the planks with my family in a flooded Piazza San Marco, Venice is magical. As Goethe wrote “Venice can only be compared to itself.” It’s a singular city that has worn many different masks for me over the years.