Happy New Year From Italy
Cooking from abroad
Greetings and Happy New Year, everyone.
We are in Venice, which at the moment is impenetrably foggy; there are times you cannot see one side of the Grand Canal from the other. My partner, Kathleen Finlay, is spending most of January in Rome as a visiting scholar at the American Academy. I’m tagging along, with no responsibilities except my normal work and, I hope, some added time for writing and cooking.
We were in Venice almost precisely two years ago. It was a time of intense acqua alta — the high tides that swamp sidewalks and buildings, a fun if inconvenient thing for tourists but always very difficult and sometimes heartbreaking for Venetians — and many restaurants and shops had closed for the holiday. Just after we left, our mutual friend Covid arrived. Enough said about that.
This trip, there are mask mandates galore — even in the streets — and to get into restaurants, museums, some churches and shops, you must show proof of two vaccines. It feels safe enough, though I managed to get a cold. (Not Covid, but miserable enough.) The high water has been kept at bay, in part by luck and in part by a new gate system that’s the kind of climate change adaptation we’re going to see more of. Everyone who’s lived here for more than 10 years will tell you that the average water height has gone up visibly and continues to do so. Steps that were built to access buildings from canals are underwater even at low tide now.
I have food to write about, but a couple more general things first. I have been here many times — six? eight? — something like that. We are staying at a hotel that's a four minute walk from San Marco. It's dead quiet. Not that it’s not busy: It’s just quiet. When one person is talking in the street, you hear it; when one gondolier is playing accordion or singing, you hear it. Sometimes there’s a little rush of tourists and you hear that, but generally there is no din or clamor or hum. It never ceases to amaze me. (When we think of cars, all we want to do is continue to stay in a place without them. Though of course we are leaving tomorrow, via car.)
You can’t imagine Venice because even when you experience it you forget that there’s a place like it as soon as you leave. (Rilke: “[One] is only drawn into the secret of its elusiveness. One is filled with images all day long, but could not substantiate a single one of them.Venice is a matter of faith.”)
Once, even in my memory, Venice had a reputation for having not-good food. It was ridiculous at the time, but now I think everyone knows better. If you use local ingredients, you absolutely cannot go wrong and the regional wine is more delicious than ever.
I have done some cooking, on a one-burner stove (well, call it one-and-a-half), in head-bangingly cramped conditions. My best dish, one-pot as they have all been, was a simple combination of artichoke bottoms, cuttlefish, olive oil, white wine, lemon, and salt.
We’ve visited with Cesare and Diane at Al Covo a couple of times and their food is almost incomparably elemental. (Actually, she does desserts, and the one we had — ultra creamy, flowery vanilla gelato with bittersweet licorice sauce whose intensity makes chocolate seem tame — was hardly basic.) Some of the best was raw, or barely cooked, with nothing: raw shrimp, those really red ones whose name I forget (I mean, gambero rosso, but there’s a local name too; in general please forgive my misspellings and misnomers), heads on of course; raw squid (“calamari cachalioli”), and then that same squid (different meal) cooked on the griddle for maybe 20 seconds per side; rosa di goritzia, a radicchio that looks like — well, roses — with a drizzle of oil; caporossi, tiny clams, just steamed open, with nothing; fillets of moi, an exquisitely tender local fish, flash-fried and served on polenta. (Now that I think of it, the same treatment was given to the tiniest shrimp, crispy bits of flavor.)
When, cooking for himself, Cesare, notably, doesn’t use salt — he says he doesn’t even salt his pasta water. He did a little of that for us, and clearly it’s is something you can get away with if a) your ingredients are spectacular and b) you are willing to try to get to a different place with your taste buds. I did a bit of it this week, and I’m going to continue to play with it and will report shortly.
It’s all fish and vegetables, with some bread, polenta, pasta, and cheese making up the difference. I cooked spinach yesterday (no salt!), and beautiful beans; we have made salads of radicchio and fennel and endive and escarole; cuttlefish and moscardini (small octopus) and big shrimp: It all blurs together. Cesare gave us some weird-looking, almost dandelion-shaped kale to take home and try; the stems were among the best things I’ve tasted. (We made them with pasta and steamed a few big shrimp on top.)
There were moechi — the tiny soft-shell crabs you only see here — at Antiche Carampane, as well as canocchie, the weird-looking tough-shelled shrimp that take some work to eat: amazing cauliflower and cabbage there, too. A friend baked a giant branzino in salt, and served it with artichokes, baby shrimp, potatoes, and cooked pepperoni, sweet peppers.
OK, enough. And I’m not going to write about the wine because you’re envious already; let’s just say for half the price I pay for semi-decent wine at home you can buy really good, local, unusual, distinctive even, everyday wines here. It encourages drinking, which ordinarily might not be such a good thing, but it’s the holidays and my knees hurt from all the walking.
More from Rome (or sooner, who knows?). Buon anno! — Mark