22 February, 2010
carciofini and cani
I have to tell you how silly we are, what silly things we buy when in a foreign land, to haul home in overstuffed suitcases: not Italian clothes, or Murano glass, oh no. We bring chocolates, biscotti, dried mushrooms, little red peppers stuffed with tuna, tiny crackers embedded with rosemary, and... heart-shaped salamis. And as for the last, I do not mean some lame effort like a long salami shaped into a heart. No, I mean that an actual Italian salami-maker has formed the salami mixture into the full-fledged shape of a heart: three-dimensional! I will take a photo when we eat it, but believe me, it's an oddity. I imagine it will be a delicious one.
Today I am wishing we were back in Venice for many reasons, but first among them is that our home away from home in Venice had heat and hot water. Yesterday we were sitting around shivering, watching the Olympics and figuring it was the appearance of all that snow that was making us cold. No. The boiler has shot itself. Since yesterday, not one drop of hot water or breath of heat. And it's COLD here. We put Avery to bed with five hot water bottles (each one requiring an entire kettle of nearly-boiling water, took forever) and two feather duvets, but she was still freezing in the middle of the night. British Gas sent a lovely man who spent all afternoon here only to tell us that there isn't an available "team" for two weeks. We're gutted. Something has to give.
So let's go back to Venice, where nothing bad ever happens. Wednesday saw us in a little square, the Campo Erberia (Square of Herbs, which is delightful to imagine!) outside the Rialto market where it was too late to see the market stalls (that had to wait till Thursday), but there was an incredible shop called Casa del Parmigiano, which as the name implies is a House of Cheese. Every Italian cheese you can imagine, but also cured meats, fresh pasta, and in a little shop adjacent, all sorts of deli items that made me positively green with envy! This is where I acquired my porcini secchi and peperoncino alla tonno, and directly outside was the most beautiful dog Avery had ever seen, so each of us was happy. We looked up "caress" in my dictionary and asked permission of the owner to stroke him, as you see.
"I love this dog, I want this dog," Avery murumured urgently. "How do you say 'dog'?"
"Cane," I said, "this is a cane tipicamente Veneziano. A typical Venetian dog."
Avery repeated it spot-on perfectly, and thereafter, in the way that children (or teenagers) do, every dog we saw was a "cane tipicamente Veneziano," and then there were other things "tipicamente Veneziani," like cheeses, or bridges, or squares.
Dog caressed, snacks bought, we hopped on the vaporetto and headed to the cemetery island of San Michele. Yes, there really is an island that is nothing but the final resting place of many, many Venetians. Simply miles, as far as the eye can see, of marble walls, not deep enough to contain a coffin or even, in some cases, an urn of ashes, but all covered with carved epitaphs, the names and dates of the deceased, and messages from loved ones, along the lines of "as much as we loved you on earth, the angels will love you now." There was an entire Recinto dei Bambini, an area reserved for dead babies and children, which we had to turn away from, presently, because the Italian tradition is to place a permanent photograph on the gravestone, somehow fused with the marble. The images of tiny faces in christening gowns, or even sadder somehow, playing in a garden or sitting on a parent's lap, were too much.
As light comic relief from these sad memorials was one particular photograph, of a husband who died in the 1960s and his widow, buried with him in 2008. Clearly the photograph was fused, combining the 1960s image of the man, with the 2008 image of his wife. We stared for a moment. Then Avery intoned, "Together in life, Photoshopped in death."
There were Italian contessas who clearly, from their first names, were English! We imagined them arriving in Venice for a summer abroad, as students, falling in love with a dissipated but charming nobleman, tipicamente Veneziano, and ending up living out their days here, eating Parmigiano and being interred on San Michele. Not a bad way to go.
At one point, another tourist approached us and asked in German,
"Have you seen the lady I was with?"
"No," I answered, "and I don't really speak much German."
"Oh, I thought you were a German family, I'm sorry. Would you rather speak French or are you Italian? I just do not want to leave her here, without me."
I would think NOT! Of all the places to choose! And in fact later in the day, we saw her get off the vaporetto without him, so perhaps the cemetery was a bad place for that first date.
From the cemetery island we journeyed over to Murano to see the glass factories, so famous, so storied. Avery chose a pendant (and this was NOT the place for her to perform her usual shopper's technique of touching everything!), but we left empty-handed.
After a forgettable but energy-restoring pizza back in Venice proper, we headed to the Piazza San Marco to see the Basilica in the right manner, not just as the background to the masks of Carnevale. Oh, the Loggia dei Cavalli, those incredible copper horses, overlooking the Square. Much of the Square itself was scaffolded for repairs, which made us feel as if we were back in London (my father used to say he was going to buy stock in a London scaffolding concern). The views were impeccable, but we had to descend because Avery is sadly quite afraid of heights!
From there to the Campo Santa Stefano to see the Opera House, La Fenice, which figures so prominently in the first of the marvellous Donna Leon mysteries set in Venice, "Death At La Fenice." I listened to the book on tape before we left, and it was great fun to see the lovely white marble facade in person, restored after a devastating fire. We searched in vain for shoes for Avery, who as she gets on in years is showing a fearful propensity for... high heels. Do you know the word for "kitten heels" in Italian? It's kittenheels, just as the French word for "weekend" is weekend. Seriously. But no one had any shoes of any type in a size small enough for her, so we're spared for the time being.
For dinner that night we fared better than adequate, though still not stellar. I was happier with my choices than I had been the night before, partly because I was completely charmed by the lovely, energetic, dramatic maestro of Osteria da Bepi. On our cold, rainy evening, it was hard to imagine people eating outside on a sunny day, enjoying the fresh air. Instead, we were trundled inside to an atmosphere of chaotic control, with the man in charge (I wish I knew his name, he was so patient with my Italian and so lovely and happy) rushing to and fro doing all the jobs: taking orders, cleaning tables, boning fish, serving tiramisu.
I had a wonderful starter that I would like very much to make at home: tiny sliced carciofini (baby artichokes) with scampi (crayfish tails) in a garlicky olive oil dressing, simply delicious and so unusual. Then fegato (tipicamente Veneziano, the menu said, which made Avery laugh), liver sauteed with onions. John had capa longa (razor clams) sauteed in garlic, and then seppie (cuttlefish), which I found... disgusting, sorry. Everything with polenta! Not my favorite side dish, it was appropriate to be served, so I could not complain. But when I make liver and onions at home, it will be with mashed potatoes! Avery was happy with an ENTIRE plate of prosciutto and tortelli a patate. We were full, which was enough.
We went home to open the balcony shutters and look out at the foggy streets across the darling little bridge, at one lone person (on what errand, so late at night?) passing by, at the green water and floating boats. Quite, quite perfect.