In 2 short days, Venice had cast its magic on us. We joined the crush inside Cathedral San Marco, clapped to the instrumental beat of the dueling orchestras in the piazza, took photo after photo of the seemingly unless supply of bridges and savored the sensation of being hopelessly lost and not caring. We embraced the clichés and fell hopelessly in love with the curious waterlogged city, reveling in all the touristy things, eating all the touristy fare. I’m quite sure Venetians eat more than just fried seafood, clams, squid ink pasta and seafood risotto, but you can’t fault us for trying when they were spotted repeatedly on menus.
For those who deride Venice for being too touristy, the Cannaregio neighborhood is a relatively quiet and local change away from the crowds. Here, we first ate at Anice Stellato, a warm and welcoming osteria that despite its somewhat remote location has gathered enough interest that we heard besides Italian a lot of English spoken. But that meant also that we had a pretty and charming server who spoke perfect English and gave us some seriously delicious advice.
We started with a plate of assorted cicchetti, some, like the soy-ginger salmon, seasoned with somewhat exotic and non-local flavors. Then again, Venetian was at the commercial crossroads of East and West hundreds of years ago, and with its namesake an oriental spice (Anice Stellato means star anise in Italian), it seemed natural for the kitchen to experiment with different flavor profiles. The fish dishes, especially the soft-as-pillow chunks of shark meat were very tasty, but the vegetables were no snoozes either, the simply glazed carrots tarted up with fragrant rose peppercorns. A side of roasted artichokes were also extremely buttery.
Our pastas did not look like much but they were packed with flavor. The sauce coated on thick bigoli noodles is almost invisible but packs a great punch. It is amazing what lovely sauce a slowly-stewed onion with 15 little preserved anchovies stirred into the melted bulb can yield, the sharp pungency of raw onion giving way to a lingering sweetness that marries the salty earthiness of the fish.
P’s noodles are black as night, the smell of shellfish and the tang of the sea apparent before the first mouthful. Though less copious than lunch (a big plate of squid cooked in ink with polenta at Rosticceria Gislon), he got a bite of chewy sweet cuttlefish meat in almost each mouthful of al dente pasta. Simple but enjoyable.
Our first night’s dessert was a cake suffused with the taste of lemon in every bite, from the moist sponge to the sour curd to the zest-inflicted cream. Our only regret at Anice Stellato? Not ordering the gigantic portion of fried seafood that our neighboring tables seemingly inhaled.
The next night, dinner was a little less austere as we already had drinks, charcuterie and cheese 30 minutes earlier at La Cantina, where we quizzed the bartenders on where to seek out a good seafood risotto since the Venetians eat proportionally more rice than their brethren other parts of the country.
Alas, their recommended restaurant was not serving risotto that night, but a few streets away, we stumbled upon Osteria Al Bomba, where the chef, after some deliberation, decided to make us a serving off the menu. Off the menu! That hasn’t happened in a while, not even in the places we frequent in Paris. It will take some time, he warned. But it didn’t matter to us, since it was the only chance we had left to taste authentic Venetian risotto, and we weren’t disappointed. Half an hour later, after we had polished off our cicchetti, the chef reappeared with 2 generous scoops of rice, creamy and unctuous though cooked with only broth and some butter. The al-dente rice was plump with umami-packed seafood broth, and the little chunks of shrimp, mussels and clams sweet and juicy. A fantastic end to our brief Venetian sojourn.
Anice Stellato: Sestiere Cannaregio, 3272 30121 Venice, Italy (Reservations highly recommended)
Osteria al Bomba: Calle di Oca 4297/4298, Cannaregio, Venezia, Italy