October 1, 2005 | Travel Feature
Eating On Their Feet
Venetians stand. Americans sit. Americans scramble for a seat on the bus, hog a table for hours at Starbucks, hop onto the stool to explore a hot restaurant’s bar menu. But we — me and my guy are walking, sipping, and snacking now in the footsteps of Venetians. Perhaps their willingness to stand has nothing to do with living in a walking city. It’s faster to walk in the city built on water. Venetians stand up in the traghettos – the shallow skiffs that cross the Grand Canal at strategic points. When it pours or grows icy, they may jump on and off the vapretto (the floating bus), where they often huddle on deck or stand inside, leaving the seats on the prow for the tourists exercising their cameras. When the vaprettos shift into late night mode, waits loom long and everyone walks. Does that somehow illuminate stand-up eating?
In winter, the grande dames of the bourgeoisie emerge muffled in fat, tiered furs. Crossing paths with a friend, they punctuate the morning shopping at the food stalls of the Rialto, socializing pelt to pelt. And as they rush home to supervise lunch, joining the streams of pedestrians vying with tourists, shopkeepers, and workmen for the narrow passages between piazzas, they may stop for a stand-up glass of wine, more gossip, and cichetti (bar snacks). A crisp fried sardine or a cod croquette, or a sliver of proscuitto and shaved artichoke crostini or a gooey tuna and mayonnaise sandwich on soft white bread. Eaten standing.
It’s our fourth winter in Venice, and we find ourselves taking the long way through the maze of alleys and small campi to avoid the carnivale press of foot traffic detouring for a wake-up espresso. At Caffe del Doge, on a side alley near the Rialto, we find a vertical cluster of affluent Venetians en route to the office or shop and a duo of smartly dressed cops, the day’s first wave of Doge habitués. Here you can order the blend you prefer, with or without cream, in a cup coated with dark melted chocolate (that’s a Giacometta). Pastries come savory or sweet and in minature – tiny croissants, pain au chocolate, small puffs stuffed with apple, and cookies sold by the piece. Doge, a brand with global aspirations, only recently expanded from selling coffee and coffee products (coffee flavored cookies and chocolate bars) and added pasticceria snacks and tables. Midmorning, mothers arrive with strollers. At the counter, a gondolier flirts with a pretty young barista. Two short fur-wrapped dowagers stand tall, spooning whipped cream from demitasses of hot chocolate. It would never occur to us as voyeurs not to sit. I sip a tall glass of freshly squeezed grapefruit juice. Calle dei Cinque San Polo 609. (011) 39.041.522.7787.
Cicchetti fans know that deep fried fish and battered meat fritters are best fresh from the hot oil, so they hit their neighborhood bacaro (wine bar) before noon. Construction workers, tradesmen, fishmongers, and old men who have nothing to do but drink and smoke and talk sports or politics overflow, glass in hand, onto the streets outside many little wine bars that stud the maze around the Rialto. Just before noon and again at five or six, it’s time for an ombra (a glass of wine). It can be plonk in a tiny glass or a longer pour from a labeled bottle, or possibly a beer – and in cases of serious need, a grappa or two.
The landmark Do Mori should be seen for its historic interior, even though it charges ridiculous prices for lackluster tidbits. I tossed a rubbery square of omelet into the garbage. Better by far are the tramezzini (crustless white bread sandwiches cut on the diagonal with all sorts of fillings: every possible cured meat, tuna, shrimp, and beaten cod (the classic mantecato). Ask for a francobello (literally, postage stamp), half of a half, so you can taste more. The tourist flow doesn’t seem to discourage die-hard locals who know they own the place and don’t mind us subsidizing their discounts. Calle dei Do Mori San Polo 429, (011) 39.04.171.6170.
I Rusteghi , a favorite of ours in the warren behind Camp Bortolomio, has moved around the corner into a small, secluded campiello, adding outside tables. Regulars troop in for small crusty panini stuffed with different fillings. Today I count 21. A rushed youth sips Fanta with his lardo and rosemary panini. We claim a table to savor jazz on the sound system and half a dozen rolls: Sicilian tuna salad, chopped sausage and eggplant, porchetta (ask for senape if you want mustard), speck with pickle, salsiccia piccante (spicy sausage). Corte del Tentor San Marco 5513. (011) 39.041.523.2205.
Regulars from the neighborhood hang out at Cantinone Gia Schiavi in Dorsoduro, a minute away from the Accademia bridge. There the walls are paved with bottles for sale and the vitrine displays platters of snacks and a vast range of delicious crostini at 1 euro each. Sitting is not an option. Our friends travel form the opposite end of Venice to join us on Friday, ex-pat night, for a red from Friuli, richly mayo’d tuna under leek strings and exceptional mantecato on slices of crusty baguette. Visitors from New York, leaning on the bar, happily put away 30 crostini one day at lunch. I arrived late to eat everything they recommended, creamy tuna with slivered onions, pistachio on pistachio cream, tuna mash sandwiched between red and yellow bell peppers, radicchio with Taleggio cheese, and sliced figs with Parmesan. Mamma Sandra and a trio of sons count the toothpicks to calculate the toll. Ponte San Trovaso Dorsduro 922. (011) 39.041.523.0034.
Early one evening the two of us joined Michela Scibilia on a bacari crawl. Scibalia, a tall vibrant brunette with a thick veil of dark hair, was updating her Guide to the Eateries of Venice (due in Italian and English this fall). We met under the porticos of the 16th century Fabbriche Vecchie near the San Giacometto church at Naranzaria, a stylish newish wine bar with winemaker Brandino Brandolini as a partner (guaranteeing an emphasis on wine), fabulous Brazilian music tapes, and sushi snacks. Proof, Scibalia noted, of a new adventurousness among Venetians, though I noticed that giggling young Japanese women on tall stools outnumbered the locals. Campo San Giacometto San Polo 130. (011) 39.041.724.1035.
“No, no,” I cried, but too late. A server had painted my sushi rolls with teriyaki sauce. When Scibalia explained, the offending plate was snatched away, and a slightly too cold second batch appeared with slivers of pickled ginger. The sweetness of fresh raw shrimp made up for the unremarkable tuna.
It was a bitterly cold night, and all of us were layered against the chill. That did not discourage the youngish crowd standing in front of Marca, our next stop – a bar in what added up to an armoire with two stools and a small park bench. Lawyers from the courts come by day, youngish Venetians on their way home or out to dinner in the early evening. They sip wine or spritz, the Venetian aperitif of white wine with amaro – bitter select, or Aperol – and soda. I like mine bitter. A slice of warm strudel – leek or artichoke and radicchio – was easily shared, better than mealy tuna croquettes. Campo Cesare Battisti gia’ Bella Vienna San Polo 213. No phone.
Scibilia had mapped out our favorite cicchetti bars and osterie in Cannaregio on another evening. Three old men and dogs stood at the bar of Da Luca e Fred, where we had a glass of ordinary red and a delicious slice of eggplant rolled around ham and cheese from Scibilia’s cicchetti selection – warmed up, but not sufficiently. Sitting at a table doubled the price, but I wanted to sample the nervetti – boiled veal cartilage with onion, parsley oil, and vinegar. Not bad at all if you have a weakness for cartilage. Dark bread tramezzini and kindly service won us over at Do Colonne, just past the Palazzo Ducale, where we discovered that a little bit of the very greasy but luscious musetto – a soft sausage like cotechino. Alas, we made a special detour for a dark bread sandwich encore a week later. There were no tramezzini of any color, and the service was infinitely less kindly. (Still, it doesn’t hurt to check inside if you’re passing by.)
The most varied and reliable stand-up eating was piled into and balanced atop the glass showcase at Ca d’Oro, mostly known as Alla Vedova. We started with fried meatballs served on a napkin—soft and delicious, and had seconds when a hot batch came out. Then a small plate of stewed moscardino (baby octopus), tender as can be. How do Venetians do this, I wondered, trying to juggle a saucer of glazed onions and a teeny glass of cheap but drinkable wine – red or white, poured from ceramic pitchers. Four of us claimed a counter corner for a dish of mussels with tomato, crumbed and baked, and fabulous grilled cuttlefish. We voted to stay for pasta at a table when the waiter forecast a 20 minute wait but then a crowd shuffled in, people with reservations, and we were exiled into the night. Ramo Ca’dOro Cannaregio 3912. (011) 39.041.528.5324.
Scibilia warned us: Only tourists sit for dinner at Aciugheta – a standout stand-up for good wine and first-rate pizzette. I sipped a fine Chianti in a real wineglass and lost control when I tatsed the sensational chicken liver mousse – a giveaway in a bowl on the counter that I couldn’t stop eating. Then hot out of the overn came pizzettes as advertised, the best in Venice, crunchy-thin, with a fine tomato sauce wearing an anchovy like a necktie. Campo SS Filippo e Giacomo Castello 4357. (011) 39.041.522.4292.
Except for New York City, where overscheduled workaholics and laborers line up for gyros, hot dogs, pulled pork, and a few boutique snacks from curbside carts, I don’t see stand-up eating as a trend. Not for couch plants or commuters. But it’s a lark to play the game in Venice.