Venice had eluded me my whole life, despite La Serenissima wooing me with her flirtation towards dreamy, soppy writers. Hemingway and Byron both succumbed to her coquettish behaviour. A close friend of mine, whose romantic city peregrinations I trust, calls it her favourite city in the world. But having now spent time there, I can see that much of her charm lies in its disorienting contradictions; the giggly, teasing couples consumed by multi-course plates of Cicchetti and each other, and the still-exposed seams of transition between centuries. Her topographical features aren’t one but many; an archipelago of 100-ish islands, all with storied architectural wonders that have inspired art and poetry, “a loud lament along the sweeping sea!” Venice isn’t one place, but many.
“A realist in Venice, would become a romantic by mere faithfulness to what he saw before him.”
And if she insists on flirting, I will reciprocate and flirt right back. That is what she would want, just as Hemingway and Byron did, and the poet Arthur Symons, “A realist in Venice, would become a romantic by mere faithfulness to what he saw before him.” It is impossible to square her panoramas against the vistas of other desperate-to-be-comparable cities. Venice wins every time.
Venice is also a flirty temptress to the solo idler, the wandering daydreamer and the inquisitive traveller. They can stumble on places they otherwise wouldn’t if their nose was pressed into a guidebook. After meals at Local and Wilder Venezia, two family-run restaurants close to the Riva degli Schiavoni, I was taken to Venissa on the island of Mazzorbo, hitched to Burano, a name complicatedly similar to Venice, and confusing dyslexic vacationers since 2017. I was the guest of a couple of friends, Manuela and Thomas, who have captured and carried me off to countless global restaurants. Venissa has a Michelin-star, of both the red and green varieties, with rooms on the water’s edge. You arrive by boat, which is just about the best mode of transport for turning up to dinner, your transfer dropping you at the dining room front door. Although this is Venice, and the idea of disembarking a boat for dinner is nothing grand but considered vanilla in this part of Italy.
After a few quick-fire openers, we started with blue crab and marinated egg yolk and wisteria; and gnocchi with fig leaves and tarragon. Both carefully sourced and leaning on the island and the lagoon, taking ingredients with little commercial restaurant value. The pesky blue crab is an invasive species, and Venetians are begging for them to be destroyed; and who has ever thought about including wisteria on a menu – but just the petals, the pods and seeds are deadly toxic. And ravioli, cooked in Absinthe with seaweed, to which they’d cleverly added juniper and fermented pine nuts, a flavour you’d have thought was too sharp and severe against Absinthe, but when cooked down, actually highlighted how robust the pasta-anise combo is.
There was a dainty tart of halophytes, a plant which thrives in high-salinity waters, adorned with pretty herbs picked from the restaurant’s walled garden and more of that pesky blue crab, this time blanching the spindly critter and blending the meat with potato starch, then baking into a takoyaki orb, the Japanese snack typically filled with octopus or tempura scraps but cleverly making use of the crab here. A slice of apricot and arctic basil leaf then applied on top. They paired this with bitter lemon and Absinthe kombucha, which had refreshing acidic depths. It is not the sort of drink I would have ordered, but when served as part of a no-choice pairing, shows you how satisfying an option the long-form menu can sometimes be.
Chard and artichoke stems are both a shoo-in for a vegetarian restaurant, being plentiful and healthy and impossible to botch up. There are a lot of salad-type components and herbs here. Anything that pokes its little green head above the soil is yanked up and sent to the kitchen. Local and native are at the heart of everything Chiara Pavan and the kitchen produce, these ingredients paired with similarly underrated furnishings, plundered from nearby: grow-bag basil and the perennial blue Mertensia with pink-tinged buds, plus there was a sour cream that came with the chard and artichoke, finished with lacto koji pumpkin seeds. This was a meal stretched by the scientific wizardry of bubbling test tubes and frothing beakers, the nerdy madness of fermentations and lacto. Waste is avoided, if possible. A case in point is the use of leftover bread, mixed here with parsley, sunflower seeds and baked in a large Rapana Venosa shell, which is another invasive species in the lagoon and high Adriatic. The result is an aesthetic spin on brioche feuilletée, the green-tinted bread like some fluffy emerging mollusc. It’s all rather beautiful.
More elegant and impressively constructed plates began to arrive with speed. I could see the busy kitchen, a brigade of young’uns all flexing their culinary skills – assured knife work, seasoning and saucing, gently detaching and collecting floral petals. Then there’s a plate described to us as a “bluefish feast” using a lagoon lemon fish, a wonderful little flipper too often overlooked, or if used, then overcooked, tasting of wet bandages. Here they used a cube of the fillet, aged for two-weeks, which is then skewered on a sustainably friendly tree branch, and worked over on the grill to begin that inevitable journey to seared fishy firmness. It is a finely judged combination of the locale with taste; the texture and temperature of cooking a fish like this is not an easy thing to achieve, particularly over and over, for each guest at every table.
This is cooking. Like proper actual cooking. Sourcing without excessive expenditure and dependence on global importation, all of those pricey products for the heavy-walleted tourists, an issue Vencie doesn’t struggle with. And it isn’t about limiting a supply chain but harnessing and building upon the surroundings because that’s the card they have been dealt. Call it territory-plundering cooking or environmental cuisine. On Mazzorbo, they have their garden space with a stream and a patch of old-growth vines rooted in silt-rich soil, the swampy encircling moorlands reminiscent of the Essex estuary. Hemmed in by the lagoon, they have any number of ingredients to haul in and manipulate, not just blue crab, but goby fish, anchovies and sardines – sarde insaar probably the most ancient of all Venetian recipes – and sea fennel and Anadara Inequivalvis, a variety of saltwater clam. Restricting their input forces them to adapt, and to repeatedly test and try new things.
A word on the service, which was faultless, but then our table was treated to just two attentive members of staff, one of which being Francesco, the restaurant co-owner and partner of Chiara, who filled our wine glasses with such enthusiasm and gusto for the grape, that at one point I thought he would never stop. He brought bottle after bottle to the table; funky wines, the orange and the natural, infested and noble-rotted to the core: a honeyed Sébastien Riffault Sancerre which underwent spontaneous fermentation and a Marto Weiss blend of numerous varietals. And a special mention for the Cinquante Nuances de Gris 2021, produced in Australia in the Adelaide Hills, an exotic saline plonk without sulphates, like so many of the wines here.
The star of pudding was a green mint and bay leaf soufflé. I don’t have a particularly sweet tooth and tend to steer away from sugar and hot air soufflés; which were invented to use up egg whites and so often in UK restaurants, come as either strawberries & cream or doused in sickly chocolate. This one was excellent, though. Light and bouncy as all good soufflés should be, and refreshing, which was necessary at this stage of the meal. The decision to end with a good, local cloudy apple mint sour cocktail washed over me like a flood in an orchard, the tart-sour freshness doing its job. And it was just as well because an engaging invitation to carry on drinking with Francesco and Chiara afterwards meant more fizzy, frothing bottles of the twinkling natural stuff. Hemingway and Byron would have been delighted.
As we walked back to our apartment, crossing the short wooden bridge linking Mazzorbo to Burano, it was eerily quiet; the tourists having departed for their hotels and over-priced Spritz Venetians on Centro Storico. But the smoothness of night was still scintillating, the stars popping on across the cosmos and the swaying silhouettes of boats like mermaids’ tales. I gazed out across the black lagoon like so many littérateurs and found something soothingly familiar to my night-time surroundings. Venice was doing it again, lifting her skirt and showing me some leg, appealing to my sensitive, chimeric dream of one day living here; and she knew exactly what she was doing. And if that humble crumble of an abode so happens to be on Burano, then so be it; I wouldn’t fight that. With Venissa as my local and Francesco and Chiara as my neighbours, La Serenissima can have me any way she pleases. C
Venissa, Fondamenta di Santa Caterina, 3, 30142 Venezia VE, Italy