Story and photos by Manos Angelakis
Carnival photo courtesy Osteria da Alberto
City of dreams... city of pleasures... city of light... magical city!
Sitting at Florian, the quintessential Venetian café sipping espresso, one sees Piazza San Marco unfolding like a Canaletto painting little changed from the early 18th century, except for the throngs of tourists waiting to enter the Doge’s Palace and the San Marco Basilica.
La Bella Venezia... it is nothing less than a giant theatrical stage where heroes and villains, saints and sinners, virgins and whores commingle through the ages. Venice is the world’s most exasperating city… a schizophrenic mix of beauty and decay, elegance and kitsch, high art and mercantilism of the worse kind. “Venice,” as Truman Capote used to say, “is like eating an entire box of chocolate liqueurs in one go.”
Venice was cobbled by its inhabitants from over one hundred specks of terra firma in Adriatic’s northern shores, created by shoveling dirt between the marshy islets or, more often, deepening the canals between them and building bridges linking one islet to others. Along the banks of the canals palaces, public buildings and warehouses were built on foundations of wooden pylons driven into a base of packed clay. From the 9th to the 15th century, it was ruled by elected Doges and the influential Council of Ten; that was Venice’s golden age, a time when it was the major rival of the Byzantine Empire in the Eastern Mediterranean.
You can’t look at Venice today, without delving into its glorious past. The façades of the stately palazzi lining the Grand Canal are still marvels of gothic architecture in marble or stone. The interiors are leafed with gold and covered by murals created by famous Venetian painters; Carpaccio, Tintoretto, Veronese, Tiepolo and the above mentioned Canaletto -- Giovanni Antonio Canal, a Venetian-born in 1697 to Bernardo Canal, a scenic painter for Venetian theaters. They all explored and exposed in their paintings the miraculous light that illuminates Venice and accentuates color and texture, like in no other place in the world.
Venice proper and the islands of Murano and Burano are a fairy-tale maze of ancient streets, artisan’s quarters, palaces turned into museums or luxury hotels, restaurants with seven-language menus, covered and open-to-the-air bridges, markets for the locals, tourist-traps for the tourists,
glass blowing workshops and showrooms filled with both incredibly fragile, world-class designs and baroque confections of over-the-top kitsch, gondolas with straw-hated gondolieri, the canals and people... incredible, wonderful raconteurs steeped in history, lore and gossip. Any gondolier you ask is going to repeat the legend that they have relatives that were born with webbed feet, like ducks, so that they can walk on water!
Archimede Seguso, the great-great grandson of the famous glass maker, owner of the eponymous factory in Murano and habitué of Osteria da Alberto -- a Venetian bacari -- and good-food/good-wine aficionado said “It was a major scandal in Venice’s epicurean circles when Giuseppe Cipriani (the original owner of Harry’s Bar) first served fegato alla veneziana (liver with onions) at Harry’s, while all the grand restaurants were serving French cuisine”.
And everyone still talks about Peggy Guggenheim and her life with Yves and Max and her many other lovers.
The wine Venetians most often drink is possibly Prosecco, a charming sparkler that also serves as a base for Venice’s most famous cocktails, the Bellini and the Rossini. But, Soave, I think, is the perfect match for the city’s best dishes -- excellent full flavored and very fresh seafood. When I eat in Venice, I always order house soave, usually a mixture of 10% Trebiano and 90% Garganega, a fresh, highly fruity but complex wine.
Where else does one have the definitive fegato alla veneziana but at Harry’s Bar. This is Giuseppe Cipriani’s original recipe.
2 lb. calf’s liver, trimmed with the thin membrane peeled off.
6 tbs. extra-virgin olive oil.
6 small yellow onions, peeled and thinly sliced.
3 tbs. butter.
1/2 bunch parsley, trimmed and chopped.
Salt and fresh ground pepper. (Coarse sea salt and Malabar Black pepper is the best combination).
Cut liver into four long pieces with the grain, then with a very sharp knife slice each piece crosswise into as thin as possible pieces.
Heat 4 tbs. of the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add onions and cook stirring frequently for approx. 15 minutes until soft and golden brown. Make sure you don’t burn the onions. Remove onions with slotted spoon and set aside.
Increase heat to medium-high and add remaining oil. When oil is sizzling hot, add liver and cook, preferably in batches to avoid overcrowding the skillet, until brown and crispy on the edges, 4-5 minutes. Season liberally with salt and cracked black pepper, then add reserved onions and accumulated juices. Cook for another 2 minutes, stirring and turning liver and onions constantly while shaking the skillet over the heat. Transfer to heated serving platter.
Add butter to skillet and deglaze as butter melts. Remove skillet from heat and stir in parsley. Spoon butter and parsley mixture over liver and onions. Serve with grilled polenta. I tried using a wok over gas heat, instead of the skillet, and it worked quite well. But if you are cooking with electricity, a heavy cast-iron skillet still works best.
And talking about palazzi; we usually stay at Palazzo Sant'Angelo, the Danieli or the Bauer, all former palaces of prominent families on the main island; they have become 5-star luxury hotels. We tried to reserve at Palazzo Vendramin in Giudecca -- Cipriani’s annex, offering deluxe apartments with butler service, but were told that they were fully booked for at least 10 months. So we went to the Centurion Palace and its elegant Venetian suites. It’s a grand hotel!
Italian National Tourist Board North America www.italiantourism.com
Editor’s note: The visit took place in 2018, way before COVID-19 and the European travel restrictions.
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