A Tasteful Tour of Venice

Beyond the glory of its waterways and colored glass, the city is a vibrant culinary mecca

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

OFTEN the most intriguing sights in a city are just steps beyond where the guidebooks take you. Certainly, this is true for food lovers in Venice.

While tourists jockey for position on the ever-crowded Rialto Bridge, buying glass beads and postcards, culinary adventurers walk on, past the portion of the fruit market that has been gobbled up by T-shirt vendors - into the real food market where local housewives and chefs come to banter and buy groceries.

Although the Veneto, the region in which Venice sits, is not particularly fertile, the land around its many lagoons yields succulent vegetables while the Adriatic provides fish so fresh and varied, they form the backbone of the city's cuisine as well as a dazzling display in the outdoor market.

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The best time to wander the pescheria (fish market), is in early morning, when the fog hangs heavy and the boat traffic is light on the Grand Canal - the ``street'' that runs along the market.

My husband, my son, and I arrived just after dawn to see some specialties of Veneto: cuttlefish, a cousin of squid, whose subtly flavored black ink is used in signature dishes of pasta and risotto; shrimp in every size; sweet, briny crabs that crawl sideways across the counters; mullet with brilliant red scales that catch the morning light; russet-colored spiny lobsters; and prawns with the look of baby lobster and the taste of grown-up shrimp.

Just in front of the fish market is the fruit and vegetable market, where vendors cover their stalls with fabrics as vibrant as their wares. Among the variety of vegetables stacked in pyramids or laid out in stately rows are small purple artichokes that are deep-fried, sauteed, or boiled and served whole with vinaigrette; ruby and white heads of radicchio, a pleasantly bitter chicory, fat lettuce heads from nearby Chiogga, and long brittle-leafed heads from Treviso; starchy rice for risotto all'onda (wavelike risotto), the soupy rice dish prized in the region; and yellow and white cornmeal for polenta.

As a tourist, I find market visits both tantalizing and torturous: It is difficult to see such glorious bounty and not have a kitchen in which to make good use of it. Fortunately, there are myriad restaurants like Da Ivo, here where chefs use the freshest local ingredients and cook regional specialities with skill.

It was the prescient concierge at the Hotel Cipriani who recommended this family-run restaurant. ``Trust me, you'll love it,'' he said, as he drew a little map that would get us by foot from the Piazza San Marco to this genial restaurant, a meeting ground for some of the most enthusiastic eaters I had ever encountered.

We arrived at the restaurant strangers, and in minutes, by simply ordering what was suggested and eating it with obvious gusto, we made culinary comrades. (It can be that easy in a country that takes pride in its cuisine.)

When my first course of tiny shrimp over creamy polenta was served, the man at the table to my left nodded; with the scampi and artichoke hearts he smiled; the savory pasta with pop-in-your-mouth capers produced a broad grin; and when, at last, the platter of crisply fried soft-shelled crabs was presented, he could contain neither his approval nor his enthusiasm any longer and gave me a hearty thumbs up and a heartfelt ``buon appetito.''

I also got a ``bene,'' an expression of appreciation, from chef Ivo himself.

I WAS reminded of what I'd learned over years of traveling: The best way to get to know a city is to arrive with a healthy appetite.

Of course, the alluring aromas that drift across Venice in the evening mist are enough to work up any appetite. Da Ivo is a small restaurant - with only about 15 tables, most of them just big enough for two - and a surprisingly calm place given chef Ivo's energy and seeming inability to stand still.

If he's not in his tiny kitchen, working at the wood-burning grill, bending over the eight-burner stove, dashing across the alley to a building that holds the refrigerator (it's too big for the kitchen), or peering out to check on the dining room, he's racing to the door to greet a customer, hand out menus, or urge a diner to have just one more forkful. ``Bene, bene,'' he says when he spies a clean plate.

If dining in Venice inspires you to gather more knowledge about the region and its fare, as it did me, you may want to stretch your stay and visit the Hotel Cipriani's cooking school.

This cooking school is the oldest in Venice, and was started 20 years ago with the encouragement of the late James Beard, a peripatetic ambassador of American cooking. He and his friend Dr. Natale Rusconi, an Italian literature scholar, avid cook, and now general manager of the Cipriani, dreamed up the then-revolutionary idea.

When Mr. Beard offered to be the first ``guest chef'' and to have his friends serve as faculty, the deal was sealed. ``How could I resist?'' asked Mr. Rusconi with a wry smile, a shrug, and upturned hands.

Beard's friends proved to be a Who's Who of cooking. The school, which started at the Gritti Hotel and then moved to the Cipriani, began with a faculty that included Julia Child, Child's co-author of ``Mastering the Art of French Cooking,'' the late Simone ``Simca'' Beck, whom Child called ``my French sister,'' and Venice resident Marcella Hazan. It has gone on to welcome exceptional chefs and teachers from around the world.

Mrs. Hazan might be considered a ``tenured professor'' on the Cipriani faculty since she teaches there each fall. (This year, she and her husband, Victor, began teaching Oct. 25, and will finish tomorrow).

And earlier this month, Mrs. Child taught, as did George Germon and Johanne Killeen, chef-owners of Al Forno restaurant in Providence, R.I. Next week, Barbara Tropp, chef-owner of China Moon Cafe in San Francisco, will teach.

When I recently spoke with Child, she was then looking forward to her teaching stint.

She recalled how much she and her husband, Paul, a photographer and painter, loved Venice. ``It's one of my favorite cities,'' she said.

As I listened, I could picture her at the helm of a vividly painted gondola, headed for the market at dawn, her distinctive voice carrying across the canal and causing every American in Venice to smile with recognition.

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