Something is wrong. We’re sitting on the broad Via Garibaldi at Trattoria Giorgione. It’s my first meal in Italy – Polenta e Schie – and it is all wrong. Tiny gray lagoon shrimp, about the size of the tip of my pinkie, are nestled on a bed of what looks like cream of wheat. This is not my grandmother’s polenta.
Oh, Venice is beautiful. Imagine 117 islands laced with arching bridges, churches and grand homes adorned with frescoes and mosaics, and the burgundy and gold flag of the Most Serene Republic fluttering from iron balconies centuries old. One of the first photos I snap from the vaporetto (water taxi) on the Grand Canal is of the Hotel Marconi. Marcon was my grandmother’s maiden name. And one of the last photos is of the Hotel Bellini—the peachy-rose color of one of my favorite drinks—Bellini, made of prosecco and white peach puree. The ancient walls of Venice come in shades of ochre, cream, rose, mustard, and cinnamon draped in climbing roses, brighten with window boxes of geraniums, or festooned with lines of laundry. Gilt and gargoyles, tile roofs and marble floors, arches and archangels, light and shadow playing on the waterways and alleyways. Pale pink Murano streetlamps and ornate chandeliers sparkle with quiet elegance. We listen as dueling orchestras rally the crowds on the Piazza San Marco. On one street, not far from the Rialto Market, we find a touch of Kutztown in Venice—a sandwich shop decorated in the style of Keith Haring. We watch the ebony gondolas traverse the canal. The bold striped shirts of the gondoliers prompt Richard to remark, “Where’s Waldo?”
|A touch of Keith Haring|
As we eat our way through Venice, Richard, Marina and I order antipasto, primo piatto and secondo piatto–and then trade bites, multiplying our tastes threefold: pasta dressed in squid ink, prosciutto-topped pizza, risotto with mushrooms and Asiago, prosciutto with melon, grilled cuttlefish, fried sardines, Insalata Caprese (salad of ripe tomatoes, basil, and fresh buffalo mozzarella drizzled with a fine olive oil). Almost every dish has the same salty, white polenta on the plate. I begin to doubt my culinary heritage.
I’ve read that the secret to Venetian cooking is simplicity, or, as a Venetian would say, “Non pio di cinque,” Never use more ingredients than you have fingers on your hand. But why was their polenta white and runny, not the rich yellow mounds of cornmeal from my childhood?
We drink our way through Venice with variety, not quantity, the rule. I want to drink a Bellini made in the city that created it, sample the local Valpolicella wine, sip the sweetness of a Sgropino (vodka, prosecco and lemon gelato), and compare the many variations of Spritz (our favorite being prosecco with Aperol, a bitter made from rhubarb, oranges, and medicinal herbs. Is there an Italian saying: A shot of Aperol a day keeps the doctor away?
Good fortune via venere.com leads us to Al Tramonto Dorato (The Golden Sunset), a B&B near the Arsenale immortalized by Dante. By staying near the residential section of Venice we are visitors rather than tourists. Our innkeeper, Nicola, takes one look at Richard (all 6-foot-7 of him) and invites him to play basketball with his Venetian team for that night’s game. He also apologizes that the docking of the Italian Navy’s Amerigo Vespucci is blocking our view of San Giorgio Island. Quite the contrary, we enjoy the up-close and personal view of the tall ship and watch in amusement as the boatswain blows his whistle and the crew of 450 midshipmen line up for shore leave.
|Marina, Nicola and Richard|
When it is time for us to say good-bye to Venice, we tote our bags to the Arsenale vaporetto stop, ride up the canal and then take a bus to Treviso and our rental car. The journey to experience our Italian roots has just begun. I have more questions than answers, and still haven’t solved the mystery of polenta bianca. Laurie Lynch
Written on Slate:“If I were not the king of France, I would choose to be a citizen of Venice.” – Henry III of France
Elderberry Envy:As we traveled around Belgium, I kept seeing elderberry shrubs and hedgerows in full bloom. Then, on my bike ride into work, I saw an enormous specimen in a Lemont yard. One day while passing, I noticed the homeowner trimming his yews. I braked my bike to a stop and started talking about his elderberry shrub, finally asking if I could come back to pick some flowers for elderblossom cordial. “Very Scandinavian,” he said, “of course.”
Over the weekend I decided to take a leisurely ride and stop for coffee at Café Lemont. I sat on the curving Victorian porch sipping my Peruvian Norte and watching a hummingbird sip nectar from the flowers in a hanging basket. On the way home, I stopped and picked a bag of elderblossoms for a fresh batch of homemade cordial. Perfect mornings don’t only exist in Venice.