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Venice: The Great Binge of '09

Joe H Mar 20, 2009 12:22 PM

We had calories to spend. We’d saved for months: with every bite at every meal we’d longed for this. My wife was retiring and we were returning to the city where we’d had at least one trip every year since the early ‘90’s. We flew on United miles, stayed with Starwood points-we had money to spend, too. Reservations for every night, even a rental car for a day’s trip to expand the area of the binge. Two nights at Alle Testiere, Fiaschterria Toscana, the intriguing Il Ridotto, Il Refolo too along with a castle in Bassano en Grappa, visits to Asolo and Soave to buy Dal Forno and over a E100 worth of cheese to bring home. And, a half dozen other trattorias and osterias, too.

We were hungry and loaded.

Il Ridotto ( www.ilridotto.com ) is the most interesting restaurant in Venice, one of the most individual in all of Italy. Only two restaurants in the country have a food rating higher than the 55 which Gambero Rosso gave it in a visit last year.

There are five tables and a small adjacent kitchen. At Il Ridotto you are served by the owner, Gianni, who also literally cooks for you. With a wood beamed ceiling, black, tan, brick and mirrored walls and a cream tiled floor framing windows and a door set in stone and lights suspended from the ceiling this is a striking room. A modern interpretation of ancient Venice. It is intimate, special, personal-perfect for Gianni’s personality and presentation.

He owns the enormously successful adjacent Aciugheta pizzeria and wine bar. Because of them he can indulge his passion for what amounts to his own private room here-a loss leader, if you will. Next to Fiaschterria Toscana he has what may be the best wine list in Venice. Querciabella ’06 for E 26, Dal Forno Valpolicella ’03 for E 110. Perhaps the greatest chianti classico and the greatest Valpolicella of all, both at reasonable prices (for what they are) and part of the thick volume which he presents. They compliment his oversize, bound menu which is an artful volume on its own. Each has a different contemporary painting of a Venetian scene on the front and back covers. One menu is positioned on a pedestal in the corner of the room as you come in. A tasteful presentation which compliments the Rosenthal and Versace porcelain and the dramatic, oversized Spieglau stems presented at the table.

The amuse featured a violet colored whipped potato base which had a grilled, thin sheet of pasta wrapped shrimp nestled on it. This was topped with bacon and beads of good olive oil in the shallow glass dish. The flesh of the purplish Italian potato was naturally colored and delicious.

A salad followed with lobster, apples, strawberries and baby spinach, drizzled with olive oil and balsamic. Fresh, light, a creative and tasty combination. Fettucine with “a meat ragout of Fassona Piedmontese” was next. The house made fettucine was superb. I have no idea what kind of equipment he made this in but I’ll draw the analogy of making ice cream with rock salt and ice while turning the crank one’s self. The resulting texture is simply superior to any other method for making ice cream. Gianni’s fettucine is the best I have had in almost 30 years of eating throughout Italy. The flavor of the ragout was intense, outstanding. Superlatives for what was a second great dish after the amuse.

Prawn ravioli with scallops, spinach and cauliflower in a creamy white sauce followed. (Note: I do not have a menu so my apology-this is from memory other than several notes which I took.) Another superb pasta dish.

For dessert a zabione with sweet raison wine, cold egg nog, pine nuts, “wild berries” and meringue. Also, his “interpretation of tiramisu.” Sweet, rich, creamy, delicious.

With all of this was his enthusiastic service. Literally, after he took our orders he returned to the kitchen and cooked our meals. Literally, this was his house and an invitation to dine with one of the best chefs in Italy. He enjoyed watching ours’ and others’ reaction to his cuisine, he passionately shared his knowledge and opinions.

Il Ridotto is the best restaurant in Venice. It is an extraordinary experience that when discovered will be one of the most difficult reservations in the world. Ten seats. But it is not known yet. It does not appear in a single travel book in English. Despite raves from Gambero Rosso, L’Espresso and others (all of which appear mounted in the window) Americans have never heard of it. Last Friday night only eight people were in Gianni’s restaurant. I understand that on weeknights often there are only several. But this is as much a reflection of the economy in Venice as it is of a relatively new restaurant waiting to be written about in the world press. Which it will be. (And the tourists will return to Venice, too.

)

We first visited Alle Testiere fifteen years ago. Along with Da Fiore I first mentioned it on here in 2000 or 2001. (I believe I was the first for both.) Arguably, Alle Testiere is the most difficult reservation in Venice. One month to the day for Friday and Saturday, at least two weeks for weekdays. There are 24 seats in the room with a closet sized kitchen even smaller than Il Ridotto’s. I should note here that Luca (who owns Alle Testiere with his partner who cooks) is a good friend of Gianni’s. But right now, on weeknights, there are empty seats in Alle Testiere. Business is off 25-30%. They still have 40 or so covers on Friday and Saturday but slightly more than half of this through the week. This is a well known restaurant featured in almost every guide book for Venice throughout the world.

Alle Testiere does not feature risotto. In perhaps twenty visits over the years I’ve never had it there. This trip, with two stops five days apart, we asked Luca if we could talk him into a seafood risotto for our last meal in Venice. He said they would do it but interestingly noted that it “takes up two burners on the stove.” One for the pan and one for the broth which much be ladelled warm. The other two burners service the other 22 seats of the restaurant besides ours’. There was an element of self indulgent guilt on my part in asking them to use the two burners for our risotto. (I should mention that I have something of a nortorious reputation on Chowhound for a post of mine from a number of years ago. It was actually labeled “#1” on Chowhound’s Top Ten lists of posts for all time. That’s top ten outrageous posts of all time: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/2889... In any event ,hyperbole aside, I feel that I “know” risotto.

We arrived early for his first seating. Presentation was a large, shallow serving bowl with a mound of risotto nestled in the middle of each. Both were studded with shrimp, scallops, squid and other crustaceans along with a white, creamy wine laced flavor and texture to the carneroli. A bit of steam rose from the center; I bent over and inhaled letting it waft into my nose. Sometimes, it is not just what food tastes like or feels like in one’s mouth. It is also what it smells like. The aroma can frame the taste and the feel. Alle Testiere’s risotto framed a portrait, a Master. Superb, just superb. One of the best dishes we had in the whole trip.

We also had seafood risotto at Fiaschetteria Toscana. Served to us by who may be the most ebullient ambassador of any restaurant in Italy, Roberto. He has been with the restaurant for over 35 years and is a large part of its enormous popularity. A very real passion and love of wine and food he is larger than life, someone rarely found in a restaurant anywhere. Toscana is an excellent restaurant; it is even better because of him. And, it’s 75 page wine list which certainly is one of the longest in the country. Toscana also serves bisteca Fiorentina which is difficult to find even in Florence. It is a signature of the restaurant, a three inch thick Porterhouse of Chiannina beef.

The surprise of the trip was Il Ritrovo. This is owned by the son of the owners of the Michelin starred Da Fiore (The Met is the other Michelin starred restaurant in Venice and well worth a visit. Creative, imaginative Italian. Not on the level of, say, Le Calandre near Padua 25 miles away, but excellent for Venice.) Il Ritrovo is a tiny hole in the wall adjacent to a canal in a residential part of the city. It’s inside “dining room” has five or six small booths but the real attraction are the nine or ten outdoor tables. They are in the middle of a courtyard, surrounded by walls on three sides and the canal on the fourth. At night there are four lampposts framing the tables along with candles on them. With the occasional gondola or boat floating by this is one of the most romantic settings in all of Venice. Sitting outside, sipping wine, this realizes every fantasy anyone has ever had about about a trip to Venice. Sean Connery would have felt at home at one of these tables when he was Bond. He may still feel at home today. Certainly, the neighborhood hasn't changed since then.

Il Ritrovo also has Venice’s best pizza. And best calzone. But neither is traditional; both are creative, imaginative incorporating non traditional toppings as well as buffalo mozz. Excellent soup-excellent! As well as a limited menu. This is a special place worth the very real effort to find. If you can, and its warm, go at night when they open outside. (They are only open outside in the evening when it is warm enough. Daytime they are open, weather permitting, right now.

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We also visited a number of other restaurants, some of which were disappointing. Included in this is the well publicized Vino Vino which pales as a wine bar next to Aciugheta (which has excellent more traditional pizza, by the way). I should also note that Al Covo has superb fritto misto, perhaps Venice’s best. Today, I would probably choose the Met over Da Fiore which I must admit that I enjoyed more 15 years ago when nobody knew about it and it’s prices were a third of what they are today. IDa Fiore does not seem like a E 300+ dinner for two.

The Hotel Monaco is adjacent to San Marco Square on the Grand Canal. They have a number of tables in the rear of it immediately fronting the canal. Simply, one of the best settings in Venice. Also, one of the most expensive for what they serve. They charge for the setting! (Well, many restaurants in Venice do; they just charge a lot!) This restaurant has what I believe may be the best pasta e fagiole that I have ever had. It is certainly the most expensive: E 14.00. With a E 6.50 cover just to sit there. Throw in a Caprese salad with Buffalo mozz @ E 18.00 and we knocked off US $125.00 for lunch for two bowls of soup and a couple of salads and a small glass of wine! Ten years ago we said that we wouldn't return. This trip my love of pasta e fagiole overruled. But this was the last time.

One day we rented a car and left Venice. For years I have stayed in Soave at the Roxy Plaza, using it as a base for business. We returned to Soave to a little wine shop next to the trattoria, Al Gambero, which is just inside the gate. (This was also an excuse to stop at an AutoGrill for a panini along with a jar of Calabrian hot peppers which are the best in the world.) Over the years I’ve found that wine is less expensive in small towns like this, often much less expensive. The Friday night at Il Ridotto I had a bottle of ’03 Dal Forno Valpolicella. This is an expensive wine. It is also, by far, the best Valpolicella I have ever had; in fact it is probably better than 90% of the Amarones I have had. In ’02 he increased the concentration of his wine. His ’03 is his best. (Romano believes his ’04 Amarone is his best ever. I should mention that we are fortunate to have known him and his family for almost ten years. He is incredibly passionate-when he releases his ’04 Amarone next year it may be the wine of one’s lifetime. He has not said this about other vintages.) But the prices for his wine vary greatly, both here and in Italy. At Al Gambero it was E 75 for a bottle; in Venice I found it for E 95 and higher. In restaurants it ranged from E 105 to E 150. For the entire trip I had one bottle at dinner.

We also found a fantastic salumeria in Asolo with an extremely passionate owner who, perhaps remarkably, believed in giving samples of cheese. For free. I once wrote this about an adventure I had in a cheese shop in Bologna where I gave the proprietor E 20 and he gave me a taste of every cheese he had: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/2899...
In the ancient Asolo, at Salumeria Bacchin (on the main street near the center of the historic town) I didn’t need to talk him into this. When he realized that I truly loved Grappa and cheese he actually brought me several samples of Grappa to taste. (This is the Grappa “region” of the Veneto.) Then we went to the cheese case. With his knife he would lop off a thin slice and hand it to me. At some point he pointed out that he could vacuum pack any cheese or proscuitto that I wanted so I could take it back with me to the States.

I had some money left. And a credit card. One hundred and twenty six Euros later I had my cheese, too! A lot of it! Like four kilos of nine or ten different cheeses, all vacuum packed! This included the best gorgonzola dolce that I have ever tasted anywhere, Gorgonzola Dolce Della Dolomite. This is crusted with herbs which compliment it’s strong, creamy texture with a bit of bite.

Now we are back. But it’s not over. Tonight, I will open several of the vacuum packed bags of cheese (incredible that I didn’t lable them!!!), hoping one is the gorgonzola…or the Alban truffle scented double cream. Perhaps a bottle of Dal Forno, too. This was a great trip for us. We won’t have fifteen trips to Venice in the next fifteen years. We may just have one. But we have memories to last us forever.

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    jhfinxy RE: Joe H Mar 27, 2009 06:40 AM

    Thank you Joe, you have found your calling as a truly talented food writer. I'll be going to Venice for only a few days in a week or so, but I'll keep your experiences in mind when I go searching for meals. Cheese is one of my weaknesses, and I am indescribably excited to sample authentic and exotic Italian cheeses!

    1 Reply
    1. re: jhfinxy
      Joe H RE: jhfinxy Mar 27, 2009 02:01 PM

      Thank you jhfinxy for the really nice words. I hope you have a great time there!!!

    2. d
      Denholm RE: Joe H Mar 29, 2009 08:45 AM

      Hello Joe,

      I discovered this wonderful site by chance today, as I have been researching restaurants in Venice, Padova, Verona and Sirmione for our forthcoming trip to Italy in July/August 09.

      I was so impressed with your review I signed up to pass on my compliments, for such a wonderful and descriptive review of your dining experiences, I was wondering if you could tell me the best way to contact ll Ritrova to book a table for 2 in their courtyard, it sounds lovely and just the sort of place my Husband and I would love to dine, we are staying very near the Rialto Bridge, any assistance will be much appreciated.

      Once again thank you for giving so much excellent information, I can't wait to get there.

      1 Reply
      1. re: Denholm
        Joe H RE: Denholm Mar 29, 2009 11:33 AM

        Thank you, Denholm. An impassioned apology: the correct name is Il Refolo! While I used the correct name in my first paragraph somehow I typed the wrong name later in talking about it! (Of course I also accidentally posted twice so...) This link will take you to their website: http://www.dafiore.net/menu_gb.htm In Verona give serious consideration to the Michelin starred Osteria La Fontanina which I believe is the most romantic restaurant in Italy! http://www.ristorantelafontanina.com/... Look closely at the photos-most of the light is from candles in this temple to wine! Also, Rubano a suburb of Padua, is home to the three Michelin star Le Calandre which is considered by many to be the overall best restaurant in Italy. This is about a 25 minute drive from Venice with two turns. Thanks again.

      2. alwayscooking RE: Joe H Mar 29, 2009 11:39 AM

        Joe

        Great post and I'm salivating! I love the details you've included such as the 'two burners'. And you've inspired me to start planning my next trip to Italy.

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