Visiting Venice in the winter is like being in a timeless, romantic black and white movie. My friend and I went during a particularly foggy couple of days and were amazed by how the entire city is transformed at this time of the year. The sky was colorless and blank, while the city itself was made up solely of varying shades of black and gray. Humphrey Bogart circa 1940 could have floated by in a gondola and I would not have been the least bit alarmed.
Being on a real life, black and white movie set has its perks. One: your pictures from any angle in the entire city look classic and beautiful, AND pictures of yourself and your friends instantly look artsy, reflective, and deep. Two: Many of the streets and small alleyways are quiet and shiny from all the rain and intermittent flooding– a huge contrast to the hectic tourist season in the spring and summer, when you can’t move your big toe without making awkward (but necessary) contact with a fellow tourist or baby stroller. Three: Just as you start to feel listless and tired of seeing a world in two tones, you can just step into a great Venetian restaurant and have some colorful food!
Castello, 3417 Venezia, Italy 30122- (+39) 041 5222170
Oliva Nera: a small, family-run establishment. The restaurant is dimly-lit, cozy and warm, with a very friendly husband and wife team managing the entire experience. I told them I spoke some Italian but hoped to get more practice, and the wife proceeded to explain everything to me slowly in Italian, then once again in English so my friend could also understand without my translating. I must admit, out of all the restaurants I’ve been to in Italy so far, the service has never been more patient and accommodating. The menu is a bit on the pricier side, as is the case with many restaurants in Venice– about 15-20 euros per primo dish– but as my friend and I were on a mission to spend most of our money on food and not on sight-seeing, we rolled with the punches.
1. Combination of Venetian antipasti
My stomach is seriously growling with hunger at the thought of this dish. The round, white mound on the left is baccala mantecato alla veneziana, or dried, salted cod mixed with cream, olive oil, and garlic. Baccala is is loved by many European (and perhaps other) cultures, particularly the Spanish. However, this Italian preparation is absolutely delicious, especially when paired with the crostini we had two baskets of. I found a recipe for it, that I would love to try soon…once I get some hands on some salted cod!
The other appetizers consisted of a mixture of carmelized onions and sweet golden raisins with salty soft-shell crab, a pickled anchovy, and a large basil leaf. The waitress explained that Italians appreciate sweet and sour tastes, much like the Chinese. Hmm..guess so! At any rate, my friend and I mopped up every last bit of the most delicious olive oil in the world as well as any remaining bits of baccala with our crostini and could not wait to see what was next.
Fried Zucchini Flowers
In retrospect, I’m not sure why I ended up taking only one picture of one lonely fried zucchini flower left on the plate…but while we were very systematically demolishing the others I suddenly realized, I did not take any pictures of these giant fried zucchini flowers! I would say that this is one of the toughest things about food blogging- sometimes you just want to eat everything in front of you the moment it comes out and sacrifice the picture for the enjoyment of it all. I loved that the crispy fried flowers were served on top of thin strips of dark green zucchini flavored with that same amazing olive oil.
I’ve always had a weird curiosity about squid ink pasta. I’m not sure what initially inspired the Italians to add this rich black coloring to their beloved pasta, but I am all for it. It has a very, very subtle hint of squid and seafood, and is great with a light, barely perceptible but flavorful seafood sauce. This dish seemed so simple– sauteed with onions, zucchini, and carrots– that I felt like I was eating at someone’s house. I think it was generally good, but I would have preferred some fresh herbs or a white wine sauce to bring out the taste of the squid ink pasta.
Of course we weren’t exactly planning to have dessert after the big meal, but somehow, the owner of the restaurant was able to persuade us. The owner stood over our table and drew a picture of a flower on our brown paper place mats and proceeded to carefully write the name of each dessert in each flower petal, while explaining each dish. When he was finished, my friend and I looked at each other and said, “Alright…what do you want to get??” After all, this guy put so much work into it that we felt the desserts must have been worth it. And of course it was.
The panna cotta was the perfect texture– as opposed to the super gelatinous, stiff panna cotta we had tried at another restaurant the day before– and was complemented by the most delicious purple berry sauce on top, and a smooth, yellow vanilla sauce on the bottom. When we finished, the owners presented us each with a bottle of their own brand of olive oil, that we had tasted throughout the meal. Yes! We sat at the table for a while longer, savoring our meal and discussing what we were going to do about the Italian food situation back in the US, and eventually wandered back onto the movie set. Now if only I can decide what the perfect use for this incredible little bottle of olive oil would be, I will be all set. Would love to hear some suggestions!