There is a very small and homey restaurant in Venice called Alle Testiere, which, if you are lucky and make reservations well in advance, you can sit back and spend a few hours while Bruno Gavagnin takes the day’s catch from the Venetian waters and turns out some of the most balanced and interesting seafood dishes imaginable.
If you are very lucky and have not made reservations in advance, you might be able to find a free table not long before Alle Testiere closes for the evening and enjoy an entree, and perhaps one of owner Luca de Vita’s incredible cheese plates.
If you are extremely lucky, you might also be seated at a table next to Annie and Liz and Graham and Nick.
As it turns out, I was extremely lucky on Friday night.
I knew of Alle Testiere, and the difficulty in getting a table there. The place is small and known around the world, and as I hadn’t planned to come to Venice until the day before I got on the train here, I certainly had no hope of getting in. Which I was ok with because Thursday night I had dinner at one of the city’s other top restaurants, Da Fiore, a small and pretty trattoria that does Venetian classic dishes superbly.
I started with the vegetable antipasti. There were roasted peppers and eggplant, a golden tomato stuffed with breadcrumbs and cheese, traviso (a radicchio-ish vegetable with long tentacles and a slightly bitter taste), baby zucchini, and carrots. For my entree, I had calve’s liver, venetian style, which is served with carmelized onions and wedges of polenta. Every bite was perfectly balanced, too, with the sweetness of the onions off-setting the strong flavor of the liver. It was gorgeous.
Friday night, I thought I might see if I could get into Aqua Pazzo, a well-known pizza place, a little on the upscale side, not to far from where I am staying. But I wound up being online longer than I had planned, and I knew that they would be closed before I could get there. So I just walked out the door, looking for something that might do the trick. Just a few blocks from my hotel, I passed a nice looking place that still had some tables occupied, and noted the name in case I didn’t find anything else, but kept walking.
A few minutes later, crossing a bridge over one of the canals, I stopped short, I’m sure confusing the guy who was walking right behind me. “Alle Testiere…Alle Testiere…Damn, that’s…” and I turned around and marched straight back over, figuring I would take a chance.
Very good move. There are moments when you could go either way. There was a very good chance that at that hour, they would tell me that they couldnt seat me, and the kitchen was closed. Honestly, I wasn’t really dressed up to snuff for a nice place anyway, as I was wearing jeans and the black walking shoes I’ve very nearly worn holes through the bottom of. It was late, and cold, and the idea of a quiet and casual place where I could sit with my book and quietly enjoy a light dinner was very appealing, especially as I’d had something of a big lunch out on Burano that day. But I figured it was my one chance to try Bruno’s food, and I was at least going to give it a shot.
I asked for a table for one, and the waiter told me that they could seat me, but the only thing they could make for me was the tuna or a cheeseplate. I said I would have the tuna, and so they seated me by the door, at a small table right up against a four top of British folk who were just finishing up their main courses.
My dinner came, and one of the men at the table leaned over. “You’re having the tuna? You are in for a treat!” and then he continued leaning across the table and watching me expectantly until I took my first bite.
And indeed, it was a treat. The tuna was seared very rare, and coated with herbs. I’m not sure of all of them, but there was certainly fennel sead and rosemary and thyme. The sauce was light, a bit buttery, and with white wine in it. It was just marvelous.
The next table ordered the cheeseplate, and when it came out, Luca, the owner, explained each of the cheeses, all Italian, most of them local and not exported anywhere else, and the order in which they should be eaten. There was also a little pumpkin/ginger torte to be enjoyed with the cheeses, as well as slices of pear. Luca also brought out a special wine for them to try with the cheese, as, it turns out, that Graham and Annie are regular customers and have become good friends with him.
Somehow, during the course of the evening, which started out fairly late, I got involved in conversation with them, and after ordering my own cheeseplate, and a glass of white to go with it (the bottle then being left on the table for me, a very nice chardonnay/reisling mix), Luca closed up shop, pulled out a special bottle of wine, poured six glasses and brought out a plate of fritelli. Fritelli are for carnevale. They’re sort of like fried donut puffs, but light, and filled with warm zabaglione. They’re kind of irresistable.
The evening went on for some time after the restaurant had closed, and by the time it was over, I had an invitation to join them the following night at the restaurant again.
Saturday evening, dinner started at 8. This time, I was smartly dressed, with my new black boots with killer heels and one of the incredible blouses I got in Florence. The five of us were at a corner table, with two other tables for two nearby. Luca came out swirling a pale amber wine in a decanter, explaining that he had opened it early that morning and had been letting it open up all day for us. It was French, and organic and unfiltered wine, that was rough and a little tart, and really fantastic. He explained that he had the wines picked out for the evening already and that we would next get to see what some of the local wineries were doing with the same style of wine making.
He then recited the appetizers. There is no written menu at Alle Testiere, and they only do seafood. Everything fresh. Everything seafood.
I was advised that the best course of action was that Annie choose the appetizers we would share. In total, we had seven. Raw prawns, still with their heads on, and served with slices of strawberry and cucumber, that were surprisingly sweet. Then a terrine of crab with feta cheese and mint and other somewhat Greek flavors, that were out of this world. There were scallops, served in their shell and cooked with a bitter orange juice and carmelized onions. There were mussels mariniere. There was sauteed octopus with a gazpacho sauce that was slightly spicy and a vibrant complement to the slightly crispy octopus. There were tiny, tiny shrimp with creamy polenta. And there were fried scampi, also with their bodies in tact.
By this time we had moved onto the next wine Luca had chosen for us, a tokai from the Veneto that was not at all sweet, slightly darker in color than the first, and very nice with the fish.
Then the pasta course. Everyone choose their own, and though I did taste the gnocchi with scallops, which was fantastic, I was absolutely smitten with my taglioni with scampi prawns in what was described as a rose petal curry. The sauce itself was divine, with a light, rosy fragrance and very light middle eastern flavors. I could taste thyme and cinnamin in it. It was absolutely delightful.
And another local, unfilter wine, drier than the last, and very good.
With the fish course, a red, this one a local Merlot/Cabernet blend, very smooth and with a chocolate background to it. My fish was a John Dory, served with blueberries and strawberries with fine herbs and an orange sauce, and it was delicious. The blueberry, especially, with the firm white fish made an amazing contrast and gave the dish incredible balance and lightness.
Cheese course. The highlights of the cheese course were two, though there were five cheeses on the plate, all them very good, and all of them served in enormous portions, five of each cheese. The gorgonzola, which is made locally and not exported from the region was perfect. It was strong and pungent without being too much of each. The talleggio, too, was creamy and strong. I usually don’t particularly care for talleggio, but this one was not too pungent at all.
When we had made some good headway through the cheese, Luca came out, and explained that he arranged the three tables (ours and the two right near us) that way when he realized that three of his favorite clients and friends were going to be there on the same night, and he wanted everyone to meet. One of the couples was Belgian and the other Canadian. He explained that between the three tables, they’d been there over a hundred times. He poured a marsala that he had been saving, a glass for each person at the three tables, as well as one for himself, and we all drank a toast.
Today, I was also lucky to have been invited to join Annie, Nick, and Liz for lunch at the very smart and famous Harry’s Bar, where the Bellini cocktail was invented. The place is warm and clubby in an old school sort of way. Astronomically expensive, but the food was good. I had a very nice veal ravioli gratin with prosciutto cotto and cheese, though everyone agreed that Nick’s canneloni won the day.
And now, after all that, I’ve said hardly a word about carnevale, which is beautiful, especially today, as the whole city has turned into an elaborate masquerade ball, with people in beautiful costumes, mostly 18th and 19th century looking affairs, and beautiful, hand-painted masques.
This morning, I was walking along the grand canal, enjoying the costumes, and saw one woman dressed as a which. She had on a black dress with purple and black striped stockings, a long black cloak, purple wig, a tall black witch’s hat with purple trim, and a white mask. She was walking along in front of me, obviously on her way somewhere, when a little boy, dressed up like a little 19th century gentleman pointed at her and giggled. She continued walking, but then, maybe twenty paces later, she stopped, slowly turned round and crouched down as she walked back over to him until he hid behind his mother’s legs and giggled. And then she slowly turned back in her original direction, and continued walking at her normal pace.
A few minutes later, an Italian man walking toward her leaned over and screamed in her face, and then kept walking. She turned quickly, adn with very dramatic and florishy movements, fixed the back of his head in her stare and gestured to him like she was putting a spell on him. What was so cool about it was that he wasn’t even looking. She was so into her character, though, that I’m not sure that she even cared whether anyone was watching her. I suppose that’s what makes this whole carnevale thing so interesting and more than just the Halloweenish type of costume party we are all used to. People aren’t themselves. They go to elaborate lengths to be some character from the past and walk around, dining in restaurants, shopping, taking ferries, in character, not just in costume. And Venice, as odd and magical and slightly surreal as it is, seems like the perfect place to become someone else for a few days.