Monday, October 22, 2007

Avogaria: Modern food in Venice

In some ways, I feel a little sorry for Venice, trapped as it is in eternal stasis, like a city under the lens of a Murano snowglobe – doomed to constantly repeat its past.

“It’s like Disneyland,” observes my Omnivore as we watch a line of gondoliers glide past and disappear along the prescribed gondoliering route towards the Bridge of Sighs. “It’s Pirates of the Caribbean.”

There is definitely something unreal about the Purgatorial repetition and temporal immobilization that the city has been caught in. On the one hand, it’s a wonderfully romantic fantasy, full of the quaint charms and immense beauty. But on the other hand, would you live here? I mean, I’m always rather sad to leave Venice, but I never find myself dreaming about packing up all my belongings and moving to Venice forever, as one often does when visiting, say Paris, or London.

The Venetians who actually live here, are, I think, fully aware of this. How long does a Venetian stay, I wonder? If you’re born here, do you long to get out as soon as possible? Is anyone born here? Where are the schools for the children growing up here? In fact I haven’t seen a single one. I do see older nonnas, carrying neat bouquets of flowers which they carefully arrange on shrines on street walls and beside the canals. I’ve seen older gentlemen, wearing jaunty caps, and slowly making their way across canals as tourists surge past. I’ve seen young men, dangling the ubiquitous cigarette from a hand or lip as they heave carts of produce up the steps of bridges, or tossing sacks of garbage onto a floating scow. But who really grows up in Venice?

And is Venice ever allowed to grow up?

To judge by the plethora of “cucina tipica” trattorias and enotecas, maybe not. But it is in fact possible to get modern food, cuisine of the 21st century in Venice. To do so, we had to hunt, but it was well worth it, because we landed at Avogaria, a little place in the Dorsoduro (1629, in that ridiculous sestieri numbering system of Venetian addresses) just up the street and over a bridge from the famous Fujiyama bed and breakfast.

Set almost imperceptibly, into a brick building, Avogaria looks, on the outside, impeccably designed but just faintly, defensively apologetic about being modern. The chef, a woman named Antonella Pugliese and her husband, however, have assembled a Venetian experience like no other.

Here you can get all the familiar pastas, the seafood, the desserts—in the Puglia style—but with modern sensibilities, both in preparation and presentation.

A “rollatini” of zucchini with mozzarella and capers is full of clean fresh flavors, shot through with a zing from the salty capers. The orecchiette with little polpettone or meatballs, might seem vaguely trattoria style, but displays in fact a refined hand in the balance of the acid of the tomato with the deep umami of the meat, and again, little zippy granules of flavor from beautifully aged parmagiano chunks.

The tuna, cooked perfectly with a ruby red center and toasted sesame crust, looks effortless in that way that speaks of far more skill than you see at first glance. The miso sauce is subtle, but absolutely necessary, and the fish itself is expertly prepared.

But it’s the desserts that really cemented the place as one of the best in Venice in our minds. A trio of silky chocolate mousses, flavored with coffee, amaretto and some of the fabulous red chile peppers we’d seen at the market, was both subtle and extravagant.

And the tiramisu, which my Omnivore is still talking about, took a twist on tradition with a foamy zabaglione made with Strega, a plum liqueur, instead of Marsala.

We didn’t leave overstuffed and waddling, as we did at other places, but we did leave extraordinarily impressed.

No comments: