Saturday, October 20, 2007

Venice: Pizza, Pizza

So it seems clear that pizza, as we conceive it, might be Italian, but really it’s American. This point was driven home when we hunted down what was described to us as a favorite pizza joint in Venice, Pizzeria Ae Oche, on Calle del Tintor 1552/a in the Santa Croce.

The act of finding the place you’re looking for in Venice is cause enough for elation.

There seem to be two common sights in this city: one is the solo traveler under a street light, head bowed as if in prayer, but actually in deep contemplation of a map. The other is a pair of travelers, one of whom surges along the byways clutching the map while the other trails several steps behind, saying in [insert your language here], “…but I think it might have been the other way…”

One evening as we squeezed down an alley between a man on the phone and a dimly lit display window of kitchen fixtures, I overhead him say, “Yes, I know that, but was it past the kitchen place or not?”

Things vanish in Venice – streets you thought you were on, that you thought you knew, disappear right before your eyes.

In fact on our second night here, we passed what I now consider the Brigadoon-like Aliani Gastronomia, San Polo 654 – a place where the cheeses and meats looked wonderful – on the way to Ae Oche.

“Ah!” I said, “That’s supposed to have some great stuff if we want a little something for snacks!”
But we were hungry and headed for pizza, so we hastened past it. I never saw it again. We’ve backtracked our route three times on this trip so far, but like a fairy-land, it seems to have vanished into the Venetian mists. Shopkeepers all along the way respond with a blank look when I ask “Conosce dov’e Aliani Gastronomia?”

So it’s really astonishing that we found Ae Oche at all, and we were immensely grateful to pile into its warm, if a little honky-tonk-like rooms. Decorated with American sports memorabilia and kitsch (we felt immediately at home with an old Giants logo on the wall) Ae Oche is one of those 95 different kinds of pizza places. You can get other stuff, pasta, salads, etc. In fact they give you a confusing bouquet of menus from which to pick your poison. Nothing fancy, and the thin pizza crust can range from crispy and delicious on the outside to a bit soggy in the center.

Nevertheless, the food is good – I order what looks like a breakfast pizza with speck, gorgonzola and one damn fine farm fresh egg in the center. Yes, even at the local Americano-style pizza joint, the eggs are better than anything we can obtain in the States. My Omnivore opts for a prosciutto and wild mushroom pie that’s as filling as it is tasty. No one’s going to put this place in the Michelin guide, but having said all that, it’s a potentially great place to take a traveling family. The kid at the table nearby ordered some sort of plate-sized,Vesuvian calzone which rose a good four inches from the plate and arrived belching steam.

We had better pizza though the next night, and only a few hundred yards away at Il Refolo, Campo San Giacomo dell’Orio 1459, which rumor has it, is run by the same folks who brought us Da Fiore. Again, the same business of finding our way to the place and jubilation upon accomplishing the feat. We were however, a little non-plussed to discover that Il Refolo’s tables sit outside in the campo itself. Have I mentioned that Venice is cold right now? Very cold? There’s a tent, and heat lamps, but nonetheless, we hesitate. But what can you do? My stomach gurgles out an invective, “It’s not THAT cold…”

Happily, the food is good – really good. I order a plate of soothing carbonara, which is all that I love about pasta – bacon, eggs and cheese. My Omnivore returns to the wild mushroom, prosciutto theme but this time, the crust is perfect, the tomato sauce is tangy and sweet all at once, and the whole experience is incredibly satisfying.

Here we’re not surrounded by tourists, but rather a boisterous mix of locals enjoying a night out with friends. Consequently the waiter is perhaps less interested in us than in the table of folks jostling at the table next to us, but hey, we don’t care. The food is good.

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