Sunday, October 21, 2007

Venice: Warming to Ai Gondolieri

Unlike most people, when I think of Venice, I think of cold.

In all the times I’ve come here, I think only once has it been in summer, and therefore hot. But as I scan back over my memories of La Serenssima, all I can see are images of me shivering in snow, wrapped in every piece of clothing in my suitcase, damply grinning at the top of the Accademia bridge. It was Carnevale the last time I came to Venice, and the exotic mystery of the silent masked courts of elaborately costumed people was only enhanced by the gray snowy skies.

Somehow I imagined that autumn in Venice would be more similar to San Francisco – cool, but not unreasonably so. It seems to us, however, that we are in the midst of a sub-arctic chill. Every woolen object in my suitcase has been pressed into service, and my Omnivore and I spent today on a shopping search that culminated in his buying a very handsome black merino sweater that I’m not sure will come off until we cross into Tuscany.

One thing I remember from that winter trip to Venice, though, was how heavenly the radiators at the Accademia were. It’s well worth the trip to see this fantastic collection of art at any temperature of course, but it seems particularly delightful when you can observe the Bellinis and Venezianos whilst thawing your hands directly on hot metal.

For lunch we thought about Pizzeria Al Volo, we walked past Cantinone il gia Schiave at 992 Dorsoduro between the Accademia and the Guggenheim. But whatever best intentions one may have about hitting the cicchetti and wine bars, the truth of the matter is that at lunch time all we can really think about is warm place where we can sit and have a hot meal. Casting about for options, we spotted Ai Gondolieri, along the canal that runs along the back of the Guggenheim. It was a place we’d heard about, but which I had taken off our list as too expensive. But all we really could think about was a warm place where we could sit and have a hot meal.

As we pushed open the door and waked in, things were not looking promising. It was completely empty for one thing, which is never a good sign. Plus we’re greeted in English – also perhaps not such a good thing. But the waiter, masking his surprise at having any customers at all, takes our coats and leads us into the back as if all is normal. He barks something back to the kitchen, which I can only imagine is akin to, “Hey, hey, get off your duff – we actually have someone here!”

Too late to back out now, we prepare to face the inescapable tourist tradition of eating badly because you’re a tourist. The first two things I request on the menu, prosciutto and figs, and a pasta, he informs me, are not available. Okay, I say, feeling as spiky as the chestnut arrangement on the table. What have we got?

“Everything else we have,” he says, faintly sheepish.

“Okay, then.”

We start with a wild mushroom sauté, which, Holy Smokes – is fantastic! Chanterelles, porcinis and several other woodsy wonderful flavors that I can’t identify, sautéed perfectly and filled with a deep umami savoriness.

Hmm, maybe we underestimated this place.

My spinach and ricotta ravioli arrive with perfectly tender snap peas and carrots in a buttery sage sauce that tastes of autumn green in the best possible way – like eating the rich dark green of Venetian silk. My Omnivore’s lasagna of duck ragout in a sea of béchamel with herbed chive oil is utterly sublime, slightly gamey and yet somehow thoroughly comforting.

We have definitely underestimated this place.

A quartet of people comes in, and from the conversation I gather that they’re Americans, from San Francisco, visiting a student here in Venice. They and we are the only people in the place, but I can’t help noticing that all through lunch, the phone rings constantly with people making reservations. I imagine it’s more of a favorite for dinner than lunch, but we’re not at all unhappy to have the run of the place. Unlike Da Fiore, which we loved of course, the food here is much more refined and stylish.

For dessert we have the tiramisu, at our server’s recommendation. It’s a coffee crème wrapped in a cake shot through with green strands of marzipan and topped with cocoa, and it’s divine.

“This is what I was looking for,” murmurs my Omnivore. Okay, so the day’s food budget might be shot to hell, but the day’s happiness budget has just gotten a big boost.


Anonymous said...

agree with you! is a very good restaurant!!!

Mary Ellen Hunt said...

Thanks Jack! We have very fond memories of Ai Gondolieri and I'm happy to send more people their way!