Today’s guest post comes from my adventurous and awesome mom-in-law, Joan Cichalski. After too many years teaching high school English, she’s now using her retirement time to take on the travel she put off in her “younger” years (her quotes, not mine!). Here’s her story of why you shouldn’t be afraid to try a little public transportation in a new city.
“But Madam, this place is very difficult to find—even for me, and I live here many years! You do not want to get lost!”
With that admonishment, our hotel concierge managed to convince us to ride the vaporetto to the restaurant located back on one of the tiny calles in Venice.
Nearing the end of a two-week self-planned visit to Italy with friends, we were desperately seeking the byways and neighborhoods away from the crowds of the tourist and trinket-filled Grand Canal’s promenade. “Getting lost” didn’t seem like such a bad idea. But his concern that we’d never find the place in time to eat persuaded us to take the water bus and then, afterward, to enjoy strolling back to our hotel near the busy Piazza San Marco. He marked our tiny hand-held map to show us the way back, and armed with his instructions, off we went.
And a ride on the #41 vaporetto to the end of the line on a beautiful twilight evening in Venice is an experience in itself. For just a few euros we had views of this amazing city beyond the usual frenzy of the Grand Canal: past boat works, multi-story homes sporting clotheslines dancing from one building to another, past industrial plants and the hospital, past garbage scows (how do they manage to make all this function using only waterways?), our final stop deposited us in the midst of a quiet neighborhood. This, we said, is what we wanted: the “real” Venice. With just a few turns, we rounded a building and faced a tiny storefront, warmly lit in the increasing darkness, proclaiming our destination: Osteria alla Frasca.
“Ah, you did find it!” exclaimed our proprietor, host, and, as it turns out, waiter. “Please, sit right here,” motioning us to a table already set for six. We understood his fretting about holding the table for a group that might or might not succeed in finding their way—there were only about ten other places for diners in the tiny establishment! Within 20 minutes, we saw those seats filled with another group, clearly locals—friends, like us, meeting for a casual meal in a neighborhood spot. We listened happily to the warm chatter of Italian, content that tonight we wouldn’t be surrounded by English-speaking tourists.
A simple menu, organized in the basic style of most Italian trattoria, offered first courses of pasta, secondi of fish and a few meat choices, and then contorni and salade. We consulted our helpful waiter, who was only too happy to guide us… yes, a nice house wine (red), vegetables and salad for all, and our individual selections of pasta or fish. We watched him walk about eight steps past the small bar to speak to his kitchen staff—two young men visibly at work through the open doorway.
A crisp basket of bread and aromatic olive oil keep us busy as we sink into our chairs and savor the evening. Interestingly, most Italian eateries wait to serve the wine with the meal; when our food arrives, so does our house red, a lovely balance of fruity aroma and a taste neither too dry nor too sweet. Even the “non-red” drinkers are pleased!
Pasta with fruitti di mare satisfies the eyes as well as the mouth: an assortment of clams, mussels, and squid enhanced by a light touch of olive oil and broth. Gnocchi with small morsels of fish, tossed with just a hint of tomato sauce that complements and doesn’t overwhelm the dish. Grilled vegetables are pristinely prepared but so amply flavored that to call them a side dish is an insult: stunning slices of eggplant, zucchini, carrots, and fennel, seasoned with a touch of fresh rosemary, salt, and olive oil; crisp potato wedges balance the platter. We salute our waiter for bringing a second dish and grinning as he watches us dig in. Once again, we are impressed with the freshness of the produce when our salad arrives—no anemic, mealy tomatoes here; each is richly red as only a vine-ripened tomato can be.
We finish with what has come to be our favorite “dessert” during this trip: a platter of small biscotti surrounding a glass of vino santo, sometimes also called vino dolce or sweet wine. It’s a warm amber, and to drink it on its own would be to recoil from its strength and overpowering sweetness. But with a small biscotti, held for a moment in the wine and then popped into the mouth, it’s perfection—a bit of sweetness, the perfect finish to a fine meal in a quiet neighborhood in this unique city.
Maybe we didn’t get lost, but we did find just the right ‘backstreet’ osteria in which to finish our journey.
Osteria alla Frasca, Corte Carita, Cannaregio 5176. 041-5285433.