A Meal in the Immortal City

Staff Writer
GutterGourmet revisits Venice after 20 years, starting with a meal at Oliva Nera

Photo Sasabune Omakase Modified: Flickr/erin/CC 4.0

Venice.

More than 20 years have elapsed since my last visit to Venice, and awake at 3 a.m., I'm grateful for jetlag for the chance, lest I forget fleeting details, to write about my first lunch here since my last visit. Oliva Nera (the Black Olive) is a small osteria, certainly neither famous nor the city's best restaurant. And yet, the meal there was so simple, yet so spectacularly special, that it makes me want to cry trying to remember it.

Delicately fried zucchini blossoms stuffed with fresh mozzarella di bufala and soft ricotta brought memories rushing back of the first time I had this dish in Nice, also decades ago, with my wife long before my daughter was born. To this day I cannot repress a smile and think of that trip to France, whenever I see beautiful green, yellow, and orange zucchini flowers, attached to the baby zucchini being sold by the farmers during the summers at my local New York City greenmarket in Union Square.

The next dish at Oliva Nera was fresh anchovies with house-smoked eggplant. The fish fillets were so fresh that they must have literally just been swimming, and were now practically doing the same on my plate — only now in the restaurant's private label olive oil. These anchovies were the greatest argument for passing a law to make the phrase "hold the anchovies" not only a crime against humanity, but to be punishable by death. They were prepared simply with black pepper and black olives. The sliced smoked melanzane (which sounds so much more mellifluous than "eggplant," but then again everything in Italian does) tasted more like ripe roasted red peppers than any eggplant I'd ever had.

Pastas included a cold penne with wild mushrooms, cherry tomatoes, and tiny mozzarella cubes — I had to smile when my daughter ordered it as her first taste on her first trip to Europe. Even though the menu was translated, she phonetically pronounced each ingredient: "Penne fredi con fungi, mozzarella, e pomodorini." My wife, mother, and I split spaghetti bottarga. The dried, grated mullet roe covering gave it a gorgeous sunset hue and mild seafood flavor, which somehow wasn't at all salty.

A perfect pink, sliced-on-the-bone, grilled veal chop was the lunch highlight amongst many. It was served with seasonal string beans and red, orange, and green peppers, which the proprieter proudly informed us were from Sant'Erasmo, a nearby island known as the "garden of Venice." A sparkling bottle of rosé Prosecco not only complimented the chop, but also the dessert of mascarpone cheesecake covered with berries and a gossamer slice of preserved lemon. All in all, a memorable meal, which will last, unlike me, hopefully forever.

This all leads to some self-reflection. Why do I write about food in the first place? While I love to share restaurant recommendations with friends and strangers — much the way I enjoy turning someone on to my favorite music — I write about food for selfish reasons. Nothing connects me more to my family and friends, or to places I've visited than the memory of a great meal. But there are few things more ephemeral than a meal. Writing about it is my meager attempt to freeze the happy moments in time and to record them for posterity.

I can only pray that at some point in the hopefully distant future, after I'm gone, that someone, perhaps my daughter in reminiscence of her first trip to Europe and her very first meal in Venice, will read about my many cherished meals, perhaps this one, think of me and smile. And then, like the city of Venice itself, surely I will be immortal...