Before visiting Venice this summer, I was amazed at how many people warned me about the multitude of tourist-menu restaurants that had overrun the city and about how you were more likely to find “authentic” Venetian food in Las Vegas (in addition to gondolas) than in Venice itself. Having memorized my editorial director, Colman Andrews', James Beard Award-winning ode to Venice “Everything Comes From the Sea,” and armed with Michela Scibilia’s equally indispensable guide to the osterie e dintorni (eateries and neighborhoods) of Venice, I was undissuaded. Osteria da Fiore is very much off the beaten tourist track in San Polo and is justifiably one of only two Michelin-starred restaurants in Venice. With its ordinary, aged facade on an incredibly narrow street even by Venetian standards, it is easily overlooked if you aren’t actively searching for it. Husband and wife team Maurizio and Mara Martin have transformed the nondescript wine bar into a temple of traditional and modern cuisine of the Veneto. A 10-minute walk from the Rialto Fish Market, the restaurant has become a favorite of the likes of Marcella Hazan and Mario Batali.
We started with a dish which must have inspired Michael White’s orgasmic crostini of ricci (uni/sea urchin) con lardo at Marea, which I adore. In lieu of uni, this was scampi nostrani infornati al lardo: crostini of pork fat-enrobed shrimp with lightly fried sprigs of rosemary. Even the “garnish” amazed, as the fried rosemary shattered like a tempura imparting its herbaceousness (always wanted to use that word) into the scampi. Next up was the granceole, the local spider crab, served in its carapace, with its coral studding the crab meat.
Despite my desperate longing to be Italian, my ethnicity is firmly rooted in the barbaric Germanic region to the north of Venice. Imagine my delight when I was served the most delicate spaetzle (gnochetti) with lobster, the tiny thumbnail-sized potato dumpling/pasta lovingly made one-by-one by hand. For the entrées, my wife and I each had local seafood that was simultaneously familiar but unique, as they were matched with ingredients that we had never imagined pairing with fish. My wife’s branzino al vapore con mele e aceto balsamico tradizionale di Modena (steamed sea bass with apples and balsamic vinegar) wowed as the perfectly cooked fish came wrapped in lettuce leaves on a bed of apples, the simple sweetness of which was further enhanced by the aged complexity of the balsamic vinegar, which was also almost sweet. For me, the bisato (eel) sull’ara (on the altar) was pure fatty goodness. The recipe is a very old, traditional Venetian dish popularized by the glassworkers of nearby Murano, who still cook the eel in their glass-blowing furnaces to celebrate Christmas. Eels are hatched in the Sargasso Sea, drift helplessly to European waters, evolve into delicate elvers, then make their way into the rivers, and continue to grow over the next 15 years into the powerful, slithering snake-like creatures whose primary purpose, after reproducing, is to be grilled. Although similar to Japanese unagi in taste, rather than the Japanese sweet soy kabayaki BBQ sauce, the Italians flavor their eel with bay leaves, which cuts through the oily richness of the eel.
To finish, the greatest example of zabaglione I have ever tasted. The Viagra of desserts comprised of egg yolks whisked perfectly with sugar and fortified Marsala wine, the euphonic, euphoric zabaglione was the perfect ending to a perfect meal. Feeling reinvigorated, my wife and I walked the dark maze of Venetian streets, not caring whether we were lost, then finally crossing over the Rialto Bridge at midnight, illuminated only by a full moon back to our hotel near San Marco.