The other day, I was heading to the gym when I stopped short. There, on the Riva in front of my house, was my former editor from the International Herald Tribune-Italy Daily, Claudio, and his wife, Gail. They hadn't been to Venice for four years, and they didn't tell me they were coming. On their own, they booked themselves into the Antica Locanda Sturion, a small hotel that I had recommended four years ago, which is in the next calle.
I adore Claudio; he was a joy to work with. The way I ended up working directly with him is that the local editor in Milano changed one of my sentences without my knowledge -- and what he added was not correct. I emailed the editor in New York City, who was Claudio. I told him: "I am very anal, and if I put my name on something, that means I am responsible for every period, every comma. No one can change my words without my permission even if that means I don't work for your newspaper anymore." Claudio said, "I like anal people, and now I want you to work for me on a regular basis." Claudio is about the most honorable man you will ever meet, so much so that even his wife says he's too pure.
With all that in mind, I had written an article about Le Bistrot de Venise way back in 2002. My job in those days was to find unique Venetian things that no one had really written about before. I didn't usually write about restaurants except for brief blurbs, but I decided to write an entire sidebar on Le Bistrot -- what fascinated me was the passion of the owner, Sergio Fragiacomo (that's Sergio's gorgeous son, Paolo, in the photo). He had a dream about bringing back ancient Venetian recipes, and I was one of the first people who understood and believed in his dream.
After the article came out, Sergio kept asking me to come in for dinner, but because we were so pure, we never took perks:) But now that I am no longer working for the newspaper, I really wanted to take Sergio up on his offer, and Claudio and Gail were the perfect people to bring to the dinner -- especially because Sergio and his partners also own the Antica Locanda Sturion! Sergio is another wonderful man, and I adore him, too, so this seemed like a perfect dinner, which it was. The food was excellent. I warned Claudio and Gail that it might taste unusual, but we all relished the dinner, which was prepared that night by the second chef, Massimiliano Andrioci (the head chef is Mario Missoso).
Now I am going to post the article that I wrote in 2002:
Le Bistrot de Venise by Cat Bauer
Seven hundred years ago, the cuisine of noble Venetians was among the first to be flavored with exotic spices from the East. The Rialto market was the world's leading spice emporium, selling seasonings imported by Venetian merchants after long sea voyages to foreign lands. Dishes were prepared to show off the wealth of the hosts, and spices such as pepper, saffron, cinnamon and cloves became status symbols.
Today, it is possible to experience this ancient cuisine, thanks to the efforts of Sergio Fragiacomo, owner of Le Bistrot de Venise. "We started out with the concept of a French literary café, which is why it's called Le Bistrot," said Mr. Fragiacomo. "I wanted a place where local artists and writers could exchange ideas. Then, in the year 2000, we made a big change. In addition to the literary café, I got together with Marcello Brusegan (note from Cat: years later, his sister turned out to be one of my best friends!), an expert on ancient gastronomy, who does research at the Marciana Library here in Venice. We became aware of a 14-century manuscript, now in Rome, which was a book of gastronomy by an anonymous Venetian. We decided to resurrect the ancient recipes."
"I was warned it would be difficult at first -- there would be no spaghetti, no tomatoes. The tomato didn't arrive in the Venetian kitchen until relatively recently, about the 19th century. But I wanted to propose something new and original, a deeper understanding of Venetian gastronomy. There are reasons behind all the food."
Mr. Fragiacomo believes that the history of Venetian cuisine reflects the history of the city itself. "In the beginning, everything was based on the available food from the lagoon, so there was mostly fish, vegetables from the local islands and wild birds. No beef. When Venice moved its attention to the mainland at the end of the 16th century, new products started appearing, such as beans and potatoes. By the 17th and 18th centuries, rice was cultivated, which became extremely important in the entire Veneto region and remains so today. Venice was also the center of the publishing industry (note from Cat: do you see why I long for those days?), so texts are available regarding the cuisine of the time. There is another book we use by Maestro Martino da Corno, who was a man of letters, as well as a chef, and cooked for the aristocracy in the north of Italy in the 15th century. All these things make sampling the historical cuisine like taking an itinerary into the past."
Featured is ambroyno bono et perfecto: stuffed chicken with prunes, dates, almond's milk and spices, made from a 14th-century recipe. Another favorite is the 16th-century macaroni co la suca baruca: handmade gnocchi with cheese and almonds in a pumpkin sauce. Le Bistrot is also proud of their award-winning wine list, which has a fine selection of local Veneto wines not found on most menus.
Back now in the present, the dinner we enjoyed started with scampi in saor (shrimp with onions) and a bottle of very fine Malvasia wine. I won't describe the entire dinner, except to say it is something magical to eat ancient recipes. One of the desserts was ciocco culo, and if you can understand what that means, you really will appreciate ancient Venetian humor, which hasn't changed a bit over the centuries!
For those of you who are not adventurous eaters, Sergio also offers traditional dishes, and Le Bistrot stays open late, until 1 a.m., and doubles as a cultural center, offering poetry readings, art exhibitions and conversations with local authors.
Le Bistrot de Venise
Calle dei Fabbri 4685