This article was previously published in the special edition, VENICE (July 2019).
“I wish Giovanni would kiss me,” is the first line of Elizabeth Gilbert’s 2006 book, Eat, Pray, Love. This book was later adapted to the big screen, with Julia Roberts as the lead, of course. On the 6am flight to Venice in early June, it was this film that kept me from dozing off and giving my eyes the well-needed rest that they would have deserved after only two hours of sleep the night before. Instead, I was training myself for the marvels of Italy and, more precisely, the microcosmic world of Venetian food, envisioning myself in the shoes of Liz ordering antipasti, primi piatti, secondi piatti and dolce… and, of course, house red wine for the table. In that way, I also had a yearning, although it was not for Giovanni, but rather for the discoveries awaiting.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Venetian cuisine has been shaped greatly by the proximity of water or alternatively, inhibited by it, seeing as most ingredients have to be imported to the city from the mainland due to limited space for kitchen gardens. Venice’s peculiar situation is nevertheless perfectly suited for the simplicity of Italian cooking. At its heart, Venetian food is not frivolous or over the top, but it is full of heart and flavour. This is how it happened that I was near-enough brought to tears by a spaghetti al pomodoro – most likely aided by the sleep deprivation and the intense heat. This was the first meal we sat down for after arrival, by a quiet canal a bit further from the epicentre of tourist activities. For the first time in months, everything felt calm and familiar, but also mixed with the excitement of the upcoming days which would be spent walking up, down, and across the islands, crisscrossing canals, and visiting every church in sight. In moments like these, you come closer to understanding why Liz Gilbert writes so reverently about the food culture of Italy.
Photograph by Aniko Petri
It is also a universal truth that food is one of the most important parts of any holiday, the issue of “What are we eating and when?” being brought up just as much as complaints about the effects of climate change on the weather (which was too hot). In this way, food was the connective tissue between all other aspects of the trip. The ever-popular Aperol Spritz and salted crisps combination – served in every bar – was always a moment of reflection to talk about how beautiful such and such piazza is, and the evening walks culminating in an 11pm gelato rounded off the day before everyone collapsed into their respective beds. Even knowing how vital food culture is to the visitor experience in Venice, I was still surprised by how seamlessly one can combine it with other aspects of the holiday…
On the Wednesday we went to Padua to see the Scrovegni Chapel with its Giotto frescoes, as well as the Basilica dedicated to St. Anthony. Between the two buildings, there was a period carved out for a lunch break. We all ate the same gnocchi dish based on some otherworldly premonition that my friend, Morgan, had had the day before, claiming that we will eat the ‘best gnocchi ever’ in Padua. He had no foundations for this claim, but he was right. The restaurant was empty except for us and it looked like a small family-run business. We sat in the garden and had green pesto and garlic gnocchi in a fresh ricotta sauce, with shaved smoked ricotta and toasted poppy seeds, which turned out to be so good that we complimented the chef multiple times with our collectively limited Italian vocabulary. And then we went to see more art.
Photograph by Aniko Petri
On the same day, returning to Venice we found a grocery shop that had been converted from a theatre. The opulent interior with the painted ceilings and marble columns was kept, meanwhile, what used to be the auditorium was now rows and rows of shopping aisles. For an afternoon picnic we bought tomato and olive focaccia and cannoli, both traditional Sicilian and pistachio flavoured. Very simply we then settled down next to a canal and watched motorboats, as well as the odd lemons, float along (quite strangely, we spotted lemons in the canals on three separate occasions around the city. It seems that foodstuffs are literally a part of the canal-life-blood of Venice). This was another instance of food and culture merging together in the city.
Food is truly everywhere in Venice. It is even present in the 2019 Biennale through Ukrainian artist, Zhanna Kadyrova’s Market mosaic sculptures installed in the Arsenale, depicting a food stall made of materials recycled from building sites, subverting the viewer’s expectations about the qualities of food as something that can be consumed, here rendered permanent and solid by Kadyrova. Exiting the Biennale, we went to the food market at the Rialto which had exactly the same items for sale as those shown in the art installation. We also had a heavenly pasta aglio e olio, the ingenious simplicity of the dish being a point of contrast to the often chaotic and hard-to-digest pieces that were exhibited at the Biennale.
Zhanna Kadyrova, 'Market Series', 2018-Ongoing, Ceramic tiles, cement, concrete & natural stone (Image: Artsy)
Returning to London, I watched the second half of Eat, Pray, Love. Liz feels that she has to travel to three different locations around the world in order to ‘find herself’ and to experience the different aspects that she missed from her life. In my opinion, she should simply have gone to Venice, which is a small world unto itself, and where anyone can find good places to eat, a myriad of churches to pray in, and plenty of things to love – for example, an evening spent with friends sitting by the lagoon and watching the sunset over the outline of St Marco… an experience which is only made better by a picnic of local green olives and mozzarella. Separating the culinary culture of Venice from other areas of culture and art-making would be as big a mistake as not seasoning your dishes properly. It may be aesthetically appealing, but it is a flat and vapid imitation of what the meal could be. If only there was a pinch of salt somewhere to inject some life and flavour into the whole thing!