I struck gold on my first meal in Venice. Having been mentored for years in Roman restaurant and food culture by Katie Parla, I was a bit discouraged not to have the same sort of guidance for Venice. And so I contacted Victor Hazan, husband of the late Marcella Hazan and former twenty-year resident of Venice for advice. His first choice was alle testiere.
Through unbelievably good fortune, alle testiere was all of two minutes from my lodgings in the Castello district of Venice. Victor has written about it here, and my high expectations were not disappointed. Alle testiere is a tiny twenty-two seat restaurant, one of the smallest I’ve ever had the pleasure to dine in. Although size is no inherent proof of quality, it’s more likely than not that an establishment content with 22 seats is more interested in quality than quantity. I was also encouraged by the menu, in Italian only, another likely predictor of quality.
In Venice, one dines on fish, and at the best restaurants, one dines and pays a premium for the local fish of the lagoon in season purchased that day at the Rialto fish market. At alle testiere I was greeted by Luca, who manages the dining room with the help of one or two servers. Luca is good-natured and friendly, and he immediately put me at ease and encouraged my attempts to speak only in Italian. He recommended two wines. The first was Fiano di Avellino, a classic white from Campania, near Naples. produced by Vadiaperti. And the second was a wine closer to Venice, a traditional blend from Friuli in northeastern Italy produced by Denis Montanar. I began with an appetizer of mixed steamed shellfish. This is the most exposed cooking one can experience, one in which the quality of ingredients is the chief factor in the quality of the dish. I was not disappointed. Although I could not identify each and every type (and couldn’t perfectly understand Luca’s description in Italian), every bite was perfection. Tender, full of flavor, perfectly seasoned, dressed with aromatic olive oil. This is the sort of cooking some would find plain, but which was so perfectly executed that it provided nothing but joy. The sort of dish worth a flight to Venice to enjoy. As a first course, I chose little gnocchi with scampi and pesto. This dish was also very good and perfectly executed, though they weren’t the ethereal gnocchi of Arcangelo Dandini, which I’ve written about here and here. Still, the dish was balanced and delicious. As a second course I chose sole with aromatic herbs and juniper accompanied by a contorno of mixed vegetables (which I forgot to photograph). The filets of sole were as delicate and moist as they should have been, and the choice of juniper was an intriguing and successful one. The highlight of the contorno was the local radicchio. In general, dessert is my least favorite course. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever been served a dessert at a restaurant in Italy that I was ecstatic about. But the choices at alle testiere and the confidence I had in the kitchen, made choosing dessert difficult indeed. There was panna cotta with raspberries, an apple tart, a chocolate flan, tiramisu, and two types of gelato. In the end I chose tiramisu, perfectly executed once again, with little or no alcohol to distract from the mascarpone and coffee.
The meal was so good, probably the best I’ve ever eaten in Italy, that I immediately made a reservation for lunch the next day. Despite my inclination, however, I had eaten so much the night before that I knew I couldn’t order every course and had to skip the secondo piatto. As an appetizer I chose sea scallops with orange and herbs. Once again I was confronted with the most perfect expression possible of this dish. I had long looked forward to eating scallops in Venice, where the scallops are purchased live with their orange “coral” attached.One of my favorite things to eat in Italy is clams, because the clams are so tender and delicate, the sort of clams which are simply unavailable in the US. And so I ordered the classic spaghetti alle vonghole. It was exquisite. Please note the size of the clams, with shells about the size of one’s thumb. For dessert, I ordered the pistacchio gelato, which we have on our own menu at the farm when I return in March. Although slightly melted by the time it reached my table, it was perfect, like every other dish I was served at alle testiere. I have a taste memory of exactly what I want our own pistacchio gelato to be.
After dessert I ordered a sweet dessert wine, a recioto di Soave from producer Pieropan. After late harvest the grapes are allowed to dry until Easter and then vinified into rich, liquid gold. The producer only makes 1000 bottles a year, and I was lucky enough to share one of them.
Without a doubt, these two meals were some of the finest I’ve ever had, and certainly the finest fish menus I’ve ever enjoyed!