Luca di Vita is the co-proprietor, along with his friend and business partner Bruno Gavagnin, of Osteria alle Testiere, a tiny 22-seat restaurant in Venice. It was an honor to interview Luca because Alle Testiere is my favorite restaurant in all of Italy, which I’ve written about here and here. For more about Bruno, see this 2015 profile in The Wall Street Journal.
I interviewed Luca back in September, when we met for aperitivi and cicchetti at Aciugeta in Venice. I hope the fellowship and camaraderie comes through in the text below. During the interview, Luca and I discussed his childhood in Venice, how tourism has transformed the city, and why Bruno’s cooking is so spellbinding. Enjoy!
Justin Naylor: Luca, thanks for making the time to meet this afternoon. I’d like to begin by asking about your childhood. Did you grow up in Venice?
Luca di Vita: Yes, I did. I was born in the Vivaldi church, in the Chiesa della Maria della Pieta. Then, in fact, I was living here with my parents, just around the corner near San Zaccaria. From there I lived for a few years in the Giardini, and then back here. I am living just in the front of my birth house.
JN: What are some of your earliest memories of the city, as a child?
LD: First of all, I remember when we used to play as children. Where are the playgrounds of Venice? The squares! Santa Maria Formosa, that you know very well, San Zaccaria – they were our playgrounds. It was like a wild football game all afternoon. This was the 1960s-’70s. I do remember some strange presence around us, some people speaking strange languages. Looking around you, you say, Who is there? Sometimes wearing strange colorful dresses or shorts in the middle of the winter… who are they? They were tourists. That was the very beginning of the whole thing: a few lost people around Venice that you could notice. You could say, These are not of ours. Venice at that age had at least 100,000 inhabitants.
JN: Now it’s 60,000, correct?
LD: Yes. So you can imagine all the shops that now are transformed into tourist stuff, they were shops for inhabitants, for the city. Shops where you could buy milk or salami, where you could repair your shoes, all things that now you cannot do anymore because all of these things are transformed, due to the massive attack of 20 million tourists a year.
JN: Was that a gradual change, or was there a time when it really exploded?
LD: I think everything happened in fifteen years, 1980-1995. At that time, we had a very big house on two floors. I remember when I was eight or ten, there was a small hotel that is still there, that is slightly bigger. The owner of the hotel, who was a lady going to the mass with my mom – so they were very good friends – asked my mom, “Why don’t you give me two or three of your rooms? I often have some requests. You have a big house, only three at home, your big son has left.” My mom said OK. We started our B&B thing related to this hotel, because of their request in the middle ’70s. There were so few hotels. As you know, the phenomenon of tourists in Venice started in the Lido as a residential holiday area for tourists in the 1920s, ’30s. In that age, the Lido was very popular, very chic. The upper class has been always traveling. But something else was moving – the middle class and the cheapest class. That’s why people were looking for cheap rooms. I remember the length of the stay was something like 12 days, 20 days, or a month and a half.
JN: A longer trip, whereas now it’s a week or three days?
LD: You know, now it is less than one day.
LD: So you can imagine how the whole thing has changed. Do you know how many visitors we have now in Venice each year? 20 million.
JN: There’s probably no city in the world that has so few residents compared to so many tourists.
So when you and Bruno [Gavagnin] opened Alle Testiere in the mid ’90s, what did you want to do with that place? What was different about it, what was your vision when you connected with him and decided to open a place of your own?
LD: The older things of Alle Testiere started with Bruno; I started a little later. The first steps are dated from 1993. When he found the place, at that time he was leaving Corte Sconta. We got together and we started to talk. I said, “What are you doing?” Bruno said, “I’m opening a place.”
JN: You met him then for the first time?
LD: We knew each other since military service; we [served] together, in fact. We had a bunch of common friends, all in the food and wine – it wasn’t business at that time, it was more like fun, a way to enjoy sharing nights and experiences. I was in the hotel business; I was working for a big Italian Hotel Chain opening several hotels in Venice, Florence, Rome. But my big passion was food and wine. So I started to study wine and I became a sommelier and then a professional sommelier, then Degustatore Ufficiale, all the degrees. I was very excited, I was very young. I started to invite people home every night, to drink beautiful wines and share experiences. One day I thought, I’m working! This is like, work. It’s a beautiful work, it’s a beautiful matter. We had a small little group of good friends, food lovers. We were traveling in Italy, but not only in Italy – like, one day in Catania to have lunch, and come back. Go to Lake Garda, go to not only the Michelin restaurants, but also to the simple, amazing trattorie that you find.
I didn’t have any experience of cooking, but then when I was working in the hotel, they discovered my passion and they said – in the last year I was working at the hotel – “Okay, you are in charge now to make lunch.” Because the restaurant of the hotel where I was working wasn’t very good. So they gave me one hour free to go the market, buy stuff, come back, and cook lunch for them. They were covering me at the reception. It was fun, it was like a mix-up of your life in which you discover a new talent. And then I found Bruno, who had the talent inside him already. After a few years’ work at Corte Sconta and some other very, very hot restaurants –
JN: Are those Venetian restaurants? Are they still around?
LD: Certo. Two of them, very still around. So, we started a new life, a new experience.
JN: What was different or distinctive about the alle Testiere? What did you want to offer to your customers?
LD: First, at that time, I must admit there were no bad restaurants in Venice.
JN: Really, that recently? That’s amazing.
LD: The number of restaurants was probably one-tenth of what it is now. But a restaurant was a restaurant. Their job was very professional. There were the historical places, that were maybe too expensive to go to, but they were all serious. Very serious. Everything was very, very – I would say, stylish, also. No crap. No bad offers. There was no reason, because you were working for locals ninety percent. Locals, if they don’t like your business, they don’t go, so you get empty. I mean, it was a completely different kind of offer, kind of concept.
So, we started to say – I knew Bruno from friends and I knew how serious the place was, where he was working, Corte Sconta. An excellent restaurant. So, I had no doubt. I knew exactly that he was doing the right thing. I was probably just a good host because of my job after 18 years of hotels and reception.
JN: Plus, your passion for wine.
LD: My passion for wine, and for food. I was sure that was the right place. What was changing in Venice – and I think I was the right person at the right time – was to know languages. That’s what I did in my life; I speak English, German, French, Spanish, a bit of Japanese. What we really needed was to go and to agree on our concept without thinking too much of the final result – just put your energy together and see what happens.
JN: So, from the beginning it was a tourist-friendly restaurant? It had very high standards, as it does now, but it was also tourist-friendly in the sense that you were going to speak fluent English?
LD: We could explain what we were doing.
JN: How else was it similar to and different from other Venetian restaurants at the time that it opened? As you say, at the time there were very few bad Venetian restaurants. It’s hard to believe, but that was such a different time.
LD: I think that the key of this was the communication. We had excellent communication immediately, from the very beginning. The people who worked in the restaurant business until that time, they mostly had a restaurant background, which didn’t ever give them the possibility to do this communication. As you know, chefs often are very closed, very much in their world. They’re not extremely – how can you explain – they’re normally not very able to communicate with people. They often are shy, so that even if they have a lot to do and a lot to say, and they’re very talented, they don’t have the possibility to inform the world about that. So, I think our meeting was the right combination, the right moment in which we could put together Bruno’s ability in the kitchen and my ability in offering it.
JN: Customer service, as we say.
LD: We had so many other restaurants opening at that time; I’m not here to talk about them. They’re still there and they’ve been adjusted. And then the internet started to change everything.
JN: In good ways and bad ways!
LD: In any case, it’s a beautiful way to inform and interest me to your message, so it’s absolutely very, very helpful. Sometimes it’s too tight, I would say, it’s not enough to write two or three lines to describe the life of someone else. What is really bad for me – and I’m talking about guides, more or less, now – is to reduce an entire life of 15-18 hours of daily work for many years to a number. How can you describe my work with a number? What do you know from it?
JN: Absolutely. It’s not unlike the terrible American contribution to wine, which has been to take a wine – which is ultimately mysterious and indescribable – and put a number on it. You say it’s a 94, whatever the hell that means. It means nothing. It’s ridiculous, right? It’s ridiculous.
LD: What do you think, a 94 is the sum of my work on my land, or how I grow these things against the weather using maybe organic or biodynamic, or risking the emotions I have… this is 94?
JN: And how do you compare Barolo and Bardolino?
LD: How can you put the same classification on Osteria alle Testiere, which has ten tables – ten people working for ten tables? As you know, we do the pasta, we do the dessert, we do everything else. We give the possibility for these six families to survive, so it means that we work to earn money to survive. A two-star Michelin, or a three-star Michelin, behind it there are investors. The place is opening just to get there, to get the stars. There’s no profit at all, sometimes they lose up to one million Euro a year to be there, because obviously they store hundreds thousand wines in the cellar, use dishes that cost 150 Euro each – but the thing is, they don’t do this job to live. They do it to show off, to see how good they are, and they pay maybe 100,000 Euro for the best chef to be there. You put us in the same line and you say, OK, these people are 92 and these people are 89? I’m sorry.
JN: It means nothing. Yeah.
LD: So, the whole thing regarding internet, or following up guides, or classifications, for me it’s absolutely meaningless. That’s why I don’t follow it. I really don’t care.
JN: I’m surprised to hear that in the early ’90s there were very few bad restaurants in Venice. Obviously, things have changed. How would you describe the state of Venice today, both the restaurant and also Venice in general, how it’s changed since Alle Testiere opened fifteen years ago?
LD: I must say that the number of restaurants probably has multiplied twenty or thirty times.
JN: That’s an amazing change.
LD: I don’t have the real number, but it’s not less than 1500, and as you know, Venice is a small place, you can walk from one side to the other in 40 minutes. The offer is basic because the offer must be – it’s based on prices. There are some areas in the city where you can open a place even if maybe the day before the chef was a shoemaker, and the waiters were working in – I don’t know, a plastic can business – and the day after, you open a restaurant. This incredible legend around architects becoming chefs – there’s no relation, but it’s cool. People, they say, “Ah, after my career, my dream is to open a restaurant.” Why? What do you have to say? It’s just because you cook good pasta e fagioli at home, and you think of doing it? So, I think that the big mistake there is to not recognize a professional register.
Like lawyers or doctors they are part of a limited number of professionals who work because they have a background, because they know what they’re doing. Our work is extremely delicate. We are putting things inside the body of somebody else. It’s so delicate.
JN: It’s very delicate, yes – intimate, personal.
LD: Absolutely. So, I think quality things have been lost, due probably to the business. How can you work well in a place that’s just a business? I want a very severe selection for people doing this job. I want people to understand what they’re doing. Not just following instructions. There’s a big difference with people like the restaurants in our association, who are working on ingredients, who are looking for local fish or meat or vegetables. Like all the other friends you have, they are getting ingredients from Sant’Erasmo, La Giudecca. You know these guys. And, obviously, these things require work, to be attentive. You receive your fish, you have to check it, fish by fish, clean it, wash it if something is wrong. And try to keep these materials, these ingredients as healthy as you can. The moment that you have a doubt, just throw it away. And now you have people in Venice who’ve decided to be a restaurateur just buying frozen, ready food and warming them up. So now you have places called ristoranti that don’t even have a kitchen. It’s a big problem. In Venice there are plenty of these places.
JN: How many, would you say? As a percentage?
LD: It’s a very sad number. It’s for sure that more than half are pure crap. The rest is half and half, but if you walk along San Marco, the places that you know, and you find a restaurant every twenty meters, not many can be very good.
I went to Japan during last Easter, and I was absolutely amazed by the quality of the street food. The street food was even better than the restaurant food. Every single door was a kind of surprising, beautiful artisan work. Cutting properly the fish, lovely sauces – it could be a place like this, no? The people were just following a kind of law of passion. Most of the restaurants in Venice now, they don’t follow their passion, but they’re just a business. They’re there to do some business.
JN: I find Bruno’s cooking to be absolutely spellbinding. In about six or seven visits to Alle Testiere, eating multiple courses each time, everything that he’s ever cooked for me has been perfect. I can’t think of a single exception. But in some ways I would focus on the grilled radicchio tardivo.
JN: It’s easy to be impressed by cape sante, or cape lunghe – these things are just amazing. It’s even harder, I would think, to make radicchio tardivo spellbinding.
LD: Certo. [Definitely.]
JN: So I’m wondering what it is about his cooking, why is it so spellbinding? Why is it so mesmerizing? Because it’s so pure, right?
JN: It’s pure and perfect. How does he produce that result?
LD: What do you think? Probably also in America you say, È come la cucina di casa, come la cucina della mamma [It’s like home cooking, like your mom’s cooking].
LD: Alle Testiere is in fact una piccola cucina della mamma. Bruno, when he was a child, his mom was a chef in a private family. Private chefs at that time – we’re talking about 50 years ago – didn’t mean like you can imagine now, a rock star. The private chef was a chef – un cuoco. The word “chef” didn’t exist. Era una cuoca [She was a cook]. Cuoco means someone who makes his best in preparing some food for some customers. And this is the key. Bruno is not a rock star. Bruno is not a chef. E un ottimo cuoco. He’s working with piedi per terra – how do you translate that? With feet on the earth. He’s working naked food in a naked way, because this is the only thing he knows.
JN: Even though he was working at some of these impressive, high-end restaurants, his grounding was still in the cooking of the home, of his mother?
LD: Yes, because when he was a child there was no Papa attending him at home, so the idea of him – I see him, agrappato…
JN: Just hanging on, right. Overlooking.
LD: And looking at his mom doing things. So I have this idea still now. If I do a little drawing of Bruno, I will draw a man with a chef hat like this peeking over at his mom cooking with two big eyes.
JN: Just peeking over, and observing everything.
LD: Exactly. This is my description of this man. As you know, he is not a big traveler.
JN: He also was born and raised in Venice, and he has lived his whole life in Venice. He’s Venetian, through and through.
LD: He likes, obviously, to try other things, but what I’m doing in these years is, I’m exactly the opposite, I’m the one who is running around the world. I’m just bringing him influences, spices – that I know he likes so much. Now, you know, it’s very easy, when you are in Portugal, you can just take a picture of what you are having and send it to Bruno and say, “What do you think of that? What do you think it is?” Things are very immediate.
JN: I learned this lesson from the writings of Marcella Hazan, that in Italy – at least of her generation – the cooking of the home is the standard. It’s very different from America, where the cooking of the home is dismal and the restaurants are OK. What is it about the cooking of the home that is superior? Why is it the home cooking that should be imitated? How is home cooking different from “restaurant” cooking?
LD: Do you think my mom, who was born in 1929, ever bought some gnocchi?
JN: No, of course not!
LD: She never did. Do you think my mom ever bought a can of ragù? Do you think that Bruno’s mom ever bought any dried tagliatelle? I mean, this is the point: we grow up with this background. There’s no way to buy something that is made from the others. If I’m doing ragù, I know that I will occupy this fire for the next four hours. Obviously, they had the mentality of housewife. They were staying at home all day. Do you think that my mom – because I see that you like this – do you think that my mom ever made la spesa – shopping – for more than two days? Never. What happens now? Now, you go to the market with your car and you fill it and you say, for a week I’m OK. I was going out of the school and meeting my mom at the maccelaio’s [butcher’s], and buying meat fresh to be eaten that day. This is the same thing we do now. We buy the fish we need every single day, the vegetables we need every single day, the fruits we need every single day, and we put them together.
JN: Right, whereas in many restaurants, if you’re serving ragù, for practical reasons you might make it on Sunday and then every day you’re basically reheating it. It’s basically leftovers.
LD: Assolutamente. [Absolutely.]
JN: That’s what passes for restaurant cooking. And you can taste it!
LD: Certo. The key is there. For us it’s not understandable, but not because we are VIP or because we are particularly chic. It’s just because our experience in our blood, in our life – we never saw that differently.
JN: I love the idea of la cucina di mamma. But earlier you stressed that restauranteurs and cooks should approach their work professionally, like a lawyer or doctor. How do we balance the idea of la cucina della mamma with the idea of serious professional training?
LD: When I say that Bruno is cooking Mama-style I mean that his kitchen is very simple and clean based on fresh ingredients and season. But his talent is more on being able to reproduce his dishes 10, 100, 1000, 10,000 times always in the same way while he’s doing 1000 of other dishes; that is not granted for any good home cook.
JN: That helps explain Bruno’s work in the kitchen. Could you explain a little about your philosophy in the dining room? Why did you set it up to have ten tables, twenty people max? What is your philosophy? Because oftentimes, to me, as great as the cooking is – and I adore Bruno’s cooking – people overemphasize the cooking of a restaurant and don’t think enough about the experience of the dining room. So I’m curious what your philosophy is and how you think about your work in the front of the house.
LD: My work is, again, naked. In fact, the easiest way to offer the welcoming of a family. We provide this twenty square meters room in which everything happens, and that makes people feel very much friends and close to each other, and that helps also. My idea of my job is hosting people in my home, my dining room.
JN: So, although it’s a restaurant, I think you told me once before that you don’t even think of it as a restaurant. You described it once with the French word atelier [studio].
LD: Without being fancy, it is no more than a room. It’s something happening in there, and often you get people eating very close to each other, not knowing them at the beginning of the night, and going out being the best friends ever. You know these things, atmosphere and change, it’s bustling and moving from one table to the other table, and it’s a very friendly and I would say informal atmosphere.
JN: Really comfortable.
LD: I really hope so. It seems like people love it.
JN: Because it seems to me, a lot of restaurants I experience – especially in the US, but even in Italy too – they might get the cooking right, but they screw up the front of the house. Either they’re too formal, or maybe they don’t care enough. You know, you often get the sense from a server that they’re just doing a job.
LD: What we really like to declare is that we treat all customers in the same way. There’s another little defect in Venice – but not only in Venice, it’s probably more – there are different kinds of attention for different kinds of people.
JN: Yes, because you get all types – you get people who know nothing about Venetian fish, for example.
LD: Or you have locals, you have friends. We like to keep them all on the same level. And we like that everybody feels the same way in there. The person who has been traveling 12,000 kilometers to get there, and waiting for his great experience – we have the same treatment for the friend who lives upstairs on the second floor who comes every night there. I don’t think it’s right to treat people in different ways. In fact, it’s a nice little room where people are trying to enjoy themselves. It’s my space,but it’s also their performance when they’re there. It’s one thing. I think that it’s a good theatre act when actors and public are good actors and public.
I have so many people, wine lovers and producers who come there, and since we started to feel very much friends and very much inside this world we’ve been respected by these producers and we still have so many of them coming from all over the world. What I always like to say to my customers is that there is no one producer of any bottles from my cellar which I don’t know personally, with whom I never had a lovely drink, with whom we never had fun together. All the people that you see here represented by a label are friends, or at least people that we know and that we can talk about, so we can explain.
JN: It’s personal.
LD: I would say it’s closer to the philosophy of Bruno, who knows his fishermen, who knows his producer of vegetables. Sometimes we visit, we go to Chioggia to see the fishermen’s boats, they invite us out. And we go out in their boat for the Redentore. How can I compare this kind of absolute feeling we have with these people to someone who buys frozen fish, unknown bottles of wine and just pours them? It’s not pouring, it’s not serving – in fact, together we are having an experience, a moment. We’re sharing some life, no? Different lives, together.
JN: In the US, once a chef has a successful restaurant, it seems like the first thing he/she does is open another, even if it means less personal attention for the first. This doesn’t seem to happen in Italy. Why have you chosen to be content with a single restaurant?
LD: Who is the crazy investor who will invest in a country like Italy where your pay 62% of taxes and you have 22 tax obligations now? It’s too difficult a moment to invest!
JN: I’d like to transition to talking about wine. How do you choose the wines for your list? In addition to having a relationship with the producers, what approach are you looking for?
LD: For the first time, a couple of years ago, I started to write something about wine.
JN: Just for yourself, or to publish?
LD: It’s for myself, but it has been requested, so maybe one day. The first thing I wrote was a kind of small introduction to my wine list. Being in this exciting moment of orange wines, or biodynamic wines, or unfiltered wines, to many people it seems like all the others are shit. I just wanted to make the point on my position. The first line of this little introduction says, first of all, that I like good wines – wines that give me emotion, that tell me something, that are in the position to transmit something to me. Then, obviously, we have a preference for wines that are definitely naturali, definitely respecting the environment, which is something that is extremely important for us and for our children. But I am not a Taliban sommelier.
JN: [Laughter] Of course!
LD: I know so many producers who have worked in biodynamic since they started, and they never say that. They never need a flag.
JN: They let the result speak for itself.
LD: I know a big number of extremely good producers that are just producing incredible wines. When you talk to them and you say, “What about biodynamic?” They look at you and they say, “What are you saying? That doesn’t exist. Non existe. È una cosa impossibile. If you don’t want to eat and drink vinegar, you cannot do this. There is no sense.” I know them all. I know so many people, so how can I exclude their work and their life?
JN: There’s room for different perspectives.
LD: Assolutamente. Obviously, who is not in my list? The massive industry wines. The word industry doesn’t match with the word wine, in my opinion. I would never buy an Italian wine that’s produced by someone who does 4 million bottles. Which is not valid for all over the world; for example, as you know, in Champagne, there are some very, very, very good things of which they produce one million excellent bottles. But here, it’s not possible. I like people who produce biodynamic, organic, unfiltered, orange, in long maceration, in amphorae, as long as it gives me some emotion. But sometimes a producer who works conventionally – how we like to describe people who are not following those kind of natural practices – produce a wine that gives me beautiful sensations and beautiful emotion. So, I have a place for everybody in my list. Obviously, being a ten-table restaurant, I exclude producers who make ten million bottles, because there’s no reason for it. I really don’t need them.
JN: Do you have room for a modern producer, however, like Angelo Gaja? Victor [Hazan] said in our interview that he drinks a Gaja wine when he wants to drink something beautiful and well-made, but Gaja wine doesn’t taste like an Italian wine, and he described it as having “no soul,” because it’s made in an international style which doesn’t reflect the place it comes from.
LD: Gaja has never been on my list, in fact. I never had a bottle of Antinori Tignanello, either, on the list.
JN: And those wouldn’t work with your fish menu, either.
LD: I sell 75% of reds, so there would be a place for them.
JN: OK, there would be.
LD: But, the fact is, either you sell a brand or you sell the fruit of your work. It would be the easiest thing to do to sell a bottle of Gaja Barbaresco, but I honestly prefer to give an alternative to my gastronomes, who have been choosing Alle Testiere instead of some more known and famous restaurant. I think I need to respect their effort of searching a place like mine, offering them my effort of research on wines, for example. I like, in a certain sense, to be able to help this effort. So, no big names, no big labels, but just true people.
JN: True people, yes! My interview with Victor affected me very much; one thing he said that was so profound is that he’s looking for cooking and wine that forgoes image for identity.
LD: Bravo. Yeah, I totally agree.
JN: It’s a great way to put it. We’ve talked about how tourism in Venice has been a blessing and a curse. Venice, a town of 60,000 people, would be hurting without tourism, but the tourism that exists is a problem as well. I was wondering how you would describe your ideal responsible tourist. If you could communicate to people coming to Venice how to behave, how to approach their time in the city – you mentioned that many stay less than a day, right? What does it mean to you to be a responsible tourist in Venice?
LD: I think that Venice is such a delicate environment, that people who are managing all of these massive attacks – you see, I live just on the corner here, and I open the windows and I see this massive flock of people day and night going up and down. It’s an attack, it’s like one of those movies where the monsters are coming from other planets and invading all your spaces. During the last Carnevale, I said to Virginia, my smaller daughter, “Let’s go to San Marco and see Volo della Colombina,” – she had never seen it before. It’s a lovely thing, a lady with a costume coming down from the Campanile to the end, opening the festivities.
JN: How old is your daughter?
LD: She’s thirteen. She said, “Papa, are you crazy? You know how many people are outside?” I was the child on this occasion, and she was very sure, saying, “You would never get there.” I said, “Virginia, it’s the Volo della Colombina, it’s at 12:00.” She said, “It’s 10:00, we’ll never get there.” It’s normally a four-minute walk. I said, “You know, let’s do it. Let’s go and try.” And she was right. We got there fifteen minutes late. So, two hours and fifteen minutes – instead of four minutes – from my house to San Marco. Imagine!
JN: Unbelievable. That’s why I’m bringing my clients in January!
LD: Assolutamente! I mean, you are a clever guy. And we thank you very much, because you want to make people live in and love this place. That’s why you bring them in the right moment of the year.
JN: How would you like my customers, or other tourists, to approach the city so that it feels respectful?
LD: I’m not in the position to ask the people to be respectful, because I do feel it’s a little offensive. I think that the major Venice has been perfectly communicated, but wrongly controlled in the point of view of the visitors. The problem is not the people who are coming here, but the number of people who are coming here. The solution can be found only from the people who are managing all this.
JN: So you don’t blame the tourists, you blame the Venetian government.
LD: Absolutely. The tourists, they have no responsibility at all. The tourists are doing exactly what they will do in other places in the world. If you see any damage – which I normally don’t see, in fact – what can you see, a little bit of garbage? The problem is, there are not enough garbage containers. The problem, when you see people peeing in streets, is that there are no public toilets! The problem is not at all on them, it’s here. But it’s not possible to split anymore, apparently, because the number of visitors is growing and growing and growing and growing and growing. How can you start to say to these people, “No, you cannot come to Venice”?
JN: About two months ago, when I was planning this trip, I tried to make a reservation at Fiaschetteria Toscana. I had never been there. I got an email back saying that they were closed, and they said that they “didn’t want to adjust to the new style of tourism.” That’s interesting to me, and I’m hoping that you might comment on that. You’re basically saying that the tourists are not the problem, it’s that Venice hasn’t really found a way to manage it. But could you say a little about the closing of Fiaschetteria Toscana?
LD: I think it’s the final act of a restaurant who’s been there for a hundred years. There’s a normal lifespan to a place. Nobody was able to continue what Albino did in his 77 years. His son has another kind of business; one of them was working in the kitchen, but he wasn’t in fact interested in doing this. It’s not written anywhere that a restaurant must be there forever. I’m of the same feeling; I think that especially in this work, as long as your taste, your energy for doing this, is there, as long as you have things to say, you can do it. When you’re too tired, or old, or nobody is in fact doing it the way you like, it’s the moment to give up.
JN: So the tourism was a little bit of an excuse, maybe?
LD: I think so. It’s a little disappointment for the end of almost a hundred years.
JN: And yet, I’ve told a lot of people since then, the symbolism of it – I’ve heard that the business taking their space is Burger King.
LD: Esatto [Exactly].
JN: Which is disturbing!
LD: We have Burger King, McDonalds, Old Wild West. They’re already here.
JN: And not just for tourists, but even for Italians.
LD: Absolutely. I really, honestly – going back to the thing I said at the very beginning of the interview – I have more confidence in those products coming from a huge, organized, and very controlled system of food like a big Burger King or McDonald’s, or like the other, very famous Hard Rock Cafe. The point of view of the control and safety of the materials, there is no doubt. I have much more confidence in one of those chains than in Venetian restaurants owned by people who were, until yesterday, who knows where. I honestly would go for a burger instead of a fritto misto there.
JN: That’s interesting! Let me wrap up by asking a little more about ingredients. Obviously, that’s at the heart of everything you do. So I was wondering if you could speak a little about the quality of the ingredients, and why the quality is so high.
LD: I think that the secret there is – I’m talking obviously from the point of view of a restaurant like ours that works with the catch of the day. What you do is, you go to the market early in the morning. You have some fish supplier that just called you at night when they arrive in their boat at 2 AM to the landing; they call you in advance and they tell you what they have. You do your little project for the day after. Half of the project is done at the market when you’re there, because it’s there that you see the local vegetables, the things that you may use, you may like to combine that day. Season is season, so they don’t change enormously day by day during the same period of the year. But you are in the position to choose what you really like. We, honestly, having ten tables, making 40-50 covers a day, really don’t need a big amount of anything, so we are in the position to choose only local fish. Local fish means obviously freshest – it means, as we say, more tasty. It means from the Adriatic. You know, the depth of the Adriatic, there’s no much depth.
JN: And that affects the flavor?
LD: It affects the flavor, because there’s a concentration of plankton, of elements which the fish eat. The water is not so cold here, it’s quite warm, and that affects the size of the fish. As more concentrated, it’s also visually better. The fish lives in a very food-concentrated environment and he can eat better. He can run and have better taste, because he’s better fed. So, the fantastic thing is, the Adriatic has this beautiful tide every six hours that goes up and down from the Mediterranean. It’s a big wave; it’s the same that goes up and cleans the lagoon. After six hours coming, it stops for one hour and then comes back. So there’s always a big change of water in this beautiful, not-deep sea. You have fresh water coming up and down continuously, differently from an enclosed sea. You have a deep concentration of new energy and food. And an enormous variety of fish. From the market, you can see, only from the lagoon we have five kinds of clams. That’s why we have to call them with their proper names, to understand what we are eating. So I think we are extremely lucky to be able to go to the market, choose what we like, and put it on a daily menu. Most of the restaurants, unfortunately, do the opposite: they have a menu, it’s printed, it’s there for one, two, three weeks, or until the end of the season, and half of those ingredients, how can you have them? You can have them only if you get them frozen or preserved. I like to start from the opposite side.
JN: How about vegetables? Do you have any insight into why the vegetables from Sant’Erasmo and some of the other islands are remarkable?
LD: This is something interesting. I’ve been talking to Michel Thoulouze from Sant’Erasmo. And also some people from the Giudecca. There is a fantastic young group of guys who are recovering a nice piece of land on the Guidecca, that’s a place you should go. They say that the presence of the salted water gives to the vegetables and to everything that is grown a very special touch of minerality.
JN: How is that salt communicated? Is it in the soil? In the air?
LD: It’s in the soil. It’s in the soil because the soil of the islands is sand and salt. So, the salt comes from the water. It affects the soil, which obviously affects the plants and the fruit. It’s a very peculiar little taste. Very often when we do our little side dish of local vegetables which are following the seasons, customers look at me and it’s fantastic to see their expression. “Hey, but these vegetables, they all taste the same [at home]. They all taste different [here]!” At home they will all taste the same because they’ve been processed the same way. But our local vegetables are, you know, cut in the morning, brought to the market. So, the freshness is amazing. It’s half an hour, by boat.
JN: I’m going to look forward to visiting Michel on Sant’Erasmo on Wednesday. We should probably stop there. I can’t thank you enough for making the time to talk. It was so delightful.
LD: It’s been my pleasure, Justin.