09 October 2014

Buttered Tin worth crossing the river for

I often tell people there isn’t any reason to drive across the river (from Minneapolis/West Metro) to St. Paul to dine. Sure there are good restaurants in St. Paul. But there are so many more in Minneapolis. When I say that, I’m (mostly) joking of course. There’s Meritage, which is my favorite restaurant in the Twin Cities. And I’ve enjoyed a couple of great lunches at Ngon Bistro.

Now I have another really good reason to come to St. Paul; my son-in-law recently became the kitchen manager and chef at The Buttered Tin in Lowertown. My wife and I met friends for brunch there on a Thursday late morning. TBT2

Buttered Tin is a bakery and café. Peter’s involvement is mostly with the kitchen, but the bakery gets a lot of media attention. So if you think of Buttered Tin as primarily a place to pick up good-tasting, creative baked goods, you really should give the café a try. It’s open for breakfast and lunch (until 3 p.m.)

Personally, I’m a fan of breakfast, and Buttered Tin has a great breakfast menu. On this visit, all of us had breakfast food. I normally prefer a restaurant where you are seated and place your order with a server. At Buttered Tin, you place your order at the service desk and receive a number. Then you’re seated and the food is brought to you. We arrived at a good time. We got a table as soon as we placed our order. But sometimes, customers have to wait for a table to open up. The service staff is very good about helping customers find a table before the food is ready.

Peter had previously told me about TBT (The Buttered Tin) Hash, so I came primed to order it. I did look at the other items, but stuck with my original intent and ordered the hash. I had an ‘appetizer’ after ordering my meal. It was an oatmeal cookie Moon pie – two moist and tasty cookies stuck together with a white creamy filling. They were in a display next to the register. They looked so good I couldn’t resist, so I had one with coffee while waiting for my hash.

The hash was excellent. There was a wonderful variety of vegetables, crisply cooked and served in a small cast iron pan. Particularly noteworthy were the mushrooms and Brussels sprouts. It was topped with a sunny-side up egg. The egg was expertly prepared with fully cooked but still tender whites and a creamy yolk that bathed the hash in a rich coating when broken.

My wife had crab eggs benedict. It was two beautiful thick crab cakes each one topped with a poached egg. Instead of Hollandaise, these had a rich, herby white sauce. It was served with crisply sautéed asparagus and a small mixed green salad. She said she was pleased that it wasn’t served on an English muffin, as eggs benedict usually are. She also really liked the asparagus, though that’s not normally one of her favorite vegetables. She also liked that the dressing on the salad was very light.

Everyone at the café was very friendly and accommodating. Peter was able to stop by the table and chat for a few minutes. (That’s when we had the picture taken.) The ambiance is very bright and open with big windows looking onto 7th Street. When the weather is nice, they have sidewalk tables for customers to eat outside.

Besides breakfast food, the menu has a nice selection of lunch items. Linda and I both were intrigued by the short rib Reuben sandwich that sounded particularly innovative and good. When we make our next return trip to St. Paul, she likely will order it. I’m sure I’ll end up ordering off the breakfast side of the menu again.

26 August 2014

Recipe: Tomato Gazpacho with Tower of Crab

After a visit to the Minneapolis Farmers Market, I came home intent on making gazpacho. Not just any gazpacho, however. I remembered making an amazing recipe for a dinner party … a few years ago. I couldn’t remember what year it was. But I was very sure the recipe was from Bon Appetit magazine. I remembered a couple of very distinctive things about the recipe. There was no bread to thicken the gazpacho. I remember pureeing the vegetables and then pressing them through a sieve, so that there was no pulp in the soup. But the most distinctive part was a ‘tower’ of crab salad, molded and placed in the center of the bowl with the gazpacho spooned around it.

No problem, I thought. I’m sure I’ll find the recipe on Epicurious. Nope. Well, I thought, maybe it’s on the Bon Appetit web site. Nope. Now I was starting to doubt my recollection. I tried a general Google search. Lots of gazpacho recipes, but none with a tower of crab salad.

I pretty much gave up on finding the recipe. I became convinced that I found the recipe in some obscure publication and only thought it was from Bon Appetit. I started looking for alternative recipes and found a couple that sounded intriguing. But for some reason, I tried a few more Google searches and changed the order of the words in the search “gazpacho” “crab” “tower” “tomato” and sure enough, I found the recipe I originally wanted. It appears in a few locations, but the one that was most helpful was a blog called Black-Eyed Peas, a blog that now appears to be defunct, last updated in 2005. That post credited the recipe to (wait for it …) Bon Appetit, June 2004!IMG_0022

To make the incident even a little stranger, I decided to check my back issues of BA to see if I happened to still have that issue. What are the chances? Ten years ago, and since then, I quit saving old issues. Why bother when all the recipes are available on Epicurious?

But, buried near the bottom of a stack of magazines, voila – there it was, June 2004. I opened the magazine; it was still bookmarked to the recipe for Tomato Gazpacho with Tower of Crab. I quickly saw why I kept that issue. Besides the fantastic gazpacho recipe, there are several other delicious recipes for party entertaining.

So I made the recipe and served it tonight. Just as fantastic as I remembered (if I do say so myself). I made two modifications. As printed, the recipe calls for garnishing with croutons. I deleted the croutons. And, the recipe calls for garnishing with minced chives. But my garlic chives are blooming right now. So instead of garnishing with minced chives, I sprinkled the soup with snipped chive flowers. If you look closely, you can see them in the photo.

I fully intend to keep that magazine in my stack. But just in case, I’m posting the recipe on Krik’s Picks so that if I ever lose the magazine, I’ll still have the recipe online.

Tomato Gazpacho with Tower of Crab

2 lbs of plum tomatoes (about 12 large), cored, quartered
1 1 lb English hothouse cucumber, peeled, cubed
1 large red bell pepper, quartered, seeded
1 large yellow bell pepper, quartered, seeded
1/2 8-oz white onion diced
2 large garlic cloves, peeled
1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 cup white wine vinegar
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper

Crab Salad

1/4 cup chopped shallots
1/4 cup mayonnaise
2 tablespoons minced fresh chives
1 1/2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon ketchup
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 pound lump crabmeat, picked over, broken into small lumps
Finely diced peeled English hothouse cucumber
Finely diced red bell pepper
Finely diced yellow bell pepper
Chopped fresh chives

For Soup: Working in batches, puree tomatoes, cucumber, all bell peppers, onion, garlic, oil, and vinegar in blender. Strain puree through sieve into large bowl, pressing hard on solids to extract as much pulp and liquid as possible.

Whisk cayenne pepper into soup, season to taste with salt. Cover: refrigerate until cold, at least 3 hours. (Can be made 1 day ahead. Keep refrigerated)

For Crab Salad: Combine shallots, mayonnaise, minced chives, lemon juice, ketchup, and cayenne pepper in medium bowl; whisk to blend. Fold in crabmeat. Season salad to taste with salt. Line 8 small deep glasses or custard cups with plastic wrap, leaving overhang. Divide salad equally among prepared cups (about 1/3 cup for each). Press salad to compact and conform to shape of container. Cover with overhang. Chill until cold, at least 1 hour and up to 8 hours.

Open plastic on top of salads. Turn out each salad into shallow soup bowl. Peel off plastic. Carefully pour soup into each bowl around crab salad. Sprinkle soup with croutons, finely diced cucumber, bell peppers, and chopped chives.

25 August 2014

Heyday Mpls. delights with creative small plates

My wife and I have a couple of friends with whom we enjoy trying new restaurants. Not always brand new, mind you. But if none of us have eaten there before, we still say it’s ‘new.’ In the case of our most recent dinner, Heyday, it really is fairly new. It opened in April 2014.

We actually tried to go sooner. But surprisingly, one thing after another kept popping up. So it wasn’t until mid-August when we finally went. We had a very good experience. Heyday

We had a reservation, and it was fairly early – 6 p.m. When we arrived, the restaurant was not very busy. We got a friendly greeting from the host and joined our friends who were already seated. Our server popped by after we were seated and had a chance to peruse the menus. Heyday has a good selection of wine by the glass. I was tempted by a Lambrusco, which you don’t see too often on menus in the U.S., but reminded me of our trip last spring to Italy and Emilio-Romagna. But ultimately I went with a chianti. (Another Italy reminder. It was very nice.) Heyday also has an interesting selection of beer on tap, including several local brews. The cocktail menu caught my wife’s eye. She was intrigued by a cocktail called The Garter Belt – gin, rose wine, and Dolin Blanc, a style of vermouth. (Click here to learn more than you probably ever wanted to know about different styles of vermouth. The gin, by the way, was Letherbee, a Chicago distillery that’s distributed locally by Tradition Wine & Spirits.)

We had several questions about items on the menu. Our server was very helpful and knowledgeable. For example, my wife is sensitive to cilantro. She asked if one of the items was made with cilantro. The server didn’t have to ‘check with the chef.’ She knew right away that it did not.

The server suggested that we order several plates for the four of us to share. She suggested three plates per person,which would have been 12 for the four of us. Ultimately, we only ordered eight plates. That was fine. But anyone with a big appetite probably would have wanted more. Also, some of the plates, especially the starters, were quite small and difficult for four people to share. In general, I would advise splitting a plate between only two people.

For starters, we ordered a melon salad, lamb tartare, a chicken liver tart, and a gorgonzola tart. They all were very good. The general consensus was that the chicken liver tart and the gorgonzola were the best.

Our next round of plates was nominally our ‘entrées’. They were bigger, and higher price. But none of the items that we ordered included a potato or rice or couscous. In fact, those starchy side dishes aren’t available at all on the menu, either as sides or accompanying an entrée. Heyday does serve good bread, however, and brought a second basket when we requested. We weren’t very diverse in ordering entrées. We all ordered fish – three of us ordered Dorade (sea bream) and one ordered black cod.

All of the food that we had at Heyday was excellent. The flavors were great. The plates looked very appealing. The fish was expertly prepared. When we got the bill, it really was a pretty reasonable total. But it was kind of expensive for the amount of food, and if we had ordered another round of plates, it would have been proportionately more expensive. (We did not order dessert. But our server brought us a plate with a selection of four morsels to sample. Nice touch.)

By the time we left, most of the tables were taken. Full on a Wednesday night – not bad. Bodes well for the future of Heyday.

22 May 2014

Food, shopping, art in beautiful Florence

As we planned our Italy vacation, there never was any question that we’d go to Florence. But we had been there once before.

It was 15 years ago. We were on our first ever European vacation. Our jam-packed itinerary included Paris, Provence, Nice, Florence, and Prague. We boarded a train in Nice, bound for Florence. But when our train crossed the border into Italy, we stopped. The railroad workers in Italy were on strike. So we spent the day wandering through Ventimiglia. We probably would have enjoyed it more if we weren’t worrying about when (or even whether) we’d get to Florence. We even went so far as to find a travel agent in the town who spoke English and had him cancel our hotel in Florence.

Later in the afternoon we learned that it was just an 8-hour strike. Sure enough, at 4 p.m., we all got back on board and continued on our way. We finally arrived in Florence at midnight. Fortunately, the hotel still had our room for us, even though we’d cancelled the reservation.

So on that first trip, we saw all the BIG things that you’re supposed to see in Florence – the Duomo, the museums, the David statue, the Pitti Palace, Boboli Gardens, Ponte Vecchio – as much as we could pack into a two-day stay which was shortened by the travel delay. And since we’d seen so much, we felt we could be more relaxed about this year’s stay.

Which is not to say that we weren’t busy. We still did a lot. It’s just that we didn’t feel compelled to stand in line to see the David statue again.

One thing we did was shop. We walked through the San Lorenzo outdoor market several times. I bought a leather jacket. Linda bought a purse and a wallet, plus novelty items for the grandkids. We also went to the Central Food Market. In my post about Emilia Romagna I said that we enjoyed the food market in Modena. But I really think the market in Florence was just as interesting, and it was bigger. I saw one stand that sold horse meat.

Our big adventure during our stay in Florence was a day trip to Fiesole. It’s a town high up in the hills above Florence. We took a city bus to the town and walked around. The town offers stunning panoramic views of Florence. But then we walked all the way back to the city. In total, it was only about 5 miles. We’ve often walked more than that on other vacations. But it was a notable experience nonetheless. IMG_0203

Another interesting site that we visited was Piazzalle Michelangelo. We expected to see more public art there. Other than yet another David reproduction, there wasn’t that much. But it did offer more beautiful vista views of the city and much closer than Fiesole. As we walked down from the piazzale, we came upon a public rose garden. We took the time to walk through and enjoy it. It was beautiful.

During our Italy trip, we made a point of finding various sites of Jewish significance. But the synagogue in Florence was particularly noteworthy. It was fascinating to learn about the architectural influences that went into its design. It also was interesting to learn that the community was able to protect and preserve so much of its artifacts and Torah scrolls during World War II and the Nazi occupation only to lose much of it in 1966 in a horrendous flood that struck Florence.

Our hotel in Florence was the Paris Hotel. It was the same one where we stayed 15 years ago. There are many good things I can say about the hotel. It’s very nicely located, only a few blocks from the train station and very close to the Duomo, museums, and markets. The staff is very friendly, helpful, and accommodating. And it was a good bargain; we booked our 4-night stay online and besides a reasonable rate, it included Wi-Fi, two fruit baskets, and a bottle of wine. We enjoyed sitting on the terrace overlooking the street below, sipping wine and planning our activities. However, we still were somewhat disappointed. We remembered the hotel as being stately and elegant. Regrettably, it has not aged well in the intervening years. We enjoyed our stay, but it wasn’t as pleasant and memorable as our first stay.

Here are the restaurants where we ate in Florence:

La Posta: We ate at a sidewalk table on our first night in Florence. We picked the restaurant because we liked the menu and wanted to eat outside. It was a little chilly, but they did have heaters that helped to keep us warm. The food was very good.IMG_0620

Ristorante Paoli: We actually ate here twice. The first time, we went in because of the beautiful décor. We had a very nice meal and the service was friendly and helpful. As we finished our meal, we saw a service cart with a display of gorgeous marinated vegetables. When we asked about it, we learned that one of the antipasti on the menu is a selection from the service cart. The next night, we hadn’t decided where to eat. As we talked about it, we both decided that we really wanted to try those marinated vegetables. So we went back for dinner the second night. It was well worth it.

Vecchio Mercato: As you might surmise from the name, this restaurant is located right across the street from the central food market. We saw it on our first day in Florence. I didn’t have high expectations. I figured that it primarily appealed to shoppers and perhaps workers from the market. But the thing that appealed to us was that it offered live music – a Polish piano player who performed jazz. We were told that he appeared on Mondays, but that sometimes he’d come in other days as well. We stopped by every night we were in Florence, but he never showed up. Still, we did decide to eat there on our last night. What a pleasant surprise. It was one of the best meals we had on our vacation.

Overall, I’d say that we enjoyed our stay in Florence because we took the time to just relax and see things at our own pace. It’s a beautiful city and we certainly had a great time there.

06 May 2014

Haughty service spoiled dinner at Fiola Mare, DC

I love how Washington, DC gets attention as a city with a vibrant restaurant scene. It makes sense. The city has a very cosmopolitan and diverse population. And there are plenty of people on expense account who need to make a favorable impression on customers, clients, and colleagues over a memorable meal in a comfortable setting.

Even though I’m retired, I still try to keep up on the DC food scene. It is frustrating, however, to read about great new restaurants knowing that I won’t get much opportunity to try them. (And no expense account if/when I do get to try them.)

In late April I went to DC for a board meeting of Mazon, the anti-hunger advocacy organization. The first night I ate at Fiola Mare. I had yearned for an opportunity to eat there since I’d read that it opened earlier in 2014. I had eaten at Fiola DC, Fabio Trabocchi’s restaurant in Penn Quarter, in 2012 and loved it. (Click here for that Krik’s Picks blog post.) So I had high expectations for the fish and seafood iteration that’s Fiola Mare. IMG_0307

There is a lot to like about the restaurant. Start with the location. It’s on the Potomac waterfront in Georgetown. I arrived as the sun was setting on a beautiful Sunday spring evening. If it had been just a little warmer, I might have asked for a table on the outdoor patio with relaxing views of the river and Kennedy Center across the way. Inside, some of the tables are in an enclosed porch; those windows can open to let in the fresh air and murmur of the pedestrians strolling along the waterfront. (They’re probably looking wistfully at the diners in the beautiful restaurant.) But if views of the Potomac don’t interest you, you can choose a pleasant and comfortable table in the main dining room.

Then there’s the food. My meal was sublime. I started with burrata with baby artichokes and radishes dressed with a delicious basil pesto. The burrata was heavenly. It was rich and creamy, and each bite was delicately bathed with the pesto. For an entrée, I ordered pan roasted branzino. I’d had branzino a couple of times in Italy and as much as anything, I wanted to compare Fiola’s version to the fish I’d eaten in Italy. It compared very favorably, though the whole, oven roasted fish I had in Venice was better. (Maybe not even better, just more enjoyable, for reasons that I will now explain.)

There was just one thing that keeps me from raving about this dining experience, and that was the service. Even though it was a Sunday night, the restaurant was very busy. I’m sure my server was tired. He actually made it pretty clear that he was very busy. Maybe he thought it would be okay to neglect my little table for one. Or maybe he thought I was lucky that he was serving me at all. In any case, here’s what bugged me about his service:

  • I asked for a black napkin. (I didn’t want lint from the white napkin on my black dress slacks. The restaurant’s web site requires “casual elegant attire.”) He said he’d look for one. Never got back to me on that.
  • I had to ask for a glass of wine to be served with my entrée. (Timing of wine seems to be a problem. At the next table, different server, I heard the couple complain that their dinners were served before they got their bottle of wine.)
  • But the most annoying thing – I was savoring my burrata, only about half finished, when another server arrived with my entrée. “I’m not ready for it,” I said and sent it back to the kitchen. After I finished the burrata, the entrée was delivered to my table. It didn’t appear to have suffered from being held. When my primary server stopped at the table, I told him about the miscue from the kitchen. He did apologize. But the apology came with a pass-the-buck excuse that he hadn’t ‘fired’ the entrée.

Sorry, but a restaurant that’s trying to convey a high class, sophisticated vibe like Fiola Mare has to do a better job of pacing the meal without falling back on self-serving excuses.

So here’s my bottom line on Fiola Mare. I wouldn’t recommend it for a business dinner. While the location is beautiful, it’s a little inconvenient to get to, and I wouldn’t want to take a chance that a server’s mistake could get in the way of a successful meeting. And I probably wouldn’t choose to eat there on my own again. I would return to Fiola in Penn Quarter and I would like to try Fabio Trabocchi’s other DC restaurant, Casa Luca.

23 April 2014

Emilia Romagna: Not the ‘Foodie Mecca’ we expected

After three beautiful days in Venice, we departed by train; destination Bologna in the heart of Emilia Romagna. Located in the Po Valley, the terrain is broad, expansive and flat. Emilia Romagna is touted as the new or emerging foodie destination of Italy, and for good reason. It had a very agricultural feel that made me think of the Central Valley of California. It’s the home of Parmesan cheese, balsamic vinegar, Prosciutto, and Lambrusco wine. But as we discovered, as much as it’s a center for food production in Italy, it has a long way to go to match the scenic beauty of Tuscany or other regions of Italy that attract tourists.IMG_0114

The train station in Bologna is located just at the edge of the center city. It was an easy walk, about 6 blocks, to our hotel, The Metropolitan. The hotel, in turn, was only about four blocks from the Piazza Maggiore and Due Torri (Two Towers, Bologna’s answer to Pisa’s Leaning Tower). So the location was ideal for exploring the city and for our day trips by train to Ferrara and Modena.

Quite in contrast to our hotel in Venice, The Metropolitan was sleek and modern. Some reviewers call it a boutique hotel. To me, it was more like a very comfortable business hotel. If I had ever been lucky enough to have a business trip to Bologna, I would have stayed in a hotel like the Metropolitan. Our package included breakfast. While the food itself was fairly standard (cheese, ham, bread, pastries, cereal, yogurt, fruit) the presentation was beautiful and very artistic. Appropriate I guess for a food Mecca.

After getting settled into the hotel, my wife and I took a walk around the city to get our bearing and scope out a restaurant for dinner. Our first impression was not favorable. Bologna is a noisy, bustling, gritty city. One of the things that struck me, unfavorably, was the graffiti. It’s everywhere. I mean literally, you can’t go anywhere without seeing walls tagged with stylized graffiti. It was a little disconcerting. We were expecting more of a historically preserved city center, like we did see on our day trips.

And unlike Venice, Bologna and the other towns we visited in Emilia Romagna observed the traditional mid-day break. So in our walk around town, we saw lots of graffiti and lots of shuttered shops. We were quite chagrined. However, as the afternoon wore on, the city gradually took on a different tone. As the midday break ended, the city took on a much more cosmopolitan aura. We also came up with a list of several restaurants that looked promising for dinners during our stay.

Now, as I noted above, Bologna was our base for exploring Emilia Romagna. We planned two day trips. Originally, we reserved a rental car. But we discovered that the towns we wanted to visit were easily accessible by train from Bologna. So we cancelled the car and took the train. To me, that was a great decision. Traveling by train in Italy was easy and mostly relaxing. (I always had a little apprehension about making sure I was on the correct train for my intended destination.) The train stations were quite close to the city centers, and it was an easy walk to see the highlights of each town.

We picked Ferrara primarily for the historic buildings. The city center is dominated by the Castello Estense. The huge impressive castle is surrounded by a water-filled moat. The other dominant feature of the city center is the cathedral Duomo di Ferrara. But as much as anything, we enjoyed just wandering the medieval streets within the city walls and taking in the ambiance of the town. After a couple of hours, we felt that we’d seen enough and headed back to the train station.

I suppose at that point, if we’d had a car, we might have driven around and explored the countryside between Ferrara and Bologna. Instead, when we got back to Bologna, we made an impromptu visit to an art exhibit. It was a collection of Dutch art featuring Vermeer’s painting of The Girl With The Pearl Earring. The exhibit was at the Palazza Fava, an exhibition center just two blocks from our hotel. We enjoyed the exhibit, but also enjoyed looking at the architecture and permanent exhibits in the palazza. IMG_0133

Our second day trip, to Modena, finally gave us the foodie experience we anticipated in Emilia Romagna. The food market in Modena is fabulous. In addition to the stands selling regional food specialties, we were fascinated by the array of vegetable vendors as well as vendors of fresh meat, fish, and seafood. It was well worth the trip. And overall, we found Modena to be a more inviting town. It was more cosmopolitan than Ferrara but much less gritty than Bologna. My highlight of the day was sitting at a sidewalk café enjoying a plate of lasagna alla Bolognese and a glass of Lambrusco. (I didn’t know this before our trip, but I learned that one of Modena’s sister cities is St. Paul, MN.)

We did return to Bologna for dinner each night. Here are the restaurants we picked:

Ristorante Il Moro: I suppose this would be considered a tourist restaurant. Its menu includes a line up of pizzas. But we had a very enjoyable meal here. It’s not far from The Metropolitan and sort of off the beaten path for the city’s restaurant district. We happened by on our way back to the hotel. We stopped to look at the menu, and a waiter who spoke very good English invited us in for a bite of lunch. We declined, but we liked the menu and liked the way the restaurant looked. So we came back that evening for dinner. It was very good, and the service was friendly and accommodating.

Ristorante Victoria: This was my least favorite restaurant of our whole trip to Italy. In fact, after eating here, I decided we had to check diner reviews of restaurants before deciding on a restaurant. (I actually installed the Trip Adviser app in the hotel that evening and used it the rest of our trip.) It had all the prospects of being good – menu, décor, ambiance. And it’s not that our meal was bad. It was just … so average.

La Capriata: This was a great restaurant. We got the recommendation from our hotel (so I bet that means they cater to business travelers). But on our last night in Bologna, it was not at all busy, and we got great personal attention from the servers. We played it up a little bit by telling them that our trip to Italy was in celebration of our wedding anniversary. They made a truly great effort to make the meal memorable, and they succeeded.

After our dinners on two of the nights in Bologna, we went to Cantina Bentivoglio to listen to music. Billed as a restaurant, wine bar, and jazz club, Bentivoglio was a wonderful find. The cover charge for the jazz club was only 4.5 Euros and the drinks were not expensive. One night we heard a trio with sax, piano, and bass. The second night was a duo of piano and drums. They were great performers and the venue was really cool. It was downstairs and had a feeling like a wine cellar or underground vault. It was my favorite part of our stay in Bologna.

One final note about our visit to Emilia Romagna: For being a center of food production, especially meat and dairy, I didn’t see a single cow or pig (or chicken, sheep or goat for that matter) during our whole stay. Perhaps if we had rented a car and driven around the countryside, we might have seen some farm animals. But I was surprised by that.

22 April 2014

Basking in the sublime beauty of Venice

One of the top items on my list of things to do in retirement is travel. After 9 months of being retired, we finally took a major trip. We spent two weeks in Italy in late March and early April. That wasn’t literally the first travel since retiring. We took a trip to New York in October and to Los Angeles in January. But both of those trips were related to Mazon board meetings, and so felt more or less like when Linda would travel with me on business trips for Land O’Lakes.

But our Italy trip was a real vacation. We could plan it any way we wanted with no worries about working around work schedules and no worries about missing e-mails. We could go for as long as we wanted, and that’s what we did.

So to begin the vacation, we flew into Venice. We had never been to Venice before. We both wanted to see the city. But we really didn’t know what to expect. As we did our planning, we consulted many friends and family members. We found that people either loved Venice or hated it. We didn’t know which category we’d fall into. So we planned Venice for the beginning of our trip. That way, if it was a disappointment, we could just spend our three days getting over jet lag and then go on to other destinations.IMG_0017

But it turns out, we loved it. We got off to a good start. The sun was dipping low in the sky as our plane circled the city. The golden hues of the late afternoon sun gave the city a warm, welcoming glow. After we landed and retrieved our luggage, we scurried to catch the waterbus (vaporetto) for an hour-long ride to the dock closest to our hotel. The sun slipped below the horizon as the boat neared the dock, and I took a photo that captured the moment.

We did actually have a little confusion finding our way from the bustling waterfront through the winding passages to our hotel. But we found it, and it was fabulous. Casa Nicolo Priuli is scarcely three blocks from the waterfront. But it could have been miles away in terms of quiet peacefulness. That’s actually something that we experienced a lot in Venice. There are locales with throngs of people. Yet in just a few minutes, you cross a bridge and find yourself virtually alone on a quiet walkway.

Our hotel was great. The location was fantastic, very close to the major sites of Venice. But once evening fell, the neighborhood became very quiet and subdued. I keep thinking in terms of the streets becoming empty. But of course, in Venice, there are no streets. Just canals and bridges and porticos and walkways that wind through the city, promising the visitor an endless variety of things to discover.

The weather was fabulous while we were there. In the morning, we’d open the windows and listen to the sounds of the city waking up – shop keepers opening their stores, gondoliers preparing their boats, and people scurrying by to find a cup of coffee and a bite of breakfast. And always the sounds of church bells echoing through the city.

Restaurants in Venice

Trattoria da Nino: After a day of travel, we were tired and just wanted to find a restaurant nearby to have a quick dinner and then go to bed. We checked out a few places and settled on Trattoria da Nino. It offered a ‘menu del giorno’ that looked good, and we could eat on a covered patio outside. (This was a significant thing for us after the long, brutal winter we experienced in Minnesota.) The restaurant was ok … average really. We both liked our first course best. I had gnocchi and Linda had a lemony vegetable soup. The rest of the meal, roast chicken and greens, was pretty ordinary.

Agli Artisti da Piero: During our first full day in Venice, as we wandered through the city, we checked out the restaurants we passed with an eye toward where we would return for dinner. Most of the restaurants that were geared to serving tourists had someone standing outside engaging people who walked by, trying to lure you in. It’s really kind of annoying. But as we walked by Agli Artisti, there was something about it that was appealing to us. We wanted a fish/seafood restaurant – a specialty of Agli Artisti. The menu looked good, and we liked the décor. So later that evening, we found our way back and enjoyed one of the best meals we had in Italy. IMG_0088

Luna Sentada: On our last night in Venice, I really wanted to find someplace that was not a tourist restaurant. Luna Sentada was very close by. We walked by it often going to and from the hotel. We liked the ambiance. But what intrigued me was its food concept. It was Asian Italian fusion, with the chef trying to imagine and prepare the combinations of flavors that Marco Polo might have experienced during his world travels centuries ago. It was a very creative and delicious meal and a great way to end our stay in Venice.

Every night after dinner, we strolled to St. Mark’s Square (Piazza San Marco) and mingled with the crowds, enjoyed the mild spring weather, and listened to music. There always were bands performing on outdoor stages in the square. They’d quit playing around 11 p.m., and we’d be back in our hotel by 11:10. Otherwise, we didn’t find much nightlife in Venice. But no matter. We were still recovering from jet lag.

Departure

We left Venice the way we arrived, on a vaporetto. After breakfast, we packed our luggage, checked out, and made our way to the waterfront where we caught a waterbus to the train station. The boat was jammed full as it made its way past the stately buildings of Venice. We watched wistfully and vowed that we would return someday.