Surprisingly, one of the most exciting aspects of writing this column does not actually involve eating. Instead it happens whenever I hear that a restaurant has just been bought and I have the opportunity to visit it with the new owners and hear of their ambitions before the builders have moved in. Or more frequently these visits take place just before a new restaurant is due to open and I am allowed a sneak preview, to visit the site among the builders, kitchen fitters and a great deal of apparent confusion.
The most unlikely of all these encounters took place a fortnight ago when Irina Freguia agreed to show me the café she was just about to open in the newly renovated Palazzo Grassi on the Grand Canal in Venice which opened its doors to the public on 27 apr.
It was an extraordinary experience, not least because it brings together the diminutive Irina, whose restaurant Vecio Fritolin has given such pleasure to all those to whom I have recommended it since it opened five years ago and who modestly describes herself as a restaurateur ‘from my heart’, and one of the world’s wealthiest businessmen, Frenchman François Pinault.
In addition to owning numerous fashion brands, auctioneers Christie’s and Château Latour, Pinault is now transforming Palazzo Grassi to house a small part of his modern art collection. He has invited Irina to run the café/restaurant on the first floor, from a small kitchen which looks directly across the water to the Ca' Rezzonico.
Personalities aside, this visit was remarkable because nobody asked me to sign in (as is usually the case on construction sites) and there was only one hard hat visible among the scores of workmen either finishing the interior by Japanese architect Tando Ando or unscrewing huge wooden cartons containing works by Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst. The kitchen with its various pieces of equipment, fridges, ham slicer, fryers and ovens still waiting to be fitted and commissioned seemed, by comparison, like an oasis of calm.
Perhaps it was because I was so stunned, not just by the interior and the few pieces of art that had been unwrapped, but also by the views from the café windows that I, very naively, asked Irina whether she knew what was going to be on the menu. It is one of the most surprising aspects of opening a new restaurant that although the restaurateur and chef will have very strong ideas about the type and style of the food they want to serve, the precise content of the menu will only be determined at the very last moment before opening when the layout, the capabilities of the kitchen and above all the logistics between the kitchen and the restaurant have become apparent.
And Irina’s reply promptly confirmed this. “I just don’t know yet, Nick,” she smiled, “it all depends on the kitchens. Obviously, very Venetian, very simple and very good quality but I still don’t know whether the kitchen will be capable, for example, of producing two pasta dishes or just one. And, of course, it is going to be quite a challenge working in such a modern environment where there is so little storage space and we have to get all our deliveries in place before 10 am when the museum opens.”
These are challenges facing all those who operate cafes and restaurants in museums and art galleries but judging by our dinner at Vecio Fritolin no visitor to Palazzo Grassi will be disappointed. We began with moecche, the small soft shell crabs caught in the lagoon and in season until the end of May (as are bruscandoli, the small hop shoots which make such a distinctive risotto along with the herbs that are another exciting feature of the cooking of this low lying region) and a plate of the small fried fish that are deliberately served in Venice without lemon because the presence of lemon immediately signals to Venetians that the fish is not as fresh as it should be.
In fact it pointedly states on the menu at Al Covo, a small and very distinguished restaurant about ten minutes’ walk towards Arsenale along the water from the Doge’s Palace, that their rendition of this same dish explicitly comes without lemon even though there was nothing about this restaurant which would give the impression that it would serve anything other than the freshest ingredients.
Al Covo exudes an air of confidence from the moment you walk in and immediately see an open and obviously extremely well-organised kitchen. This confidence is reflected in a menu considerably shorter than many in La Serenissima but one that delivers strong, clean and memorable flavours: a copper pan of mussels and clams in broth which had me reaching for the bread to soak up the last remaining juices; a sashimi of local fish which came enrobed in the exquisite olive oil of Alex Nember from Lake Garda; while their chocolate cake was unanimously voted one of the best ever by our three children Al Covo is more expensive than most of the city’s restaurants but its cooking and its location made it an exceptional place for our last evening in this exceptional city.
Venice is a city which, as Jan Morris has written in her fascinating book on the city, it is only possible to understand via its relationship to its outlying islands. And so after a boat trip round Murano and the haunting Torcello we ended up walking past the fish market on Burano, famous for its lace and the skills of its native fishermen, for lunch at the Trattoria al Gatto Nero (Black Cat) da Ruggero.
Initially, the restaurant could not have looked more Venetian with sunlight streaming through the windows on to the tables in the rear room where a central table was loaded with desserts and the round, butter biscuits particular to Burano. This impression was only slightly dented by our waiter who, having addressed our Venetian friends in rapid Italian, spoke to us in perfect English with the strong Scottish accent he had picked up from his Edinburgh-born wife.
But what he proceeded to serve had all been landed no more than a few hundred metres away: a salad of spider crab; small shrimps on a pool of white polenta; a plate of the tiniest scallops I have ever seen; a large bowl of clams; diced octopus and a risotto of ‘go’, small bony fish that burrow into the lagoon like eels (for more details of which see Sally Spector’s excellent book Venice & Food, 25 euros).
All of this was followed by my most memorable return journey from a restaurant ever, bumping across the lagoon in a friend’s speedboat with Callas’s Traviata filling our ears and the extraordinary Venetian skyline our eyes.
Where to eat
Vecio Fritolin, 041.45222881, www.veciofritolin.it Closed Monday. Approx 30 euros for three courses.
Trattoria al Gatto Nero, Burano, 041.730120, www.gattonero.com/ Closed Monday. Approx 40 euros for three courses.