This article was also published in the Financial Times.
The recently opened Venice Biennale has captured the headlines with photos of the artists, their installations and their symbiosis, or not, with La Serenissima. The city's chefs and restaurateurs have been equally busy, particularly with catering for the opening parties.
The most talked-about restaurant news, however, concerns the invasion of one of Venice's longest established rendezvous, Caffè Quadri in St Mark's Square. Since January this has been under the capable management of the brothers Massimiliano and Raffaele Alajmo, whose base hitherto has been the highly regarded Le Calandre restaurant in Padua, a 30-minute drive away – much less, I was informed, if Raffaele is driving.
This gem of a building, which started life in the 16th century as a wine bar specialising in Malvasia and then became a coffee house, has seen builders swarm over its upstairs kitchen and restaurant since January and finally opened its doors on 2 June. The next few months will see a transformation of the ground floor into a far more attractive café and casual eating area that is likely to be impressive if these spaces are the equal of what now confronts any customer upstairs.
The two rooms have been opened up to give the whole a greater presence; lighting from above is now focused on the tables so that nothing detracts from the view across to St Mark's and the Campanile; and there is a sense of fun about the modern furnishings. The flat, red side plates with two small holes evoke Venetian masks while the linen tablecloths, unusually tucked directly under the table rather like bed sheets, give a greater sense of depth and occasion to what is now an exceptionally elegant restaurant. It is similar to Le Grand Véfour in Paris in the sense of history it conveys.
Although Massimiliano remains behind the stoves in Padua, he writes the menu that chef Silvio Giavedoni executes adroitly while Raffaele hovers from table to table. And although the menu looks like a small book, it is sensibly restrained in its range if not its ambition.
Two very different antipasti, one of bright summer vegetables and another described as a 'cappuccino della laguna', of rockfish topped with creamy potato purée and saffron, preceded a stunning risotto of tiny red shrimps and pasta tubes in the shape of squid rings with a pistachio sauce. Both main courses were chosen to accommodate the exceptional heat of early June: raw, chopped Piemontese beef, wrapped in lettuce leaves with a dipping sauce of Venus clams (effectively, high-class Italian spring rolls) and thin slices of guinea fowl with a sauce of calves liver, alla veneziana. Smaller memorable touches included luscious cubes of fruit as petits fours; an excellent wine list; and Igor, an attentive sommelier, named, I learnt, after the Russian who rescued his grandfather during the Second World War.
My incessant questions to Raffaele about quite how exciting it must be to manage one of Venice' smost historic restaurants eventually persuaded him to give me a quick, and highly enlightening, tour backstage.
The steep sets of stairs that interlink not just the front and back but also the adjacent buildings that make Quadri so attractive for the customer put anyone working there through the equivalent of a strenuous, recurrent gym session. Standing in the front of the café, next to where the small orchestra was playing, Raffaele explained that Venetian bye-laws prevent any café owner offering umbrellas or heating as well as any food that requires a knife and fork. And while it is sensible that every chair in the square should be of the same design, it is a shame that those currently on display should be so unattractive. Could this be a project for the next Biennale, I wondered?
He laughed and added, 'Of course, come the high water mark in November, this front entrance is completely impassable unless you're wearing protective waders up to your thighs. Quadri is the second lowest lying point in the square after the cathedral, but fortunately we have another entrance at the back.' He assured me that the view from the restaurant on to St Mark's under water is remarkable but I will choose to remember it bathed in the evening sunshine.
Had the sun been shining, rather than hidden by cloud, when we arrived from the airport, via a taxi and then boat, at Venissa, a stylish new restaurant with six bedrooms on Mazzorbo (pictured), linked by a bridge to the island of Burano, then we would not have witnessed its chef, Paola Budel, experiencing any chef's most nerve-racking experience: intermittent power failures throughout lunch.
But Budel, blessed with a healthy complexion and an eye for detail – I couldn't help but notice her straighten the chairs on the terrace that were out of alignment by a millimetre – simply saw this as one of the more annoying attractions of cooking so close to so many excellent raw ingredients. These appeared in a fritto misto of soft shell crab; fillets of eel with a stunning anchovy purée; spaghetti with sardines and onions; and grilled scorpion with artichokes cooked three different ways: puréed, deep fried and finely sliced as a salad. Breakfast, I could not help but notice, includes the exceptional honey from the nearby island of Sant' Erasmo.
Finally, for what has become a ritual on every visit, we had a dish of fritto misto at Il Vecio Fritolin, close to the Rialto, and the welcoming smile of Irina Freguia, a combination now enhanced by the skills of her young chef Daniele Zennaro. As we sat in the corner, a well-known artist came in and called to the manager, 'Ancora qua' ('I'm here again'), for what I discovered was his third dinner in three nights. Lucky fellow!
Caffè Quadri, www.caffequadri.it 140 euros per person without wine
Venissa, www.venissa.it 80 euros per person without wine
Il Vecio Fritolin, www.veciofritolin.it 55 euros per person
www.capier.com for a quiet, very comfortable, two-bedroom flat with courtyard near Sant'Apostoli