Archive for January, 2017
A ridiculous amount of movies has been made in Venice over the last 100 years or so — Wikipedia lists 114, but that is a paltry and inaccurate number because the list omits many films, as well as the many films that have been made here in languages other than English.
For example, there is “Viaggi di Nozze” (“Honeymoons”) starring Carlo Verdone in which he plays an insufferable doctor who takes his bride to Venice on their honeymoon, but by the time they arrive in their suite at the Danieli Hotel he has become so unbearable that she throws herself out the window just to get the hell away from him. There is the fabulous “Vacanze Intelligenti” (“Intelligent Vacations”) with Alberto Sordi, in which he and his fruit-selling Roman wife end up at the Biennale in the summer heat and she, exhausted, collapses under a tree and is mistaken by the public for a work of art. There is also “Les Enfants du Siecle,” a French film about George Sand and Chopin in which Lino repeatedly rowed an old boat loaded with oranges past the facade of Palazzo Pisani-Moretta. These are just random examples, but you see that the list could go on and on into German and Spanish and probably Russian and, for all I know, Tongan.
But while we’re all accustomed to Venice being the star of innumerable movies, you may never have asked yourself if anybody ever went to the movies in Venice. They did. A lot. Back before cell phones roamed the earth and everything electronic took over people’s brains, going to the movies was just as much prime entertainment here as it was in Boring, Oregon and Sweet Lips, Tennessee. Perhaps you imagined the Venetians spending their free time floating around in boats, singing folk songs, but most people were sitting in the dark watching crazy things happen on a big square of silver-coated cloth. Venice was rife with movie theatres.
I managed to see a few movies in my early days in Venice (dubbed in Italian, as is almost always the case here), before the few remaining theatres gasped their last. A few small ones are hanging on, showings listed each day in the Gazzettino. “La-La Land” is here, with subtitles in Italian. Martin Scorsese’s “Silence” is also here (or was, a few days ago), in English.
All this has come to mind because of the renovation and reopening of the Teatro Italia, shown above. Ever since I’ve been here this splendid edifice has been closed, silent and empty. But there are plenty of Venetians who have vivid memories (especially of the back rows, I’m guessing) of the decades when it reigned as a movie theatre. Now people who go there will be having vivid memories of the mortadella and the rigatoni, because it has been revived as a supermarket belonging to the Dutch supermarket chain, De Spar. To its credit, the company has retained and refurbished the frescoes (did your hometown movie theatre have FRESCOES?), adding a touch of glamour to your search for scallopine and cheap wine.
Let me give you a glimpse of this transformed emporium of fantasy and thrill, but I’m not going to stop there. As usual, I let myself get carried away, and so in the next episode I will be conducting a tour of the movie theatres that Lino remembers from the days of yore.
Regional cookery is one of the zillion things that Italy is so proud of and so admired for. (End of preposition storm.) But the funny thing is that a dish will be super-famous as being from one place, and then you discover its stolen-at-birth sibling in a completely different region, and then you discover it again, and again, and sometimes even again. The reason is simple: People all over Italy have the same needs (eating) and many of the same ingredients, and what develops is something like a theme and variations.
Take castagnaccio (kas-ta-NYA-cho). Perhaps its most noted version is from Tuscany, but there are variations from Naples, Corsica, Emilia-Romagna, Liguria, Piemonte, Calabria, and even the Veneto — anywhere there are chestnut trees, in fact. The names may change along the way — baldino, pattona, ghirighio, castigna’, pane di castagna, migliaccio, gnaccia, and in Venice, “gardo” — but the essential ingredients originally couldn’t rise beyond the gravity pull of poverty: chestnut flour and water, and a little olive oil. Then came raisins and pinoli nuts and sugar, even wine and milk and orange peel and chocolate. But I don’t see how you can improve on the basics, which produce something super-dense, not too sweet, and loaded with winter-useful calories (193 per 100 grams).
Chestnuts were the perennial backup when you had no more flour of any sort, and not even polenta. When the countryfolk would burn the effigy on Epiphany (the “befana”), eyes used to be fixed on the direction the sparks flew. People still look, but now it’s more like a game, though it wasn’t always so. The doggerel makes that clear: “Se le falive va a marina / Tol su saco e va a farina / Se le falive va a montagne / Tol su saco e va a castagne” (if the sparks fly toward the sea (east), take your sack and go to make flour (the wheat harvest will be good) / If the sparks fly toward the mountains (west), take your sack and go gather chestnuts.”)
But like so many other “poor” dishes, castagnaccio is apparently being rediscovered by people who have had enough of smoked salmon and foie gras (just an expression — does anybody still eat foie gras?). Anyway, Lino is impervious to fashions and fads. He’s always eaten something, he’s going to continue eating it. Every so often the urge for castagnaccio will strike him and off he goes to acquire some chestnut flour. It is reliably available at the ever-amazing Mascari. (Full disclosure: I have no connection with this shop.) He doesn’t add either pinoli nuts or raisins, but sticks to the bare bones of the recipe, with a sprinkling of rosemary.
Lino remembers that there was a little shop at the corner of the Riva degli Schiavoni and Calle de la Pescaria which sold slices of gardo and also a “cake” made of chickpea flour. That was all, he sold nothing else.
As it happens, however, a bar-cafe in via Garibaldi has recently taken up the baton:
The internet is full of recipes, but here’s the simplest version of castagnaccio, if you want to chance your arm:
Ingredients: 750 ml water, 500 gr chestnut flour, some fresh rosemary “needles,” a pinch of salt, 6 spoonfuls of extra-virgin olive oil, to keep it soft.
Heat the oven to 200 degrees C or 350 F. Put the flour in a bowl and add the water slowly while stirring. Spread a little olive oil on the bottom of the pan. Pour the batter into the pan and bake for one hour. (Note: The pan, or casserole, or whatever you’re using, shouldn’t be so broad that the batter only barely covers it. Use your judgment, but bear in mind that this isn’t going to rise.) The surface of the final product should have slight cracks or fissures.
Modify it as you wish, of course; I’ll never know. In fact, the heathen thought of topping it with whipped cream or ice cream did cross my mind, but I quashed it. We like the basics here.
A few days ago (last Monday, if anyone cares) there was a funeral. In this city that hardly counts as news. But it was the funeral of a young man — I consider 61 to be young — who had had a solid if untrumpeted career as a racer. Umberto Costantini, nicknamed “Burielo,” was at the top of his game in his twenties, during the Eighties and early Nineties, and the newspaper was full of the glorious Venetian-rowing names, some of them much, much older than he, who came to do him homage.
The homage, according to what I read, was some of the best you could ever hope for, especially from this squabbling band. “A great athlete and a good man,” stated several re del remo, the greatest champions, some of whom had rowed with him. “In this world, full of controversy, he never argued with anybody,” said one of the greatest arguers of them all.
A few days before his passing, the paper reports, a group of the all-time great rowers went to visit him in the hospital. “Ostrega,” he said, using the preferred Venetian expression for wow, good grief, heavens to Betsy, “I must really be in bad shape if you’re all here….”
He wanted a corteo, or boat procession, for his funeral, like the one he participated in when Bruno “Strigheta,” his friend and fellow Burano native, died two years ago. And so it was.
Unhappily, it was on a workday morning, which cut into the number of participants somewhat. Not having been a rock-star name, that also may have left him somewhat unknown and unappreciated in the general rowing world. Even more unhappily, there were people who knew him who just went to work as usual — we passed two gondoliers who were also Burano natives, and racers, as we wandered around town, who were clearly planning to be in their boats soon, but boats full of tourists. That seemed harsh.
As it happens, I have my own small memory of “Burielo” — small to me, but an event that was big for him. I hadn’t even heard of him till then. It was 1997, and I was watching the Regata Storica sitting in a boat not far from the finish line. Here the gondolinos came, thundering, so to speak, toward the finish line. It’s definitely the peak moment of a peak experience, the entire world was screaming and yelling and shrieking and so on.
Burielo was in the bow, and Bruno dei Rossi (“Strigheta”) was astern. They were in third place and rowing like mad to stay there, side by side, nose to nose, with the Busetto brothers, battling it out. The finish line was only, I’m guessing, 30 seconds away. Four men turbo-rowing — it was wild. But one man ran out of gas first: Burielo.
All at once, with that beautiful green pennant hopefully clutched in his (mental) hands, he stopped rowing, then collapsed. I remember seeing him crumple down in the boat. Just like that. Two boats passed as the gondolino slid forward on its own momentum — I can’t do justice to his state of mind, not to mention his partner’s — and they came in fifth. No pennant, and definitely no glory. The ambulance zoomed up and he was headed — in another sort of turbo-manner — to the hospital, where he was checked in for a serious tachycardia.
That was the last time he rowed a gondolino, that’s for sure, and evidently the last time he raced, period. You can understand that it would have been difficult to qualify for the required medical certificate. Maybe he didn’t even try.
The human part of me is very sad this happened. The secret mad-dog competitor part of me is sad that it happened before they could rip that green pennant from the (mental) hands of the Busettos.
I forgot to mention that he had a life beyond racing. He was a molecante, a type of fisherman who catches crabs and cultivates them in submerged wooden cages called vieri till they reach the stage where they shed their shells and become moeche (soft-shelled crabs) and can be sold at the market for a freaking king’s ransom.
The general procedure is this: A fisherman (which used to be most, and now some still, men on Burano) goes out into the lagoon and strings his nets along poles he drives into the mud. He goes out and checks what has run into the net. He divests the net of whatever is in it — all sorts of fish, and lots and lots of crabs. (You can see these little crabs running around the shallows any time you are out in a boat. Lino says that if you walk around in the semi-soft mud and then retrace your steps, each footprint will contain a crab. He doesn’t know why. I confirm that I have seen this.)
The fisherman separates the various critters and sells them, except for the crabs. He’ll sort out the good ones, and put them in the vieri. Every day or so he’ll pass to check on them, and takes out whichever are ready for market, tables, and unnumbered Swiss bank accounts. They are currently selling at the Rialto for 60 euros per kilo, or $30 per pound, more or less. I don’t know how much the molecante makes from that. My experience of life leads me to assume that it would be dramatically less than that, but that’s not the point of this little cadenza. The cadenza is that Burielo used to do this, and now (I hope) he’s doing it in heaven, because he loved it.
Snow is so simple — it’s what people do with it that makes you wonder about all sorts of things.
The night of the heretofore chronicled snowfall, people walked on the snow; the snow stopped before long, the people went home, and the snow turned to crusty ice where their feet had trod.
While I was debating which was, in fact, more slippery — smooth ice or crimpled-up ice — the merchants of Upper Via Garibaldi had gotten to work on it with shovels and salt. They opened up a wide bare space in the center, and a narrow bare space stretched along their front doors. Logical, no? There was a stretch of ice, however, that remained between the wide space and the narrow space, which I quickly discovered somewhat obviated the benefit of the bare spots.
I’ll translate that. You could walk safely along the middle of the street, but if you needed to enter a shop, you had to take your life in your hands and cross a treacherous stretch of ice all the same.
But the best part is this: The newsstand two-thirds of the way down the street seems to be at a point I never noticed before, what in the lagoon is called a “spartiacque,” or place where the water divides, or rather, where two contrary currents meet. There is a spartiacque in the Grand Canal, among many other places, a shifting little frontier where the incoming tide from the inlet at Malamocco meets the incoming tide from the inlet at San Nicolo’. That doesn’t matter to anybody in a motorboat, but if you’re rowing, you notice that you were rowing with the tide, and suddenly you’re rowing against it.
Anyway, the upstream part of via Garibaldi, so to speak, is nothing but shops, so the shopowners obviously made the effort to help their customers to get to them. The downstream part, as you see, had nobody to care about it. The few shops there seem to have owners who either have made enough money already this month, so don’t care about business, or decided to take the natural-selection approach to the situation.
I’m attributing all of this activity to the merchants because the trash collectors and salt-sowers have no reason I can imagine to liberate only half of the main street.
But, as I often ask myself, what do I know?