Every two years, Venice produces the biggest contemporary art extravaganza on the planet. La Biennale, as it is called, places hundreds of art installations from different countries at venues all over the city–in private museums, houses, churches, public buildings. The epicenter is the Arsenale, a complex of empty military buildings. Though one could easily spend a week visiting all the sites, I had only a couple of days, so on good advice I narrowed my visit to installations at the Arsenale and a visit to the Dogana, the customs house converted into a private museum by Tadao Ando, a Japanese architect with a genius for designing art spaces, especially for site-specific work. I recommend this program to anyone with limited time. And I certainly would reserve ahead at Trattoria Antiche Carampane for dinner.
Hidden away in a small, non-touristed street south of the Rialto Bridge, Trattoria Antiche Carampane will always be my first culinary stop in Venice. Like all Venice restaurants, it is of small scale with white Italian linen-covered tables and dark wooden chairs placed closely together. A few tables stretch along the alley outside under an awning, the ones to reserve during warm weather.
Everything about this long-serving operation pleases. The greeting is warm, the service intelligent and kind. The moderately priced wine list is tilted heavily toward often aromatic local whites from the Veneto and Friuli and the bottles arrive deliciously well chilled. The small menu features fish and seafood and the meticulous Carampane is just the place you want to eat it.
A big mound of small razor clams, about four inches long and a half inch wide, had been steamed open in buttery golden olive oil and tumbled onto a plate with spicy baby lettuces. The long, narrow clams were exquisitely sweet and tender, the best I’ve tasted. Crudo, thin slices of raw fish–red tuna, white sea bream–and staggeringly sweet raw langoustines, all dribbled only with a few drops of that golden olive oil and a few drops of lemon, made me question my allegiance to the sashimi I’d just had in Tokyo. The gentle condiment of golden extra virgin caresses the less muscular seafood from the Adriatic. Both these Venetian seafood preparations were revelatory.
Clam pasta is my favorite of all. Here, excitingly chewy strands of spaghetti entangled a mixture of local clams out of their shells, while absorbing all their juices. A whisper of hot red pepper, a few crushed cherry tomatoes, a sprinkling of coarsely chopped parsley made the dish even more expressive of clams. A perfect rendition!
In Venice, a huge seafood fritto misto is a main course standby. At Carampane, every tiny component–anchovies, rougets, shrimp, cuttle fish, squid, sea beans–was lightly and evenly dusted with seasoned flour and delicately deep-fried in olive oil. A dream. So was this restaurant’s rendition of another popular Venetian dish, squid braised in its own ink. Jet black and shiny, this stew had concentrated flavor and richness wonderfully set off by white polenta.
For dessert? A tart fresh lemon and prosecco slushy, the clear choice after this simple, perfect seafood meal. (€172 for two, including a €35 bottle of white wine from nearby Friuli and 15% service. I left 5% more.)
I shouldn’t have been surprised to see a number of the same dishes at the same prices at Trattoria da Fiore the next evening, located all too close to a heavily touristed Venetian alleyway, Calle delle Botteghe. Had it not been a Sunday night when many restaurants are closed, and had I not just spent seven hours looking at art, I would have walked out. I should have. The place didn’t smell right. But this trattoria (not to be confused with the expensive Michelin-starred Ristorante da Fiore) had come highly recommended by a trusted source.
The white wine arrived warm. A generous antipasto of San Danielle prosciutto and speck (smoked prosciutto) with some luscious ripe melon but moldy figs sufficed, but another Venetian specialty, the baccala, mashed into a creamy paste and served with croutons, could have been the source of the unpleasant aroma. Some shrimp on tagliolini must have contributed. Calves’ liver, fegato al veneziana, in an emulsified vinegar and sweet onion sauce didn’t inspire. We paid up and headed straight for a gelateria on the nearby Campo San Stefano for dessert. My source would have hated this dinner. Was the problem Sunday night? New owners? Who knows? No one cared at this restaurant, a sad performance in a place as wondrous as Venice.
Trattoria Antiche Carampane, Rio Tera de la Carampane, Rialto, Venice; tel 041-5240165; www.antichecarampane.com