A weekend adventure that transports and recharges. Bright cones of ground spices seduce with their colors and their aroma. A mosaic pattern on the floor is actually an intricate arrangement of rice, beans and peas. A bowl of black seppia ink pasta coats our lips and teeth, turning us into daytime ghouls. Meals that are more than memories...a moment of pleasure on the lips, a lifetime on our hips! Welcome to Venice and Bolgona, exotic planets of fantasy, light, art, water, fruity white wines, friends and the search for surprise and delight.
After a few years of staying close to home, we’ve decided we need to get out more often, so when our dear friend, the amazing sculptress, Petah Coyne said she would be in Venice for the Biennale, we thought it might be time to go to Venice. And sweetening this stew of enticement, we would also be able to meet up with the engaging Dana Prescott, Director of Civitella Ranieri Foundation.
Coincidentally our photographer friend Ilva Beretta invited us to a food and art themed gallery opening on the same weekend in Bologna.
But wait, there’s even more! Another friend, Scott Givot, was traveling down from Oslo and would also be in Bologna. Now you understand why we had no choice but to jump on the train. It’s very rare when the stars line up exactly so.
Follow along for a moment and think of Italy as a entire universe. At 4:45 am we woke up in our home planet of Umbria. We took a series of trains that transported us in a generically pleasant way to our destination. We read, checked our iPhones, and passed the time until we arrived at the Venice train station which looks just like any other urban Italian train station.
But as you walk out of the train station you are magically transported to planet Venice! There are canals crammed with water taxis and gondole, sidewalks filled with tourists, news stands over loaded with gaudy painted masks and your eyes literally cannot drink in the sights fast enough.
Following our directions, we cross five bridges on the way to our little hideaway hotel, the Locanda ai Santi Apostoli, where we drop our bags in the tiny but charming room and immediately scurry off to meet Petah. We needed to catch a vaporetto (think of it as a subway system on water) and head to the Giardini where the Biennale is in full swing.
As soon as we meet Petah and her delightful friend, Julie the landscape artist, our immediate goal was lunch. Can I mention once more that we were up at 4:45am which is sooo not my normal wake up hour, and by now we were full blown starving. Julie had the name and directions to a lovely place for lunch and of course, and it looked charming, but it was also ‘completo’ or fully booked.
Off we wandered, dejected and hungry, when Jeff and I both spied the unassuming restaurant front that beckoned us to “EAT HERE”. (He’ll tell you he spied Trattoria alla Rampa first, but I say it was instantaneous...we spied it at the same time from opposite sides of the street.)
It was a crammed to the gills lunch joint that specialized in about 2 things and one of them was spaghetti nero, or spaghetti made with black seppia ink. Think spaghetti that tastes of the sea, a bit tangy and salty, only it looks like a jet black pile of oily worms. For the uninitiated it takes courage to take the first bite. After that, it leads to general hilarity as everyone at the table looks like they’ve applied vampire make up. Very undignified and delicious.
We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering the Arsenale pavilions. Sometimes it seemed as though we were merely observing the artist’s journey, like the Bahamian artist who went to the Artic and discovered color deprivation. Others times, we were literally swept into the creative moment as a huge inverted tree cantilevered and slowly swept the floor, or we were entranced by the “Guge” blocks with their wacky Chinese translations of everyday English. Or we were happily mystified why getting a hair cut in a tree would be considered art.
Our next stop was an art opening called “Glasstress”, which was a page out of Tom Wolfe’s “Back to Blood” only set in Venice instead of Miami. Beautiful people posed with drinks in hand, media types with enormous cameras in one hand, wolfed food down with the other. Entertaining, but 10 minutes was enough. Particularly when we couldn’t even find the glass art we had come to see until we were on the path leading out of the villa where we met up with dapper Nate, another friend of Petah’s and headed out for dinner.
We had plans to meet Dana at a restaurant that we were told was good and had the advantage of being easy to find. Which is true. Once you find your way to the very edge of planet Venice, where the lagoon meets the sea, and there isn’t another vaporetto or tourist in sight, you will easily find Ai Tre Archi. Which is why we were extremely late, and why I apologize again to Dana who we kept waiting, although it seemed as if Dana made friends with everyone in the place while she was waiting.
Over a lively conversation about art and the surprising connections we had to each other, we were treated to a plate of inky black seppia, this time beautifully accented with a golden pond of yellow polenta. This was followed by a seafood antipasto that contained tastes of all the seafood Venice has to offer from tiny shrimp to traditional Venetian baccala mantecato (think dried codfish smothered in sour cream...something I think you need to be born eating or you’ll never acquire a taste for it). We made it as far as the risotto with zucchini and the gnocchi before throwing in the towel and declaring we were finished and it was time to go home.
The next morning, we strolled around drinking in the sights, watching Venice wake up, until it was time for our train to Bologna. After another scenic vaporetto ride, we stepped back into the generic train station and didn’t step out again until we smacked into the hustle and bustle that is planet Bologna. This inter-planetary travel is magic, perhaps it could be become humdrum, but if you pay attention, it will always be magical.
After experiencing shin smacking quaint in Venice, we were now staying in the artsy meets fartsy stainless steel palace Una Hotel. Once again, we dumped our bags and headed out to meet friends. Over cocktails with Scott, Lars and the highly entertaining Hanna, we talked about our mutual love of Bologna and all things food, art, and wine. And before we knew what happened, it was time to go to Ilva’s art opening. Lars took command of my iPhone and skillfully led the way through the maze of streets. (Are you getting the feeling this art thing is exhausting?? If not, you haven’t been paying attention.)
The EatArt opening at Spazio San Giorgio felt exactly like being in a downtown NYC gallery, except the gallery is also filled with children. Art in Italy is something you experience from the moment you are born...it's not an elective class you first encounter in university ...it is your heritage. We discussed the art, or at least tried to over the roar of conversation, until it was time for dinner when we went our separate ways.
With no set plan, we wound up at the most old school of Bolognese restaurants “Al Papagallo”. Entering the restaurant is stepping back in time to polished interiors, large tables, menus for women without prices, hushed but friendly service and food you wished your mama had served you growing up.
We dined on tortellini floating in a delicate capon broth, where the little circles of pasta remind you of Venus’s navel, (because beautiful tortellini always make you think of Venus and her belly button, right?), silky green lasagne that was a siren’s alluring call to clog your arteries with savory richness, an absurdly huge slab of deep fried breaded ribs topped with prosciutto and cheese because ribs on their own couldn’t possibly be rich enough, served with an addictive gigantic portion of deep fried zucchini. Thank god this is a bygone era....who can eat like this and survive??
We called a taxi to take us home. Something we never do, but we’d hit the art/food wall and just needed to go to bed.
Fortified by a good night’s sleep, we headed back onto the streets of Bologna enjoying the sidewalk performers, fancy shops, and music that make up this marvelous city.
We still had one more meal to go, the all important Sunday lunch. Steady on! I know you are still full from last night, but this is Bologna, and when in Bologna you must eat!
Jeff remembered a restaurant that had once turned us away because they were completo, and if there is one thing a determined gourmand will NOT do, it’s forget a meal that didn’t happen. He needed to go back there, and although he didn’t remember the name of the restaurant, his gourmand antennae knew exactly where it is located.
A little sign on an arch, led us down a tiny alley, that led us to “Trattoria Gianni” and the perfect Sunday lunch. Tasty antipasto, followed by a shared lasagne because you’ve never really tasted lasagne until you eat it in Bologna and then you must eat it again and again. Completely sated, we promised the owners we would see them “alla prossima’, or ‘the next time’ we are in Bologna and that is a promise we intend to keep.
Thank god it was time to leave Bologna. This city is a food mecca and one should never stay too long in a place where you run the risk of daily lasagne as that would surely lead to an early, but happy grave.
We rolled back onto the interplanetary train to Arezzo and home. And of course, as soon as we arrived back in Umbria, the rains started once again. What are the God’s plans this year? To turn all of Umbria into a gigantic inland Italian sea? It certainly seems that way.
But the gods who make rain, also have the power to produce rainbows. And they produced a most spectacular double rainbow that we followed all the way home. Viva the universe that is Italia!