Perfect Picnic in Venice
One of the best meals I ever had in Italy was in Venice and it came from a brown paper bag. As I have said in previous posts, Carlo and I were Architecture students doing a study abroad class and Venice was one of our study destinations.
During this part of the trip, early on in our summer school, we were given a syllabus of different significant structures to see…a scavenger hunt of sorts. Well, Carlo and I woke up and prepared for our LONG day of wandering the streets of Venice by starting our day out right, seeking out a cappuccino and a nice warm pastry. After all, that’s the way the locals do it.
As we sip on our warm espresso infused milk with remnants of foam mustaches, we glance through our itinerary for the day and realize that it’s going to be a long one. So, we look at each other with a bit of a grimace, trying not to let on to the other that we are not entirely excited about spending the entire hot and humid day wandering the streets with armed with cameras , sketch books and backpacks. I must say though, Carlo is always a trooper when it comes to these kinds of things and knowing that I wipe any doubt from my face and say “Ok, let’s get going then.” We pay the bar tender (yes, I said bar tender… this is where you go for your morning coffee and pastry, so don’t think we were just ‘starting’ early) and head on out.
We begin winding our way through the maze-like streets, trying to find our first site of the day and of course this is easier said than done. Even though Carlo had been to Venice multiple times and map in hand, it is quite challenging to find what you actually want when you want it.
After a bit of careful navigation, we emerge from the winding streets and find a few of our buildings and go crazy taking pictures…as if it is an illusion and might vanish as quickly as it seemed to appear. Once we find a few others and do our little photo routine, we manage to stumble into a small plaza or piazetta and smell this wafting scent of homemade baked goods. Of course we couldn’t resist going inside and checking it out, even if we tried not to enter, it was as if our bodies just wandered into the bakery, guided by our noses. When we step into this unassuming little tucked away bakery, we see a lovely little display case filled with bread and cookies. Since it was still early in the morning, I knew this not by a watch, but by the fact that the regular tourists were not fully swarming and the sun was not beating down on us just yet, the bread and cookies were still fresh!
Immediately what grabs my attention was this large sheet pan of caramelized onion foccacia. You could still smell the warm onions on it. I looked at Carlo and asked him to tell the baker (in Italian of course) “We will take one large slice of this, please.” The baker wraps up the foccacia and then asks “Anything else?” I was good with my yummy bread, but Carlo’s eye was drawn to the cookies. He looked at me and then back at the display and says “OOOOO…lingue di gatto!” I laughed to myself because even though he is an adult, he could not have looked more like a little boy right then and there. With a grin on my face, I say to him “What are Lingue di gatto?” He tells me quickly and excitedly that they are these very light and airy cookies that he used to eat as a child growing up in Italy and it translates to Cat tongues. They looked good enough to me and I said “Ok, let’s get some.” He proceeds to talk to the baker with excitement while he fills a small white paper bag with our cookies. We pay; say ‘Grazie’ and leave, back to our hunt for the buildings on our list.
As soon as we have one foot out the door, I turn to Carlo and say “Ok, I’m going to try our goodies.” He says, “Honey, it’s a bit early for eating again. Let’s wait a bit longer.” My smile turns to a frown and I grudgingly agree. I then proceed to shove the baked items into my backpack…at least if they are out of site…they are out of mind, right???
We start walking again, and I look to Carlo with excitement and say “I have a great idea!” He says, “Oh, ok…what is it?” I said, “We should start collecting food from around the area and then have a little picnic for lunch instead of going to a restaurant!” He agrees with a chuckle and off we go again.
Somehow, telling myself that this yummy bread and cookies in my backpack is for a picnic for lunch, makes it a bit easier to resist the temptation of reaching in and devouring it while Carlo is occupied taking pictures.
Continuing to make our way through Venice, we wind up emerging from a side street and stumble into an open air market. Now I must say, I am an avid gardener and happen to live in a part of Southern California that does not have many farmers markets…so when I say veggies upon veggies all laid out in a beautiful presentation; I think my heart stopped for a second. Just imagine looking at buildings all day that are mostly the same shade of color and being awakened by the beautiful rainbow of color in just the turn of a corner. I whip my camera out and start taking pictures, but quickly become more distracted by reality and put the camera aside just taking in all the beautiful produce before me.
I drag Carlo from veggie to veggie drooling over them the same way he drooled over the Lingue di Gatto. I have to say, I have a pretty wonderful guy to be able to put up with and pretending to enjoy these fruits and veggies as much as I do. Finally, after a few minutes pass and he is able to get my excitement contained, I say “I think we need some veggies for our picnic.” I look up and down the carts trying to pick something that would complement our bread and find these beautiful deep red cherry tomatoes. We buy the basket and gently place them in our backpacks and continue on our way.
So, at this point we have some bread, cookies, and ripe tomatoes…we need a protein. We seek out a meat shop…or I should say, Carlo seek out a meat shop as I do not eat a lot of meat and what I do, I’m almost positive they don’t supply. Lucky for me, right next to the butcher is a cheese shop. After Carlo comes out with his paper wrapped meat, I looked at him and he knew we had to go into the cheese shop. Inside the stinky shop, I see more cheese varieties than I have seen in my life and immediately get overwhelmed…either by the selection or by the stench of all the cheese before me. I step out and shout to him, “Just pick something good. I have never had a cheese I don’t like.”
He comes out shortly, and we pack our food away and continue on. At this point, it had to have been around noon-ish and was beginning to get really hot. Since we knew that we had perishables now, lunch would be soon. We must have gone an hour or two after that before we decided, we need to sit and rest our feet, have some water and something to eat. We picked this street that was larger than most and had tourist, pigeons and food carts teaming inside. There was some shade from a covered walkway and we plunk ourselves down ready to enjoy our collection of goodies.
Once we pull everything out, we look at it for a second and then dig in! I began with popping a warm, ripe and juicy tomato in my mouth. Next, I tear off a chunk of the bread which had been warmed by its stay in our back packs and the beating sun of Venice. I bit into it and it still had a bit of the crispiness from when it was baked. The caramelized onions were sweet, the bread itself was chewy and fluffy sprinkled with a bit of sea salt was finished off perfectly with a drizzle of olive oil. It was wonderful. This was the best foccacia I had ever had. Before I could devourer my share of the bread, I had to try some of the cheese that Carlo had bought a few hours prior. Knowing this, I knew I needed a vehicle for it and that was my other half of the bread.
I barbarically grab a chunk of the cheese which squishes between my fingers and look at Carlo and say, “What in the world kind of cheese is this? It’s practically melted!” He says that it is a soft cheese and happens to be his favorite and is called ‘Taleggio.’ I look at it with a bit of apprehension and smash it onto my bread and take a bite.
As it melts onto my taste buds, the warm cheese burst with this flavor that I have never experienced before. Taleggio is quite pungent, has a texture of brie, and tastes like butter…but more flavorful. I don’t know how exactly to describe it, but I will say…if you ever find it in the specialty cheese shop buy some let it come to room temperature and enjoy.
I alternate with bites of the cheese smeared bread and the wonderfully juicy jewels of tomatoes and I am in heaven. As my stomach fills and the food is disappearing, I sit back a bit and enjoy being off my feet and take in the scenery. There are pigeons and tourists occupying the street scurrying around with much similarity. The one or two food carts in the street have a line of people eagerly waiting to buy the goods.
As Carlo and I finish our little lunch, we have earned dessert. We open the little white bag of cookies and the sweet smell of vanilla and sugar waft back at our noses. We dig in. I bit into this long flat crispy cookie and it breaks in half in my mouth and melts. These are amazing! No wonder Carlo was so fond of them when he was young. We ate about half of the bag before we roll it back up and place it back in our back pack. In the mean time, the crowds at the food carts have slowly dissipated and I can finally see what is being sold. It was cups of fresh fruit consisting of cut strawberries and big plump berries sitting on ice. Now, even though we were sitting in the shade it is still hot outside and seeing those berries on ice made me want some immediately. Honestly, if it were anything on ice…I probably would have wanted it, but I was thankful it was berries.
I buy a big cup and sit back down by Carlo and we finish off our picnic with the perfect ending. Plump, ripe, cold berries bursting in our mouths cooling our warm pallets down and rinse away the fattiness of the cheese and bread.
After the cup of berries is empty, we look at each other refreshed and recharged and know that the day is still young and we still have a long list of sites to see. We pick ourselves up from the cool shade, strap on our back packs and cameras and head on out leaving pigeons and crumbs behind that will soon vanish, but the memory of the ‘Perfect Picnic in Venice’ will stay with me forever!