Ho! What news on the Rialto?
Due south-east of Shylock’s hood
A chef cursed-blessed with Janus mood
Such wizardry with Triton’s fold
Such alchemy with Ceres’ gold
Come ye faithful, he will nourish
Gut and soul with aplomb and flourish
But mind the Furies sic’ed on you
If you ask only for the loo
Not that Babs and I can claim having any such clue before we crossed paths with Francesco Zorzetto, chef of La Cantina in Venice, about this time last year.
We were close to the end of an Italian road trip, driving from Pisa to Florence to Milan to Lake Garda and finally to Venice. On this particular day, after a late start and a walk through the Ghetto, Babs decided he had had it with maps and guide books.
“Let’s just check out what people are eating and stop for lunch where it looks and smells good,” he said.
We floated along (it was post 2.30pm on an empty stomach so I was fairly light-headed) until the tide of tourist traffic washed us up against a scatter of barrels on the sidewalk, with luncheoners clustered tightly around every one of them like men overboard clinging to driftwood.
I poked my head in the door, spied the work-in-progress (below) for the dinner shift, and promptly plonked down at the table next to the produce.
I figured if I looked sufficiently pathetic (in the direction of the food next to me) and refused to move (until physically escorted out), perhaps the wait staff could be persuaded to not tell me that the lunch shift was over.
The waitress approached gingerly and said “I’m not sure the chef is still serving, but I will ask.”
She didn’t come back. The chef did. And sat down next to me. Without a menu.
“What do you want?”
“Whatever you have,” I countered, almost holding my breath.
“We have some fish. Or some pork – the back.”
“Fish sounds good.”
“Ok. I make for you some fish. You like beer? We make our own.”
And off he went.
From behind the counter, he hollered, “Fish…you like raw? Or cooked?”
Babs and I only ever have one answer to such questions.
So he did.
“Raw fish” – local fish and 2 kinds of prawns with olive oil and herbs
“Cooked fish” – Scallops and mussels on the shell. And fried sardines coated with polenta.
Much scarfing and slurping and little conversation ensured.
At this point, a family of tourists complete with matching caps and backpacks trooped in and lined up for the bathroom. Two kids later, Mother Tourist called out to the chef, ”You’re out of toilet paper!”
The chef thundered, “Not my problem! You go somewhere else!” and went back to whatever he was doing behind the counter.
The Moody Chef of Venice
When we were about halfway through the shells, he came back with a bowl of baby razor clams he was snacking from.
“Here. Try.” he said, then headed off again. So we did.
“Is ok?” he asked as we got up to go.
“Is exquisite. Thank you.” I knew was gushing, and but I couldn’t stop myself. I leaned over the counter and showed him the photos I took of his food.
He looked on, bemused, then said, “I have one more thing for you.” He snapped on a Virgin Mary bracelet on my wrist.
Not quite the usual parting shot of a chocolate or breath mint. I still keep it on my work desk, as a lovely reminder that even chefs live not by bread alone.
Research done on Francesco after we got home revealed the extent of his moods and the extent of our luck. Apparently there was no menu ever to be had, and the best way to dine at La Cantina was to leave yourself in Francesco’s capable hands. But exasperate him enough, and he will slam the premises shut and lock up for the day.
I realise by now I’m biased. But if I tickled you, would you not laugh? If I pricked you, would you not bleed? If I and my unruly brood plundered your loo roll (loudly) while you were cooking for paying customers, might you not despair and storm off home for at least a few hours?
Campo San Felice, Cannaregio 3689, just off the Strada Nuova
Tel: +39 041 52 28 258
The meal pictured above, with a champagne sized bottle of beer, cost €70
Other links that mention La Cantina: