“It’s too quiet.” The keeper of the one-man bar next door has sauntered over for a neighbourly conversation. He is wearing a casual white t-shirt and has a dish towel slung over his shoulder like a bad-mannered necktie. He embodies his bar; he has no guests.
There’s harmony between the neighbours: the young barman’s approach to the well-seasoned Osteria Veneta was respectful and the Osteria’s incaricato d’affari pauses and seems to choose her words carefully. I can’t make them out. The restaurant is too richly filled with furniture for the sound to pass.
The Osteria’s proprietress had only just retaken her perch at a table outside her restaurant before being approached by the barman. This was where she was when we entered earlier. We had taken her for a guest. Then suddenly she was next to us. She floats across the restaurant in slow motion: measured but effective. Her face is fixed, preserving its friendliness just below the surface. She applies smiles in well-measured doses. We were free to choose our seats. A heavy blackboard with the evening’s menu was wheeled into our line of sight. At around seven in the evening we were the first guests of the day.
What about her reply to the barman? I’d guess it was something along the lines of “it’s the holiday season, what do you expect?” A large proportion of Veneta’s regular clientele is likely to be on annual pilgrimage to Italy. The proprietress is experienced and is used to seasonal variations in tempo. Perhaps the hipster isn’t. He seemed restless and she re-assured him.
Apart from a large wall-painting of a Treviso river landscape, the restaurant is beautiful. The interior is L-shaped, there’s a bar across the shorter side of the L and the kitchen stretches back into the space behind it.
Solid wood tables and side-boards are inlaid with wine-box plywood. Instead of flowers, there are gnarly branches set in stone-bedded vases. The winged lion of St. Mark glances down on you from the right as you enter. He is painted into a plaster frame and clutches his holy book. You can almost make out the words, PAX TIBI MARCE EVANGELISTA MEUS: may peace be with you, Mark, my evangelist. Given the luxurious restaurant setting, it seems natural to think forward to the next line: “Here your body will rest.” According to Venetian lore, these were the words spoken by an angel to re-assure Mark that he had reached his final destination at the lagoon. It’s a good story, almost as good as the more plausible historical one: Venetian merchants stole Mark’s remains from Alexandria and smuggled them away concealed under pork meat and cabbage leaves.
Behind a heavy curtain at the far end of the restaurant you can catch a glimpse of the tiled kitchen on the right. It is clean, uncluttered, minimalist. The contrast between the dining space and the kitchen is striking. Laozi meets Osteria Veneto:
By adding and removing clay we form a vessel. But only by relying on what is not there, do we have use of the vessel. By carving out doors and windows we make a room. But only by relying on what is not there do we have use for the room. And so, what is there is the basis for profit; what is not there is the basis for use.” *
There’s a little chapel-like niche on the right towards the back, which has been built into a modest shrine dedicated to the Osteria. There’s an arrangement of newspaper reviews and restaurant guide extracts. They are framed and presented with great care.
The reviews are largely positive. A few barbed words enhance the overall flavour like a gently sprinkled seasoning. One of the reviews reveals that the painter responsible for the river-scene on the long wall was an American and that the painting’s execution was closely supervised by the chef. Perhaps that’s why the scene looks like it is neither here nor there.
Overall, the feeling you get from the reviews is that Osteria Veneta has managed to maintain an impressive constancy in price and quality for at least a dozen years. It has retained the essence of its youth. One critic writes: “you’ll need time and money to eat here, but the three hours and one-hundred German marks will be well invested.” He goes on to explain the philosophy behind the positive outlook, quoting Osteria Veneta’s chef (his name, as we find out from the review, is Lionello Zaccaron): “Italian cuisine is an art, it is never boring and constantly invents itself afresh.”
*Ivanhoe, Philip J. and Van Norden, Bryan W. Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy – Second Edition, Hackett Publishing, 2005.