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Global Foodservice: Authentic Venice
The City of Canals may be overrun by tourists, but you can still find traditional seafood a stone’s throw from St. Mark’s Square
By Anthony Fletcher
December 01, 2012
Perhaps no other city in the world, with the possible exception of Paris, has been as romanticized as Venice, Italy’s City of Canals. It is not difficult to see why: Sitting in the middle of a lagoon and spread over 100 tiny islands, the city is studded with beautiful bridges, ancient churches and gondolas ploughing through the maze of waterways.
Such beauty can be both a blessing and a curse. But the city, small as it is, can be stifling under the sheer weight of tourists. It is not uncommon to hear people say that there is nowhere authentic left to eat.
How then does a successful seafood restaurant take advantage of the benefits — the fresh produce on your doorstep, a world-famous location — without falling into the temptation of simply catering to the hordes of tourists? One restaurant believes it has managed to achieve this for more than 200 years.
The high-end Hostaria da Franz, not far from the famous St. Mark’s Square, has become a Venetian institution. Its establishment reflects the city’s history of travel and international relations; it was opened by Franz Habeler, a young Austro-Hungarian army soldier who came to Venice more than 200 years ago, and for the past three decades has been run by the Gasparini family. Celebrating Venetian cuisine remains the core of the operation.
“Our menu always consists of local recipes,” says Maurizio Gasparini, owner. “I visit the fish market every day. When my father took over the restaurant 30 years ago, he was the chef, and he still supervises the purchases from the fishmongers.” The Rialto market overflows with catches of the day, from tiny snails called bovoleti to turbot.
The restaurant caters to international visitors as much as locals. “It’s true, and we try to decide on a menu that can satisfy all,” he says. “It’s not always easy to find tastes that suit all the people.” But Gasparini believes that by staying true to their Venetian roots and offering guests a truly exceptional experience, diners will welcome the chance to perhaps try something a little different.
“We are used to having famous actors and politicians dine with us, so we are used to paying attention to customers. Tradition is very important, but to be successful, you also need to know how to treat customers,” he says.
The restaurant does not advertise its menu online, as it changes on a regular basis, depending on what is available at the market. On a typical day, the menu might contain six to eight appetizers, five to six entrées and a choice of pasta dish.
“For starters at the moment, I might recommend the ‘sarde in soar’ – a 200-year-old recipe of deep-fried sardines placed in a marinade of vinegar, onions and raisins,” says Gasparini. “This takes four to five days to prepare. This is a very special plate, as it’s part of our cultural history.” Another famous appetizer would be baccala, dried and salted cod that at Hostaria da Franz is prepared with milk. A popular snack is the small local octopus, prepared in a wine soup.
Then there is the pasta course. “A typical Venetian plate would be ‘bigoli in salsa,’ consisting of anchovies, onions, olive oil. We also have casarecce — homemade pasta flavored with orange peel and served with sea scallops.”
The entrées always feature all four cooking styles. “This is a fish restaurant,” says Gasparini. “So we have grilled, salted, fried and oven-baked. Our grilled dish at the moment is saltwater eel, while we also offer sea bream and thyme fried in tempura. Rombo (turbot) is breaded with bacon lard and cooked in the oven, while we also have a sea bass, marinated in orange and lemon juice and served in olive oil.”
Entrées range from €30 ($39) to €100 ($129), and a typical à la carte meal with wine, all courses included, costs around €150 ($194) per person. Contributing Editor Anthony Fletcher lives in Brussels