Until I visited the island of Burano I had never felt like a tourist in Venice. In Venice itself I have always managed to feel apart from the hordes of tourists that infest the narrow city streets. I never take any photos, I do my best not to gawk, and I am privy to some of the best culinary secrets on offer. These locations are not known to tourists. When I enter with the good wife we immediately act to put the locals at ease that we are not about to begin asking them to pose for pictures. The best way to manage this is to order some wine and perhaps a few tidbits to eat, and then seat yourself in a corner and shut the fuck up. That I am able to do this in fluent Italian is also somewhat of a help. But still; Italians come to Venice as tourists as well. You see them wandering around the streets in large family groups, complaining that the food is not the same as it is back in Calabria or wherever the hell they’re from. So just speaking Italian isn’t going to do much for you if you can’t blend in.
Which is why Burano was initially such a bust. We had taken the ferry from Venice out across the vast lagoon. It was a cold but clear Sunday and the time was a little after noon. This had me worried as the ferry took over forty minutes to get to our destination which meant that we would arrive after one. Our purpose for traveling to this island was lunch. My friend and confidant on all matters Venice had assured us that a Sunday lunch at a particular restaurant on this island was something that we could not miss. However, the Italians are very particular about dining times. Only the day before we had been turned away from a restaurant after we had arrived only fractionally late for the lunch sitting. I did not want to repeat the same mistake. Plus we were also hungry.
The ferry was quite crowded with what I assumed were locals with a scattering of tourists. We made a stop at the island of Murano and a pair of Eastern European tourists sat across from us. Our knees were not quite touching and the man immediately pulled out a large can of beer which he cracked and proceeded to drink. The good wife gave me a look. The woman began running her fingers through his hair in what I assumed was meant in an erotic manner. Her long fingernails scraped incessantly over his scalp, the result of which was a mist of fine dandruff that collected over the seat. Scratch, scratch, scratch went her nails. The man leaned close to her and mooched his face into her neck, although every now and then he turned his face and his lips darted out to swig from his beer can, like a ferret emerging from its hiding place to scrounge a quick meal.
We couldn’t get off the boat fast enough but we weren’t the only ones. As the ferry docked our fellow passengers surged for the exit. The crowd swept us along and we found ourselves walking with the crush down a street that led towards a narrow canal. The houses were all painted in bright colors which I had heard was so the locals could identify which house was theirs in the thick fogs which frequently cloak the island.
This was the moment when I felt like a tourist for the first time in Venice. I could only imagine what the poor inhabitants of this small island thought of this sudden influx of demented visitors to their home. We had to step quickly to the side to avoid small groups who took it upon themselves to halt without warning on the middle of narrow bridges so as to take the ubiquitous photos. My wife asked me where the restaurant was but I did not know. All I knew was that there were two places that were worth dining on the island and the one to which we were going was called, “Da Giovanna”.
We stopped at a shop that sold tourist paraphernalia, its walls painted a bright shade of pink. I asked the man behind the counter if he knew the location of Giovanna’s restaurant. His response was firmly in the negative – no such restaurant existed on the island. We exited and I saw a woman walking slowly along the canal, her ancient frame held in place by a stout walking stick on which she leaned with some force. I approached her with careful respect and asked her if she knew of a certain Giovanna who ran a certain restaurant. The woman was friendly but firm – there was no such person or place on the island and there had never been in all her considerable years.
“You should go and eat at the Black Cat restaurant,” she told us. “It is very good and not too expensive.” She pointed down the canal to where an awning stuck out over some scattered tables and chairs. Then she hobbled away.
I phoned my friend but there was no answer, a not untypical result as far as he was concerned. I sent a text explaining our predicament as we headed over to the old woman’s recommendation. There was a sign outside the door on a large placard explaining that the restaurant was full. On the wall was a red sign that indicated that the restaurant held a current Michelin star. At that moment I received a reply – the restaurant that he had meant was in fact the one before which we were now standing. I realized with some disappointment that making a booking on a Sunday for lunch would perhaps have been a good idea.
“Let’s try anyway,” the good wife said. “You never know your luck, and besides; it’s well into the lunch service – maybe someone has already eaten and left.”
We entered the restaurant. It was warm and busy with fleets of waiters in smart white jackets moving about with great purpose. The lighting was that perfect kind of subdued yellow color that makes every woman look beautiful and every man appear mature beyond his years. A busy man in a black jacket, the only one who was not wearing white, greeted us.
“I am very sorry,” I said, “but we do not have a booking. We saw the sign outside but we thought we would try anyway.” I had little hope for a resolution to our predicament, and I had visions of eating a nasty pizza in a tourist trap while horrible individuals had their hair scratched before us.
The floor manager did not dash our faint hopes immediately. He took in the two of us with a brisk glance and then he murmured something in the ear of one of his staff who immediately disappeared into the main dining room which lay mostly hidden from our sight along a short corridor. The waiter returned as quickly as he had left. He whispered some information to the gentleman in the black jacket and then he departed on another swift errand. The floor manager turned back to us. This was the moment.
“I can let you have the emergency table. Would you like to see it?” His tone was apologetic.
I had a picture of the table being located simultaneously beside the bathroom and the servery while a group of Bronze Age neanderthals lounged nearby, but we had not been thrown back into the street as I had expected. He led us into the main room and indicated the table. It sat in the middle of the room all on its own, surrounded by large groups of happy diners who were obviously enjoying themselves. It was not what I had envisioned an emergency table would be.
Our host took our coats and we sat down. Beside us was a group of four smartly dressed diners. Everyone was smartly dressed which was probably why we had been given the extra table. I like to dress well in Venice. It is a city which rewards an extra effort.
We spent a few minutes reading the menu and then our host returned. He asked us if we had any questions and I inquired if there was a tasting menu. After a little back and forth we settled on a three course selection of seafood antipasti. The meal was quite magnificent. I have never had a Sunday lunch as good, but part of its appeal was the knowledge of how fortunate we were to be sitting there in the warm and pleasant room while the cold January wind cut like a thin knife outside.
An older gentleman in the uniform of a chef made occasional rounds of the room. He stopped at our table and inquired if we had enjoyed the exquisite razor clams which we had just finished. After he left us, my wife made the observation that he must be the father of the restaurant manager. Her instincts were proved correct.
Everything we ate had been freshly caught in the Venetian lagoon that surrounded the island. During our meal we engaged in a conversation with our host whose name was Max. He admitted to being a drug addict. His addiction was fish. A local fisherman would call him up and inform him that he had just made a particularly fine catch. Our host would hurry over and survey the offering with the fevered rush of the hopeless addict.
“When you inspect the fish, do you picture in your mind the moment when your customers taste the way in which it has been cooked by your father? Do you see the looks on their faces as they enjoy that final moment in the chain that began with a phone call from a fisherman?”
He clapped me on the back. “It is exactly the way in which you say it.”
At that moment our main course arrived. It was sea bass that had been baked with its accompanying vegetables. The waiter placed the baking dish on a table beside us and then began to expertly fillet the fish onto two plates. He performed the filleting with a fork and spoon. When he had finished, Max placed a plate before each of us.
“This is that moment,” he said. “But I will leave you to enjoy it at your own pleasure.”
I raised my glass towards my wife who did the same. “To the emergency table,” I said, and I no longer felt like a tourist anymore.