What I remember best from that dinner on Campo San Maurizio are the canoce, a tangle of milky pink sea creatures spilling across a great silver platter. And Luca, looming in the low kitchen doorway, in an outfit of leather pants, royal blue velvet blouse, and Day-Glo orange boots, a huge grin splitting his satyr’s face as he paused dramatically to hold up the dish so that we might admire his succulent prize. Canoce are about the size of a fat man’s index finger and belong to the same family of tasty exoskeletal sea life as shrimp and saltwater crayfish; however, they are distinctly more buglike in appearance, lacking the bright color and exuberant claws of other crustaceans. In flavor, though, they are far more delicate, infused with sweetness and brininess in exquisite balance. When they arrive at the table, I give up on my knife and fork so that I can methodically rip each luscious beast apart to extract its sweet belly and slurp on my fingers to secure each salty drip. I try to remember the instructions from a pamphlet on etiquette published in 1483, when everyone ate with their hands: “Eat with the three fingers, do not take morsels of excessive size and do not stuff your mouth with both hands.” Success is elusive.
Like most Italian cooking today, the canoce recipe is simple: the crustaceans are bathed in a little olive oil and seasoned with salt and pepper. It is Venetian food at its most elemental, a dish that comes from the bounty of the lagoon that fed local fishermen long before Venice became Europe’s pepper dealer and continued to do so long after the city was washed up in the spice trade. The pepper is still there, but there’s not even a trace of the other seasonings—the ginger, the cinnamon, the nutmeg, the cloves—that once filled the city’s great galleys and suffused her suppers with Oriental scents. It’s as if the ancient town can no longer recall yesterday’s spiced debauch and instead, as the old often do, has retreated to the memories of her youth, before the parvenu aristocrats began to dress her up with baubles from abroad. Luca explains that this method of cooking canoce is more popolare, of the people, the way the old ladies make them, the only ones who can still make Venetian food. The recollection of feasts gone by fades the rake’s smile to melancholy.
I had come to Venice to try to pry off her mask, to uncover some of the antique flavors, to sniff out her ancient peppery smells. I figured Luca could make the introductions. After all, he has spent his forty-something years consorting with the old dowager on the lagoon. Along the way, he has reproduced Renaissance feasts complete with trained bears, swordfights, and period trumpet serenades, where the gilded pheasants and cinnamon-scented ravioli were served from ornate platters and golden bowls. Although he is more a jack-of-all- trades than a Renaissance man, he has often dressed the part of the latter. Imagine Paul Bunyan in silk tights topped by an exquisite doublet of pink and gold. In other towns, Luca Colferai might have been a punk rocker in his youth, but here, his rebellion took the form of organizing erotic poetry festivals and resurrecting Casanova. So you can understand that when his grandiloquent dinner invitation arrived, I could hardly refuse.
One of Luca’s many roles is to play a guiding spirit to I Antichi, a confraternity of like-minded families known as a compagnia de calza (literally, “society of the stocking”). “Our compagnia is made up of a small lunatic fringe who just want to have fun during Carnevale” is how Luca describes his companions. In fact, the society’s mandate, to organize celebrations during Carnival, is fully approved and authorized by the Venetian municipal government. Given that this is Venice, the idea goes back to the sixteenth century, when groups of elite young men formed these associations to throw parties during Carnival. This was a time when the city’s commercial prowess, and the spice trade in particular, was under siege. To the sons of privilege, drinking and whoring till dawn seemed much more sensible than risking their lives in the increasingly precarious pepper business.
The original I Antichi was founded by a group of Venetian nobles in 1541 with the motto Divertire divertendosi, which might be roughly translated as “Throw parties so you can party.” The group was reinvented by a Venetian lawyer and antiquarian named Paolo Zancopè in the late 1970s and subsequently passed into Luca’s hands upon the founder’s death. Zancopè’s residence, where our canoce feast was held, has become a kind of clubhouse for I Antichi, presided over by the effervescent presence of his Brazilian widow, Jurubeba.
Emptying yet another bottle of fizzy Prosecco, Luca recounts a golden past of grand regattas and mask-filled balls. The membership of I Antichi ranges from street sweepers to multimillionaires, from butchers to poets. They come together for the many official festivals that mark the Venetian calendar: for the Festa della Salute, which commemorates the end of the plague of 1631, when a third of Venice perished; for the Festa di Redentore, another party in memory of an epidemic; for the Festa della Sensa, when Venice recalls a time when the doge, the elected Venetian leader, would symbolically marry the sea; and, of course, for Carnevale, the pre-Lenten festival that overruns Venice and can seem as execrable as a plague when the narrow alleys swarm with the tourist hordes. The menu for every holiday follows age-old traditions: cured, spiced mutton, for the Salute; artichokes for the Sensa; bigoli for the Redentore.
Jurubeba interrupts Luca’s reminiscences to consult on the state of our bigoli. (The canoce were only one course among many.) He breaks off midsentence to attend to the important matter at hand. Bigoli are a kind of thick whole wheat spaghetti that are typically served entangled in a sauce of caramelized onions and anchovies, the saltiness of the fish and sweetness of the onion providing the perfect, if unsubtle, condiment for the rough pasta. They are very traditional, especially to the Jews of the Ghetto Nuovo, the original “ghetto.” (The Jewish variant uses garlic instead of onions.) But today, it seems, all that’s left of the Ghetto’s ancient community are Hassidic Jews from Brooklyn—and they know about as much about bigoli as they do about prosciutto. These days, there is little traditional food to be found in Venice. When I invite Luca to a restaurant, he grimaces, insisting that there are no more “honest” restaurants left, that they’re all for the tourists now.
All the same, Venetian food hasn’t entirely disappeared (yet), and if you dig hard enough, you can still unearth hints and clues of what food might have tasted like two hundred, five hundred, even a thousand years ago. Many restaurants still serve sarde in saor, a dish of fried sardines mounded with onions and raisins, seasoned with vinegar, sugar, and occasionally even cinnamon. Its combination of sweet and sour is typical of the Middle Ages; there’s even a fourteenth-century recipe for much the same dish. You can also taste the past in the confections called peverini, sold in every Venetian pasticceria. They are barely sweet with molasses but distinctly seasoned with pepper, the pungency a faint echo of the city’s past renown as spice supplier to the Western world.
Still, most of the food that Venetians call their own, the cooking of their grandmothers, is of much more recent vintage. In Marco Polo’s day, our canoce would have been showered with a medieval blend of spices on top of today’s salt and pepper; even as late as the seventeen hundreds, Casanova sprinkled his pasta with sugar and cinnamon. Indeed, the very idea of Venetian food as a regional Italian cuisine is largely an invention of the nineteenth century, much like the Italian state itself. It was only when Venice lost her overseas empire that her cuisine became dependent on local “Italian” ingredients. The occasional spiced dishes of the Renaissance held on, but only as obscure local specialties. Pelegrino Artusi, who wrote the nineteenth-century bible of Italian bourgeois cooking, is bemused and a little horrified when he writes of the way spices were used in the past.
While there’s no way to know just how the food of the past tasted (the meat, the wine, even the onions, were different from what we have today), the spiced mutton served at the festival of the Madonna della Salute probably comes the closest in flavor to the food eaten by Shakespeare’s merchants of Venice. Preparations for the November holiday begin in the spring, when the meat is prepared by curing a castrated ram with salt, pepper, and cloves before it is smoked and then air-dried for several months. It is still exported from Dalmatia (better known today as the countries of Albania and Croatia), as it would have been when the ancient republic used the preserved meat to feed her sailors. The flavor is strong and complex—and anachronistic. It is entirely alien to Luca’s four-hour feast of simply seasoned bigoli, canoce, roast triglie (red mullets), shrimp, and grilled radicchio and a world apart from the simple dessert of mascarpone and biscotti that arrived to finish our memorable evening.
I can’t help but see a parallel between today’s cooking, with its absence of spice, and the general amnesia you find in Venice about the importance of the spice trade. It didn’t used to be like that. When Venetians found out that the Portuguese had arrived in India, at the very source of the pepper that made the city’s economy hum, many panicked. The loss of the spice trade “would be like the loss of milk and nourishment to an infant,” wrote the spice dealer Girolamo Priuli in his journal in July 1501. And in many ways, it was, though it wouldn’t be until a hundred years later that the Dutch finally choked off the teat of prosperity.
Bemoaning the city’s fate has been a favorite pastime ever since. But there may be more to it now. The city’s population has shrunk by a third in the last twenty years. Foreigners do arrive to settle in the city, just as they have always done, but they are a trickle compared to the exodus. Jurubeba, in her mellifluous Brazilian accent, murmurs how, yes, Venice is shrinking but how the community is più profondo, “deeper.” I don’t ask if becoming deeper in a city that is sinking is necessarily the best thing. Luca shakes his head as he finishes his Prosecco: “The shrinking of the population is a shock to the system. All the food stores are closing so that they can sell masks, but not only masks. Lately, for some reason, everyone is opening lingerie stores. A great explosion of intimate apparel!” Luca bursts into laughter—he doesn’t find this entirely displeasing.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Taste of Conquest by Michael Krondl. Copyright © 2007 by Michael Krondl. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.