Antico Martini: Venice, Italy -- Old & Improved Since 1720!

As we wind through the untraceable narrow streets of Venice, darting into dark alleys and hearing creepy echoes of invisible feet walking across St. Mark's Plaza, my Venice tour guide, Marco, points to an alabaster white, ancient marble bust stuffed above a doorway. Once painted with vibrantly colored detailed faces, it has now faded back to the plain white blank, Marco waxes on. I reply, You can't swing a cat in Venice without hitting great art but you can't eat the art. Yeah, yeah, the busts are stunning but I'm hungry. It's been hours since I've had gelato. Marco holds a finger up to my trembling lip to hush me, In Venice, everything is art. Even his gestures have a sexy, Italian accent.

Venice is Atlas, holding a world of endless beauty on her bridged shoulders. She's now sinking under the weight. Every angle is a photograph, and even the simplest of pastas at any cafe is a triumph. A child could dust some fettuccine with truffles and poof! It's perfect.

I love dining at the venerable Venice restaurant, Antico Martini, serving since 1720. Being from the States, I am lucky to eat in a place that has been serving since Wednesday.

Americans tend to disregard their old everything, always looking up, ready to toss their tried-and-true people or plate to see what new and exciting dish has entered the room. In Venice, they respect their elders, and stay at the table, savoring each flavor and honoring the institution.

Antico Martini's restaurant is tight, and everyone maneuvers beautifully about the several marvelously sexily lit separate rooms, politely squeezing between chairs, touching your shoulder as they whisper scusa. The Italians don't mind contact. When in Rome includes all of Italy. They live in the streets as one big mound of semolina flour crowned by a giant egg.  The people walk around, swirled together by a common, strong, masculine hand, happily resulting in soft, delicate breast-like gnocchi.

Antico Martini has their beloved practices and entrees, but have wide open minds and doors. If a chef thinks he has built a better mousse trap, and hopes that this new dish can join the menu, they are given a chance --  just as any new girl trying to marry into a good Italian family. She has to go through a tough family approval process. If worthy, she's in. Forever.

The restaurant's decor reflects this mash-up of old and new. We sat in one of the many small rooms, surrounded by terrific murals that depicted art-deco era women interacting with 18th century characters.  Guide Marco had been spinning yarns about the decadent, Carnival days, where wanton anonymous sex and booze parties went on and on and on for months. Any dinner here is a tiny peek into that experience.

I excitedly creaked open the big menu, and my eyes were immediately drawn by the flashing lights of familiar letters in the universal food language: Foie Gras! I taste two things for distinction in every country where I find them: Coke, and foie gras. The fatty food is now too cruel and therefore illegal in my home state of California, so I have to take advantage of sources outside of the jurisdiction of PETA and the ACLU.

As soon as I placed my order, I gasped as the tuxedo clad waiter placed his hand on my menu flirtatiously, then he snapped it shut and whisked it away, leaving and making me miss both. Within minutes, the most adorable amuse bouche ever, appeared, calming my petulance.

We eat with our eyes first. This presentation -- a tiny crock with a sealed lid, that when popped open offered me tangy, crisp gazpacho that had to be eaten with a demitasse spoon was like a yummy midget. The chef was obviously a culinary tease. I could have eaten a bucket of this soup, but he taunted me with a morsel, like a Baldwin brother keeping his shirt buttoned up. 

I dug my spoon around the bottom edge, wishing it was my more pliable finger. The tomatoes were local, and had plumped up under the Tuscan sun and burst with pride right into the chef's pot. He wistfully sprinkled just salt over the top as he thought of his first love, sighed and sent them out of his kitchen, crying from onions. I wanted to pocket the tiny pot.

The Italian description of my foie gras oozed off the page like Gina Lollobrigida whispering in my ear:  Scaloppa fi fegato d'oca al porta e marmalatta di arrange amare...

The porcelain spoon held palazzo-made marmalade, and the generous, seared slab of foie gras was protected from the harsh white plate by a thick, sweet port reduction.

I put a bit of marmalade on a bite of foie gras, then dragged it through the port sauce as if I were dragging Gina to bed. I deftly swooped it up off the plate and into my watering mouth. Bolero played in my head and my hand-to-mouth movement was in perfect sync. 

When I eat out with Bob, I have this strategy I call ishky-pishky. The concept is everyone sharing a least a taste of their food. I get to try more different dishes. If you can't decide between the beef and the fish -- have both.  If I hear a fellow diner protest, Sometimes you just want to have your own, it sounds like Charlie Brown's teacher,Whaaa-whaooom-wha.

So on this night at Antico Martini, I convinced two diners to go ishky-pishky, a new triumph and personal best. I should have gotten their names or emails.

One ordered the John Dory in corn crust with topinambur. When an Italian menu boasted a corn crust, I pictured one of those salt crusts that the waiter busts up with his shoe, then digs out the food treasure. When it arrived, it looked like a piece of catfish my grandfather Pop might have caught, rolled in cornmeal and deep fried at our cabin on Lake of the Pines.

This Italian version was crisp and delightfully fishy. The soft, white fish was fluffy, and the corn crust held it together well. Perhaps Venice could use this to bolster up its crumbling foundation. The top two swirls of topinambur, Jerusalem artichoke, made a deliciously starchy and substantial side dish.

I wished my grandfather had known about it for his fish-frys -- he'd shake things up at that old lake. Well look who's all fancy now that he's been to Eataly.

Next came the sliced Angus beef served with their special sauce - tagliata di angus alla rosa canina. The beef was so tender, I am sure it was raised lovingly by a swarthy Italian farmer and massaged daily, albeit begrudgingly, by his equally swarthy sons, Luigi and Pepe.

Pepe was named so because the father wasn't sure Pepe was his son, as his wife had disappeared one week and came back ten pounds heavier and speaking Spanish. But the star of this dish was the sauce, and I am proud to say that I wasn't the only one dredging bread through it, or sopping up the gravy as it is traditionally known in the South. It was laced with peppercorns cracked by just a gentle but stern glance from the chef in order to ensure the dish maintained a harmonious balance and didn't taste all bitter from hate.

I ordered lamb chops, costolette d'angello al pan d'erbe, made in a crust of herbed bread, primarily to see how they made it, compared to my version. I love to eat out and to cook so I get new ideas, and try to replicate them at home. What did I learn from this chef? To add tarragon to my rosemary, pepper and garlic crust, and that I liked each chop individually crusted -- not like they do here, where they crust the entire rack. Then they slice it, leaving the inside chops all naked, crust less and vulnerable.  It was still really delicious, but they looked so unprotected and I could just feel the inside chops embarrassment.

I recalled that just outside of my hotel was the Venice Prada boutique. They featured their winter coats, open, with the mannequins naked underneath. This revealed beige plastic bodies that, just like Oprah needed makeup, would have benefited from a sweater. So would the lamb chops.

I want you to know that the service here, and all over Venice was top-notch. The waiters don't often ask you, in the middle of your meal, if everything is to your liking -- they don't have to, they know it is.  They presented the catch of the day on a sliver tray. That sums up their level of service, held confidently and assuredly. Your fish, sir. 

This is one of the longest-running productions in the world. The waiters do a precise dance around the room -- black-tie costumed with white napkins draped over their arms, politely bowing and offering bread, wine, water, some slicing meat or de-boning fish, one guy setting something on fire, another putting it out.

They know their menu and their positions. Any question you have is answered, in English. Their deft Italian tongue makes our droll English sound romantic. They have a  lengthy wine list, but they know wine personally and could recommend the right one highly, like a pretty cousin they were eager to marry off.

When dining with particular eaters who are having trouble deciding on what to order, I often remind them that this probably isn't their last meal, and they can order one now, and the other dish another time. The ishky-pishky concept was a hit and continued onto dessert. At this rate the entire restaurant would be entangled in an all-out orgy, like the ancient Mardi Gras Carnival celebrations we had learned about from Marco.

I ordered a frozen raspberry souffle. One runs the risk of tasting the fridge with a pre-made dessert, but the raspberry prevailed. It was like a slutty virgin --light and tart.

The next guy ordered these terrific, crisp crepes that once pierced, revealed their perfectly sweet cream filling. The last guy ordered tiramisu. We had all been in search of a tiramisu that equaled the one we had the night before at Da Fiore -- and I will report in advance that none ever did. Or probably ever will. Da Fiore's tiramisu freaked me out.  If Miuccia Prada tasted it, she'd cover her nekkid mannequins in it.

Our forks and spoons ram into each other on the plates. We normally private grown men were publicly spoon feeding each other bites of souffle, smacking our lips like cushioned spankings.

Sugar rushed my mind off to those old rascally Carnival revelers, whose identities were safely hidden behind whimsical masks.

During this specific two-week period, sanctioned by the Catholic church, Nobleman could slip chambermaids into their Palazzo's private bedrooms, and have their wicked way with them and be anonymously absolved. But the maid felt a responsibility, like my waiter at Antico Martini who kept the dinner flowing at a perfect and professional pace, discreetly turning away as I caressed the bread. The chambermaid, caught up the rapturous thrusts of her titled tryster, reached up and ran her finger along the headboard to dust it. Everyone is a pro in Italy, so in that same responsible and loving spirit, the waiter smiled, bowed, and allowed his hand to linger on the smooth, leather folio just a bit as he presented me the bill.

This meal was so great, so satisfying, that I wouldn't have minded if I had been hit by a bus on the way home. But in Venice, there are no buses, and I doubt that any gondolier could get one going so fast that it would jump the canal and wipe me out, so I am certain I will dine another day.

To find this, or any restaurant in Venice -- just leave your hotel, head down any alley, turn left, then head straight down that alley, then another, go over three bridges, pet the meowing cat but don't feed it, head past the first well, turn right at the pile of laundry, and it's right there on your left:

Antico Martini. Campo San Fantin, 2007, 30124 Venice, Italy. Phone:+39 041 522 4121

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