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Art Of Venetian Cooking

The Seguso family has been creating some of Venice's most beautiful glassware for 600 years. And as a dinner at their 19th-century villa reveals, their cooking is as exquisite as their designs.

Venice is synonymous with glass—and the Segusos deserve at least some of the credit. The family's glassmaking history there dates as far back as 1397; the Segusos even withstood an assault from Napoleon, who urged them to give up their ships in exchange for noble titles. (They refused.) Already renowned for their Renaissance-style pieces, the Segusos became famed, in the 1950s, for their modern designs. Giampaolo Seguso, the 60-year-old patriarch of the family business, Seguso Viro, still innovates, and his sons Gianluca, GianAndrea and Pierpaolo and daughter Maria Giulia share his vision.

That vision of the future owes much to the past. Murano, a group of five small islands just north of Venice, was the center of glassmaking in Europe for centuries. Starting in 1291 the Venetian government quarantined glassmakers there, both to guard their craft and to protect the rest of the city from the risk of fire posed by the blazing furnaces. As they produced mirrors, chandeliers, tableware and other decorative items, the artisans developed and perfected techniques for making crystalline glass (cristallo), opaque glass (smalto), multicolored glass (millefiori) and glass with copper-colored flakes (avventurina). While curlicue fantasies, overwrought light fixtures and tacky figurines abound in Murano these days, the Segusos have remained true to their craft. The family rose to particular prominence during the 1950s thanks to Giampaolo's father, Archimede, a master glassblower. Combining Renaissance techniques and new methods with such lyrical-sounding names as vetro massello and merletto, he created designs that still look modern today.

Gianluca, who lives in New York City and runs Seguso Viro's business in the United States, recalls spending boyhood summers on Murano working alongside his grandfather and later with other master glassblowers. "Each of us has gotten our hands dirty in the factory," he says of himself and his brothers. (His sister, still in school, plans to join the business on the marketing end.) Today his brothers and their father sketch designs for the company's line of contemporary glassware in a studio above the factory floor. Once a design is completed, a team of three or four master blowers, each with a different specialized skill, executes it. The production of each design in Seguso Viro's new 101 collection is limited to 101 pieces, each numbered and signed.

Glassmaking is one Seguso passion; cooking is another. Meals in the family's 19th-century villa on the island of Lido take place at a table set with antique lace, Meissen china and fanciful Seguso stemware paired with everyday Seguso water glasses. Daniela, Giampaolo's wife, uses generations-old Venetian recipes; Marika, who is married to Gianluca and runs a New York City catering company called Acquolina (short for acquolina in bocca—mouthwatering), isn't afraid to tinker a little, tweaking some of the old dishes to update them. For the meal on these pages, the two cooks collaborate.

Marika starts with risi e bisi, a traditional Venetian stew of rice and peas, adding pancetta because "it gives the dish a wonderful rich and smoky flavor," she says. "The Venetians take their fish seriously," she also observes, irreverently sprinkling rosemary and thyme—typical Tuscan flavorings—on a whole fish with potatoes, tomatoes and olives. "This is not a Venetian tradition, but the flavors of the herbs marry well with the tomatoes and the olives, so it works." As for the spaghetti with sardines, "It tastes so creamy and flavorful you can't believe only a cup of milk and a little butter goes into it," she says. Daniela steps in at dessert with her apple and pine nut fritters, which she remembers eating piping hot and coated with powdered sugar during Carnevale. "This is my grandmother's recipe," she says. The Segusos' sense of family history, it's clear, is as timeless as their glassware.

Published April 2003
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