The Other Side of Venice

© Simon Watson

By Gisela Williams Posted September 09, 2016

The city is beloved by tourists, and often besieged by them. But Skye McAlpine knows how to leave the crowds behind: by sailing to the little islands of the Venetian lagoon, where she finds incredible restaurants, charming museums and sublime shops.

When she was six years old, Skye McAlpine moved from England to Venice. There she grew up among the children of gondoliers, fishermen, artists and aristocrats, playing in the narrow streets and intimate piazzas of this floating city crossed with canals, Gothic marble palazzos and Byzantine-style churches. There are very few corners of the city that she has not explored.

Three decades later, McAlpine is married with a child of her own, a son named Aeneas. She and her family spend half their time in London and half in Venice, staying in her parents’ three-story house in the residential neighborhood of Castello. This is where, as a grad student, she launched her blog, From My Dining Table. Struggling to finish her PhD thesis, on Ovid’s love poems, McAlpine hoped writing about food would loosen up her academic style.

Plus, "I love cooking," she tells me as she sips a Shirley Temple in a grand salon at the Aman Venice hotel, one of her favorite city hideaways. "For me the point of cooking is the excuse to invite people around. I get excited by a table covered with delicious food." From the start, her images of half-eaten feasts scattered with flowers and ripe fruit drew people to her blog. When she started writing about Venice, however, her popularity exploded.”

Clearly the world is fascinated by this city: In the past dozen years, tourism has grown to around 20 million people a year. Yet McAlpine observes that most visitors explore the same small area, the triangle shaped by the Rialto, St. Mark's and the Gallerie Dell'accademia. "If you walk a few streets over, there's no one," she says.”

She prefers Venice in the off-seasons of late spring and early fall. But even in July and August, she finds secret locations clear of selfie sticks. Or she might head for one of the 100-plus tiny islands that surround Venice proper: "We find a spot where the lagoon meets the sea and have a picnic."

Recently, McAlpine decided to share her knowledge by hosting day trip tours for small groups. She has invited me on a trial outing that will include stops at her favorite restaurants. "They're more authentic than most of the places in Venice," she confides as we climb into her family's boat. We pull out into the lagoon, setting a course for the teeny islands in the distance.

Burano & Mazzorbo

One of Venice’s best-known islands, Burano is famed for its traditional handcrafted lace and linen. On the morning we visit, it's windy, and McAlpine is wearing a knee-length chocolate-brown Prada jacket with a vintage Hermès scarf from her mother. "I think my style is largely shaped by Venice," she says. "Growing up surrounded by old things gives you an appreciation for them." That same sensibility also informs her food. Many of the recipes on her blog are inspired by the Venetian cookbooks she has collected for years; one of her new favorite dishes is a not-too-sweet chocolate-walnut-olive oil cake. "I found the dessert it's based on in a little book of Jewish Venetian recipes that is written in the local dialect," she says.”

Food & Wine: Burano and Mazzorbo, Venice

© Simon Watson

We stroll down Burano's main canal, lined with dollhouse-like buildings painted brilliant shades of pink, lilac and sky blue. Burano is also known for its lemon-flavored bussola cookies, typically shaped like an O or backward S. McAlpine picks up a bag of S cookies from an older gentleman in a bakery and then continues along a canal that opens up onto a large main piazza. She pulls me into Martina Vidal, a lace and linen shop, where she shows me an exquisite snow-white monogrammed handkerchief that she badly wants. For years her mother has collected extraordinary embroidered tablecloths and napkins from Burano, and McAlpine regularly adds more finds.

We continue exploring until we reach the short, arching bridge that crosses over to the adjoining little island of Mazzorbo. I follow McAlpine to Venissa, a modernist hotel set within a small walled vineyard. McAlpine loves the place—the wine, made from indigenous Dorona grapes; the hotel's avant-garde restaurant—but she wants to take me to a more under-the-radar spot. We turn left at a wide canal and continue to Alla Maddalena, a trattoria with views of the water. "They don't set out to do something new, but, in the end, what they do feels special because it's family recipes," says McAlpine. We devour several pastas, one loaded with fresh clams, the other topped with a ragù made with wild duck that the owner himself had hunted. We can't possibly eat any more, yet "they make beautiful desserts here," says McAlpine. "In the late summer they do baked peaches stuffed with amaretti biscuits; I often make it at home.”

McAlpine hugs the owner good-bye, and we walk along the canal. We stop to look across the water at an impossibly romantic two-story house with several ramshackle outbuildings and a dock. "Legend has it that Casanova was born there," McAlpine says, then lets me in on a secret: She wants to buy the building and turn it into a studio where she can write and host cooking workshops. This, she says, is the only place more enticing to her than Venice itself; this ancient house hidden in tall grass where the lagoon meets the sky.

Murano

The most popular island in the region is Murano, the Venetian-glass hub, a 20-minute ferry ride from Venice. "But it's seasonal," observes McAlpine. "On weekends and in the summer, Murano is packed; otherwise it's quite slow."

McAlpine knows the island well; as a child, she went there on shopping expeditions with her parents. Now she leads me to a private gallery within the 150-year-old Pauly & C. complex. Every surface of the half-dozen rooms is covered with glass objects: elaborate mirrors, chandeliers with tiny glass leaves and flowers, and glowing, monumental sculptures inspired by Picasso paintings. McAlpine admires a fragile clear water glass. It's lighter than plastic and as thin as paper, and a single one costs more than $120. "The amount of labor that goes into this glass is astonishing," says McAlpine. "For me, it's like a beautiful cake made with the best ingredients that takes five hours to prepare. You don't see all the work behind it, but the result is stunning."

For lunch, we go to Ai Frati, an old family-run restaurant with terrace seating right on the canal. A waiter in a jacket and bow tie takes our order. "He's been here forever," McAlpine stage-whispers. She talks about the sea bream she has ordered, a quintessential Venetian fish similar to dorade. "At home I like to bake it whole with a smattering of figs, olives and almonds,” says McAlpine. "I love the mix of salty olives with sweet fruit."

McAlpine confides that she discovered the restaurant through a tip from a water taxi driver. "They're the kings of the city," she says. "They know all the secrets."

Food & Wine: Ai Frait, Venice

© Simon Watson

Torcello

Before venice evolved into a maritime power in the Middle Ages, Torcello was the most important island of the archipelago and a vital trading center. These days it has a population of about two dozen, including the parish priest. It's worth the 90-minute ferry ride from Venice just for a visit to its seventh-century Byzantine cathedral followed by a meal at Locanda Cipriani. Unlike the legendary Harry's Bar and Cipriani chain, which was founded by Giuseppe Cipriani in the 1930s, Locanda Cipriani is still operated by the original family.”

Coming here on our boat is like going out to the country for a weekend meal," says McAlpine as we take our seats in the dining room, with its well-worn stone floor and low ceilings held up by heavy wood beams. "It feels like you've stepped back 40 years into a more glamorous time." Our waiter, dressed in a formal white jacket, serves us from a gueridon: tagliolini gratin with smoked ham and béchamel sauce.

Locanda Cipriani has guest rooms, including the suite where Ernest Hemingway spent a month in 1948 hunting duck and writing Across the River and Into the Trees. After that impossibly rich gratin, I'm tempted to book a room for the night and crash, but McAlpine wants to go home. She's energized by the food we've had and can't wait to get into her kitchen to start cooking.

Insider's Venice

McAlpine on where to go and stay in the heart of the city.

All' Arco
The busy wine bar near the Rialto Market displays high-rising stacks of snacks like crostini with lardo and honey. San Polo 1451.

Aman Venice
An opulent hotel with frescoed ceilings, glass chandeliers and lots of gold leaf. A great place for a cocktail. Calle Tiepolo 1364.

Harry’s Bar
No other restaurant in Venice compares for Old World glamour and simple food. Calle Vallaresso 1323.

La Mela Verde
A short walk from Piazza San Marco, the gelateria offers daily changing flavors like pine nut. Castello 4977.

Venice Prestige
This property-rental company offers luxurious apartments on the Grand Canal as well as affordable lodging.

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