At the height of its glory, Venice was a center of commerce, bolstered by the strength of its maritime competency. Elegant parties and magical festivals dominated its streets between architectural masterpieces of Venetian Gothic influence: Byzantinian arches styled in the manner of those in Constantinople, with mingled influences of Moorish Spain. Awe-inspiring grandeur meets style, in its people, in its architecture, in its art. The golden days saw Venetians living charmed lives of magnificent parties and banquets. They were rich in culture, a value that transcends generations and centuries, even now.
While the Venice of today is a far cry from its predecessor, there is an old-time charm that captures the senses immediately upon crossing the Ponte della Constituzione, better known as the Calatrava Bridge. There are absolutely no cars in the aged city – merely pedestrians. It is a water city through and through, where only majestic bridges and vaporetto ferries connect the six sestieri. Despite every aging cobblestone that is painfully visible, even to those least observant, the city is, in a word, stunning.
Part of the city’s charm, one must admit, lies within the tranquility found here, much like that found within other such small destinations. For certain, being a prime tourist spot, the streets of Venice are commonly packed with visitors, but the discovery of quieter nooks yield moments of pleasure in which life is all the more beautiful for the soft lapping of water against sturdy wooden docksides. One cannot help but to take a breath, and revel in the sheer beauty of the moment, knowing full well that the enchantment has been woven – and so one sinks, helpless and willing, into the magic.
Whether or not this magic is to last and live on remains to be seen. Each year, Venice sees about twenty million visitors; yet how many of them are truly aware that this beautiful city lives perched upon a precarious balance? Reports draw attention to the slow, but sure sinking of the city – seven centimetres per century. Recent years paint a grave picture; researchers have confirmed that the city has sunk twenty five centimetres in the past century, alone. This, coupled with the omnipresent threat of the acqua alto – high tides that blanket the city in misted waves gives rise to the cloud of uncertainty and anxiety that hovers above Venetian rooftops. The beauty is temporary.
What, then, defines Venice beyond the fleeting scenes of its palpable present? For, truly, it is more than mere architecture, aging stones and wooden logs that make Venice what it is. It is the people, and the traditions they uphold. Venice lives in the heart and soul of the Carnivale. It lives in food.
Anyone who has been to Venice will tell you one thing: eat seafood. Lots of it. This, of course, is only natural, given the ease of access to which Venetians are accustomed. With their proximity to waterfronts on all sides, the people of Venice are granted first dibs on fresh seafood, a trait evident even down the historical lines of Venetian cuisine. In poorer days, Venetians made do with what they had; as is the same with civilisation the world over. Necessity is the mother of invention, and with their easy access to seafood, the Venetians made magic. They serve it fresh, and they serve it well.
Strolling along the Cannaregio sestieri, one discovers an ample supply of interesting Venetian foods to stir the senses. You simply want more, no matter how many pistachio cakes you’ve laid bare. And then, along the Strada Nuova, rises a small, at first non-descript building. Like any other Venetian structure, it is stained with the mark of weather and time, cracking brown brick laid bare beneath greying cement. The words ‘La Cantina’ stand modestly where they are etched into a simple white awning – a protection of sorts against the elements. An average passer-by may stroll right past, but those with a sixth sense (and a seafood-detecting nose) will head right in.
Oh, what a feast. Within the small, but cosy compound of La Cantina’s dimly-lit interior, one finds one’s interest invariably piqued. It is almost reminiscent of an olden-day tavern, bringing to mind scenes lifted off your average fantasy flick. The hostesses are brisk and sharp, though ever willing to offer suggestions for the first-time visitor. As with every other busy establishment, it is near impossible to expect instantaneous service; but the wait is well worth it.
Simple fare, it is true, is served. Yet, it becomes a point of no debate that there is no other way to prepare seafood, other than to leave intact the integrity of its freshness, so that it is none other than the pure taste of its freshness that shines. You taste the ocean. It’s delicious – and they who serve it, know it.
If the proprieters of La Cantina were to be described in one word, ‘unpretencious’ would be it – in the best sense possible. They serve top-notch seafood, and, being well-aware of it, are not inclined to pepper their food with exemplary assistance at the turn of every course. That is not to say, of course, that the services rendered are lacking in quality – they are, in fact, polite and respectful despite the obvious demands of the job. Venetians are tough, hardy, much like the city in which they reside. Yet in truth, La Cantina’s selection of foods speaks for itself; indeed, it sings. That, many would say, is more than enough to make the La Cantina dining experience one to be remembered.
Everyone eats fresh in Venice. That much is emphasised, despite the rocky foundations of the city. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a jewel within Europe. Much is done to preserve the integrity of its architecture. It is protected, and will remain so. Yet, that which is often emphasised is its food; its people.
We come to realise then, that if ever there comes a day where the dawn sees naught of the beautiful Venezia, its culture will live on. The food will live on, in the hearts of its people; it is the glue that holds them together, the ropes that bind. This transcends through ages and eras, and has, since the early days of Venice long past. Despite the rain of change that has stormed the city from then to now, the culture and cuisine of Venice has yet to stray – and certainly, never shall. The people make it so, and within the people, Venice shall endure.