VENETIAN DINNERS AND DINERS
Written by William Dean Howells and originally published in 1866
When I first came to Venice, I accepted the fate appointed to young men on the Continent. I took lodgings, and I began dining drearily at the restaurants. Worse prandial fortunes may befall one, but it is hard to conceive of the continuance of so great unhappiness elsewhere; while the restaurant life is an established and permanent thing in Italy, for every bachelor and for many forlorn families. It is not because the restaurants are very dirty—if you wipe your plate and glass carefully before using them, they need not stomach you; it is not because the rooms are cold—if you sit near the great vase of smoldering embers in the centre of each room you may suffocate in comparative comfort; it is not because the prices are great—they are really very reasonable; it is not for any very tangible fault that I object to life at the restaurants, and yet I cannot think of its hopeless homelessness without rebellion against the whole system it implies, as something unnatural and insufferable.
But before we come to look closely at this aspect of Italian civilization, it is better to look first at a very noticeable trait of Italian character,—temperance in eating and drinking. As to the poorer classes, one observes without great surprise how slenderly they fare, and how with a great habit of talking of meat and drink, the verb mangiare remains in fact for the most part inactive with them. But it is only just to say that this virtue of abstinence seems to be not wholly the result of necessity, for it prevails with other classes which could well afford the opposite vice. Meat and drink do not form the substance of conviviality with Venetians, as with the Germans and the English, and in degree with ourselves; and I have often noticed on the Mondays-at-the-Gardens, and other social festivals of the people, how the crowd amused itself with any thing—music, dancing, walking, talking—any thing but the great northern pastime of gluttony. Knowing the life of the place, I make quite sure that Venetian gayety is on few occasions connected with repletion; and I am ashamed to confess that I have not always been able to repress a feeling of stupid scorn for the empty stomachs everywhere, which do not even ask to be filled, or, at least, do not insist upon it. The truth is, the North has a gloomy pride in gastronomic excess, which unfits her children to appreciate the cheerful prudence of the South.
Venetians eat but one meal a day, which is dinner. They breakfast on a piece of bread with coffee and milk; supper is a little cup of black coffee, or an ice, taken at a caffè. The coffee, however, is repeated frequently throughout the day, and in the summertime fruit is eaten, but eaten sparingly, like everything else. As to the nature of the dinner, it of course varies somewhat according to the nature of the diner; but in most families of the middle class a dinner at home consists of a piece of boiled beef, a minestra (a soup thickened with vegetables, tripe, and rice), a vegetable dish of some kind, and the wine of the country. The failings of the repast among all classes lean to the side of simplicity, and the abstemious character of the Venetian finds sufficient comment in his familiar invitation to dinner: “Venga a mangiar quattro risi con me.” (Come eat four grains of rice with me.)
But invitations to dinner have never formed a prime element of hospitality in Venice. Goldoni notices this fact in his memoirs, and speaking of the city in the early half of the last century, he says that the number and excellence of the eating-houses in the city made invitations to dinner at private houses rare, and superfluous among the courtesies offered to strangers.
The Venetian does not, like the Spaniard, place his house at your disposition, and, having extended this splendid invitation, consider the duties of hospitality fulfilled; he does not appear to think you want to make use of his house for social purposes, preferring himself the caffè, and finding home and comfort there, rather than under his own roof. “What caffè do you frequent? Ah! so do I. We shall meet often there.”
This is frequently your new acquaintance’s promise of friendship. And one may even learn to like the social footing on which people meet at the caffè, as well as that of the parlor or drawing-room. I could not help thinking one evening at Padua, while we sat talking with some pleasant Paduans in one of the magnificent saloons of the Caffè Pedrocchi, that I should like to go there for society, if I could always find it there, much better than to private houses. There is far greater ease and freedom, more elegance and luxury, and not the slightest weight of obligation laid upon you for the gratification your friend’s company has given you. One has not to be a debtor in the sum of a friend’s outlay for house, servants, refreshments, and the like. Nowhere in Europe is the senseless and wasteful American custom of treating known; and nothing could be more especially foreign to the frugal instincts and habits of the Italians. So, when a party of friends at a caffè eat or drink, each one pays for what he takes, and pecuniarily, the enjoyment of the evening is uncostly or not, according as each prefers. Of course no one sits down in such a place without calling for something; but I have frequently seen people respond to this demand of custom by ordering a glass of water with anise, at the expense of two soldi. A cup of black coffee, for five soldi, secures a chair, a table, and as many journals as you like, for as long time as you like.
I say, a stranger may learn to like the life of the caffè,—that of the restaurant never; though the habit of frequenting the restaurants, to which Goldoni somewhat vaingloriously refers, seems to have grown upon the Venetians with the lapse of time. The eating-houses are almost without number, and are of every degree, from the shop of the sausage-maker, who supplies gondoliers and facchini with bowls of sguassetto, to the Caffè Florian. They all have names which are not strange to European ears, but which ape sufficiently amusing to people who come from a land where nearly every public thing is named from some inspiration of patriotism or local pride. In Venice the principal restaurants are called The Steamboat, The Savage, The Little Horse, The Black Hat, and The Pictures; and I do not know that any one of them is more uncomfortable, uncleanly, or noisy than another, or that any one of them suffers from the fact that all are bad.
You do not get breakfast at the restaurant for the reason, before stated, of the breakfast’s unsubstantiality. The dining commences about three o’clock in the afternoon, and continues till nine o’clock, most people dining at five or six. As a rule the attendance is insufficient, and no guest is served until he has made a savage clapping on the tables, or clinking on his glass or plate. Then a hard-pushed waiter appears, and calls out, dramatically, “Behold me!” takes the order, shrieks it to the cook, and returning with the dinner, cries out again, more dramatically than ever, “Behold it ready!” and arrays it with a great flourish on the table. I have dined in an hotel at Niagara, to the music of a brass band; but I did not find that so utterly bewildering, so destructive of the individual savor of the dishes, and so conducive to absent-minded gluttony, as I at first found the constant rush and clamor of the waiters in the Venetian restaurants. The guests are, for the most part, patient and quiet enough, eating their minestra and boiled beef in such peace as the surrounding uproar permits them, and seldom making acquaintance with each other. It is a mistake, I think, to expect much talk from any people at dinner. The ingenious English tourists who visit the United States from time to time, find us silent over our meat, and I have noticed the like trait among people of divers races in Europe.
As I have said, the greater part of the diners at the restaurants are single, and seem to have no knowledge of each other. Perhaps the gill of the fiendish wine of the country, which they drink at their meals, is rather calculated to chill than warm the heart. But, in any case, a drearier set of my fellow-beings I have never seen,—no, not at evening parties,—and I conceive that their life in lodgings, at the caffè and the restaurant, remote from the society of women and all the higher privileges of fellowship for which men herd together, is at once the most gross and insipid, the most selfish and comfortless life in the world. Our boarding-house life in America, dull, stupid, and flat as it often is, seems to me infinitely better than the restaurant life of young Italy. It is creditable to Latin Europe that, with all this homelessness and domestic outlawry, its young men still preserve the gentleness of civilization.
The families that share the exile of the eating-houses sometimes make together a feeble buzz of conversation, but the unfriendly spirit of the place seems soon to silence them. Undoubtedly they frequent the restaurant for economy’s sake. Fuel is costly, and the restaurant is cheap, and its cooking better than they could perhaps otherwise afford to have. Indeed, so cheap is the restaurant that actual experience proved the cost of a dinner there to be little more than the cost of the raw material in the market. From this inexpensiveness comes also the custom, which is common, of sending home to purchasers meals from the eating-houses.
As one descends in the scale of the restaurants, the difference is not so noticeable in the prices of the same dishes, as in the substitution of cheaper varieties of food. At the best eating-houses, the Gallic traditions bear sway more or less, but in the poorer sort the cooking is done entirely by native artists, deriving their inspirations from the unsophisticated tastes of exclusively native diners. It is perhaps needless to say that they grow characteristic and picturesque as they grow dirty and cheap, until at last the cook-shop perfects the descent with a triumph of raciness and local coloring. The cook-shop in Venice opens upon you at almost every turn,—everywhere, in fact, but in the Piazza and the Merceria,—and looking in, you see its vast heaps of frying fish, and its huge caldrons of ever-boiling broth which smell to heaven with garlic and onions. In the seducing windows smoke golden mountains of polenta (a thicker kind of mush or hasty-pudding, made of Indian meal, and universally eaten in North Italy), platters of crisp minnows, bowls of rice, roast poultry, dishes of snails and liver; and around the fascinating walls hang huge plates of bronzed earthenware for a lavish and a hospitable show, and for the representation of those scenes of Venetian story which are modeled upon them in bass-relief. Here I like to take my unknown friend—my scoundrel facchino or rascal gondolier—as he comes to buy his dinner, and bargains eloquently with the cook, who stands with a huge ladle in his hand capable of skimming mysterious things from vasty depths. I am spell-bound by the drama which ensues, and in which all the chords of the human heart are touched, from those that tremble at high tragedy, to those that are shaken by broad farce. When the diner has bought his dinner, and issues forth with his polenta in one hand, and his fried minnows or stewed snails in the other, my fancy fondly follows him to his gondola-station, where he eats it, and quarrels volubly with other gondoliers across the Grand Canal.
A simpler and less ambitious sort of cook-shop abounds in the region of Rialto, where on market mornings I have seen it driving a prodigious business with peasants, gondoliers, and laborers. Its more limited resources consist chiefly of fried eels, fish, polenta, and sguassetto. The latter is a true roba veneziana, and is a loud-flavored broth, made of those desperate scraps of meat which are found impracticable even by the sausage-makers. Another, but more delicate dish, peculiar to the place, is the clotted blood of poultry, fried in slices with onions. A great number of the families of the poor breakfast at these shops very abundantly, for three soldi each person.
In Venice every holiday has its appropriate viand. During carnival all the butter and cheese shop-windows are whitened with the snow of beaten cream—panamontata. At San Martino the bakers parade troops of gingerbread warriors. Later, for Christmas, comes mandorlato, which is a candy made of honey and enriched with almonds. In its season only can any of these devotional delicacies be had; but there is a species of cruller, fried in oil, which has all seasons for its own. On the occasion of every festa, and of every sagra (which is the holiday of one parish only), stalls are erected in the squares for the cooking and sale of these crullers, between which and the religious sentiment proper to the whole year there seems to be some occult relation.
In the winter, the whole city appears to abandon herself to cooking for the public, till she threatens to hopelessly disorder the law of demand and supply. There are, to begin with, the caffè and restaurants of every class. Then there are the cook-shops, and the poulterers’, and the sausage-makers’. Then, also, every fruit-stall is misty and odorous with roast apples, boiled beans, cabbage, and potatoes. The chestnut-roasters infest every corner, and men women, and children cry roast pumpkin at every turn—till, at last, hunger seems an absurd and foolish vice, and the ubiquitous beggars, no less than the habitual abstemiousness of every class of the population, become the most perplexing and maddening of anomalies.