Lunch at La Cantina
by JoAnn Locktov
It helps to be hungry.
Anticipation is heightened when your stomach is empty. Today I had an errand on the Strada Nuova, which also happens to be where La Cantina is located. I could only take several steps past the front door; the place was swarming with customers. Many seemed to be simply swilling wine. Were they waiting for their lunch or were they were ignorant of the gastronomic possibilities?
My heart sank; there was not an empty table to be seen. The lovely waitress caught my eye.
“For you,” she said, “We have a place.”
She led me to a back table, the best seat in the house. From there, I could watch Francesco create his magic. Hot plate, panini press, meat slicer, and perfectly stacked plates. The tiny area, with barely enough room for the chef to turn around, was where he sautéed, sliced, chopped, and barked orders.
Francesco is a one-man culinary ballet.
He asked what I wanted to eat. Fish, of course. Cotto or crudo? Today a misto, only because I was frozen, and cooked fish would warm me. As would red wine. He recommended the 2009 Grumello because it was an elegant wine, perfect with fish. He set my place, poured me a glass, placed the bottle on the table, and went to work.
La Cantina is a place where you exist in Francesco time. He will prepare your meal as he wishes and when he wishes. It is a place you can only go if eating his food is more important than anything else you might consider accomplishing.
He pulled a branzino from a bucket; it flopped one last time before he set it in a pan. Various crustaceans from the lagoon were served resplendently raw. (There are just some fish that it is sacrilege to ruin with heat.)
I drank the wine and watched.
Eventually it was my turn. Francesco wanted to know how hungry I was. Did I want a plate of fish this big? No, I told him, a plate of fish this big. One gets used to being a glutton in Venice. Beauty is offered in such abundance; you can get drunk on patina alone.
I’m not a food writer. I don’t know all the fancy ways to describe what I eat. But I know how I felt. I felt honored to eat this fish, prepared by this man, in a city that I love. My lunch was resolute, satisfying, delectable, and nurturing.
This is my Venice. And I miss both Francesco and the Venice that once was.