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When in Venice, Eat Here

No, no, not here. Although, it is fetching, isn’t it? At least from the outside. But sometimes, appearances aren’t what they seem.

The fabulous restaurant I’m about to share with you doesn’t look anything like the idyllic Venice trattoria pictured above.

From the outside, Il Ridotto is rather nondescript. I’d even call it plain.

The adage “don’t judge a book by its cover” — even though we all do — should have run through my head. I almost skipped it because it didn’t look like the charming restaurant above.

Il Ridotto is near one of Venice’s main attractions, Piazza San Marco, but it’s not easy to find. (Frankly, nothing is easy to find — Venice is an exacerbating maze with more twists and turns than a Diane Mott Davidson novel.)

I wouldn’t have given Il Ridotto a second thought if not for my Twitter friend, Sharon Miro (@nicklemoon), who’d just been to Venice a couple of days before we arrived.

Sharon insisted we not miss Il Ridotto. I scribbled down the address and set off to have a look. I must have walked past it three times before I finally noticed it.

In hindsight, it was one of the best (of many great) meals across our 21-day Italian Affair.

What Il Ridotto lacks in “curb” appeal, it makes up for ten-fold by the charming interior and the exquisite food.

Il Ridotto is fine dining in a sleek, modern setting. (It reminded me of noca, one of the best restaurants in Phoenix and Frasca, one of the best restaurants in Boulder, Colorado.)

Thoroughly Italian — yet it bears no resemblance to the old-school traditional Italian ristorante — Il Ridotto is nuovo Italian.

The  small, 14-seat restaurant positively glows at night.

Il Ridotto doesn’t open until 7:30 p.m., but the chef graciously opened at 7 p.m. for a couple of hungry Americans, and for half an hour, we had the whole place to ourselves.

By the time we left, every seat was full, while a flock of foodies waited patiently outside.

When faced with a choice between navigating a several-pages menu versus a chef’s tasting menu, go with the latter. Especially at Il Ridotto.

The tasting menu reads “menu of land and of sea / light, beautiful, good / four plates / 50 Euro.

That’s it. No course descriptions. That’s because the chef, Gianni Bonaccorsi, a tall, thin, bespectacled man, comes to the table to discuss the menu. His halting English is charming, and he surprised me with his gracious manner. He apologized profusely for not being fluent. I assure you, that is not the norm in most Italian eateries, fine dining or otherwise.

Using English peppered with Italian and lots of hand gestures, he said that he’d received some beautiful frutti di mare that morning, and would we be happy if he just sent out dishes? Who are we to argue with such a kind, stately chef?

We both started with an amuse: two succulent shrimp on top of a sweet-sour caponata.

The chef and one server manage all 14 seats. I’m not used to plates personally delivered by the chef, but I think I could get used to it, especially if the chef is as engaging as Bonaccorsi.

Bonaccorsi had two cooks in the tiny galley kitchen tucked behind a mirrored wall, but every course we had was personally delivered by the chef, with a dissertation on the composition of the dish. (He had no idea I am a food writer, and throughout the evening he delivered most courses to the other diners as well.)

Because there were two of us, the chef made sure that we sampled different dishes with each course.

The first course was a white asparagus puree surrounding a mound of burrata and garnished with sauteed green asparagus, crisp croutons and a drizzle of olive oil and aged balsamic.

And the other, an eye-popping vision of the sea with lobster, mussels, clams, cuttlefish and canocce, swimming in a pool of silky potato puree.

Canocce is an interesting sea creature. It has very little meat — it’s mostly exoskeleton. I saw the finger-shaped crustacean in several seafood markets, and first tasted it in a trattoria in Bologna, where it was chopped it into pieces and cooked in a Marsala cream sauce. But it was difficult to eat with the shell on. When I inquired how to eat it, the server mimicked Tom Hanks in the movie Big, gnawing on baby corn.

At Il Ridotto, Bonaccorsi shelled it whole (a difficult, time-consuming thing to do), leaving the head and tail intact. The taste and texture was a cross between lobster and crawfish.

Moving to the second course, we tasted a lobster stock risotto studded with cuttlefish and garnished with squid ink powder. The dish, like most dishes in Italy, was finished with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. It’s a trick I’ve since incorporated into my own cooking.

We also tasted handmade ravioli, stuffed with wild herbs and ricotta and garnished with clams and mussels. The three fat pillows would have been a substantial meal on their own.

Our third courses were equally filling, although a mushroom topped sea bass was lighter than the other third course.

Two baby squids stuffed with potato and zucchini, with a salsa of sweet red peppers and green peppers, were garnished with tiny clams. The squid was a pleasant chewy counter point to the soft potato filling.

At this point, I didn’t think I could eat another bite but that’s before I saw the desserts. First up was a deconstructed tiramisu, served in a glass with a heavy dusting of rich, dark cocoa. The Marsala flavored mascarpone cream must have contained a dozen egg yolks, it was so rich and golden.

But it was the last dessert that wowed me. Maybe because it was so simple or maybe because I’m crazy about pistachios. The pistachio cake, obviously baked in a mold, was crunchy on the outside, and dense, moist and rich on the inside. The batter probably contained both ground pistachios and chopped pistachios — it was the very essence of the pistachio nut. The gelato tasted of rich vanilla — egg-rich French vanilla — and had plenty of texture from the chopped, roasted pistachios.

With the exception of the storefront, nothing about Il Ridotto was understated, yet nothing was over-the-top flashy, either. No molecular gastronomy, no bells and whistles, just beautifully crafted dishes with ingredients that tasted fresh-plucked from the ground and sea, served by a humble chef in a chic, elegant setting. In a word? Squisito.

Il Ridotto
Campo San Filippo e Giacomo 4509
Venice, Italy

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