Our Italian vacation, part 1 (Milan & Venice)

My wife had a rather significant birthday just this week (by “significant,” I mean one that ends in a zero), and so I took her to Italy the last two weeks in May to celebrate.

We took a rather circuitous route to Milan, flying out of SFO to JFK on Virgin America, then Virgin Atlantic overnight (given the time change) to Heathrow (LHR). From there, British Airways to Milan’s Linate Airport (LIN). Can’t complain, as we did this in First or Business Class all on points (indeed, all the airline travel and most of the hotels were all on points!). If you’ve not experienced the Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse at JFK, I highly recommend it – my favorite airport lounge in the US. Upon arriving at LHR, we took advantage of Virgin’s Revivals Lounge to shower and change our clothes, have some breakfast before the flight to Italy.

Upon arriving in Milan, we checked into The Westin Palace Milan to rest up/recover from jet lag, and had dinner at the La Rinacente department store. Located right across from Milan’s Duomo, the top floor (and roof garden) of La Rinascente is a high-end gourmet food & wine store with about ten different restaurants. We ate at Obicà Mozzarella Bar, which (among other things) features a variety of different – yes, you guessed it! – Mozzarellas. We had the Antipasto Obicà (Salame Felino, Prosciutto Crudo di Parma DOP, Grilled Artichokes, Casatica di Bufala, Crostini), along with Nduja di Spilinga Spreadable Spicy Salame and Stracciatella from Puglia, and Burrata e Pesche (Burrata and Peach Salad with Frisée Salad, Radicchio, Hazelnuts, Red Radish, Cherry Tomatoes, Mint), and house-picked vegetables. Along with this we had a bottle of Nebbiolo d’Alba from Ceretto, and in many ways, this was the perfect first meal in Italy . . .

In the morning we took the train to Venice, and checked into the Hilton Molino Stucky, which was an old flour mill on the island of Giudecca, across from Venice itself. This was perfect place to stay, away from the crowds, noise, and occasional “smell” of Venice, while Hilton’s own water shuttle took us back and forth to St. Mark’s in 15 minutes. Our room overlooked Venice and the occasional ocean liner as it passed by to/from the passenger terminal.

The first night in Venice we ate at Fiaschetteria Toscana. This place was recommended by our concierge and – rather than going with my own research – we decided to go with the suggestion. That wasn’t exactly a mistake, but it wasn’t exactly a great idea, either. The food here was good, nothing more and nothing very memorable. In other words, nothing was bad, per se, but mediocrity was definitely the order of the day . . . EXCEPT for two things: 1) the evening’s special dessert was outstanding, a meringue filled with cream, fresh strawberries and ice cream; and 2) they were pouring 1997 Castello dei Rampolla “Sanmarcco” by the glass at a very reasonable and affordable price. OK, if you’re not into wine that won’t mean much, but if you are, that will give you some idea of the restaurant’s wine cellar. On the other hand, they only offer ONE white wine by the glass, and it’s rather average, so . . . .

There are any number of better options in Venice for fine dining.

One of the better options is Osteria Oliva Nera. This relatively small and out-of-the-way place (though I hasten to add we had no trouble finding it) is a true gem! It’s a short walk from St. Mark’s Square, this small restaurant is well-worth seeking out. We had heard about this place from a friend, and – simply put – this was our finest meal in Venice! Everyone here speaks English – a great benefit, as my Italian is sadly non-existent – and they make you quickly feel right at home, as if you have long been a customer here.

The menu offers a surprising array of choices, and there is something here for everyone – from the adventurous eater, to the timid child. My wife began with an appetizer of seafood in a classic Venetian sweet/sour preparation, while I chose the seafood crudo: salmon tartare, tuna tartare, scallop tartare and small raw shrimp dated over a spear of asparagus. Both were stunningly delicious! Next we split a service of what absolutely was the finest lasagne I have ever had in my life! (As Isabella, the owner, told us – it’s Lasagne Nonna; you’ll like it; I made it this afternoon.)

For our main course, my wife had the deliciously wonderful branzino – perfectly cooked, with crispy skin, potatoes, white polenta and vegetables; I had the seared tuna, encrusted with white and black sesame seeds and drizzled with 10-year old Balsamic vinegar, and served with scalloped potatoes and root vegetables – simply superb! The tiramisu I had for dessert was outstanding, as was the “Chef’s Surprise” enjoyed by my wife (ice cream, granita, fresh berries and more). There is a small but excellent wine list and a full bar. The restaurant also makes its own limoncello and “orange cello,” as well. Can’t recommend this place highly enough!

The next afternoon, we took the train to Florence, but I’ll write about that part of the trip in another post . . .

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“Food is a pretty good prism through which to view humanity.”

― Jonathan Gold