2017-05-19 09:37:03
Choice Tables: An Adriatic Feast on the Italian Coast

In this week’s special Europe issue, explore the rivers, lakes and shorelines of 10 favorite places; follow in the footsteps of Carl Linnaeus in Swedish Lapland; dine along the Adriatic coast between Venice and Trieste (below); and find a serene hotel with a water view.

Has anyone ever traveled to Italy to go on a diet? Like every cartoon, the notion of the oft-romanticized country as the tourist’s pigging-out destination — it provided the “Eat” in Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir “Eat, Pray, Love” — has some basis in reality.

Still, the evocation of Italy as one gluttonous infinity of pasta, prosciutto, gorgonzola, gelato and bread lasciviously dunked in saucers of olive oil overlooks two interrelated facts. First, Italians have an enviably low adult obesity rate (10 percent, compared with 34 percent of Americans). Second, even the most landlocked villages in Italy are less than 300 miles from a shore, and thus from a bounty of frutti di mare, or fruit of the sea.

For those pitiable souls suffering from a lifelong aversion to seafood, I propose Italy’s Adriatic coast as the place to get over it. Many times over the past two decades, I’ve navigated the trek from Venice to Trieste, two of Europe’s most bewitching cities. It was along this arc that I came to appreciate how Italy’s core culinary principle — a reliance on the freshest of ingredients — extends to the sea. Anyone who thinks that anchovies (alici) taste fishy, or that calamari is palatable only if it’s fried, or that the only worthwhile fish on an Italian menu is sea bass (branzino), needs to feast on Adriatic cuisine for a proper disabusing.

Inveterate seafood lovers traveling along this roughly 100-mile stretch of coastline have their own educations in store. Here is where you take a pass on the familiar medleys of clams, scampi and swordfish. Gravitate, instead, to Adriatic delicacies like finger-length mackerel (sgombri), small spotted brown octopus (moscardini), turbot (rombo) and a succulent if unsightly mud-burrowing crustacean known as mantis shrimp (canocchie). Hardly by coincidence, the perfect accompaniment to such dishes is from the neighboring vineyards of the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region, where the country’s best white wine originates.

Among the dozen or so stellar restaurants in Venice, the rigor with which this 34-year-old culinary landmark has devoted itself to Adriatic frutti di mare is second to none. I received my first confirmation of this one morning in 1996, when I dropped by to secure a lunch reservation and found the proprietress, Piera Bortoluzzi Librai, hunched over a bowl filled with the tiny local shrimp known as schie, which she peeled with her own fingers. I’ve eaten here at least 20 times since; not one meal has been less than outstanding.

Situated a stone’s throw from the Stua canal, a zigzagging 10-minute walk from the Rialto bridge in the San Polo neighborhood, Antiche Carampane is now run by Piera’s son Francesco Agopyan. While there is no such thing as an “undiscovered” Venetian restaurant, this always-full, 16-table place attracts an equal proportion of residents and discerning tourists who have been properly admonished by the “No Pizza, No Lasagne, No Menu Turistico” sign beside the front door.

Meals invariably commence with a complimentary butcher-paper cone filled with schie, gently fried. After this come agonizing decisions. From the well-curated wine list, I chose the elegant white blend Arbis Blanc made by the famed Friulan brother-sister winery Borgo San Daniele. The antipasti here are a must: During my most recent lunch, I forewent the tempting array of crudi for a delicious plate of grilled octopus and artichoke. But it’s the seafood-based pastas at Antiche Carampane that have no peer in Venice. Deviating from my standard choice, the tagliolini in spider crab sauce, I opted for one of the restaurant’s justly famed dishes: spaghetti in cassopipa, a rich shellfish sauce laced with anise, cardamom and other spices.

Objectively speaking, this was a meal, yet not enough of one, not when the Adriatic soft-shell crab known as moeche were available as a secondo. In any other meal, the sweetish, lightly sautéed crustacean dish would have been the standout. Here at Antiche Carampane, it was merely delicious.

Antiche Carampane, San Polo 1911, Venice, 39-41-5240165, antichecarampane.com. Dinner for two excluding wine, about $150.

There is not a lot to see in the coastal village of Grignano, about 15 miles north of Trieste. But on a winter evening, the spectacle of this dockside trattoria with its lights on was more than enough. The back page of the handwritten menu offers a few items “for those who don’t love fish,” just as the wine list concludes with “some reds.” The bias here is plain: You do not come to the Adriatic for beefsteak and cabernet.

Tavernetta Al Molo is a casual and unhurried respite from city dining, one where the seafood offerings are straightforward but also precise. Its wine list includes many nearby producers of local white grapes like Vitovska and Malvasia Istriana that pair brilliantly with fish. The misto marinato antipasto included a carpaccio of branzino that was so fresh it might have leapt directly out of the sea and onto my plate. For this reason, I elected for my main course to stay with branzino — grilled whole and then filleted — and was not the least disappointed.

As with Antiche Carampane, however, the star was the pasta course. Though the bristling February evening called out for Al Molo’s well-regarded Zuppa della Tavernetta (made with clams, mussels, scampi and monkfish), I gravitated instead to the ravioli stuffed with spigola (a cousin to branzino) beneath a ragout of scampi, tomato and parsley. Coupled with the stony Vitovska of Edi Kante, the dish represented the quintessence of Italian simplicity.

After the Crema Catalana dessert — a divine apocalypse of custardy richness — I stumbled out to the dock (molo) and observed the stars flickering over the quiet sea. I also noticed the outdoor tables where, some warm evening, I would surely find myself.

Tavernetta Al Molo, Riva Massimiliano e Carlotta 11, Grignano, 39-40-224275, tavernettaalmolo.it. Dinner for two without wine, about $100.

Curiously, Trieste’s most distinguished restaurants tend not to take advantage of the city’s window onto the sea that offers their most crucial ingredients. For such a vista, drive a couple of miles above the city limits to the village of Contovello, where this honest trattoria commands an unsurpassed view of the Gulf of Trieste.

Slauko presents the Adriatic culinary experience at its most stripped-down. In contrast to the heavenly expanse of shimmering seascape, the interior is determinedly plain — though no matter in summer, when the seating is outdoors. There is no wine list, only a dozen or so bottles of excellent Friulan whites in the lobby’s display refrigerator. Nor have I ever seen a menu in my half-dozen visits to Slauko. The proprietor, a scruffy but affable fellow, stands at the table and tells you what he has available. (It’s possible to call the day before and request that he look for particular items at the Trieste seafood market.)

Still, everything at Slauko hits the mark, largely by staying out of the way of its chief ingredients. During my most recent visit, the antipasto of grilled razor clams and scallops was on par with a three-star Michelin delicacy. Accentuating the flavors was the olive oil that the owner said he had produced himself from the rocky Carso hills nearby. The next dish, a lobster risotto of epic richness, required no adornment in the slightest. From the day’s catch, I selected a grilled whole San Pietro, or John Dory fish — possibly the most unsightly flatfish the Adriatic has to offer, but light and submissive in the mouth, requiring only a little parsley and lemon to bring out its gentle brininess. The accompanying roasted potatoes and asparagus could not have been more basic, or appropriate.

Service at Slauko is, to put it charitably, leisurely. Or so I’ve been told by other diners. From my perspective, staring out into the yawning azure gulf with razor clams and a glass of Malvasia is an experience not to be rushed, or even ended.

Ristorante Slauko, 453 Contovello, 39-40-225393. Dinner for two without wine, about $90.

Everything about this lagoon-side restaurant is a revelation, beginning with its locale, in the remote and relentlessly picturesque town of Marano Lagunare. Before even walking into the trattoria one early Sunday afternoon, I eyed the handsome Roman architecture along the town square and the fleet of fishing boats docked in the lagoon and determined that I would be back for an extended stay. Then I stepped inside, and the question became, “How soon?”

Vedova Raddi has been a family-run restaurant since its opening in 1938, and among its guests in the 1950s was Ernest Hemingway. Why it’s not famous today can be explained only by its obscure location, almost exactly halfway between Venice and Trieste several miles south of the autostrada. It is both elegant and unstuffy, and its fidelity to seafood — both from the Adriatic and the lagoon — is total. The proprietor, Decio Raddi, whose grandmother founded the place, showed me to my table overlooking the water, where I settled in for what I knew would be a full afternoon of maritime self-gratification.

The antipasto of breaded and broiled shellfish included a delectable smooth-shelled bivalve, fasolari, I had never encountered. It appeared as well among the pasta dishes, along with tiny shrimp from the Gulf of Trieste and the tiny Adriatic clam known as peverasse. But I elected to go with the linguine and canocchie, which I love for its chewy richness but tend to avoid when it’s not already extracted from its tenacious shell. This was the way to eat it, peeled and cut into small bites with homemade pasta and a sprinkling of parsley. As I perused the main courses, feelings toward the lagoon eel, Mr. Raddi put his hand on my shoulder and gently but firmly insisted that I select the Adriatic sole for its exceptional freshness. I did so. You’ve had sole before, and so have I — this was more like a creamy feather fluttering down my throat, leaving me in a kind of fugue state.

After departing Vedova Raddi for Venice’s airport, I learned that another local restaurant, Tre Canai, specializes in grilled eel on wooden spits. Next time I’ll know better: In Marano Lagunare, come for the seafood, stay over for the lagoon cuisine.

Trattoria alla Laguna Vedova Raddi, Piazzetta Garibaldi 1, Marano Lagunare, 39-20-50670302, vedovaraddi.it. Dinner for two without wine, about $130.