It was autumn in Venice. Pale mist hung over the canals in the early mornings before vaporising as the sun rose, and the city dressed up in its familiar, magical brocade of opulence and decay, like a raddled courtesan donning her finery for one last flourish . It should have been a time of melancholy, as my great adventure – spending six months pottering around the Italian islands on a Vespa – came quietly to an end in this, the most romantic and melancholy of all cities.
But it wasn’t remotely melancholic. I’d met my daughter, Lois, and my old Australian chum, and former rugby compadre, Rory beneath the lions in the Piazza San Marco, and gloom and despondency proved impossible in their humorous and diverting company. The first day we met, we’d dashed off to a Venetian version of a crowded English pub to watch Australia trounce England in the Rugby World Cup, a victory that naturally had to be celebrated after numerous beers with several bottles Prosecco. That rather set the pace and the tone for the days that followed – high spirits, the rambling anecdotes of two old codgers, the amused tolerance of my daughter, food here and there, drink there and here, and a dash of culture in between.
And then came lunch on Torcello, one of the many islands of the Venetian lagoon, where Ernest Hemingway spend several months writing his worst novel, the unreadably bad Across the River and Into the Trees. These days Torcello is more famous for it cathedral, Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, an elegant Venetian/Byzantine hybrid with startling mosaics; and for the Locanda Cipriani, one of the great restaurants of the world.
The Locanda was created in 1935 by Giuseppe Cipriani, and blessed in subsequent years by the custom of Hemingway, Winston Churchill, our own dear Queen, Arturo Toscanini, Maria Callas, Nancy Mitford, Marc Chagall and other luminaries of that ilk.
If I’m honest, the Locanda, itself, is comfortably old fashioned and terracotta -ish, but who wants to eat inside at the Locanda Cipriani on a brilliant autumn day? We settled outside under a shading pergola in the garden behind, warm with golden sunlight, lambent with colour, unexpectedly bosky, with barricades of roses, trimmed box hedges, velvet lawn and blossoming borders that wouldn’t be out of place in Surrey.
Great meals aren’t made by great food alone, although that helps. They’re made by time and place and people and company and occasion. The day was exquisite. The company was pure delight. The tablecloth was stiff with starch and glittered like snow. The sun gleamed on the glasses and cutlery. The service moved with the stately choreography, urbane charm and assured professionalism of long practice. From the moment the waiter – our waiter – gently directed me away from the Pinot Grigio I’d suggested to a cheaper and immeasurably better Pinot Bianco, I knew things were going to be to be all right, and so they were.
The dishes – tagliolini with Bechamel and smoked prosciutto; gnocchi with scampi and chanterelles; fish soup, John Dory with tomatoes and capers; turbot with fungi porcini; roasted monkfish; pancakes filled with sweet ricotta and burnished in the flames of Cointreau; apple custard tart – came and went, genial and generous. Bottles of Pinot Bianco came and went. Grappas and coffees came and went. The afternoon came and went, all in one seamless, happy, laughter-strewn continuum. Lunch had the air of sublimity about it, of being outside time, of languid perfection.
Some people may have seen this already in the travel section of The Guardian, in which I apologise. But some others who haven’t might enjoy it.