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Sunday 19 May 2004

And so to Chioggia, I'm glad I liked it as much as I did considering the 10‑year lead-up to it and the hoops I've been jumping thru to get in and out of here. Sitting on the 0800 to Rovigo, the first of my long chain of train rides for the day: it's 0750 and we haven't left yet, slowly filling up with what must be mostly daily commuters to Rovigo or even Adria or more local places.

The ride in, on Monday afternoon, thru completely flat, dull land; but what looks "wrong" to this Umbrian is not so much the absence of hills but, it took me a while to put my finger on it, the soil: it's dark grey. Probably fertile as all‑get‑out, but grey.

Chioggia station a bit out of the city, but not bad: maybe 700 m and of course all flat too, plus the interest of a new place. For some reason I found myself taken in charge by a young man surely only in his first year of college if not even in his last of high school, who walked me into the centro and I might as well ask questions along the way; to find the main drag, the Corso del Popolo, with the passeggiata in full swing although it was only 6:15. Busy it was, too: Chioggia, I was told twice, is "a forma di spina di pesce" — everything is fish here, understandably — but quite true, a single long street, quite wide (room for 4 maybe 5 lanes but far more pedestrians than cars), off of which dozens of Calli, tiny streets that within a block butt up against the shore of the island or a canal: not so much an island as a group of islands very close together, and bridges everywhere, mostly pedestrian only.

Anyhoo, after a first colpo d'occhio — I took to Chioggia immediately right on my walk across the Laguna di Lusonzo, cooing and whooping the way I sometimes do — still, the first order of the day was to find a hotel. There are dozens of beach-type hotels in the nearby island of Sottomarina, but only three or four in Chioggia itself, one of which was of last resort, 4‑stars and the name "Grande Italia": I of course headed for the most average and Italian place I could, which after walking the island back and forth I found on the wide working Canal S. Domenico — but the Clodia (ancient name of the town whence of course the modern) full up; so back to the Caldin's at the entrance of the old town, which I'd tried to avoid, since a sort of concrete thing: on the other hand, right across from the Duomo — large brick heap, though not unattractive — and a small basin full of fishing boats; not a canal but something like one.

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The Canale Perottolo as seen from my hotel window; essentially a parking lot.

There was room, and even with a view over Duomo and boats, and happy Booby took his shower and headed back out while there was still light.

I dunno why I say I don't like the sea — probably because I don't, much — but I like fishing ports, and even accept from Chioggia the same level of dirt and grit that in Bologna I find nasty. Anyway, Chioggia proper is pretty small, a bit smaller than Foligno say; and I poked around for an hour and a bit, mostly the narrow Canal Vena immediately parallel to the Corso, before finding myself a restaurant, inauspiciously named Bella Venezia, but it had a "garden" — a red-walled courtyard with potted plants, vines, ficus and a flowering rhododendron — so why not.

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Closing the restaurant: the Bella Venezia at a few minutes to midnight.

Fish of course; a very good meal if small-portioned and thus somewhat on the expensive side. I was hungry, plus undecided and determined to try things, so a large meal (I think when I get back to Chicago that I won't have lost a pound): antipasto, what they called a cicchetteria chioggiotta, all fresh locally caught fish of course, a mix of shellfish, some of them recognizable, baccalá mantecato looking for all like a kind of tartar sauce, sarde in saor (some kind of saltfish with onions, tasting much like rollmops, but with raisins — excellent, A+), mussels, shrimp, polenta, something like crayfish, etc. All of it very good, an A. A second plate of antipasto: carpaccio of some unidentified fish with red peppercorns — a very good idea — and four raw shrimp, didn't realize you could eat shrimp raw: the whole plate good, but no more than a tablespoon of food. . . .

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Now I'm puzzled why the shrimp shells were pink; they really were raw.

Chef's specialty, tortelli al rombo allo zafferano, another A; grilled eel — at last here was a hunk of something I could sink my teeth in — a semi-disappointment, fatty on the inside and charred on the outside (I would have traded some of the char for grilling the inside of the beast and getting rid of the fat: C+) but of zoological interest if nothing else, since the live eel must have been a huge critter, well over a fist thick.​a With all this, what do I know about non-Umbrian wines, a Santa Caterina, Collio DOC (a Tocai Friulano) 2003 from Spilimbergo, pleasant and went fine with my meal but nothing exceptional. Tiramisú, B — I like 'em less gloppy, more cakelike — and to finish, an experiment; always asked, when I say prime uve, "bianco o nero?" So finally I asked for a half glass of each to compare: the nero is zubrówka-colored and both sharper and spicier than the bianco, and my little lesson was useful. Out of Bella Venezia though at 11:45 P.M.; 400 m to hotel, zonk.

Yesterday, confirmed I'd be staying a second night — I'd been uncertain, thinking that if (a) Peter didn't show and (b) a little bit of Chioggia was enough — or even, speaking of Bologna, too much, I might be able to get a jump on my trains and get to Treia earlier — but since I liked Chioggia, I'd stay.

No breakfast, and off to explore, starting at the near end of the Corso — Duomo open — and slowly down to the other was the idea, since the "El Gato" (now the "Ombra del Gato") was down there. So I did my usual crawl of churches, although very little in them, since despite its ancient origins and medieval past, Chioggia got prosperous in the 17‑18c and everything was rebuilt then. A few ex‑voto paintings — local name, "Telole"​b in S. Giacomo and in S. Domenico, if not satisfactorily photographable: these very theftable items are under glass in the former and at some distance away behind a wrought-iron gate in the latter. One single possible Roman item anywhere, and that a maybe, what appears to be a Roman inscription in the outer wall of the Duomo on the side facing S. Martino, but I couldn't figure it out. There's said to be a beauti­ful medieval crucifix in S. Domenico, but I didn't see it: I think it was behind the curtain behind the main altar.

Anyway, a fairly thorough exploration of Chioggia before lunch, and — having called Peter before leaving Umbertide at number he'd e‑mailed me but got only a voicemail box and no reply since — I stopped at the Grande Italia on the off-chance he wasn't at the Villa Margheritaniente; went to the (Ombra del) Gato — having also checked that this was the same place merely with a name change, and not a second restaurant, one the Gato and the other its Ombra also a reasonable supposition — and found it, at 12:30, closed and dark. Signs outdoors said it was closed Monday, also that they served lunch starting at 12:00. Logically at least, I was the only person waiting in front of a closed restaurant, niente American group equally disconsolate; so I got on the horn to that same number (which I'd noticed was in Rome, another puzzle) and this time a businesslike voice telling me you have the wrong number, this is a booking agency: beginning to understand, I asked for the Villa Margherita in Venice, they got me the number; there, I was told, nope, Mr. Palmieri out to lunch, no, not in Chioggia, in Venice.

At this point I realized there'd been a change in plans, and noone had bothered to let me know; and obviously my first message had just been discarded (like most phone messages and e‑mails here). Rang off and went to lunch: no excesses since I'd more or less decided to eat at the Bella V. again in the evening; so found myself at La Taverna, awning over the sidewalk in a part of the island I hadn't explored.

Fairly good meal, if not as special (nor as expensive) as the Bella Venezia: capessante alla griglia, gnocchetti al pesce spada e bottarga di muggene, scampi fritti, and a quarter of the house prosecco; afterwards firm decision to go for a longish walk if I was going to gorge again a few hours later.

Walk: Sottomarina. It's the other island, in the Middle Ages Clugia Minor (when Chioggia was the Maior), and is now the beachfront, endless modern houses — didn't expect much, just a walk along the Adriatic. And sure enough, heading across the island to the seaward side, I found endless new houses, beach hotels, campgrounds: just like Florida, sort of. Long lazy walk along the beach, stopping to sit at a shack and have a beer, watch the windsurfers; I'd never seen any, actually. From there a long walk up the beach, feeling depraved as one does when on a beach but not wearing a bathing suit, to the seawall and mole at the end of which a red-painted beacon: lots of others had the same idea as well, about 40 people in the little triangle, chatting, staring out to sea, sunbathing — weather warm in Chioggia but cooler in Sottomarina and out on the pier, breezy though already bathing suit weather at least to sun if not to bathe.

More walk back, then thru the actual older town of Sottomarina, facing Chioggia across the strait: Sottomarina turned out to be much more interesting than I'da thought. The first thing I saw was what at first looked like an exceptionally well preserved Roman road but tilted crosswise by about 10°: the Murazzo, or mid‑18c seawall, on the gently sloping side of which at the time there was the sea, and behind which the town, a very narrow strip in spots about a block wide.

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A small stretch of the Murazzo of Sottomarina.

Wandering to one of the little lanes, I saw something that at first looked like a group of people watching a television set up on a chair in the middle of the street, so of course I got closer; it was a game of spineta, in which the players (a dozen old ladies the youngest maybe 60) took turns pitching a coin against a vertical plate — in this case what looked like a granite table top — and of course the coin bounces off at an unpredictable angle and hits the ground. The first player whose coin lands touching another coin picks up the lot. I stood and watched for about ten minutes, itching to take a photograph but never did ask, not quite right; slipped off quietly.

Not 50 m later, what's this? a tiny 20c chapel in the middle of a piazzetta. Inquiring, I learned it was the capitello​c Netti, after the "detto" of the guy who had it built, in honor of an apparition of the Virgin in Sottomarina. I was told there were two others, although this one was the only one still open (Mass said here on May 30 the anniversary of the miracle); at which point of course I had to see the others; fortunately Sottomarina not that big, at least the old section inside the Murazzo, and I found the Capitello Cortegranda and the Capitello Berti with no trouble. The poor materials our time is now stuck with — unfaced concrete — don't make for anything too pretty, yet the actual design of each not bad, and a bit of maintenance would make them fairly attractive anyway.

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Sottomarina: capitelli Netti, Cortegranda, Berti.

Back over the 700 m bridge to my hotel, then, with time to kill before eating, out to the station to see if I could buy my entire ticket for Wednesday: nothing doing, no ticket window, but the caffé could issue me the ticket for Rovigo and assured me that my 11 minutes there would be enough to buy that whole complicated ticket to Macerata. Back to the hotel and then to the Bella Venezia for the evening blow-out, then I wonder why Belly is so plump and fat, although I did wind up doing, man mano, about 10 km on foot during the day — still —

Blow-out in fact not as bad as all that: niente antipasti, but the restaurant, happy to see me back, of their own suggested a pair of primi — granseola (don't know what it was, but this good shredded stuff in small flakes my bet crab)​d and soft-shelled crab (mollecche) with polenta; on to a risotto agli scampi al profumo di arancio — profumo not strong enough for Boobykins: if they hadn't said anything about orange I'd have called it an A, but has to be a B+ instead — Overall the meal got another A- from me: best restaurant of the trip so far; and with that to bed not much earlier than the night before.

Later Notes:

a Years later, I finally realized why I was puzzled, why this was new to me. All my experience had been of fresh-water eel: this was the salt-water conger eel.

b That should be tolèle. I thought I saw what I wrote (then immediately justified it in my mind by telapainting (on canvas)‑ola, a diminutive); but the derivation is in fact from tavolopainted panel (on wood); as indeed those that I saw were, if memory serves. My thanks to Enrico Veronese for setting me straight.

c The word capitello normally means "capital" (as of a column), and the standard Italian word for "small chapel" is cappelletta. I found the metathesis odd at the time; but in Sottomarina capitello is the right word, or at least it was what I heard from two native speakers. Nevertheless, on my return to Chicago and for several more years I was doubtful — but have since happily learned that my hearing had been good, and that in much of Italy the term is a common one for what in Umbria are called edicole (see my site); in Venetian dialect, the normal word is the variant capitèo. Several websites collect capitelli, like this one for the area around Treviso, and especially the Madonne e Capitelli section of the wonder­ful Venise-Sérénissime site.

d Spider crab.

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