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Robert St. John

Restaurateur, author, enthusiastic traveler, & world-class eater.

The Plate Talks

December 5, 2017

VENICE— The first time I ever thought about visiting this city, I almost didn’t. I was in the middle of a lengthy tour through Europe with my wife, 14-year old daughter, and 10-year old son. We were spending 10 weeks in Italy and joining up with renowned watercolorist, Wyatt Waters, to work on a new coffee table cookbook.

Waters’ main artistic influence had been John Singer Sargent. I knew Sargent from his Gilded Age portraiture of the Vanderbilts and the like, and I had seen his most famous painting, Madame X which hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. They are all large-scale oil paintings. Waters loved Sargent for his watercolors. Sargent was a prolific watercolorist, and the majority of the expatriated American’s watercolor work was done in Venice.

Waters couldn’t wait to get to Venice to paint in the town of his idol. I, on the other hand, took a more cynical view of the city. I knew that Venice had become a mecca for cruise ships and tourists, and on that trip, we were trying to find the hidden, locals-only places in Italy. I get it. It’s got water for streets, I told myself. I was content to let Waters spend his first 10 days there, painting everything he needed to cover that region of the country for our book, and we would join him in Tuscany. To me, Venice was just a gimmicky tourist trap.

I was wrong. Very wrong.

We picked up Waters after his initial 10-day Venetian stay, as my family coming out of Austria. The five of us then headed down to Bologna, and continued moving south over the next several weeks— he painted, my wife homeschooled, and I ate. After seeing Waters’ watercolor work that was completed in Venice, I thought that maybe I should give Venice a shot when we headed back north. I eventually booked a nice apartment for all of us overlooking the Giudecca Canal, and we arrived here in mid-November.

The first night we took a vaporetto ride down the Grand Canal, I realized how idiotic my thinking had been. This place is beautiful, distinctive, and more unique than any other urban area in the world. Seriously. The world.

My initial thoughts were off on facts and perception. Venice is not a city with water for streets, but 118 islands built on 1500-year old oak pilings connected by more than 400 bridges.

Venice is magical.

It’s for that reason that we have returned over and over again, and are now leading 25 people on a food-art journey through this city, Bologna, and Milan. To be one of the most unique urban areas in the world, Venice is not very big. At 55,000, it’s not much bigger than my hometown of Hattiesburg, MS.

Waters, his girlfriend, my wife and I arrived a day early to make sure everything was set for our group. Our friend, David— who spends every Thanksgiving here— invited us to dinner at Osteria Santa Marina. It was somewhere between the bruschetta and the beef cheek that I remembered back to how wrong I had initially been about this city. Actually, a person couldn’t have been more wrong. My contempt-before-investigation attitude outed me as a close-minded traveler and I became embarrassed about it all over again. Then the dessert was served— a delicate thing with dozens of layers of light, flaky, pastry with strawberries, a custard crème, and chocolate shavings, understated and elegant all at once— and I forgave myself for the 935th time.

Earlier in the meal, the dining room manager stopped by to pick up the plate, that minutes earlier had contained braised beef cheeks and polenta— but now looked like it had already been run through the dishwasher— and commented, “The plate talks.”

After 36 years in the restaurant business, and 30 as an owner, I had never heard that expression. But it was spot on. The plate talks, and a cleaned plate “talks loudest.”

So, the journey has begun. Our group of 25 arrived without incident and are currently sleeping of their jet lag as I type this in the early dawn hours at my desk in the Hotel Monaco overlooking the Grand Canal. In a few minutes, the bells from the tower on St. Mark’s Square, or Piazza San Marco to the Venetians, will begin to chime, and the journey will begin again.

The welcome dinner last night was highlighted by stuffed zucchini blossoms, and an amazing porcini risotto. Again, my plate talked, like many in our group. I look forward to making more plates talk over the next eight days in Northern Italy.



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