As we neared the heart of the city the streets began to widen and the crowds intensified. Narrow alleys lined with tall houses transformed to bustling streets lined with lace-shops, delicatessens and cafes. Each new plaza we reached was larger and busier than the last. It was a sign that we were heading in the right direction, but also meant that potential distractions became more frequent.
We glimpsed the fish market, heaving with traders and enthusiastic customers. We smelt the salt in the air and heard the cries of eager fishermen selling their goods. We passed street stalls laden with bags of partially dyed farfalle pasta, where each pasta bow formed bold black and white stripes. My camera didn’t stop clicking as I admired dozens of bakeries and their windows full of delights. Large slabs of nutty, chewy torrone. Click. Woven baskets piled high with marzipan fruits – sticky, sweet and colourful. Click. Crisp linzer biscuits dusted with icing sugar and oozing jam. Piles of deep scarlet dried chillies, tied in bundles like flowers. Tiny boxes decorated with orchard scenes and filled with biscuits in a multitude of flavours – orange, peppermint, gingerbread. Click, click, click. I wanted to stop and drink everything in, taste every delicacy. But we didn't have time to pause – our rumbling stomachs told us we had somewhere to be.
After a few more twists and turns (and more Italian road names deciphered) we were nearly at our destination. I started to recognise our surroundings from our last visit – a certain bridge here, a peculiar statue there.
And then there it was. The funny little shop with no front wall or door. It had no visible name or signpost – just two long cabinets housing the glorious food we had come for. A large humming fridge and a few stools for elderly locals made up the remainder of the space. A small crowd was gathered with people standing on tiptoes and straining their necks for a glimpse. Only there was no celebrity, just the best pizza in town. I realised the immense power of good food, the stir of excitement it can cause within you.
We squeezed our way to the front to properly see what we had come for. Vast discs of pizza lay on low turntables before us. There wasn’t a huge variety of flavours to choose from but deciding between the few options available was struggle enough. There was the classic margherita with bright red tomato sauce poking through fat slabs of melting mozzarella. There was one with salty dried ham, a spicy one with hot and chewy chunks of chorizo. There was a tempting veggie option – mushrooms, peppers and courgettes forming a riot of colour. I paused at the semi-calzone, the dough folded like a letter showing just a small peek of bright spinach and ricotta filling at either end. The pizza slices were cut generously and I could feel my mouth watering at the sight. We stumbled through our order to the curly haired man behind the counter, attempting our best Italian. After a brief blast in the old pizza oven, our slices were handed back to us – laid on sheets of brown paper and sizzling hot.
Pocketing our change and balancing our precious cargo on our palms, we turned down a narrow side street that opened onto the bright bustle of the Grande Canal. We sat on cold stone steps next to a gondola stop: perfect for people watching as we ate. The first bite more than lived up to my expectations. As I bit into it, the mozzarella stretched endlessly into long white threads. The base was crisp, the sauce was sweet. It was perfect. It wasn’t complicated molecular gastronomy or supreme Michelin starred dining. It was better. It was gutsy, full of flavour and impossible to resist. It was finished all too soon. I’m left with an even more powerful memory and a year long wait until the next Venice trip to taste it again.