We turn the corner to another dead end; a fellow tourist walks toward us, shrugs, and smiles. We consult our map for the hundredth time. Here, you hope for a glimpse of a familiar tower or the occasional weathered sign mentioning San Marco or Rialto to confirm that you’re walking in the right direction.
We’re looking for the osteria, Alla Staffa, where we hear they serve delicious and authentic Venetian food. We cross another bridge and look to the left where we see a narrow canal and, in the distance the Frari tower. On each canal side, ancient buildings rise up out of the water; ornate iron railings guard their shuttered windows. From some windows, purple and white petunias cascade down, from others, laundry hangs to dry. We turn then, to the right - no it’s left from here.
Alla Staffa is the cheese at the end of the maze.
Footsteps, clanking dishes, the steady hum of Italian, Spanish, English, French, German voices, a barking dog, a boat motor, church bells every half hour, a woman singing to her infant son – these are the sounds you hear as you navigate your way through Venice. Some paths are so narrow that your shoulders nearly rub the soaring walls on either side, then suddenly you emerge to a small piazza where people lounge at small tables eating and sipping wine or spritz.
Venetian children zip along the stone paths on scooters beside their strolling parents and grandparents. They are uninterested in the familiar buildings and countless strangers that surround them.
Different scents fill our nostrils with each step: jasmine bloom, perspiration, warm bread, cigarette smoke, baking fish, earthy moist pavement, fresh sea air.
We arrive at Alla Staffa; it’s 8:35. We’re afraid they won’t seat us because it’s past 8:30 on a Saturday and the restaurant is tiny with few tables. They welcome us in and point to the last open table. We order a glass of Prosecco. We’re hot from the walk and the warm, humid air; the Prosecco is cool and bubbly. We order Lasagna Bolognese with house made pasta, Eggplant Milanese, a layered dish with fried eggplant, tomato sauce, and fresh mozzarella, and contorni (a side dish) of mixed vegetables: roasted yellow and red peppers, zucchini, eggplant, and potatoes. Each vegetable has its own area on the plate.
At the table next to us a beautifully tan Italian couple orders Branzino, roasted and served whole with head and tail. We marvel at their skilled hands as they slice off the head and tail, peel the skin, and lift out the spine and bones.
For dessert, we order house made Tiramisu, but then wish we hadn’t when we see the chocolate cake a woman near us is eating.
We bob and weave and twist and turn, unlock the door, and climb into bed. It’s our first night in Venice.