The Venetian island of Torcello has 11 inhabitants. Last year there were 16, but then Carmen’s cousins upped sticks and moved to Burano. Apparently they didn’t have a boat – problematic on an island where the local amenities consist of a couple of restaurants and a Byzantine cathedral (beautiful, I might add, but not much cop when it comes to the weekly shop).
“When Stefano and I got married he told me he wanted to move to Torcello. I refused,” Carmen tells me as she moors the boat. But despite not living on the Venetian island themselves, Stefano and Carmen are its biggest fans.
After a short walk along a towpath we reach a restaurant overflowing with people. Families sit at outside tables, picking at platters of fried fish; children run in the garden – a huge expanse of green that comes as a welcome surprise after the choked streets of La Serenissima. There are two alpine goats called Rambo and Rocky, a large vegetable patch and an army of happy staff.
This is Taverna Tipica Veneziana, the brain child of Stefano and Carmen and a breath of fresh air for the residents of Torcello and its surrounding islands.
Once the most important trading centre in the Adriatic, by the tenth century Torcello had a population of 30,000 and profitable ties to Constantinople. Yet by the twelfth century the Lagoon, once the economic backbone of the island, was fuelling its downfall. Flooding had turned the muddy banks of the Adriatic into a swamp, driving the thousands of inhabitants away from the malaria-infested island and into the arms of Venice.
Nine hundred years later, and this restaurant is proving that the Lagoon can once again bring new life to Torcello, namely in the form of fish and chips. Shellfish has long been the lifeblood of the Adriatic, but in Torcello, away from crowded Venice with her dimly lit bars, sombre plates of sarde in saor and hoardes of tourists, it seems to taste sweeter.
We sit at a table under the warm November sun and eat a creamy seafood risotto from edible bread bowls (apparently it saves on the washing up), followed by fried shellfish served with fat chips and salty battered vegetables.
With a look of affection, Stefano tells us about the restaurant. His family had two lace making shops in Burano, but desperate to branch out they floated the idea of opening a gelateria. But then Stefano was introduced to an industrial fryer at a trade show and the rest is history. Shortly afterwards they opened a fried fish shop in Burano, then, with the vision of a creating an agriturismo in Torcello, Stefano did battle with the incompetent Venetian planning authority until, after months of trying, he got a permit to open the restaurant.
The authorities reluctance to encourage new businesses is, of course, incomprehensible. The mass exodus of Venice is nowhere more apparent than in Torcello, where the steady trickle of daily tourists vastly outnumbers its 11 residents. But projects like this are emboldening Venetian cultural identities and communities. Carmen tells me that the restaurant only employs people from Torcello or its neighbouring islands and is open all year long in defiance of the tourist season.
As we walk back along the towpath, the sounds of happy diners at our backs and Stefano and Carmen’s children running happily in front, it would seem that Torcello has some life in her yet.