La Serenissima

Author: Michael Harden
Photography: Carla Coulson

In February this year, Rinaldo Di Stasio held a dinner at his vineyard property in Victoria's Yarra Valley as part of his patronage of the Renaissance exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia. In a long gallery space hung with large works by photographer Bill Henson, the Café Di Stasio team (led by the unflappable Mallory Wall) served 30 guests a Renaissance-influenced feast - pigeon and spiced-cherry pie, wild-boar ragù, roast suckling pig with chicory, and marzipan and pear pudding - while musicians performed Renaissance music. A program placed at each setting contained images from the exhibition (on loan from the collection at the Accademia Carrara in Bergamo). Even Di Stasio's house itself - designed by Allan Powell and influenced by the Guggenheim museum in Venice - played its role in capturing the Renaissance vibe.

The dinner, with its melding of food, art, hospitality, architecture, music and wine, was a distillation of the passions that drive Rinaldo Di Stasio, one of Melbourne's best-known and most interesting restaurateurs. His St Kilda restaurant, Café Di Stasio, which this year turns 25, has always been a showcase for celebrating his Italian-Australian lineage, brilliantly simple Italian food, and love and patronage of the arts.

Di Stasio's promotion of the Renaissance exhibition was the most recent manifestation of his arts patronage, but he is also commited to the construction of a new Australian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. In 2008 Di Stasio sponsored an "Ideas Competition" to find an alternative to the current structure in the Giardini della Biennale; it attracted entries from all over the world and has led to Australia Council for the Arts involvement and a commitment to building a new pavilion. For Di Stasio, a new pavilion that properly showcases both art and architecture is his "dream and ultimate aim" and a way to further develop the ties between the two countries he loves, or, as he terms it, "collegamento Italiano" - the Italian connection.

Di Stasio's parents' backgrounds were southern Italian, but it was Venice and Rome that captured his imagination as a child and that he's visited most often in the 30 years he has been travelling to Italy. "Venice can be so beautiful, it's scary," he says. "Even in the corny moments, when you have orchestras playing Lloyd Webber to tourists in San Marco, it still manages to be breathtakingly beautiful. It's criminal for a place to have such beauty. I love the way the architecture mirrors the social structure - there are layers and hidden parts and it can be very hard to get to know. It can be a mystery, but a beautiful mystery."

In the interests of unravelling the mystery that is Venice and of celebrating Gourmet Traveller's Italian issue, Di Stasio shares 10 of his favourite places in La Serenissima.

Harry's Bar
"Of course Harry's Bar. It's like the headquarters, somewhere you need to go every day, and every time you leave you think, I can't wait to get back here again. It's the tradition of it, the ceremony, the efficiency in such a small space - everything is to scale, like the cabin of a ship, but it really works. All the small details are looked after. They don't really like making coffee; they prefer to make you a cocktail instead. Go during the afternoon and you'll avoid the crowds and be able to order the most magnificent croque-monsieur and amazing cakes. Just don't look too closely at the bill afterwards. I usually give them my wallet and say, 'Just leave me enough money to catch the vaporetto home.'" Harry's Bar, Calle Vallaresso, San Marco 1323, +39 041 528 5777.

Al Covo
"Al Covo was recommended to me by Faith Willinger, an American food writer based in Florence who is friends with the owners, Diane and Cesare Benelli. It's at the end of a little street where the local kids like to play soccer and it's one of those places you can be confident sending people because the food is very, very good, it's beautifully run and you don't have to mortgage the house to eat here. They're big on pasta with squid ink, and the soft-shell crab served with tiny fries is delicious. In Venice the good places serve local seasonal food with seafood coming straight from the lagoon, and this is one of those places. I sometimes get emotional about food and there was an extraordinary pasta I had here, glossy with tiny pieces of clam and shrimp, that brought tears to my eyes." Al Covo, Campiello della Pescaria, Castello 3968, +39 041 522 3812.

Trattoria da Romano
"The way to do Venice, to really understand it, is to spend a week or 10 days there and, rather than running around trying to do and see everything, just relax; it's a city, not an amusement park. Sit in a piazza, have a coffee, read a book and then just wander about, getting lost; that's when you find the best restaurants, the galleries, the artisans making something amazing. It's the way I discovered Trattoria da Romano, a place that's been in the same family for five generations. The risotto here is excellent and they also have a char-grill that you won't find anywhere else in Venice. There's charred pigeon, quail, greens, polenta, and the flavours are all sensational." Trattoria da Romano, Piazza Baldassare Galuppi 221, S.Martino Destra, Burano, +39 041 730 030.

Trattoria alla Madonna
"I went here with two local women who took me to dinner on a hot, still night. We walked down some narrow lanes and before we'd reached the restaurant, I smelt the oil. You know when oil smells good and clean with a hint of garlic, chilli and seafood? It took me in, led me - I could have found the place without being guided there. It was heaven. Alla Madonna is a very busy restaurant, quite big for Venice, with seats both indoors and outdoors, but the attention to detail is there. Seafood is the specialty and you get a chance to eat really fresh seafood that's just been pulled from the lagoon. We have great seafood in Australia but you rarely get to eat it this fresh and the difference is amazing. This is a restaurant that's been discovered by the tourists, but it's not a tourist restaurant. Locals still eat here, which is always a positive sign." Trattoria alla Madonna, Calle Della Madonna, San Polo 594, +39 041 522 3824.

Peggy Guggenheim Collection
"This is the most beautiful gallery in the world for me - it has a scale that I like and art that I like. It's never been properly finished and really contrasts with all the other palazzi around it. I love that the art is Peggy Guggenheim's personal collection. These were artists that she knew, that she lived with and slept with before they were really well known and so it's a collection that's about passion and not money. I love the symmetry of the building, the way the rooms lead on from each other, drawing you in. I went to a cocktail party here that was held in the garden and on the terrace on a beautiful spring night. With the lighting, the views, the art, it was one of the "moments" of my life. This museum's beyond special; it's spiritual and hugely influential on the way I look at the world. Plus it's on the Grand Canal, and I can never get enough of that." Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, Dorsoduro 704, +39 041 240 5411.

Isola di San Francesco del Deserto
"This little island with its monastery is probably not for everyone, but it appeals to me because it's sweet and meditative and it's a place where I can get off the conveyor belt. You don't get too many tourists here and the ones who are are more likely to be English academics than snap-happy day-trippers. I love the architecture and the solitude. It appeals to me with its blend of gothic and baroque buildings and with the monks who have been here forever. It's real and ancient, it's still operating as a monastery, it's hard to get to and it's such a contrast to the chaos of Venice. It's a place to be peaceful and contemplative." Isola di San Francesco del Deserto

Grand Hotel Des Bains
"This is the hotel where Visconti shot Death in Venice. It's on the Lido, a beautiful island about 15 minutes by vaporetto from Venice. It's a beautiful place with fabulous restaurants and a wonderful beach that feels a bit Australian to me because it's a sand beach rather than the usual pebble beaches you find in Italy. The Lido always feels a bit isolated to me, so I like to come here for an afternoon sojourn, to have a walk on the beach and afternoon tea at Des Bains, a wonderful building with such an impressive, grand presence. After that, a holiday from my holiday, I head back to Venice." The Grand Hotel Des Bains is currently closed; it will re-open in late 2013 as a residential apartment area and small boutique hotel of 15-20 suites. Grand Hotel Des Bains, Lungomare Marconi 17, Lido.

Ristorante Fiaschetteria Toscana
"There are tourist restaurants all over Venice where you see people sitting eating chips and pizza when only 20 metres away there's a little piece of paradise like this one. It's always worth digging a little, and remember, if a restaurant has someone spruiking out the front, don't go in. About 200 years ago this was a Tuscan wine and oil shop, hence the name. They have a brilliant wine list and excellent sommeliers who will recommend something special to go with the house specialty, go e bevarase risotto, made with aged organic carnaroli rice, clams and the broth of tiny, very ugly fish that come from the lagoon, and that, cooked properly, have the most divine flavour. The apple turnover-style dolce - rovesciata di mele al caramello - is a brilliant way to finish the meal here." Ristorante Fiaschetteria Toscana, Salizada S.Giovanni Grisostomo, Cannaregio 5719, +39 041 528 5281.

Hotel Danieli
"There are two great bars at the Danieli: the Terazza Danieli Bar with its views of Venice, and - my favourite - the Dandolo, which is one of the most extravagant bars I've ever seen. It's like a bar on steroids, all marble pillars and baroque detail. The first time I came here was with some gondoliers who had finished work and took me for a drink at two in the morning. There's a secret door to the Dandolo (to the right of the hotel's main entrance) and the gondoliers gave this secret knock, the door opened and I was immediately in love with the place. The service is great with an old-school charm and attention to detail, and they make great cocktails. It's also a good place to come for coffee in the morning. The hotel is a great place to stay, particularly the rooms towards the back where you get a beautiful Venice skyline view." Hotel Danieli, Riva degli Schiavoni, Castello 4196, +39 041 522 6480.

Giardini della Biennale
"These beautiful gardens, with their huge trees and calm atmosphere, are close to the heart of Venice and become the main drag during the Venice Biennale. The 29 national pavilions are located here, including the Australian Pavilion, and it's a good place to explore, even when the madness of the Biennale is not happening. It's a privilege to have a spot in the gardens. Australia was one of the last countries to be granted space here and our temporary pavilion, designed by Philip Cox, was designed and built in a hurry to secure the spot. But that was nearly 25 years ago and so it's time for a change. We need a building that will be a proper showcase for Australian art and architecture. It is my dream to see a new pavilion in the Giardini and it seems as if it's finally going to happen." Giardini della Biennale, Castello.

View Full Site