“If Rome is a living museum, then Venice is a dream,” says Rinaldo “Ronnie” Di Stasio. The Thornbury-born son of Italian migrants is a hospitality legend in Melbourne, best known for the groundbreaking restaurant Rosati in the 1980s and for presiding for the past 31 years over the St Kilda temple of hedonism known as Cafe Di Stasio.
In early 2019 he and his partner in life and work, Mallory Wall, opened Citta, a sleek, contemporary art-inspired Italian restaurant overlooking Melbourne’s Treasury Gardens.
And it’s at a window table here, seated next to his adored labradoodle Lola, that Di Stasio recalls his first visit to Italy’s “floating city”.
“It was 1984 and we stayed in a little hotel called Hotel Splendido. It was anything but ‘splendido’ at the time,” he says, adding that the hotel has since been renovated.
Since 1995, Di Stasio has been back to Italy – and Venice – at least once every year. Driven by a burning passion for art and architecture, he was a key backer of the successful campaign to build a permanent Australian Pavilion in Venice’s Giardini della Biennale. Designed by Denton Corker Marshall, it opened in 2015.
Di Stasio and Wall’s work on the Biennale and frequent visits to Venice have given them a unique knowledge of the city that is naturally calibrated to the best in eating and drinking. “But if you want to experience Venice, you must get lost,” says Di Stasio. “All the great things you can do – going to Cafe Florian, Harry’s Bar and the Guggenheim – all of that’s important and uplifting. But to get lost in Venice is ‘feeling it’.”
And the best way to do that?
Just go for a walk. There are more than 400 bridges in Venice, so even if you know the place you’ll still get lost. Eventually you’ll be able to follow the workers to a little bacaro (wine bar) where there are no tourists, no menu. You’ll be lucky to get in but you’ll have one of the best meals of your life.
I go immediately to Piazza San Marco. It’s got memory for me: it’s grand, the history is there, it’s near the water and I love those muted colours – the cement and waiters in white jackets. Caffe Florian is my first stop. It’s decadent. I cut my teeth studying it when I first went to Venice and I still dream about it.
What do you order?
When I want to be alone I go right inside and have a coffee by myself, before the Americans find me. I order a coffee and a tramezzini (finger sandwich) with smoked salmon and butter. There’s the absence of awkwardness: the waiters know what they’re doing, and there’s style. Then I’ll maybe have a gin and tonic and another coffee with beautiful vanilla ice-cream and a wafer. Now I’m ready to go and unpack my bags. (Wall notes: sitting outside usually adds a €10 (about $16) surcharge to your bill, but there’s an orchestra playing: “It’s incredibly corny but fantastic.”)
Where do you stay?
Mallory has spoilt me – I go to the Hotel Metropole. Its character is very Moorish and dark and scented and it has a beautiful little jetty for the water taxis. I remember seeing the matriarch of the Missoni family being picked up there one beautiful sunny day. It was like she was the Queen – it was amazing.
What is your quintessential Venetian meal?
“Go-go fish” at Trattoria Da Romano, on the island of Burano. The go (goby) fish is an ugly-looking thing that lives on the bottom of the ocean and can be poisonous if not prepared properly. Here they make it into an incredibly creamy risotto – the fish just melts into it and is full of flavour. Go there in a water taxi for lunch and drink Jermann Vintage Tunina, from Friuli.
Other Venetian specialities?
In colder months, there’s fegato a la Venezio (calf’s liver with pepper). The key to that dish is to kill the onion by cooking it slowly over a very low heat. Bigoli is their local pasta (like a thick spaghetti but with a rough exterior) and they might have it with duck or rabbit ragu. There’s also molleche (soft-shell crab) and sardines. Some classic restaurants you could have these dishes include Ristorante Da Ivo, Osteria Da Fioreand Trattoria Al Vagon.
Do Venetians do street food?
At 11 in the morning you can go to a bacaro, the equivalent of a little wine bar, and you’ll have a series of cicchetti, small bites similar to Spanish tapas, perhaps with a prosecco spritz. They start early, the Venetians! Bacari are everywhere, but quite a few good ones are near the Rialto fish market. Get there around seven in the morning for the best experience.
What’s your must-see gallery?
First stop is the Guggenheim, on the Grand Canal. It’s probably one of the best contemporary art collections in the world. Max Ernst, Dali, Picasso – you name it, it’s in there. Plus it’s got a great Marino sculpture at the front, of a man on a horse with a detachable penis (that can be screwed off when school kids visit on a daytrip).
Palazzo Grassi – they have a permanent collection, plus they get involved with the Venice Biennale; Punta della Dogana, the old customs house, which is incredible and has contemporary art; and then there’s Palazzo Mora, five levels with several artists.
Is Harry’s Bar still worth visiting?
Absolutely. It’s a cultural experience. The beautiful Hotel Danieli, with its ornate bar and lobby is great for a drink, too.
Any more restaurants?
For not-too-expensive local seafood go to Trattoria Alla Madonna, or Antiche Carampane for spaghetti and clams (always order the red prawns if on offer, they are sweet and succulent); Osteria Alla Frasca is a real hidden joy, tucked away in a courtyard; Bruno for classic hospitality and beautiful food; Osteria ai Promessi Sposi for lunch and dinner, or stand and snack on cicchetti at the bar, it’s never let us down. Finish with a sublime gelato at Il Pinguino – the ricotta and fig is out of this world.
Walk 15 minutes along the Grand Canal and you’ll find yourself in parklands at the Giardini. Admission prices vary, generally children are free, and if the Illy pop-up is there, have a coffee. Take a picnic lunch, or maybe classic pastries from Bonifacio, and wander around the different pavilions.
Gondolas – yes or no?
I’ve done it once. It’s far too touristy, expensive and slow. Instead, take the family on the vaporetto (public ferry), see how the locals do it, and maybe visit the island San Francesco del Deserto. There’s something about the colour of the water and the light in Venice that is just so intoxicating.
Caffe Florian, caffeflorian.com/en
Hotel Metropole, hotelmetropole.com/en
Trattoria Da Romano, daromano.it/en
Ristorante Da Ivo, ristorantedaivo.it
Ristorante Osteria Da Fiore, dafiore.net/en/restaurant
Trattoria Al Vagon, Cannaregio 5597
The Peggy Guggenheim Collection, guggenheim-venice.it
Palazzo Grassi, palazzograssi.it
Punta Della Dogana, as above
Palazzo Mora, ecc-italy.eu
Harry’s Bar, cipriani.com
Hotel Danieli, hoteldanieli.com
Trattoria Alla Madonna, ristoranteallamadonna.com
Trattoria Antiche Carampane, antichecarampane.com/it/
Osteria Alla Frasca, Cannaregio 5176
Trattoria Da Bruno, trattoriadabruno.com
Osteria ai Promessi Sposi, Calle dell’Oca 4367
Il Pinguino, Riva De Biasio 2141
Pasticceria Da Bonifacio, Calle degli Albanesi 4237