By Rick Lotzkar.
There is a little hidden slice of Venetian heaven not far from the well beaten tourist track. A sublime and comforting refuge from the crowds which sometimes threaten to overwhelm the more popular sections of this unique and delicate city. It is an island within an island. It is the best place in Venice. It is the Campo Santa Margherita.
This long, irregular and roughly triangular space in the Dorsoduro District is an oasis welcoming the weary pilgrim, and lies halfway between the Basilica of Santa Maria Gloriosa Dei Frari with its magnificent Titian altarpiece and the Fondamenta Zattere, the stylish promenade fronting the Giudecca Canal. Most travelers who find their way here are lost and linger just long enough to pick up the trail of yellow signs directing them to Piazza San Marco, the Accademia or the train station.
What they are missing is a living breathing public space with everything you need to pass a few special hours in Venice. Starting near the “top” of the square there is the Barozzi Gianfranco & Co. Bakery offering fresh bread daily starting at 7:00 am. An early arrival means they may still have the cibattini con olive, crusty six inch loaves with black olives laced through the dough. Each bite is a crunchy, chewy delight with plump purple greek olives lending a rich salty accent. Two of them and a bottle of acqua frizzante make a splendid breakfast. The very same bottle, by the way, which will cost you up to 1.50 euros in those other parts of town, is 40 cents from the large case at the rear of the bakery. The cibattini are sold by weight and two of them may cost a single euro. Pocket change.
Italian is spoken here. Grab a seat on the red benches under a cluster of trees (yes, there are still a few trees left in Venice ) and you will rarely hear English. Abandon the ipod and try to follow the conversations. Old friends walking tiny dogs meet and chat, catching up on the events of the day. Students from the nearby Universita Ca’ Foscari laugh and gossip and debate. Tiny sparrows gather at your feet to carry off the crumbs of the olive rolls. It is already a good day.
A quick tour around the Campo reveals its riches. Two fragrant fruit stands brimming with the freshest produce of the region occupy the center of the action while the fishmongers set up further down the square with the impressive bounty of the surrounding sea. Next door to the bakery you will find the Nave D’Oro Vinaria, a wine shop where you can fill 1.5 liter plastic bottles from huge casks of Bardolino, Soave or Prosecco for two or three euros or sample the best of the Veneto by the glass a few doors down at the tiny Bistro do Draghi. The warm and inviting Caffe Rosso with its cozy interior and shaded outdoor tables beckons. Here a cappuccino will run 2.20 at a table, or a mere 1.20 if you stand at the bar.
There are several bars and restaurants dotting the perimeter. The Osteria alla Bifura lists their specials on a small typed sheet pinned to a board and delivers excellent local fare to accompany your favorite beverage, while Ai Sportivi offers a quite decent wood fired pizza starting at 5.50 euros for a simple Margherita. Or follow the college crowd onto the line stretching from Pizza al Volo (“pizza on the fly”) for an oversized slice from a modern gas oven. Topped with mushrooms, ham, eggplant or olives they make an ample snack for an even two euros. If a picnic is on your agenda then the Supermercato Punto is your destination.
For dessert of course there is gelato. The Gelateria Artigianale Il Doge at the bottom of the square is superb. On a hot day go for the fruit flavors, tart and refreshing. The maxi cono with two scoops comes in at 2.20 euro. Try fragola and limone, or an ethereal frutti di bosco. Literally meaning “fruit of the woods” it is a rich concoction of blueberries, blackberries, raspberries and currants that will take you to another place. They don’t have a bad flavor.
At night Santa Margherita puts on her party clothes and hosts some of the hippest and brightest nightlife this city has to offer. The University crowd takes over and the cafes and bars carry on late into the night. Campari and soda is the drink of choice and someone always seems to bring an acoustic guitar.
This is a real place for real people. A functioning urban landscape that works. There is a toy store, a bookstore, two pharmacies, a hardware store, a store that sells light bulbs and almost no place to buy a mask.
The pace here is slow and measured and a few hours among the red benches and shady tables of the Campo Santa Margherita is a tonic for the soul. Outside, Venice may rush to the hectic beat of the day trippers. Here in this quiet haven of the Most Serene Republic you can breathe deeply the aromas of coffee and peaches and fresh bread and recapture the spirit of this marvelous city.