Behind the Venetian Mask
When the former owners of Mezzanotte finally closed that long-running fashionista-favorite restaurant/nightclub last year and opened Carnevale, a self-billed "Venetian café," two questions instantly occurred to me: Would this really be like eating in Venice? And, since the space's former occupant was so model-friendly, could you get blow in the bathroom? Let's polish off question two pronto: No. What Carnevale's ladies' room (a nonsociable one-seater) has is a fabulous sink. Multicolored and jewel-like, the ceramic bowl truly is worthy of a Venetian doge's palace. As for question number one, the answer also is, regrettably, no. The food is not typically Venetian, not in the least. In fact if the aforementioned doge decided he wanted his sink back and hopped into a time machine to teleport hundreds of years and thousands of miles to Carnevale, it's doubtful he'd recognize anything on the menu except its prints of classic commedia dell'arte characters, after which the stylish Carnivale (Venetian Mardi Gras festival) masks hanging on the restaurant's inside walls were modeled.
In Italy cuisine is extremely regionalized, Venice more than most owing to its isolation as an island-city surrounded by water (specifically a lagoon full of terrific and often unique local seafood) and its medieval position as the Western world's primo port for Eastern spices. The latter influence is responsible for traditional Venetian cuisine's use of spices atypical in the rest of Italy, like cloves, and also for Middle-Eastern/Jewish sweet-sour dishes. The influence of the sea is responsible for specialties such as granceole (delicate, delicious spider crab, usually served cold in its shell and dressed with olive oil) and canocchie, a ghostly white miniature lobster that highlights most quality Venetian antipasto plates. Popular pasta dishes in Venice include a hollow spaghetti in anchovy sauce, and a flavorful cranberry bean purée with fresh fettuccine.
But not at Carnevale. None of the above is there; neither are a few other Venetian specialties so typical they're practically stereotypical. For example: Probably the universe's most famous carpaccio (named after famous Venetian painter Carpaccio) is that at Harry's Bar in Venice, where the dish of thin-sliced raw filet mignon is drizzled with signature creamy-rich mild white vinaigrette. But most Italian restaurants don't bother to duplicate Harry's subtle, scrumptious sauce, and Carnevale proved no exception. Here the carpaccio -- which was so thin that it was hard to detach the slices from the plate without them falling apart -- was dressed with the usual olive oil and lemon, so heavy on lemon that the raw beef arrived citrus-soaked. And the usual garnish of Parmigiano shavings was half a dozen huge, thick slices of the cheese -- good in themselves but overpowering to the delicate meat. In a nontraditionally Venetian but welcome carpaccio di salmone variation, the fresh salmon was similarly subdued into submission by supersize Parmesan pieces, though the dish's basil dressing, a bit assertive for the fish, complemented the strong cheese nicely.
Mixed greens, actually an impressive chopped salad with mushrooms, sweet onion, roasted peppers, and Italian feta cheese, was lightly dressed but hefty enough in size and substance for two to four diners to share. Antipasto mezzanotte was not a mixed assortment but a similar salad -- minus feta, plus a couple of artichokes -- topped with house-made mozzarella. Drooped over the vegetables, the mozzarella looked suspect, as though it'd been sitting since Venice's Golden Age in the Sixteenth Century. But false alarm! The melted-looking mass tasted great.
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The appetizer that seemed the most representative of Carnevale's confusion was carciofi alla Giudea. This "Jewish-style artichoke" is a Roman, not Venetian, specialty and is prepared by flattening the artichoke into a circular sunflower shape, then deep-frying; Carnevale's was normal artichoke shape and merely oil-marinated. In addition this artichoke appetizer consisted mainly of portobello mushrooms. That said, it was good.
Entrées were more of the same. Few dishes even sounded Venetian, and none tasted more than vaguely Venetian, but nevertheless some were tasty. Since fish-crazy Venice is in rice-crazy northern Italy, risotto frutti di mare is a dish one encounters frequently there. But though Carnevale's zestily spiced rice with assorted seafood was good, it was good paella. There was none of risotto's characteristic creamy consistency, a nondairy creaminess that comes from using only certain varieties of rice and, more important, constant stirring (which is what I suspect was missing).
Spaghetti gondoliere sounded better than it was. The menu described it as a delicate white wine/tomato sauce with garlic and basil, but it was unaccountably bland considering its ingredients, and the "array of diced fresh fish" was mostly swordfish, mostly overcooked, and what would kindly be called fishy. Considerable excitement ensued at my table when linguine vongole -- ordered because pasta with clams is the most typical Venetian pasta preparation -- came topped with what appeared to be actual vongole veraci, tiny "true" lagoon clams whose shells look like an artist engraved them with geometric sepia pen-and-ink patterns. The enveloping sauce, however, was red, not white as I'd ordered. When my corrected order came back, a bit-too-brisk four minutes later, the clams on top were bigger and didn't feature the "artwork." Still, Carnevale's pasta was al dente, the clams were fresh (and still fairly small), and the garlic and parsley flavoring was simple and satisfying.
The menu's carni (meat) section is all beef, and eight of its nine selections are veal. These include saltimbocca, a Roman specialty. They do not include the virtually one and only meat dish for which Venice is renowned, fegato alla Veneziana, probably because few fashionistas alla Americana would believe that a dish of quick-sautéed tender calves liver and slow-sautéed sweet onions could be so delicate and delicious as authentic Venetian fegato is. But the meat dish we tried, lombata Carnevale, which the menu described as a prosciutto- and mozzarella-stuffed veal chop with lemon-mushroom sauce, was worthy. The bone-in veal chop had been flattened for tenderness but not pulverized, as so much pounded veal is; and unlike the thin veal one encounters in restaurants, the chop was reasonably juicy rather than overcooked to dryness. The mystery cheese inside the chop was pungent and overwhelmed the delicate veal and subtle lemon sauce in a way that mild mozzarella would not have.
To finish there's authentic Venetian New York cheesecake, or ... you get the picture. That is not to say that nothing at Carnevale, except the Carnivale masks, is authentically from that part of Italy. Among wines available by the glass is a pinot grigio, a type of light white wine that, while not from Venice proper, is from the Veneto region. It must be noted, though, that in terms of complex nose and taste, a Brancott sauvignon blanc from New Zealand that also is available by the glass (though waiters might not mention it) is more satisfying. Authenticity is not always the answer.
The bottom line: Carnevale's food is not Venetian but generic Italianesque, and even at that is not among the best of that popular genre in town. Still, if you eat outdoors at one of the restaurant's many mall tables, it's a stylish setting for good partying -- meaning good people-watching, good wine by the glass, and pretty good food served by a very friendly staff. As one dining companion noted, you can get a lot worse food, and a whole lot worse service and attitude, on Lincoln Road.
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