An “Unforgettable” Forgettable Meal in Venice

venicenightAs someone who is pretty content to eat the same thing day after day – at my desk, no less – and who’s willing to admit that much of it starts out frozen in a cardboard box, I don’t think it’s right to call myself a true foodie. I do, however, love to eat when I travel, and am far happier paying hundreds on memorable meals than I am on stuff I can actually pack in a suitcase and bring home with me.

Over the years, Italy has taught me how food can help inform travel – but in some ways that’s proven to be somewhat problematic. My high expectations of food experiences in Italy have resulted in more than a few moments of hunger-driven desperation and what turned out to be terrible dining decisions. Most of them are best forgotten, but there’s one I’ll never forget.

A couple of years ago I’d planned a few days in Venice, a town famous for its bad and expensive food. On my first night in the city, I left my hotel equipped with the location of a highly-recommended restaurant, a map tracing the route from my hotel to the restaurant, and a book to read once I’d gotten there. I was feeling incredibly smug by the time I reached my destination, standing bang in front of the restaurant I’d set out to find (this kind of thing almost never happens on purpose in maze-like Venice) until I noticed the sign on the front door of the completely dark restaurant. The chef, it said, had died not four days before my arrival, and the restaurant was closed until further notice.

Without any other restaurants marked on my map, or a guidebook at hand to find another place that came with similarly-high marks, I started to wander. I didn’t trust my judgment on any of the restaurants I passed, and since it was late February I couldn’t rely on “it’s busy so it must be good” logic – nothing was busy. After unintentionally circling by the same restaurant four times, I finally took that as a sign – that and the fact that my stomach was audibly growling by that point – and went inside. I was instantly sorry I had.

It was, I’m not kidding, set up cafeteria-style. You had to pick up a scratched-up plastic tray at one side of the long food bar right inside the door, drag it along one of those metal-pipe-shelf things, choose pre-cooked dishes in individual ramekins from under heat lamps, and pay for everything at the end of the bar. I was faint with hunger, and upon walking in the door I’d been spotted and greeted by both the bored-looking “chef” behind the bar and the even-more-bored-looking woman behind the cash register at the end of the bar.

I like good food, but I like not seeming bitchy and judgmental, too. So I stayed.


I picked up a tray, chose a few dishes, grabbed a big bottle of sparkling water, and paid for my food. I carried my tray to a corner table in the back of the restaurant, opened my book, and sighed. I hadn’t planned well, and I had chosen badly. I had ended up just like all the travelers who complain about Venice’s food. In the end, the food itself was better than expected, but the experience is what I’ll remember – partly because I did manage to find the humor in the situation, and partly because an Italian man working in the restaurant totally made my day.

The place was nearly empty, as just about every place was in Venice in late February, so the guy pushing a mop around at the back of the dining room noticed me when I walked in and sat down. I didn’t say anything, and neither did he, but when I put my tray down and reached for the water bottle I’d bought he walked over and opened it for me. Of course I could have opened it myself, but I chose to see it as a kind gesture and thanked him in Italian. It was then, I think, that he saw the big English title on the book I was reading.

As he walked away from my table, and for the rest of the time I was in the restaurant, he walked in and out of the room – sometimes pushing his mop, sometimes just walking through – and every single time he walked by me he sang that one line, the title line, from the Nat King Cole song, “Unforgettable.”

Unforgettable,” he sang, “that’s what you are…

And that was all. Over and over. I’m sure it’s the only line he knew, in a language he doesn’t speak, but it was his way of connecting with me. I smiled the first time he did it, and then buried my nose in my book, smiling to myself when he’d repeat his line. This was no meal to linger over, so I gathered my things and left as soon as I’d finished eating. But I got a pleasant “arrivederci” from my crooner as I walked toward the door.

I left the dining room smiling. I had almost no reason to smile about the evening, having failed on my quest to eat at a great restaurant in Venice and having let my hunger get to a point where I chose a back-up eatery so poorly. But despite my disappointment at wasting an opportunity to eat a good meal in Italy, the evening wasn’t a complete write-off. I still smile when I think about the man pushing his mop and singing maybe the only English song he knew to the stranger in the corner of the dining room. I don’t know what he was trying to say by singing it, but I like to think it was his way of saying, “Welcome to my city.”

Meals can be a welcome mat for an unfamiliar culture or a new destination, whether or not it’s the food itself that welcomes you. So while I won’t seek out that cafeteria-style spot in Venice again, thanks to a guy who pushed a mop around and provided the soundtrack for my dinner that night, I won’t think ill of it.

photo by Son of Groucho

12 thoughts on “An “Unforgettable” Forgettable Meal in Venice

  • Dean Wilson

    This reminded me of a travel quote: “Embrace the detours.” (Kevin Clarbonneau) My favorite quote, however, is: ” To know Italy is to discover her soul and fortunately that takes a lifetime.” Her evening was not wasted as she discovered a little hint of Italy’s soul and it enriched her soul.

  • Tracey

    This just made me smile. Coming across the unexpected – even when you least expect it. Isn’t that Italy in a nutshell? As someone who’s never been but hopes to to be blessed to go and experience Venice and all of Italy one of these days – I certainly hope so πŸ™‚ Thank you for sharing!

  • Jessica Post author

    Dahlink, you have no idea how happy that makes me. Also? I cannot WAIT to go to Venice with you. Two giddy travel writers in love with the same city who will be unable to stop GUSHING over to it to each other, preaching to the choir or not. We will be INSUFFERABLE.

  • Akila

    Our time in Venice was mostly spent searching for the “great” restaurant which we never found. But, we did find a couple of little bacaris where we ate tapas style food standing up and hanging out next to the old Venetians — the food was good but the experience was even better, just like in your situation.

  • Jessica Post author

    Thanks for the comment, Akila; to me, food is what’s on the plate – but a “meal” is the entire experience of eating said food. So yeah, the experience surrounding what I eat may make the food itself (at least in my memory) taste better than it really did. And I’m okay with that. πŸ™‚

  • Liz Adams

    I am so happy to have discovered this website. We leave for Italy in just four days and though I’ve done a great deal of research up until now, I’ve spend the last three days reading your articles about all the places we will be and writing down your recommendations. Your style of writing makes me feel like you understand the type of experiences we are hoping to have. Thank you.

  • Jessica Post author

    Liz, you just made my day! Thank you so much for your kind words, and I hope you have a wonderful trip. πŸ™‚


  • Judith Hogan

    Hi Jessica
    Thanks so much for your great easily-read and down-to-earth information. You tell us just what we need to know. We’ll be making good use of lots of your helpful hints. I particularly like your hint to just get lost in Venice, where we’re lucky enough to be staying for 3 nights including New Year’s Eve. Which is my question: Do you have any helpful hints about how to deal with being a tourist in the winter?
    Thanks so much

    • Jessica Post author

      Oh, wow – Venice for New Year’s? That sounds utterly delightful. πŸ™‚ And I’m glad WhyGo Italy has been helpful to you!

      Here’s my overall article about Italy in the winter:

      There are other articles linked there about the winter holidays, since that does change things a bit. I was in Venice in late February a few years ago, and although the sun was out during the day it was bitterly cold – and it’s that wet “walking in a cloud” kind of cold that cuts right through you. It was also one of the best trips to Venice I’ve ever had – and it’s a city I love dearly. So just remember to dress warmly. πŸ™‚

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