Venice in its inkiest hours is my favorite time to walk through La Serenissima, and perhaps the only time to peruse St. Mark’s Square. The arcades are lit with a warm glow, reflecting in the basalt pavement and setting the square on fire. Foot traffic is different. It’s not rushed, it’s not crowded. People quietly cross the piazzas to get from here to there. Stragglers are trying to snap a Basilica night shot, while others are hiding behind columns to catch some bars of Brahms or Mozart from the small ensemble orchestras at Quadri and Florians.
A St. Mark’s evening is decadent, romantic and slightly heartbreaking, like a fading memory that won’t disappear. St. Mark’s is an old friend, and so are its cafes. The square comes at a premium, even with knowing a few secrets on how to enjoy an aperitif at the most expensive bars in Italy. And I am willing to pay for the experience if it is unforgettable. Lately, my favourite spots are Ristorante Quadri and Grand Cafe Quadri. Here’s the story. . .
Ristorante Quadri is more than just one of the epic cafes in the square with a live orchestra and front row seats to Basilica San Marco. It is a gastro-cultural experience. Located on the first floor above Grand Cafè Quadri, it is living history. Quadri, as a cafe, opened in 1775 on St. Mark’s Square and over the years gained a list of regulars than included Lord Byron, Alexandre Dumas and Marcel Proust. But like all empires, the romantic veneer of the square diminished and Quadri was no longer the place to be seen.
In 2011, the Alajmo brothers took over the more than 200-year-old property, with the intent of creating the very best pastry and coffee bar, along with opening up the first floor to an experiment restaurant. Let me just side step- Max and Raf Alajmo are part of a Michelin dynasty which includes Le Calandre, the three Michelin star restaurant near Padova so this was definitely not a whim.
When it comes to the culinary experience, the Alajmo brothers are full immersion- they idealize, create and personally execute every detail from concept, mentality, and dishes to vibe and design down to the glasses in your hand. At the beginning of 2018, the Alajmos brought in expert conservation artists to restore the Grand Caffe Quadri, original hub to writers and artists of the Grand Tour, and asked their friend and constant collaborator Philippe Starck to come back to the Michelin-starred Ristorante Quadri for a design upgrade.
The Max and Raf menus highlight each of the brothers’ personalties; Max is the innovative one, Raf the more traditional. But the tasting menu- 16 courses for two- is a combination of oth, with dishes such as cappuccino di laguna, a mix of lagoon seafood and moeche, a soft-shell crab only found in the Venetian islands served with green fronds of samphire-like agretti.
Yet it is only this year that the restaurant’s 250-year-old interior caught up with the kitchen’s contemporary attitude. Starck uncovered the palace’s original stucco-work from beneath layer upon layer of paint. Old-fashioned wall coverings have been replaces with earthy tones modelled on a 16th-century silk brocade – but with a very Starck/Alajmo flair. Look closely for the rockets and satellites as well as portraits of Massimiliano and Raffaele. And on shelves above the doors, whimsical taxidermy rabbits and foxes are ready to take flight, a nod to the winged lion that guards the city.
Have I eaten at Quadri? Twice over the past two years at Ristorante Quadri and both times (a lunch and a dinner), I have not only relished the view, but loved the dishes. Massimiliano is a genius, fact. He is clever, he is instinctive, he is innovative. His dishes are heart-warming, reminiscent of past lives and history. And most of all they are unexpected. But let’s be serious- I love Quadri for its location, especially the window seat in the evening where I have the glowing piazza below me.
Grand Caffe Quadri
Mornings, midday and late afternoon, I am at Grand Caffe Quadrino as much as I can. I frame myself below the beautifully restored walls and mirror next to the elderly German man who sits in the corner every morning. On a brisk and clear morning, I will sit outside, but usually before the orchestra starts so that I can read.
On a beautiful mid-November day, I enjoyed an aperitivo lunch – a Negroni sbagliato and Alajmo’s whimsical spin on Venetian cicchetti, those delicious finger food. Though I paid for the view, it was well worth both the scene and the delicious food. For a less pricey experience, stand at the bar.
A version of this article Condè Nast Traveller, September 2018.