There’s a tiny store, about six feet wide — I don’t even think it has a name — on the Calle dei Fabbri between Calle San Gallo and the Hotel Noemi. Tutto per pulire, niente per magnar, says the owner. “Everything for cleaning, nothing for eating.” I’m very grateful for it, as it’s one of a vanishing number of stores in San Marco and throughout Venice that doesn’t sell glass, masks or high-fashion clothing. I popped in on the way home the other day for laundry detergent, and as I was paying for I noticed an oddly-shaped wooden thing on the counter. “E questo?,” I asked. “And this is?” Per riparare le scarpe, Signora.
Cleaning supplies and shoe repair. Boy, am I in luck.
It’s yet another one of the everyday differences from the way most Americans live. Outside of major metropolitan centers, we’re used to expansive, well-lit, well-organized, meticulously-merchandised shopping experiences (not to say that this is a bad thing). It’s not that this doesn’t exist here in Italy, either. It’s only that traditionally, stores are smaller (in historic centers, this is an understatement) and more specialized in what they offer.
For centuries, in-town communities formed around a piazza (or in Venice, a campo), where there was a church, at least one bar or cafe, and all the individual stores and services required to support the surrounding neighborhood: a fresh market, a bakery, a butcher, a store for milk and cheeses, and so on. Of course, this model has evolved considerably outside of most historic centers. In the most popular tourist destinations from Venice to San Gimignano however, all these stores have now gone boutique, with the same high-quality merchandise all dolled up, and triple the prices. Va bene perhaps for the well-heeled traveller, but for local residents, it means daily shopping will take place somewhere else that won’t be nearly as convenient.
As I’m a person who’s easily overwhelmed by having every choice imaginable (I’m intimidated by libraries because I know I’ll never be able to read everything they have), you can see why I prefer these smaller, more specialized stores, that have already done most of the selecting for me. That’s why I like Sergia’s alimentari, or grocery store, in the Calle Do Mori, on the San Polo side of the Rialto bridge.
A trip to Sergia’s may be as close as a traveller can get to what’s left of la vita quotidiana, everyday Venetian life. (A friend told me once, it takes three hours to do the daily shopping: one to make all your purchases, and two more to find out from everyone what happened since yesterday.) If you browse the store for more than two minutes, at least one of her five (or is it six?) daughters, or who-knows-how-many grandchildren will stop in, with or without a dog, pick up a latte, succa di frutta or perhaps a bagette. Ciao, nonna! If you’re interested, she has plenty of photos to show you as well, or her family, of her travels, etc. She lost her husband three years ago (basta, she says, enough). She’s over seventy years old and works six days a week (the store is closed on Wednesdays), because…that’s just who she is.
She’ll have you sample the freshest goat cheese, drizzled with a fruity olive oil laced with spices, Un po’ piccante, non so se ti piace, she’ll warn you, “It’s a little spicy, I don’t know if you’ll like it.” We try it. It is da morire, to die for. We have to have it. This is something she understands.
She’ll point out the bowl Goop in the cooler, (Cosa significa, gop, gope, gupe? she asks), so named by former friends of Emily, an artist with galleries in Venice and New York, who always recommended Sergia’s delicious cheesy, spicy concoction to her New York visitors. They’d buy it by the truckload to have on hand in their rented apartments for an antipasto or a late-night snack, and then would return to the U.S. and recommend it and Sergia to their friends coming to Venice. She got to be quite well-know in the Big Apple for a while, she says, with a broad grin. (Emily has since died as well, but Sergia still has a poster of one of her exhibitions in the store.)
She’ll suggest mozzarella di bufula, pecorino sardo or di pienza, always offering you a little chunk to taste, knowing just how much you’ll like it. She has Salami Nostrano (Veneto, this), Salami Feline — nothing to do with cats, by the way — and everything for stocking the pantry from sale grosso to vino that’s half the price of the boutique shops, to pasta asciutta. Not fresh pasta, though: she often laments that she used to be able to stock more roba buona — really good stuff — something she takes great pride in doing. But since the euro, since 9/11, well, things are just not the same.
Aspetta, she comes out from behind the counter and heads toward the cooler. Ti offro uno Spritz, con un vino buonissimo. Per stare in compania. The classic Venetian cocktail (made with a good white wine and either San Bitter or the milder Aperol), at lunchtime, at a grocery store. Scandal.
She continues to tell her story as we sip. Before she had the store, she had a restaurant just this side of Campo San Polo. C’era una volta, “There was a time”, she says, “when I prepared sixteen kilos of bacalÃ mantecato every day” (the fresh, whipped codfish spread made with olive oil and parsley, another must-sample Venetian classic), “and it was all gone by the end of lunch.”
Consumed by Venetians, she means, who are meno sempre, fewer all the time. The apartments around her store have either been bought up by wealthy foreigners and remain empty most of the year, or are for rent to travellers willing to pay for a week what was once two months of rent on the lira-scale, and who are rarely there long enough to understand that bacalÃ mantecato is something that’s not to be missed. Che pecato…what a shame.
I finish the Spritz, pay for my acquisti, and promise that if I get organized enough we will go to lunch at Do Mori, right up the calle. She will recommend it to you, too, as a place where you can eat well, and spendere il giusto, pay a just price: the most you can possibly hope for in Venice.
As I’m leaving, more than a little light-headed from the Spritz, in comes a Venetian lady with her dog. Scandal.
To find Sergia (or these days, her daughter Liviana), come down off the Rialto Bridge on the San Polo side, head to the end of the market. At the big intersection, turn left, and take the second right under the Sotoportego Do Mori (the two Moors, in Venexian). Her store is just there on the left. The alimentari is closed on Wednesdays, but if you come on any other day close to 1p, she probably go with you to lunch at Do Mori just up the way if you want. View a map here.