IF YOU ASK Venetians what qualities distinguish their city, you will get a handful of answers.
Some will say it’s the historic downtown conceived 90 years ago by noted urban planner John Nolen, which has resisted the decay that has afflicted so many small towns and instead is thriving with independent businesses and sidewalks bustling with shoppers.
Other Venetians say what makes their city special is abundant access to water—miles of uncrowded and unspoiled beaches, as well as the Intracoastal Waterway and the oak-tree shaded splendor of the Myakka River.
Still others will claim what makes Venice "Venice" is its sense of community, as a city of 20,748 that boasts an acclaimed theater, symphony, concert band, arts center and a single high school, whose state-ranked football team draws thousands of fans under the stadium's Friday night lights.
But there is another quality not so much as discussed as it is seen that has shaped the city's identity from its birth through today. Call it a love for all things Italian.
Start with the name Venice, which first appeared as a second choice nearly a century ago on an application for a post office, then, decades later, for a railroad terminus. Despite the objection of some residents, the name stuck. And the Italian embrace grew.
Today, many of the city's streets and neighborhoods have Italian names: The Rialto, Valencia Road, Salerno Street, Spadaro Drive. The city's longtime newspaper is The Gondolier. A prominent dry cleaner is called Venetian. A retirement home is Bella Luna. La Bella sells blinds and curtains. And the list goes on.
Nolen chose the city's Mediterranean Revival architecture when he planned the city in 1926. And his vision remains tightly codified today, down to the hues of paint and tiled roofs permitted on businesses.
Then there's the city's love for buon cibo, or good food. The few blocks at the core of Venice Island's historic downtown have no Chinese, Mexican or Indian restaurants, or even a steakhouse. But the area boasts 10 Italian restaurants and bars, as well as three different shops specializing in olive oil. None are chains, several are owned by first-generation Italian immigrants, and, at many of our restaurants, an Italian-accented waiter will take your order.
"It seems like there is enough business for all of them," says former City Council member Emilio Carlesimo, who is Italian. "I can't tell you my favorite because they're all unique; all have something a little different. It makes it hard to watch your waistline."
Across the Venice Avenue Bridge, east of downtown, there’s Valenti's, Allegro Bistro and Angelo's, all owned by immigrant cousins from Sicily. On Tamiami Trail in Nokomis, Briandi's restaurant is a favorite of Robert Plant, Dick Vitale and other celebrities. In South Venice on Tamiami Trail, there’s Bada Bing and DelFina's, among others.
Perhaps nowhere is the pride in the city's Italian connection greater than the thriving Italian-American Club, located prominently near the southern gateway to Venice Island. The club, founded in 1979, boasts 400 members and offers Italian lessons, shows movies about the Italian experience in America, brings in opera singers and, for 29 years, has sponsored one of the city's most popular festivals, the February Italian Feast and Carnival that draws between 10,000 and 15,000 to the airport grounds each year.
The Italian-American Club's phone number, by the way, is (941) 486-1492—the last four digits, coinciding with the year Columbus discovered America, being "no coincidence," says Bruce Bastian, the club president. The club is also the caretaker of the city's longtime symbol, a giant gondolier that for years was a highlight of city parades.
"We're one of 63 Italian-American clubs in Florida and probably one of the strongest," Bastian says. "Not all of them have their own building like we do.
"Is there an affinity here for Italy? You'd certainly have to say so."
There are no similar English, Irish or German clubs in Venice. But in Venice, the Italian connection was forged early. Michelle Harm, curator and collections manager for Venice Museum and Archives, says it came even before Venice became a city.
It started with the application for the first post office, in 1888. Pioneer Darwin Curry first put the name "Guava" but then crossed it out in the application and added "Venice." In 1917, the name Venice was appropriated by heiress Bertha Palmer of Chicago as the name for the Seaboard Railway terminus, which in those days was often the forerunner of a town. Historical records show some residents were dismayed by Palmer's choice; they tried unsuccessfully to substitute Nokomis, Eyota and Verona.
When John Nolen, considered the father of urban planning in the U.S., planned the city in 1926, he took Venice's Italian connection beyond its name, incorporating a Northern Italian Renaissance style of architecture that the city website says was Nolen's interpretation of the Mediterranean Revival style. Nolen was hired by a famous orthopedic surgeon of the day, Dr. Fred Albee, to design a city from scratch, making Venice one of the few cities in Florida "established as the result of a comprehensive land use plan compiled prior to its development," according to An Historical Architectural Survey of Venice.
Albee, who had wintered in Florida since 1917, dreamed of building a city around a modern medical center. In 1924, Albee bought 1,400 acres and hired Nolen, a classmate from Harvard, to design a town.
In his plans for Venice, Nolen was inspired by "two Venetian landmarks—the campanile in Piazza San Marco and Palazzo Ducale," E. Bruce Stephenson wrote in his biography John Nolen: Landscape Architect and Urban Planner. The city upholds the Northern Italian Renaissance style with its zoning code and an architectural review board. A few critics balked at the architectural mandates when they were updated more than a decade ago, saying they created a homogenized look. Builders and architects embraced the change and, as redevelopment has taken hold, Venice has burnished a look all its own.
Venice's outsized embrace of its Italian namesake is not without irony. The Census reports that only 7 percent of Venetians are of Italian descent, far less than those who claim German, English and Irish heritage.
But as Bastian, the Italian-American Club president, says, “You don't have to be Italian to appreciate La Dolce Vita in Venice. We have non-Italian members. We welcome them. That's what Venice does."
Size of southern Sarasota County: 368.92 square miles
Area population, year 2000: 120,446; year 2016: 178,268
Percentage women, 52.2; men, 47.8
Current population, city of Venice: 20,748
Current population, city of North Port: 58,584
Median age, Venice: 69
Homes in southern Sarasota County: 70,098