I meant to do a pub crawl—what in Venice, Italy, they call giro d’ombra, roughly translated, a wine stroll—where I’d sip and nibble my way along Venice and Miami Avenues here in Venice, Florida.
Armed with a list of the places I intended to hit, I set out on a Wednesday evening to plan my Friday evening crawl. Yes, I considered that the planning might violate the spirit of the whole “stroll” thing, but I reasoned that because I’d be writing about it, the advance work was called for. I was striding toward my first objective, cutting through a smattering of tables on the sidewalk along Venice Avenue, when a handsome man smiled and held out a menu.
For some it might have been his Italian accent or his gray eyes. For me it was the brick pizza oven that I spied over his shoulder through the open doorway. It stopped me in my tracks. Made In Italy wasn’t on my list but I took the proffered menu and let Peppe lead me past the wood-burning oven to show me their new back room, a kind of atrium with a tiled floor. It reminded me of a trattoria where I’d eaten during the two weeks I’d spent in Cortona, Italy. Peppe told me that they’re going to install a movie projector to show silent, black-and-white Italian films on the wall.
So it was because of that, Made in Italy was not only on the list, it was my first stop when I set out on my Friday wine stroll. Good thing because, though at six o’clock I was seated right away, by 6:15 there was a line out the door. (They take reservations only for large parties.)Even by six, the back room was already full. I could have sat at one of the pet-friendly outdoor tables. Instead, I chose to sit at the long communal table in the center of the front room of the restaurant, where I felt comfortable and not conspicuously on my own among all the couples. Having perused the menu in advance, I already knew exactly what I wanted. I ordered a glass of Chianti and two individual pizzas (for research purposes, of course). The pizza was as good as or better than any I could get in New York, and a great match for my 2009 Gini Chianti.
I would have lingered longer chatting with the couple next to me at the table, but I had a schedule to keep so, happy and a little too full, I ambled over to Venice Wine & Coffee Company. The aroma of coffee met me at the door. It was my first inkling that this was not going to be your typical wine bar experience.
Indeed, it is not. Venice Wine & Coffee Company is hybrid, a wine bar in a wine store. This is how it works; shelves of wine bottles line the walls. There is no table service. You browse around the “shop,” pull a bottle of your choice from the racks, and bring it to the bar to be opened. The price is what you would pay for carry-out plus a five dollar corkage fee. The bartender gives you the bottle and an armful of glasses which you carry back to a table crowded with your group of friends.
Unless, of course, like me, you’re there by yourself. With every table on the sidewalk and in the barroom taken, I was lucky to get the last seat at the bar. I ordered a glass of red from the large selection of wines by the glass and sat back to watch. The room was filled not so much with couples as with groups of people and everyone seemed to know everyone else. The guy sitting next to me at the end of the bar was like Norm from the old television show, Cheers. Everyone who came to the bar with their bottle greeted him with a hug or a thump on the back. For the new kid on the block, this place would either be a great find or a nightmare reminiscent of the high school cafeteria.
It is the former. Though, Norm, whose real name is Gary, only comes to Venice from Wisconsin for five weeks a year, he is treated like a long-lost friend by the staff and patrons at Venice Wine & Coffee. Once I struck up a conversation, Gary, introduced me to “everyone,” including Cindy, who used to be a school teacher and now tends bar at Venice Wine & Coffee because she enjoys the social scene, and to Richard, “the wine guy.” Cindy showed me around the shop and Richard told me about the Tuesday night “wine socials,” where everyone brings an appetizer to share, and buys a bottle of wine that is left behind the bar, also to share—a wine tasting with all your soon-to-be new friends. In the same vein, two Saturday nights a month they host a wine and food pairing, where small plates are paired with selected wines for the set price of $30.00 per person. By the time I left, at nearly 8:00, people were still buying bottles of wine to share at their tables with no indication that closing would be any time soon, and I was making promises to come to a wine social and saying goodbye to people I hadn’t known two hours earlier.
I was, according to my own timetable, running late so I didn’t really stroll as much as walk briskly to my next stop. La Dolce Vita, where the lights are dimmed, has an understated, intimate air. When I’d stopped on Wednesday evening, I’d thought that it would be a place where someone could be comfortable sitting alone at the bar, and, all the same, it would be a perfect date spot. Sure enough, when I took a seat at the bar on Friday, the bartender, Liz, remembered me from Wednesday and greeted me by name. Couples and pairs of women sat engaged in quiet conversation at the banquettes that lined the walls and on stools at the high communal tables in the center of the room. I ordered a glass of Zinfandel from the eclectic list of wines by the glass and glanced at the menu of snacks—cheese plates, dips and the like. I was still sated from my pizza and couldn’t eat another thing, but when I handed the menu back to her, Liz mentioned that, for future reference, I was welcome to bring in food to have with my wine if I wanted something more substantial than what was offered. La Dolce Vita also hosts Monday night wine tastings for $12.00 per person, and has local musicians playing on various nights during the week, including Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday. I chatted with a group of singles at the bar until my designated driver showed up to collect me.
I’d had a fourth place on the list but I’d had such a good time at each of my stops that I couldn’t do it all. I have to go back to Made in Italy to have the pasta (and maybe another pizza). I have to go back to Venice Wine & Coffee Company for a Tuesday Wine Social and a Saturday wine dinner. I have to go back to La Dolce Vita to hear live music and just hang out. I have to go back to go to the last place on my list and I have to see where else should have been on that list.
It just goes to show, the best laid plans of mice and Marianne often go astray, quite happily in this instance. I set out to do a pub crawl and found a vibrant community that offers something to do every night of the week and that abounds with friendly, welcoming people amid excellent food and wine.