Ristorante Venissa, on the island of Mazzorbo, about an hour’s boat ride from Venice, opens at 7.30pm. If you’re staying in one of Venissa Resort’s 13 guestrooms on neighbouring Burano Island, you can only make your approach over a single bridge, at golden hour, as an orange sun sinks into the lagoon.
This can’t be a coincidence. The setting is cinematic all the time but as the sun sets in August, the whole vista is Oscarworthy. I’m so distracted – by the way the light reflects on the water, the crowds in Burano’s colourful streets, the silhouette of Venissa’s tower – that I’m 15 minutes late for my reservation. Nobody seems surprised. I get the sense that it happens often.
“Welcome,” says chef Chiara Pavan who, with her partner, Francesco Brutto, has run the restaurant for six years. I’m ushered to the chef’s table at the bar alongside another solo diner. It’s the best seat in the house, with an unparalleled view of the kitchen, where a band of cooks in slate-hued linen prepare the 10-course dègustation menu. My fellow patrons are fabulous Italian couples wearing tans courtesy of spending most of August on holiday. They are as relaxed as the chefs, who move with easy confidence around the casual dining room.
“We only cook with invasive species,” says Brutto, as he presents a dish of flash-fried rapana, a Japanese sea snail that hitched a ride to Venice in the 1980s. Venissa received a Michelin Green Star in 2022 in recognition of its sustainable dishes, which rarely feature meat and only include seafood that threatens the lagoon ecosystem. The rapana is dressed with what Brutto calls a “lagoon curry” and comes with a flaky croissant, almost rotilike in its consistency and baked inside the rapana shell, to mop up the sauce. Dessert is a rich zucchini and basil soufflé with a herby bay leaf ice-cream that tastes just like a garden and, like much of the meal – from the shiso pesto amuse bouche to the entrée of chilled cucumber soup – is green. Golden hour is well and truly over when I walk back to my accommodation, called Casa Burano. It’s only a 10-minute stroll but I am very full. I move slowly and savour the solitude. The paintbox streets are empty and it feels as though the island is in a trance.
Next morning I head back to Mazzorbo with an Italian couple who are staying on the floor below me. After an espresso in our shared kitchen, we cross the bridge for a buffet breakfast of fruit, pastries and croque monsieurs. I receive a text that Matteo Bisol, son of Venissa’s owner and the man in charge of the restaurant’s vineyards, has come to collect me for a tour by boat.
Bisol is charming (and also very tanned). As we zip along the lagoon, he recounts the history of Venetian viticulture. Though the Veneto region is famous for wine – prosecco is said to have originated here – the floods of 1966 were believed to have wiped out the lagoon vineyards for good. That was until 2001, when Bisol’s father, Gianluca, visited the island of Torcello, a 40-minute boat ride from the city. Peeking over the fence of the ancient cathedral, he spied a few spindly vines of the native dorona grape. The discovery set off the entire Venissa venture, which now spans Casa Burano and the five-room Wine Resort on Mazzorbo, the restaurant, the more casual Osteria Contemporanea, a wine bar and five vineyards planted across three islands. “We make wine in Venice because it’s part of the history of the city and to keep the tradition alive,” says Matteo.
Our first stop is Isola Santa Cristina, a private island retreat where the Bisol family has resurrected three hectares of merlot grapes. We try one but it’s too dry; harvest will take place in a few weeks when the grapes have reached maximum sweetness. Next is Torcello, where we take in the cathedral’s crown jewel, a Tintoretto of the Virgin Mother. “Not one of the nicest Tintorettos,” says Matteo. “Still, it’s not bad. It’s like owning one of the worst Ferraris. It’s still a Ferrari.” The other crown jewel, those first resilient dorona vines, are growing strong in the shadow of the church, with another hectare nearby. As we amble, Matteo explains the recultivation process, which began in 2007 with extensive location scouting. “Here, you can plant a vineyard” – he points out a row of samphire along the canal – “and here you can’t.” It’s only a matter of metres and is a question of how much salt rises from the water into the sandy soil. Too much destroys the grapes; enough gives Venissa wines their distinctive minerality.
I have my first taste at the osteria over a plate of cicchetti – whipped salted cod, crumbed sardines – and an exquisite dish of cold spaghetti with red prawns in a silky tomato sauce. First, a Venusa Dorona, juicy and fresh, with low filtration and sulfites. Next is the magnificent Venissa Bianco, which arrives in a hand-blown Murano glass bottle affixed with Venetian gold leaf. The wine is suitably golden in hue, deep and textural with a nose full of apricot and almonds. It’s like nothing I’ve ever tasted before. For a moment, I’m lost for words but then it hits me: it’s Burano’s golden hour, distilled in a glass.
Image credit: Letizia Cigliutti and Fabrizio Cicconi