Jet lag has already carried my wife, Charlotte, off to sleep, cocooned in our fantastic bed at the Gritti Palace, one of the city’s finest hotels. But I can’t sleep. Not till I get this down. Please imagine me recording this account on the handsome Gritti letterhead in the plush, burgundy den attached to our penthouse suite. Picture me writing it out with one of the Murano glass-tipped pens you can pick up at Venice’s stationer par excellence, Arcobaleno, instead of pecking away on my grimy old MacBook that never has enough memory to update to the latest iOS. The story will be better that way.
It started with an unfortunate email several hours ago, a cancellation alert for the walking tour of Venice’s most haunted sites I’d booked for after dinner. The historian who leads this experience had come down with a mysterious throat condition rendering his voice useless. Disappointed but hungry, Charlotte and I headed out into the Venetian twilight, gold and purple as a busted plum, to dinner at Birraria La Corte, a rakish tavern and pizzeria in the San Polo neighborhood.
The restaurant’s glowing patio on the piazza was filling up, and the mosquitos, delirious in the dank humidity, had shown up for dinner, too. So we retreated inside, to the back of the long, narrow dining room, alone until four septuagenarian women drifted in and settled into the table next to us. The ladies were a mix of heights and spoke in a mix of British and American accents, with two of the four sliding into fluent Italian as effortlessly as an eel slides into a coral reef. They all wore black.
“I feel like we’re in that movie with the ballet dancers,” Charlotte whispered.
That movie is Suspiria. We had just watched the bonkers 2018 remake of Dario Argento’s bloody fantasia for the new podcast we’re recording, during which we watch horror movies and track if Charlotte can pay attention until the killer is revealed. The remake revolves around a contemporary dance company (not ballet — see what I mean about the not paying attention?) run by a coven of cunning witches in divided Berlin. Director Luca Guadagnino frequently depicts the dance instructors plotting over meals: in their smoky communal kitchen, in atmospheric restaurants not unlike La Corte. Their goal is to place the spirit of their decrepit prima donna, the self-styled Mater Suspiriorum (Mother of Sighs, one of three ancient underworld matriarchs), in the host body of a nubile young dancer. It doesn’t go well.
I’m not saying the women at La Corte were witches. But in mysterious, melancholic, sometimes maddening Venice, ruminating on the macabre seems not only acceptable, but proper. This is a place suspended in a perpetual state of resplendent decay, the setting of dreadful fables like The Cask of Amontillado and A Haunting in Venice, where nightmarish Carnevale masks leer from shop windows and tourists wander the maze-like alleys in the manner of zombies vexed by their iPhone directions. In Venice, Death just seems a little closer to the surface. So as we forked chefs Silvia Rozas and Marco Zambon’s gnocchi with crimson shrimp from the lagoon, and drained a bottle of chuggable skin-contact Moscato the color of tangerines, we eavesdropped on the maybe-witches’ conversations, wondering what nefarious machinations “the trip to Jackson Hole” and “just because you put a fancy organic label on this iced tea doesn’t make it good” could be code for.
They kept talking, we kept ordering: burrata with shaved zucchini, croquettes of molten Parmigiano, house-made tagliatelle wound up with chanterelles, and we had to try one pizza. We ordered the Sorpresa (“surprise”) with tomatoes, ‘nduja, rosemary and something translated as “salt marsh honey.” This actually turned out to be a surprise since we received a completely different pie instead, topped with caramelized morsels of eggplant and zucchini. We didn’t mind. It was excellent pizza, in a city known for terrible pizza.
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With our after-dinner plans canceled, we left the mysterious quartet behind and began the 30-minute walk back to the hotel. As the narrow alleys funneled us through a series of piazzas, some quiet as a crypt, others crackling with the energy of late dinners and impromptu dance parties, we recapped the trip thus far. The food had been extraordinary. We had pistachio cream puffs and espresso at the counter at Tonolo, the stalwart San Polo pasticceria, and watched lazy boats scoot by from the window at Adriatico Mar, a tiny bacaro pouring natty wines to complement righteous cicchetti of anchovies and other small, marinated lagoon creatures. And the Gritti had been impeccable. It’s a Luxury Collection property with a private dock, jewel-like lobby and stunning terrace right on the water. Alluring as the view is, I preferred eating in the kitchen at the new Chef’s Table with Alberto Fol, who perfumed crab with lemongrass and bergamot and anointed prawn risotto with Select, the amaro Venetians take in their Spritzes.
By the time we got back to our room — rooms, actually, an interlocking and extravagantly upholstered puzzle of them — we felt relieved the ghost tour had been canceled. We’d done 15,000 steps for the day, and besides, I’d already read up on all the spooky legends and locations myself. They say Venice is the most haunted city in the world. That seems like a flatly unquantifiable claim, but historically, she’s seen more tragedy and murder than most. There are the ghosts of Poveglia Island (host to a Black Death quarantine colony and an abandoned psychiatric hospital), the Calle della Morte (Alley of Death), Ponte degli Assassini (Bridge of Assassins), Ponte dei Squartai (Bridge of the Quartered — Google it) and enough haunted palazzi to launch an HGTV spin-off.
Not to be outdone is the most famous site in the city, Palazzo Ducale. Here, our guide, Valentina, from the Doge’s Palace Mysteries & Secrets tour, illuminated the details behind the sublime art collection, and shared the grisly history of the state-sanctioned inquisitors who interrogated and tortured Venetians suspected of high crimes. We walked across the Bridge of Sighs, said to elicit mournful exhales from prisoners, who got one last look at the water through the latticed window before their execution. In Italian, it’s called Ponte dei Sospiri.
See, this is why I had to get this down. Because just a few minutes ago, before I started writing, I was absentmindedly scrolling through photos on my phone, as one does. I passed a photo of the menu from La Corte. Something caught my eye. I zoomed in, and there it was. I swear all this is true. Per my rusty high school Italian, I mistranslated the name of the pizza we ordered at La Corte. It wasn’t the Sorpresa. It was the Sospiri. Just waiting there for us, right as we were discussing Suspiria, right as the shortest strega at the next table (she of the iced tea drama) was grumbling about needing an English menu, and I handed her ours, and she locked eyes with Charlotte and me and did not return our naive smiles.
Suspicious. A coincidence? Elsewhere, sure. In Venice, I don’t know. Think about it. I have to answer a knock at the door.
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