Great Meals: Our Octopus Dinner with Don Fernando

Freshly caught octopus grilled with garlic and olive oil and served with wine sauce-featured image

Mafia in Venice Italy

In the dimly lit ambiance of Don Fernando’s, an establishment nestled in the heart of Treviso and seemingly pulled from the pages of a noir novel, our host bore an uncanny resemblance to a figure straight out of a mafia tale. His presence, commanding yet enigmatic, set the stage for an evening that promised more than just a meal. There, as we sat staring at the seafood salad before us, our expectations of a simple dish were about to be thoroughly upended. This was the beginning of our story, “Our Octopus Dinner on the Venice Canals,” a tale that would delve into the unexpected and the extraordinary, all within the walls of Don Fernando’s.

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back-canals-of-Venice Great Meals: Our Octopus Dinner with Don Fernando

We both sat there staring at the plate placed before me. When I ordered a seafood salad, I figured I’d see a little crab and shrimp over some leafy greens with a splash of vinaigrette. I had no idea someone would go into the kitchen and out the back door to the canals beyond, scoop up whatever was unfortunate enough to swim into the net, and serve al fresco with a splash of olive oil and a dash of salt and pepper. We sat there, staring at the seafood salad I ordered.

Dinner on the canals of Venice

Seafood Salad at Don Fernando

It hadn’t gone unnoticed that there was a rather large octopus sitting prominently on my plate. And, I might have been mistaken, but I swear it’s still moving. The waiter must have noticed my distress because not two minutes later Don Fernando appeared from nowhere. He pulled out the chair next to me. The big guy leaned over the table and in a more than familial Italian way whispered. What’s a matter with you? If I didn’t know before, this dinner on the Venice Canals would be something I’d never forget

A Little Romance

I’ve always fantasized about Venice. But mostly, I am determined to live out my childhood fantasy of a gondola ride. I want a passionate kiss as we float under the Bridge of Sighs at sunset. I want my fairytale moment as the bells of St. Marks loft through the dusky air just like the movie.

The Bridge of Sighs got its name because convicts were marched across after their trials. They were forced to see their beloved city, and freedom, one last time through its bars. It is an apropos example of how over time, or through lyric or prose, romanticism can be found in just about anything.

There aren’t many cities that can boast they are slowly sinking into the sea. Even fewer were never conquered by the Romans or are only accessible by foot or by boat. But, since the middle ages, Venice has been recognized for its infamous debauchery and renowned for its wealth in art, music, and literature. This is the city of Vivaldi, Casanova, and Marco Polo. But for me it will be forever known as the city I tried to eat a whole octopus. The city is the setting for more than a little romance.

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The Venice Canals

You cannot design a better backdrop for a dreamy rendezvous than the waterways of Venice. The city is a weave of 100+ small islands laced together by nearly 200 small lagoons and more than 400 miniature bridges.

Hundreds of dead-ends lend themselves to the mystique that is the floating city. You can almost visualize the clandestine trysts and eavesdrop on conversations whispered between conspirators and lovers left behind in the shadowy backstreets.

The typical meal is a leisurely event with an antipasto (appetizer), Prima (or first) course — often pasta and the second course of meat or fish. There are many dining options in Venice. You can eat at well-known establishments like Rick’s Café or Florians—for a premium price. There are quaint trattorias that are casual establishments providing wonderful and authentic “home-style cooking”. Gelato, Expresso, and Bacari bars where they serve Cicchetti (small bites) and prosecco (sparkling white wine).

Where We Stayed

The Villa Pace Park Hotel Bolognese Via Terraglio 175, 31022 Preganziol, Italy 

We didn’t stay in Venice. We chose a much more accessible (and inexpensive) hotel in the nearby city of Preganziol. It’s about 15-20 minutes to Venice by taxi or local bus. It is set in a historic 19th-century building in a rich parkland. The Villa Pace Park Hotel Bolognese is a romantic option for couples. After returning to our hotel and eager to get off the beaten path, we asked our taxi driver for a recommendation to one of his favorite restaurants.

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Don Fernando’s Restaurant

Special Occasions in Treviso

Don Fernando, otherwise known as Fernando Groppo, is a big man with an even bigger persona. As he spoke, his eyes sparkled and his belly danced. He spoke slowly, but deliberately. His accent was thick and he spoke with his hands. He reminded me of the jolly don in every mafia movie I had ever seen and I knew instantly that we were in good hands. The part in his grey hair was precision straight.

He wore a dark suit and a pink shirt with his trademark American flag-inspired tie. I love America was one of the very first things he declared when he sat down to take our order. The storefront restaurant was cozy, not more than 20 tables, and adorned with old plates, musical instruments, drawings of the Don, and more than enough clocks to tell the time in all the major cities around the world.

Mange, Let’s Eat 

Eating Late

We arrived around 8 pm and were surprised to find it completely empty. Our waiter seated us at a little table donning a fat chef holding salt and pepper shakers and promptly disappeared. No menu, no reverberation of the daily specials, and no inquiry as to what we wanted to drink. When he reappeared less than 15 minutes later, he placed a plate of small delicacies and a carafe of wine on the table. He smiled and said it was on the house before he disappeared again.

Table by table the silence was shattered with cheerful greetings and laughter. Our carafe was re-filled and to our surprise, we were joined by the jovial aforementioned Don Fernando. With no menus, we had no idea what to order. He asked if we liked seafood, polenta, and veal. He rose slowly from the table, gave my shoulder a firm snug, and moved on to the next table.

octopus-at-Don-Fernando-in-Treviso Great Meals: Our Octopus Dinner with Don Fernando

 

An Octopus Salad

The octopus arrived on a rectangular platter accompanied by prawn, an assortment of small spineless fish, calamari, and some other things I didn’t quite recognize. I didn’t know where to start. Don Fernando tried to help by pouring a little more olive oil over the platter and told me to mange, mange.

I cut a piece of the octopus and chewed and chewed and chewed. It was like eating a tasteless piece of rubber. Four bites into it, I gave up. So I picked out the pieces of seafood I recognized and trying the ones I didn’t. Ironically, I had a similar experience in Spain when I tried Frutti di Mare (fruit of the sea) for the first time– and last time. I would come to learn later that that was exactly what I ordered again.

Thankfully the remaining 3 courses were less traumatic and far more enjoyable. We ordered three desserts: chocolate cake, a crème Brule and fruit with crème for dessert along with 2 or 3 more carafes of wine.

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Final Thoughts

Fully satiated and even more apprehensive as to how much this meal would cost. Luckily, I didn’t have to wait tables or wash dishes. And to our delightful surprise, the bill was didn’t break the bank. And I have another treasured memory.

Venice is a mixed pot of surprises. Like my seafood salad, it’s a little unexpected, a little scary, a little bit of a mystery best explored in comfortable shoes. Venice is essentially a city-sized Frutti di Mare. Add a splash of olive oil and a dash of salt and pepper. I will never forget my dinner on the Venice Canals.

Buon appetite.

Update: sadly, Don Fernandos has closed permanently.

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