Explore Venice Through Its Food with This Culinary Cruise

To experience the essence of this city and its food traditions, we turn to captain, chef, tour guide and native son Mauro Stoppa, who shared the sights and several recipes.

Shaved Artichoke Salad with Shrimp

Pictured recipe: Shaved Artichoke Salad with Shrimp

Mauro's Venice

Water is everywhere. Calm and charcoal—green, it's in front of me, it's behind me, it's to my right and left. Being surrounded by water is a quintessential Venetian experience. But I'm unnerved that it's also raining. The sky is a Dali-esque collection of gray cotton balls, some dustier than others, all extending as far as the eye can see.

an illustration of Venice and surrounding islands
Illustrator: Heather Gatley.

On my fourth trip to the Serenissima, as Venice used to be known, I came to take a cruise of sorts, one that endeavors to celebrate the city's unique ecosystem. Invited by Mauro Stoppa, an impassioned guide and a gifted chef, I'll spend the next three days traversing the Venetian Lagoon—a shallow, saltwater embayment off the Adriatic Sea—in a bragozzo, a two-masted, 55-foot-long trawler. Now, crossing the gangway I wonder how the seven of us guests (plus crew!) will fare confined in its tiny cabin.

deep-fried white and green asparagus

On Eolo, named after Aeolus, the Greek god of winds, fresh-cut tulips adorn a tarpaulin that covers the deck; and delicious smells escape the galley below. To welcome us Stoppa makes battered and deep-fried white and green asparagus (pictured above) along with herb-and-garlic-crusted sardines, also fried. We dig in as prosecco fizzes into our glasses to accompany this prelude to lunch and Eolo sets off to our first stop.

For 21 years Stoppa has been taking people out on the water. "I was 30 when I decided I wanted to spend part of my life on a boat," he says. It took over a decade of selling agricultural equipment and another few years of planning, but in 1998 Stoppa bought the 52-year-old bragozzo. After renovating it and adding a kitchen, he launched it into the lagoon. "I wanted to find something nearest to my soul," he says. His soul was in the lagoon.

Mauro Stoppa on his boat in Venice
Mauro Stoppa (right) with one of his crew aboard Eolo on the Venetian Lagoon. Ulf Svane

At first glance Stoppa appears overly serious, cross even. He stoops to work in the cramped galley with its just-under-six-foot ceiling. Wearing matching lagoon-green uniforms, his crew of three prepare our lunch—I spy purple artichokes, herbs I don't recognize, and a whole sea bass being readied for the oven. Stoppa is pouring olive oil over it when I ask to take his picture. He smiles a shy grin and I see that he isn't cross at all. He's serious, all right—it takes focus and concentration to whip up multi-course meals in a kitchen that seems smaller than its chef—but he's also a softie when it comes to the things he loves. Get him to talk about the lagoon and why he takes visitors into its depths and he is all smiles, all the time.

When he began his cruises, the existing tours shuttled large groups just to the islands of Burano and Torcello, and called it "seeing the lagoon." For Stoppa that was neither true nor enough. He wanted to share what life was like on the lagoon's waters."Eolo [is] a way to see the hidden parts, to move slowly, to be relaxed," he says. Fomenting visitors' connection with the lagoon is Stoppa's ultimate goal.

Gastronomy plays a major role in that connection. "The meals on board are joined with the experience," he says. "They come from the [lagoon] ingredients." To source them Stoppa works closely with local fishermen, hunters and farmers. His dishes are always seasonal. The seafood, game and vegetables are local, some even from his own garden on the island of Vignole where Eolo docks when not cruising.

Because of Eolo's intimate size there are no cabins for overnight stays so Stoppa only serves lunch. Instead we stay in boutique hotels and dine at restaurants he vets personally. Sometimes he joins but often he stays behind fine-tuning the next day's menu. Some of Stoppa's recipes—like for bicciolani, Venetian butter cookies—come from his mother, but most are just "classic Italian." "Italian cuisine is simple," he says. "[With] good ingredients you don't have to work hard to give good results." Stoppa cooks, organizes and sometimes even drives the boat during the cruise. Eolo's has been his primary residence since 2005 and his passengers are his guests. "If you have someone in your home, you try to create a [welcoming] atmosphere," he says.

It's a sentiment we feel keenly, rain and tight quarters notwithstanding. Stoppa's crew are warm and gracious and his meals evoke five-star luxury and yet feel artisanal.

When the sun comes out on our third day, we eat on deck for the first time. Looking over the teal water I savor Stoppa's first offering, a salad of shaved raw artichoke and sautéed shrimp, and realize I needn't have worried about the rain. "The lagoon gives the soul a good change," Stoppa says. The Eolo experience, rain or shine, ampli-fies that change.

When in Venice

Cruise: To plan a voyage on Eolo with Mauro Stoppa visit cruisingvenice.com.

Stay: The Ca Maria Adele s a small boutique hotel set in a 16th-century palazzo in Dorsoduro, an area known for its artsy vibe, nightlife and smaller tourist crowds.

Or check into the Palazzo Ca'Nova (canova-venezia.com), part of a Grand Canal palace that's been owned by one family for almost two centuries.

Eat: For local fare try the Fritto Misto or Venetian-style calf's liver and onions at Antiche Carampane. Pasticceria Rizzardini, a traditional wood-paneled bakery, offers the sweets that have captivated Venice since 1742.

Drink: Wine in the Veneto region is an important part of the food culture as well as a booming economic anchor. While the area is well known for prosecco and pinot grigio, also look out for Valpolicella, Amarone, Soave, Bardolino, trebbiano, pinot bianco and verdicchio.

Passito wines are made in the Veneto with grapes that are sun-dried before they are fermented. This centuries-old method yields sweeter, more concentrated results. Mauro Stoppa pays homage to this ancient tradition by using passito in his cooking.

These wines can be hard to find in the U.S., but vin de vaille from Tablas Creek Vineyard in Paso Robles, California, is a good substitute.

MARGARITA GOKUN SILVER is a freelance writer who covers food and culture. She lives in Madrid.

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