The Travel Dispatch

Crashing the Gondola Race Awards in Burano, Italy

This post was born 26 Jan, 2016 5 Comments
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I’m not exactly what you would call a foodie.

I mean don’t get me wrong, I like food.

Correction – I’m OBSESSED with food. The kind of proud obsessiveness that once elicited an earnest “Thank you” when someone said their money was on me if Joey Tribbiani ever became an unfictional entity and challenged me to an eating duel.

That means I’m pretty much a personified garbage disposal.

If I ever had a discerning palate, it abandoned me (in partnership with my former waistline) a long time ago. Probably at the age of 9 when I discovered that McDonald’s french fries taste even better when dipped into a vanilla ice cream swirl.

Or when I learned hot sauce was integral to my survival.

(I know you’re wondering what this has to do with the Gondola Race Awards, but I swear I have a point.)

Venetian treats

The whole dipping fries in ice cream thing is why you never see restaurant reviews on this site. I can’t pluck out traces of turmeric, I have no clue what cardamom is, and I don’t know/care which wine brings out which flavor in my meat – I just want to enjoy my alcohol and food without a set of instructions.

So who am I to tell you which restaurants are the best in the world? That’s a task better suited to Michelin and Zagat.

For me, dining out is more about the atmosphere. The patrons. The energy. It has less to do with ordering food that I can ‘taste with all my senses’ and more to do with the overall experience.

Corroborating this personal conviction is the story of how a low-key lunch on the island of Burano in Venice turned into an unforgettable experience as I unwittingly became a part of the annual Gondola Race Awards.

Finding Venetian Culture in Venice - discovering local experiences in Italy's most touristy city

It started out as any other vacation day (yes even travel writers take vacations) – with a terrible hangover knocking at my door.

I had arrived in Venice with a group of friends only the day before. It was the type of group that lacks your typical wet blanket who’s known more politely as the voice of reason. Someone you take for granted until they’re not there to stop you from doing something idiotic like pointing to an empty bottle of Barolo and telling the waiter, “We’ll take another 4.”

Well, hindsight and all that.

So it’s understandable that sitting in a water taxi for the 40 minute ride out to the island of Burano was the last thing I wanted to do on 3 hours of sleep. Not to mention there was the added bonus of a pounding headache and a stubborn red wine stain that no amount of brushing could remove from my teeth. But seeing as how going to Burano was my idea, I wasn’t exactly in the position to back out. So I piled in.

The Gondola Race Awards in Burano - piled into the water taxi, we had no idea what awesomeness was to come

Besides, if there’s one thing that can get a hungover person out of bed – it’s the promise of food.

While Italy is renowned the world over for their pizza and pasta dishes, the Northern provinces beat to the tune of their own drum – mainly in the rhythm of risotto, polenta, and market-fresh seafood.

And nobody does Northern Italian food better than Trattoria da Romano.

In an earlier post on finding culture in Venice, I mentioned that many authentic Venetian lunch spots are recognized by their no-frills approach to décor. Plain white tablecloths, wooden chairs, and a jumbled mix of framed photographs set within a brightly-lit interior define the norm – and da Romano is no exception.

I’m not going to lie and tell you that it’s some hidden gem no one knows about – because it’s not. However, traveling in December has its advantages as we were the only non-Venetians in the restaurant. In fact, we were pretty much the only tourists people on the entire island.

Chiesa di San Martino in Burano Italy

Our group – down two thanks to the previous night’s Barolo consumption – were seated under the care of Massimo who would later become our unintentional translator and play-by-play analyst of an award ceremony unlike any other.

Before the menus could even be passed around, Massimo wheeled a cart ’round to our table and enthusiastically displayed to us the large (and completely raw) fresh-caught fish that was on offer to be cooked any which way we pleased. This segued into a rapid-fire, heavily accented whirlwind of seafood recommendations and the next thing you know he’s saying bon apetito as he sets down plates of octopus, lightly battered soft shell crab, and sardine saor – another Northern Italian speciality.

We settled in with the same bottle of white wine the Venetians at the neighboring table were drinking (thank you Massimo) and took in our surroundings. The restaurant was packed. The sounds of unfamiliar Venetian dialect wafted in the air. Carts were used to carry and deliver freshly made food to customers. An elderly woman in a light blue smock waltzed from table to table, leaning down with a smile to converse with seated regulars. Every so often she’d laugh and squeeze someone’s shoulder.

Then the singing started. 

At first it was subtle. Just a slight undertone beneath the swirling buzz of chatter. Then the tone began to rise. We exchanged confused glances before craning our necks to see where the sound was emanating from. The strength of voices continued to climb. There it was. A conglomeration of tables pushed together to hold a group of twenty – most of whom where lending their voice to the song medley.

The serenade continued on louder and louder while the rest of the restaurant quieted down. It was spontaneous. And Italian. And beautiful.

Massimo interrupted our trance with the phrase Ah yes! Gondoliers! and then abruptly asked us to follow him.

We were led to the kitchen. Not the industrial kind one would expect to find in a commercial restaurant, but rather a homey kitchenette with decorative plates lining the tops of appliances and a fire roaring in the background. The chef stood at the island and asked if we wanted to watch him put the finishing touches on our seafood risotto – a house specialty.

The traditional risotto sat marinating in a fresh seafood broth and we held our breaths as he tossed the contents up out of the pan, only releasing it when it cascaded safely back down without one spilled drop. We thanked him before making our way back to the table, passing the elderly woman we had noticed earlier. She smiled at us and we were later told by Massimo that she was the owner of this family-run trattoria.

The singing was over by the time we sat back down. We were slightly disappointed but it was nothing another bottle of wine and the world’s best risotto couldn’t fix. Besides, we had already had an unparalleled local dining experience – one that was going two hours strong yet (unbeknownst to us at the time) was far from over.

As we cleared our plates, I noticed another waiter bring oddly-shaped glasses filled with some sort of white liquid to the table of gondoliers. Always wanting in on the local secret, I asked Massimo what it was. Ah! Sgroppino! he said as he ran off only to return a few minutes later with a blended concoction of lemon sorbet, vodka, and prosecco.

Attending the Gondola Race Awards in Burano, Italy - drinking sgroppinos at da Romano

Then the singing started. Again.

Only this time Massimo wheeled out a speaker and a microphone. A fact which caused one of my friends to label this the world’s best restaurant because in his words – where else can you get table-side karaoke service?

We went along with it because no one was able to come up with a better alternative as to why they’d be bringing out speakers if it weren’t to supplement the gondoliers’ singing. It seemed to make the most sense until we saw a set of flags being rolled out as well.

Ah! Gondola Race Awards! exclaimed Massimo as he set our dessert plates in front of us.

He crouched down so we were eye level and began to tell the tale of the Regata di Burano.

On the third Sunday of every September, gondoliers from the island take to the waters, battling for pride and recognition as they race their gondolas across the lagoon. The island comes alive with spectators and festive merriment abounds. Tourists thank their lucky stars when they stumble across the event but little do they know the real celebration takes place over a month later at da Romano in a ceremony that so few visitors are privy to – the presentation of the flags.

The Gondola Race Awards in Burano, Italy at Trattoria da Romano

As the emcee-slash-gondolier-slash-presenter took to the “stage” (or rather took to the center of the room) Massimo explained that each colored flag represents a different placement – 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th.

The somewhat raucous (and slightly liquored up) crowd settled down as the presenter began his opening monologue. Though I was unable to speak the language, there are universal semantics that have no need for translation. The audience was clearly delighted as they laughed at the speaker’s jokes; men clasped one another on the back in congratulations; wives snapped photographs; old men sat chatting with their espressos; and younger competitors beamed with pride.

As the last flag was awarded to its new owner for the purpose of displaying it on his gondola until next year’s race, Massimo brought out the final flourish – a cake with the Italian words for forward and backward. An allusion to the technique employed during this unique race.

It was an afternoon filled with mirth, spirit, and camaraderie. Camaraderie between friends. Family. Aquantanices. Even strangers. It’s what defines a community and being a part of the so rarely seen local side of Venice – if only for a brief few hours – is something I’ll never forget.

Have you ever accidentally wandered into a truly local event while traveling? Tell me about it in the comments below!

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The current Travel Dispatch journey kicked off in Panama on Nov 15 and is showcasing a classic “round the world” loop as I weave my way from Latin America to The Balkans, Eastern Europe to the Middle East,  and Southeast Asia back to the US over a period of 12 months and with a budget of $25,000. Finally along live by subscribing below!

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Hung Thai

LOL. Hot sauce is an integral part of my life too. Sounded like you had a blast! When I was in Peru, we arrived in Cusco during one of the local ceremonies. Apparently those kinds of ceremonies were frequent but it was eye opening as people were everywhere. They brought out a statue of a Saint and paraded around town. Kids were wearing masks. There was dancing, food, people just having a great time. And it was totally unexpected. Gotta love those moments.

Ardjette Boixaderas

HAHAHAHA your comment is lovely:) (I’m not exactly what you would call a foodie.) I love to read about the food you like!! Thanks for sharing this topic!

Sara Essop

This must have been such a beautiful experience. I would have loved to have seen it when I was in Venice. We were once in a mosque in Istanbul and a crowd of locals were sitting and listening to a speaker. All of a sudden, they began singing this haunting melody in unison for a long while. It was amazing.