The Gatto Nero — or ‘Black Cat’ — is in Burano, a tiny island in the Venetian lagoon. It is close to ‘haunted’ Torcello, with its ancient campanile and its branch of the Cipriani restaurant. (The only equivalent thing I can imagine is a branch of Soho House at Dracula’s castle, or possibly Chernobyl.) I like the name Black Cat; it reminds me of the Blue Parrot in Casablanca. I like that you must leave San Marco, with its tat and wonders combining queasily, to get here; I like the brightly coloured houses like Bratz dolls fighting; it looks, to me, like Notting Hill with fish, lace and a soul. I like that the Black Cat has a black cat; or at least it used to. I do not see it today. Perhaps it left suddenly, or died?
It is hard to find a good restaurant in Venice; there are as many bad restaurants as foul lumps of Murano glass smelted into swans or dancing rabbis, and if you do find one they have to deal with the fact that you are English. It is a strange alchemy by which Venetians have learnt to read nationality from bad clothing, bad haircuts and thighs. I am often recognised as English from the back — the back! — but I do not mind because Jan Morris called it the déshabillé of the perfectly emancipated Englishwoman. I like this too — who, beyond Catherine Cambridge, can be bothered to put cuticle oil on their toes when there is so much else to do? Bad restaurants drink in tourists with photographs of food — the first principle of the loathsome restaurant — multilingual menus with national flags, which imply that eating pizza can be a act of patriotism or aggression; but all restaurants have amazing Eurovision-style ‘sight’, or ‘Euro-sight’.
The Black Cat is inconspicuous. That is the peculiar kind of narcissism of the good Venetian restaurant. It sits by a side canal, with bright blue walls, dark green awning and interiors modelled on the home of some long-dead grandmother. The floor is pink stone; there is a portrait of a black cat, as dignified as a Velázquez; a strangely tasteful Murano chandelier; pottery, which might be 9th century or earlier, dredged by fishermen and placed by the coffee machine, which is a piece of cognitive dissonance I cherish.
A gentleman who says he once worked at the Savoy brings food of such grace and splendour — mussels, oysters, clams, grilled sole and scampi, dredged plate after plate — that we are soon throbbing muscles of joy. It is a meal for every summer, more beautiful because it is eaten in a city made principally of metaphor and condensation.
Later, in Castello — ‘haunted’ Castello, where Daphne du Maurier placed her murderous dwarf in Don’t Look Now — I visit a restaurant suggested by a gondolier with dyed blond hair. I always laughed at gondolas until I sat in one, at night, behind La Fenice — the silence! The darkness! The opportunity for evil at 3 mph! It is called Trattoria da Remigio and it is crammed under a bright orange house. It is so self-consciously Italian, with its lanterns and golden signage, that it could be Little Italy, clinging to identity with ever more preposterous acts of Italianism — overdependence on breadsticks, for instance. The waiters look aghast at the déshabillé of the perfectly emancipated Englishwoman but then the amazing Euro-sight comes. ‘Inglese,’ I watch them thinking.
We are treated as infants — our imbecility is not being Venetian. But what else holds up this prostitute-city which used to be a queen? Tomatoes? The food comes — piles of spaghetti pomodoro and tagliatelle with mushrooms, perfect in its simplicity, although the bread, of course, is awful, stale white rolls from 1957.
Trattoria al Gatto Nero, Fondamenta della Giudecca, Venice; tel: +39 041 730120. Trattoria da Remigio, Salizada dei Greci, Venice; tel: +39 041 523 0089.