I’ve been visiting Venice for over 30 years, most frequently in the last ten. Yet it took me until two years ago, in April 2013, to make my way across the Lagoon to Torcello. I’d been to Murano and Burano but not the tiny Torcello island. When I read about its peace and tranquillity and its Byzantine treasure – the Cattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta, which was founded in AD 639 and contains beautiful mosaics – I decided I should go there. I’m so glad I did for I loved it immediately. It truly is an oasis of calm, yet has a wildness that explains how it caught Ernest Hemingway’s heart years ago when it became a favourite hunting ground of his. On that first trip, I was talking to Sandro, one of the owners of Hotel Al Ponte Mocenigo, before I set off for the day. When I told him I was going to Torcello, knowing how much I like good food, he suggested going to Locanda Cipriani for lunch. I was rather taken aback by the name. Surely that would be very expensive. No, not very, he said. And so it turned out that I did eat at the Locanda that day. As I’d already booked a restaurant for the evening, I only wanted a light lunch, but it was a most glorious light lunch in their gardens and I fell a little in love with the place. A few months later, my daughter and her partner went to Venice and I said they must go to Torcello. They went to the Locanda and had a full lunch there, which they thought was fantastic, so I knew that one day I would have to return and eat more than just a snack.
When I met William Goodacre, owner of Tastes of Italy, last December we had a wonderful long chat about Venice, which he knows well, and Torcello in particular and the Locanda. When I told him I’d already booked my next trip to Venice for April 2015 he offered to contact the Locanda’s owner, Bonifacio Brass, who he knows, and arrange for me to meet him. Near the time of my departure, he introduced me to Bonifacio via email and we set a date for our meeting. Thus on the third morning of my visit, I ate an early breakfast and set off to Fondamente Nuove to catch a No.12 vaporetto to Torcello.
The weather wasn’t as lovely as my previous trip. There was some rain in the air and it was grey and a little chilly, but it was still glorious to be out on the Lagoon. I was lucky that the vaporetto would stop at Torcello. Sometimes, as on my first trip, you have to go to Burano first and then catch a smaller boat across to Torcello.
The arrival itself is one of peace and calm, unlike the busy vaporetto stops on Venice. Only a few of us disembarked and walked along the canal towards the few buildings that remain on the island.
Torcello was once a thriving community and played an important role in the birth of Venice’s greatness, which was at its height in the 15th century – see a previous post for more details – but now only a few dozen people live there. There’s only one way to walk when you arrive and this will take you to the Locanda and the cathedral and a handful of other buildings.
The first time I visited Torcello it didn’t immediately register that this was the Locanda of Cipriani fame. It’s a modest building from the front that dates from the 13th century. Once a shop selling wine and oil, it attracted Giuseppe Cipriani’s attention in 1934 and he bought it and turned it into a locanda – inn – with just a few guest rooms and restaurant. Cipriani fell in love with Torcello’s beauty and the island’s special charm but it was when Ernest Hemingway stayed at the Locanda for a month while writing his novel Across the River and Through the Trees, devoting whole pages to the island, that fame really came. Since then it has become a destination for many famous people, offering a unique and private place to relax away from the crowds of Venice itself. Many members of the UK royal family have been there, including Prince Charles and Princess Diana. Earlier, in 1961, Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip went there and it remains the only restaurant that the Queen has visited privately. Stars like Maria Callas, Charlie Chaplin, Paul Newman, Tom Cruise and Julia Roberts came; artists like Marc Chagall; politicians such as Winston Churchill and Valéry Giscard d’Estaing. The list is endless. I was impressed enough to lay aside the jeans I’d been wearing to roam around Venice and don a dress for the day. As I was to discover, the jeans would have be fine: the Locanda’s external appearance of modest charm carries to the inside. To enter it is like going into an old farmhouse, although the welcome and service is of a vastly superior nature and you soon know you are in a place of excellence.
After giving my name to a waiter I was first welcomed by Bonifacio’s wife, Sabrina, who is Austrian and runs the Locanda with him. Coffee was brought and soon Bonifacio arrived and we sat down in this entrance, which is like a comfortable living room. I was told that the simple furniture dates from his grandfather’s day in the 1940s.
Bonifacio is Giuseppe Cipriani’s grandson; his mother Carla was Giuseppe’s daughter. His father is the famous film director, Tinto Brass, and Bonifacio grew up in Rome where many of Italy’s great filmmakers have been based. Carla Cipriani took over the running of the Locanda in the early 1980s following Giuseppe’s death. By this time he’d sold his two hotels but kept his favourite Locanda. I asked Bonifacio if he’d always intended to follow the family’s path and take over the Locanda. He told me that he began working life as an assistant photographer in a studio, following a path closer to his father’s. He also spent 4 years studying languages and living in London and Paris. But in 1981 he took up his mother’s urging to give the Locanda a go and see whether its running might be a life for him. And the rest, as they say, is history. Bonifacio is still there and took the running of the Locanda over from his mother after her death in 2006.
Bonifacio said that once he has started on something ‘he wants to do the best’. Thus he determined to understand the running of the Locanda by experience and spent 3½ years working in kitchens to learn to cook. He doesn’t cook in the Locanda kitchen now but has earned the respect of those who work for him by a true understanding of their job. He spoke with some pride of the team at the Locanda and how many of them had been there for a long time.
The restaurant is open every day except Tuesdays and all year round. It used to close during the winter but it was Bonifcacio who decided to keep it open during the winter months and that has been a success. There is a large and elegant dining room where people sit in colder months.
If dining inside is a good experience then it can only be bettered by being there on a warm and sunny day and eating outside in the garden.
And if, as it was for me on Thursday, the weather hasn’t quite decided if it’s summer or not and rain threatens, you can shelter in the covered terrace but still enjoy the experience of the garden.
Bonifacio’s aim is to provide simple food prepared well. I was pleased to hear him say that he didn’t like food messed around with too much as that’s how I like my food too. Dishes respect the seasons and the menu changes according to what’s available, but some classic dishes are always on the menu, like John Dory alla Carlina – named after his mother – and Risotto alla Torcellana, a risotto with seasonal vegetables that William recommended to me and I chose when it came to lunchtime.
As well as managing the Locanda, Bonifacio runs a consultancy advising other restaurants and restaurant groups. For him, running the Locanda well is about the whole experience. He wants to make people happy; he creates an atmosphere of openness, simplicity and one that is relaxed yet with impeccable service. He feels at home in the Locanda, he told me, and likes that each day new people come, old regulars return, and it’s a comfortable place to be. I had to ask him about the famous. How does he deal with those people? Their privacy is of utmost importance. He would not tolerate anyone approaching a famous guest for an autograph; photographers are definitely not allowed inside. In the nicest way, I have to say he is a man I wouldn’t want to cross but of course this is why the famous come because it’s a safe and relaxed environment for them; perhaps the closest they can ever come to ‘real’ life.
If to lunch or dine at the Locanda is a great experience, then I just have to put staying there on my list of things to dream of. The Locanda has just 5 rooms – 3 singles and 2 junior suites. As part of enhancing the calm and tranquil atmosphere of Torcello, the rooms are simply furnished in keeping with the style Giuseppe Cipriani originally chose and Bonifacio said that it was a positive decision to not include TVs but provide a small library of books in each room. You will find modern comforts like air conditioning though and he has necessarily had to provide WiFi as that is what everyone expects now. Each room is unique and named after an ancient Roman city and decorated with classical Venetian mosaics.
Bonifacio kindly gave me much of his time. When we finished talking he had to go off for an early lunch with Sabrina and was then lecturing in the afternoon. He invited me to have lunch as his guest, which of course was a wonderful offer I wasn’t going to refuse. As it was still quite early, it was agreed that I’d go off for half an hour or so to walk and then come back. The lunch was amazing; one of the best I’ve ever had and so it deserves its very own blog post that will follow soon.
Meanwhile, do remember Locanda Cipriani if you visit Venice. Even if you don’t stay there, it will prove a real highlight to visit beautiful Torcello one day and have a fabulous lunch at this lovely locanda.
To find out more about Locanda Cipriani visit: www.locandacipriani.com
To find out more about Tastes of Italy who organise wonderful food and wine holidays visit: www.tastesofitaly.co.uk