Life is made to be enjoyed and sometimes we need to treat ourselves to something special, a little gift, just to gratify our senses and justify our hard work. So, today I am taking you to the oldest and most elegant cafe in Europe, the Caffè Florian in Piazza San Marco.
Opened in 1720 by Floriano Francesconi with the name "Alla Venezia Trionfante", this cafe has witnessed almost 300 years of history, seeing Venice pass from the Venetian Republic to the French first, the Austrians then and finally annexed to Italy, serving personalities such as Casanova, Goldoni, Byron, Dickens and Hemingway, just to name a few, and it was here that after the 1848 uprising the wounded patriots were treated. The orchestra was eventually introduced in the early 20th century and, over time, the cafe has grown in size. If you ask me, it is the bright star of Venetianness, the bar of the patriots.
The elegance of the ambience and the setting make a stop at the Cafe a must. To be honest with you, I go to the Florian every once in a while for a special cocktail. I don't sit outside, I stay at the bar and watch the elegant moves of the barman -my favourite is Maurizio- preparing the drinks. Cocktails are automatically accompanied by a small assortment of tramezzini, savoury stuffed pastries, pizzette and olives and everything is so very wonderful that when we go we always end up having a second drink.
I love the feel of the place, the furniture, the extreme cordiality of the staff, the attention to detail. From the beginning the cafe was frequented by an international -and quite intellectual- public and the food offer mirrors this spirit. My mother's favourite is the Florian's afternoon tea, with savoury croissants, buttery scones, mouthwatering pastries, teas, coffees and beautifully coloured macarons, rigorously served by waiters in livery on (incredibly heavy) silver trays (in case you are wondering, the cost is 37 euros. Not cheap, but definitely doable!). The few times we had it, we loved it and took it easy, enjoying the whole experience.
Yes, because it is of an experience we are talking about, a coffee at the Florian is more than just an ordinary drink to sip down, it is something that involves all senses, suffice to think that economists Gilmore and Pine, in their The Experience Economy, chose it as example of place where you don't pay for the food, but for the whole experience, for the view, the service, the uniqueness of the location, in other words: for an unforgettable moment that you will remember all your life.
In fact, everywhere you turn you see beauty. There are six rooms in total, the first two were the entrance and the Chinese Room, then the Oriental Room and the Hall of the Senate were added, while the Hall of Illustrious Men and the Hall of Season (also known as Hall of Mirrors) were opened in 1872 and the Liberty Room was inaugurated in 1920 for the Cafe's second anniversary. I don't know which is my favourite, on two feet I'd probably say the Chinese and Oriental Rooms, both decorated by Antonio Pascutti, with their game of lights that shimmer in the faded mirrors and the marvellous paintings, the most scandalous of which was the one showing a woman's breast, but every room has its special atmosphere, and I confess I'm also quite fascinated by the simplicity of the Liberty Room, maybe less magnificent than the others but magical, with its pastel colours and the floral decorations, not to mention the lamps.
Other curiosities regard the fact that originally coffee was considered a spice and it was very expensive, it was described as "the wine of Islam", able to excite without being alcoholic, and it inspired the theatrical work "La Bottega del Caffè" by local playwright Carlo Goldoni, while spritz -probably the most known Venetian drink- was actually invented by the Austrians (their bar was Caffè Quadri) and it was simply wine made lighter with the addition of seltzer. Aperol is a very recent invention and I think that the first coloured add-in was actually Select.
Anyway, today I went in the morning because I wanted to see the sculptural installation by Venetian artist Silvano Rubino, on show until the 10th of October. The Cafe, in fact, organises contemporary art and photography exhibitions since 1988 and every year a local or international artist is asked to realise a site specific for the "Temporanea", which is then bought by the Florian and lent for other exhibitions. In general, the cafe tries to involve the local population -and people in general- as much as possible, focusing especially on the local arts, crafts and design. Culture is the key used to entertain a dialogue between past and present and the evident goal of such activities is the one to keep these traditions alive and ferry them into the future.
Of their design objects, I'm particularly fond of the glass designed by Murano artisan Antonio Dei Rossi called "Fished in Venice", which recalls the lagoon's waters with its shape and transparency. While there I had a chat with Stefano Stipitivich, the artistic director of the cafe. You know the way the world is small? Well, Venice is tiny and I happen to know him because I was at school with his daughter. I took advantage of his kindness and asked him a few questions about how does it feel to have such an important role and the challenges that contemporary Venice entails and what I received as an answer was a strong desire to "tenere duri i banchi" (Venetian saying that means to stay unite and hold on even when times are hard) and keep faith to the authenticity of Venetian tradition avoiding to recreate a fake Serenissima atmosphere, but maintaining the original spirit.
Then he was so nice to offer me a Casanova tray... Oh my! First of all, what impressed me was the weight and size of the tray, then the more than inviting cakes on it were so tempting that I tasted everything...
What you see in the picture is a fruit tart with custard, with a light but slightly crunchy texture and fresh fruit, then I also enjoyed the Casanova chocolate, a hot chocolate with mint cream and chocolate shavings that remind me of the after-eights, very interesting indeed and perfectly balanced (the mint is not overwhelming, it just adds the right note of freshness to the drink).
There were also some macarons, pretty and delightful as always, but what I preferred was the mango mousse you see below. Really good... and consider that normally I prefer chocolate over fruit dessert, but this mousse was surprising. Fresh, delicate and with a lovely scented aftertaste and, anyway, it had a little bit of chocolate too! If you are not a sweet tooth, it is also possible to have savoury treats and the lunch and dinner offer includes lots of options like gourmet salads, quiches, aubergine parmigiana and toasted sandwiches (not cheap, but affordable. For the prices you can look here).
The Caffè Florian is not an everyday treat, but if you ask me it is a quintessential must have experience in Venice. About two years ago, my husband and I stopped buying material gifts for our birthdays or other occasions and replaced them either with a special culinary treat or with a little day trip, in fact whenever we travel we do chose at least one memorable thing to do, so, if like us you are not indifferent to the fascination that only historical ambients can give, I cannot do anything but suggest you to stop by.
If you have the possibility, sit down and enjoy looking at the people passing by in the Piazza, otherwise go to the bar and try one of their cocktails (all cocktails are 10 euros) and I suggest their special spritz, made with Campari, Aperol, Ginger Ale, citrus, cucumber, ginger and berries, or the Hemingway Special, with white rum, Maraschino, Lemon and Grapefruit juice and fresh mint leaves. Excellent!
In conclusion, don't let the waiters in livery frighten you, you will see they are more than kind and if, like me, these experiences are important for you do take a moment to explore this jewel of Venetian history, you will fall in love with every aspect of it. Believe me.
Address: Piazza San Marco, 57, 30124 Venice VE
Phone: +39 041 520 5641