Boat and Breakfast: Venice at Its Best

Happy to be in Venice!

I’m watching a boat chase scene from the James Bond film Moonraker on my phone while standing at the Zattere waterbus station in Venice, Italy. I’ve been instructed to do so by Ava Cappelletti, my host, and to pay close attention to the mahogany motorboat with red leather seats. “This way,” she emailed me last week, “you’ll know what to look for when I pick you up at Zattere. 007 is driving my boat.”

Ava is the owner/proprietor of the Shaula Boat and Breakfast, a 16-meter wooden yawl which accommodates up to seven free-spirited guests in three private cabins. The Shaula was built in 1964 by Epaminonda Ceccarelli, that together with his son Giovanni are a father/son team famous throughout Italy for designing some of the country’s most successful America’s Cup boats. “But the Shaula,” Epaminonda said at the end of his career, “she will always be my proudest accomplishment.”

The Bond clip is just one of a dozen e-mails I’ve received from Ava over the last month. She’s asked about my favorite breakfast food (granola with plain yogurt), alcohol (rye whiskey), and linen (untucked jersey cotton). “I want my guests to feel like they are home on the Shaula, so I do my best to have things they like onboard.” She even asked if I had a particular taste in men, as she claims to know every gay in Venice. (Twinkish nerds who aren’t afraid to cry.)

The Shaula is docked on the island of Giudecca (technically eight separate islands connected by a series of bridges) which run along the southern face of Venice. When I arrived in Venice this morning I was so moved by San Marco Square I briefly regretted not staying closer to it. But then the University of Tennessee Marching Band struck up an hour-long rendition of That’s Amore and a well-fed woman wearing a “Texas is Bigger Than France!” t-shirt sent back a pizza because it was not “American Style” and her kids “only eat American style pizza.”

La dilemma turistico is capable of quickly and completely spoiling even the most idyllic settings in Venice

Ava greets me with the enthusiasm of a golden retriever whose owner has been gone for a month. In fact, I can’t remember the last time anyone was this happy to see me. All at once, my cheeks are kissed, my luggage is carried and my shoelaces are tied. “You leave one mother at home, you get another in Italy,” she says, gunning the boat forward. We’re instant friends.

Less than three hundred meters of water separates Giudecca from Venice, but the island’s inhabitants have always considered themselves Giudeccian rather than Venetian. The distinction makes sense immediately upon arrival: this is a far more serene, understated place. Ava explains that, until recently, Giudecca was mainly a working class community of ship builders, waterbus drivers and fishermen. “Now the finest hotels and wealthiest people have discovered our secret,” she says, tossing a rope onto shore. “But the island will always belong to the worker.” A cute boy in a tank top casually steps on the rope to keep our boat from drifting. Sal, the local French bulldog, wakes up for a moment to greet us and then promptly goes back to sleep. Across the water, a muted Venice now appears stoic and proud, its authenticity restored, like a circus animal no longer forced to wear pink bonnets and hop on one foot.

From Giudecca, even the most touristy sections of Venice appear calm

The walk to the Shaula should take about five minutes, but Ava’s presence in Giudecca is mayoral. We’re stopped several times along the way by friends and local business owners: A craftsman at Cantiere Cavalier, the local ship yard, needs Ava to okay some new moldings for the boat. The curator of the Giudecca 795 Art Gallery invites us in for a toast of prosecco to celebrate the arrival of her book of aerial photos, Venezia Dall’ Alto (“Venice from Above”). A priest nods as we walk by Sant’ Eufemia, built in 865. “It’s best to take a moment here,” Ava whispers, guiding me in. A church like this would be the centerpiece of just about any town in America – but here, like seemingly everything in Giudecca, it sits in quiet anonymity between the ponte piccolo and ponte longo.

Finally, we reach the Shaula. “Welcome,” Ava says, squeezing my hand. I step aboard and immediately feel like a classier, handsomer man. Ripley-esque. My cabin, the largest of the three, has a king-size bed and full bathroom with shower. The other two cabins (one with a French bed/berth, the other with a single berth) are decidedly smaller. This is boat living: quarters are tight and noise travels with ease through the (gorgeous) knotted mahogany and teak wood. (Romantically-inclined couples would be wise to consider renting out the whole boat. That said, five or six close friends could comfortably live on the Shaula for a week.)

I’m summoned to the deck, where Ava has laid out a series of cicchetti, Venetian hors d’oeuvres. “Here you have bruschetta made three ways: One with olive oil, sea salt, and garlic. One with fresh tomato and basil, and one with butter and anchovies. I think a chilled rose is the correct wine with the bruschetta,” she says, popping the cork. Technically, breakfast is the only meal included in a night’s stay on the Shaula, but Ava is a woman incapable of withholding anything that, in her opinion, would make her guests more comfortable. “It is not about money for me,” she says, filling my glass.

“On the Shaula it is first about love, family and friendship. My father didn’t have a lot of income but he had the courage to buy a boat like this for his family. It requires a bigger bank account than mine — I’m an only daughter, divorced without children. So I thought, like the English lords rent their castles, I could rent the Shaula.”

We’re joined onboard by two of Ava’s gay friends (one of whom could definitely be described as a ‘twinkish nerd who isn’t afraid to cry’.) The four of us take a short walk to the new Hilton Molino Stucky Hotel, where a pre-party for Atlantis’s gay cruise is being held on the roof. Venice doesn’t have a “gay scene” per se – you won’t find any drag shows along the Grand Canal. That said, as Giudecca is home to many designers and artists (including Sir Elton John) it is considered by most to be Venice’s hippest gay neighborhood. (Incidentally, it doesn’t get much gayer than a pre-party for a gay Mediterranean cruise.)

Thanks to fine linens and the Shaula’s womb-like, ever-so-slight nod, I awake the next morning extraordinarily well-rested. Ava’s prepared breakfast on the deck, but has kept it light on account of the culinary day ahead. For an additional fee, Ava offers her guests traditional Venetian cooking classes on board. When asked what we’ll be preparing, Ava laughs. “How is it possible to set the menu before visiting the market?”

We cruise the 007 boat to the other side of Venice (a trip that would cost 100 euros by water taxi) and head to the Rialto Market. Ava is unimpressed by the most impressive selection of fresh fish I’ve ever seen. “We don’t buy food from the sea on Mondays,” she says, and squeezes a series of tomatoes from Saint Erasmo, the vegetable garden of Venice. It’s decided that we’ll prepare Ava’s famous pasta alla carbonara. “Please,” she says, looking me in the eye, “for carbonara promise you won’t ever buy pasta that is not made ‘semola di grano duro.’ Garofalo #4 is best as it’s been made since 1789 in an old factory in the hill of Gragnano near Naples. The only ingredients are semola di grano duro and spring water.” I nod again as Ava crosses off toward a wall of olive oil — the opportunity to ask what semola di grano duro means has come and gone.

Back on the Shaula, Ava and I trade stories about our lives while preparing the carbonara (the key is to cook the egg with the pasta.) “I bet you’ve made a lot of men very happy,” I say. She laughs. “When I have trouble falling asleep, I begin counting past lovers. And they’re not all men, by the way.” God, I like this woman.

Of course, there’s an endless array of things to see, food to eat, and wine to drink on mainland Venice. The following night I have the immense pleasure of spending an evening mixing gastronomy, art and culture at Bistro de Venise, one of the few remaining local hangouts near San Marco Square. A massive guestbook sits perched in the window, the entries in which read like a who’s who of Italian poets. Sergio Fragiacomo, the Bistro’s handsome and incredibly charismatic owner, guides me through a truly unique culinary experience. “We specializes in ‘historical Venetian cuisine’ – taste combinations which date back to the 15th and 16th centuries,” he explains. I am particularly blown away by the Bistro’s 17th century “Lukewarm fennel soup with white grapes, pine nuts and cinnamon.” Sergio then begins lining up what appears to be every bottle of wine in Italy. I don’t recognize a single grape on a single label. “That’s the point. Without restaurants like ours, these local grapes — and perhaps local vineyards — would be extinct.”

On my final day in Venice, Ava asks her skipper to join us for lunch – not to eat, but to sail the Shaula around the lagoon. We sip wine (“I think merlot is the correct wine with carbonara…”) share more about our lives (“When I am not working on the Shaula, I am a forensic scientist employed by the courts…”) and sail, peacefully, along the three hundred meters of water which separates Venice from the island of Giudecca.

Shaula Bed & Breakfast
Viale dei Pini, 120 47521
Cesena, isola della Giudecca
Venice, Italy
Shaula Bed & Breakfast

Rates (10% off for readers)
60EU/night, per person
400EU/week per person
350EU/night for entire boat
(bottle of good wine included.)
Cooking class, 3 hours, lunch+wine included: 200EU/single, 350EU/double

Bistro de Venise
San Marco, 4685 Calle dei Fabbri Venezia
Tel: (+39) 041 5236651

Rialto Market
Get basic information/location info

• 500 gr spaghetti no.5 (if you don’t find pasta Gragnano, pasta Barilla is everywhere)
• 200 gr smoked bacon (better to buy the one already cut in cubes)
• 1 spoon of olive oil
• 6 spoon of Parmigiano Reggiano
• 4 eggs
• Salt and pepper (as you like)

When the water is boiling put sea salt in and when is boiling again put spaghetti (every 2 minutes the pasta must move inside the boiling water). The minutes of boiling and cooking spaghetti (time is written on the box) are enough to make the sauce.

Put oil in the pan and than the bacon and cook until bacon changes colour. With a fork mix eggs and Parmigiano with salt and pepper and when spaghetti are “al dente”
put into the sauce with 2 spoon of their boiling water.

Mix spaghetti and sauce using 2 spoons, until sauce is cooked ( hot spaghetti will cook the sauce in some minutes, you’ll understand when is time to add the bacon and mix again). Some parmigiano, salt and pepper will be on the table, to be added on the dish or not.

An Italian strong red wine, as a Sangiovese or Merlot, will be perfect.

Have a nice meal or “BUON APPETITO!”

Writer C. Brian Smith and Ava, looking too good together!