A local’s guide to Venice - Mimi Todhunter - Citimarks

Mimi Todhunter

Art of Living


Citimarks: What stands out in your memory from your first trip to Venice?

Mimi Todhunter: The year was 1978, and I was invited by my Cuban friends to embark on an unforgettable journey across Europe. We reached Venice shortly after Christmas during a cold and foggy winter. The city struck me with its charming and mysterious allure. Our accommodation was at the iconic Hotel Danieli, renowned throughout Venice's history, where we indulged in the comfort of beautiful linen sheets. The overall quality of the city left a lasting impression on me, from the weathered elegance of its streets to the sophistication of its people. Even in contemporary times, one can still witness elegantly dressed Venetians in black tie attending opera premieres at the Fenice Theater, a testament to the city's timeless sophistication.

How did you come to choose this palazzo?

When we were in the process of finding a place, we were unfamiliar with the area. I concluded that being situated by the Grand Canal would afford me the opportunity to observe the world passing by. The palazzo's location proved to be exceptionally convenient. On the Canal side, we are just a short boat ride away from key destinations, including the airport, the railway station, and Venice's parking zone. On the street side, we are only minutes away from the vibrant "campos" (squares) of Venice.

You have a remarkable talent for hosting dinner parties that attract people from all corners of the globe. When did this passion for hosting first emerge?

Much like my experience in Venice, upon my initial move to England, I found myself without an established social circle. Acknowledging the importance of building connections, I realized that hosting dinners would be an excellent way to meet new people. This inclination was inherited from my parents, who consistently welcomed a diverse array of guests into our home. These "salons" provide a wonderful opportunity to engage with fascinating individuals. Consequently, they often introduce us to friends who share similar interests, creating a virtuous cycle of enriching encounters.

"On the day of the dinner, I start early to allow time for thoughtful preparation of the dining room. I then head out to purchase fresh flowers, carefully selecting vases that complement them."

You are renowned for your skill in crafting exquisite table settings, often referred to as "les arts de la table." What key elements are pivotal in your preparations for the dining room?

The season plays a crucial role in shaping my menu choices, especially with regards to fruits and vegetables. Given the abundance of fish in Venice and its exceptional food markets, such as the renowned Rialto fish market, I often include fish prominently in my cooking. In winter and depending on the preferences of the guests, I might also prepare red meat such as Osso buco and duck sourced from the lagoon. I consistently opt for vegetables from Sant'Erasmo Island, Venice's primary vegetable garden, to ensure a commitment to locally sourced ingredients.

Once the menu is finalized, my attention shifts to the table setting. On the day of the dinner, I begin early to allow ample time for the thoughtful preparation of the dining room. I then head out to purchase fresh flowers, carefully selecting vases that put forth their beauty.

Candle decoration is another aspect I hold dear. Arranging candles strategically in various areas such as tables, entryways, and the staircase, adds and an extra personal touch to the space. Candles possess a unique ability to transform the entire atmosphere, particularly during the winter season. In a city where working fireplaces are restricted to prevent pollution, candles become an essential element for creating a cozy and elegant ambiance.

To complete the enchanting atmosphere, music serves as the final touch. I have speakers positioned throughout the house to welcome guests as soon as they arrive.

One evening, Venetian playwright Carlo Gozzi returned from a trip to discover his palazzo hosting an unannounced and extravagant party. People were scattered everywhere, reveling in drinking, dancing, and even tossing golden coins through the windows. The guards, however, insisted on proof of ownership before allowing Gozzi inside. Can you recall a Venetian celebration that surpassed all expectations?

In 2019, Dior collaborated with the Venetian Heritage Foundation to organize the Grand Masked Ball at the Palazzo Labia along the Grand Canal. The event aimed to revive 'Le Bal Oriental', famously known as the 'ball of the century,' originally hosted by the flamboyant Charles de Beistegui at the same palazzo in 1951*. The costumes were truly splendid and I was captivated by the meticulous attention to detail in recreating the ambiance of the original party. That evening left a lasting impression.

* Note: For the ‘ball of the century’, over one thousand invitations were sent out six months prior to the night of September 3, 1951, allowing guests ample time to design elaborate costumes inspired by Tiepolo’s fresco 'The Banquet of Cleopatra’. Christian Dior attended in a costume designed by Dali and vice versa.

What is your definition of a successful diner event?

In my opinion, a successful dinner event is characterized by the primary objective of crafting an atmosphere that exudes comfort and magic. While the presence of good food is undeniably crucial for this success, the key lies in assembling the right mix of people around the dinner table. A skillful host is someone who can foresee which guests will complement each other, facilitate introductions, and cultivate an atmosphere where connections and conversations can flourish.

“A skillful host is someone who can foresee which guests will complement each other, facilitate introductions and cultivate an atmosphere where conversations can flourish.”

Has Venice changed over the years?

In recent times, there has been a growing influx of foreigners relocating to Venice. Unfortunately, this trend has been accompanied by the gradual disappearance of local establishments, including bakeries, milk shops, and candle shops. Especially in the most touristic areas, local businesses are making way for Chinese establishments that cater to the substantial number of cruise-ship visitors. On a more positive note, there has been a commendable effort to restore historic palaces throughout the town. One of the most iconic palaces along the Grand Canal, the Ca’ d’Oro, is currently undergoing a two-year restoration. This project is spearheaded by two talented individuals, Toto Bergamo Rossi, the Director of Venetian Heritage, a co-financing organization for the refurbishment, and Claudia Cremonini, the Director of the Galleria Giorgio Franchetti alla Ca ‘d’Oro.

What do you enjoy the most in the city in your daily life?

What I cherish is the opportunity to connect with people and share moments together. I take joy in unveiling the authentic side of Venice, dispelling the notion that it's merely a Disneyland. My goal is to showcase the genuine life that exists here, beyond the tourist facade.

Do you have any word of advice for visitors during Carnival?

For Carnival visitors, I recommend arriving no earlier than the last weekend, the one preceding Ash Wednesday. This is when the energy and excitement reach their peak. Pay special attention to the French Carnival-goers; they infuse the event with their passion and creativity, showcasing incredible costumes, participating in parades, and gathering around Café Florian.

"I take joy in unveiling the authentic side of Venice, dispelling the notion that it's merely a Disneyland. My goal is to showcase the genuine life that exists here, beyond the tourist facade."

What do you find yourself missing the most when you are away from Venice?

When I depart on a trip, I'm usually glad to leave Venice. However, upon returning, I swiftly recognize how much I've missed the city. Just the other day, as I journeyed back from Naples by train, I caught myself pondering, "Oh, how does the lagoon look today?" I stood for a few moments, taking in the view of the church across the train station, observing the hustle and bustle of people coming and going, and so on. It's those moments of reconnection that genuinely make me appreciate the bonds I share with this magnificent city.

What reasons would you give to convince a friend thinking about moving to Venice?

While I have a deep admiration for Venice, it's important to acknowledge that it may not be a suitable city for everyone, particularly for those susceptible to depression. Factors such as its small scale, intermittent floods, climate, and limited access to nature – with gardens often hidden behind closed doors – can potentially evoke feelings of melancholy. However, it's crucial to note that these challenges don't diminish the fact that Venice is an utterly magical place to live.

Cadavre Exquis

If Venice were a piece of music, which one would it be?

A Vivaldi composition.

If Venice were a film?

‘The Talented Mr. Ripley' for its final scenes set in Venice.

If it were a plate?

Spaghetti vongole.

A flower?

Jasmine, the very flower I planted in our courtyard garden. Its perfume wafting up to our rooms on spring nights was my vision.

If you could turn back in time for just one day, which era in Venice’s history would you want to explore?

I'd choose the 18th century, to catch a glimpse of daily life. I'm curious about how people lived when gondolas were the primary mode of transportation. I wonder about the city's tranquility—or perhaps its noise—and the state of hygiene. What were their evening gatherings like? How were convents with girls maintained?

If you could meet a historical figure from Venice, who would it be and what would you discuss?

I'd be intrigued to hear Marco Polo's tales of adventures in China or delve into the tumultuous life of Casanova. Additionally, meeting Monteverdi, the 17th-century composer who once lived in this very palazzo, would be fascinating. I'd love to ask him about the music he composed during his time here.

24 hours in Venice

9 am
A nice café for coffee and breakfast
Gelateria Paolin at Campo Santo Stefano.
10 am
A favorite market for grocery shopping
At my grocer at Campo San Giacomo dell’Orio.
12 pm
A fabulous museum to visit
I would recommend three: Palazzo Grimani, Ca D’Oro and the recently renovated Ca’Rezzonico. Each offers a unique and enriching visit.
1 pm
A Murano workshop to buy exquisite glassware
My favorite ones are Yali, NasonMoretti and Micheluzzi glass.
2 pm
A delectable lunch experience
Le Antiche Carampane is an authentic trattoria that never disappoints.
3 pm
A serene church visit
I suggest exploring Santa Maria dei Miracoli. It's truly a marvel.
4 pm
A delightful afternoon tea
I recommend The Palazzo Gritti. It offers a splendid setting for a relaxing and indulgent experience.
5 pm
Shopping time
If I am in the mood for shopping, particularly for the famous Venetian slippers, the ‘furlane’, I'd visit ‘Piedàterre’ at Campo Santo Stefano and ‘Jesurum Venezia’ for night dresses and linen. As for food delicacies, I would go to ‘Cibo Venezia’ and ‘Mascari’: they offer a splendid selection of culinary delights.
6 pm
A peaceful walk away from the crowds
Anywhere in Castello, Cannaregio and San Michele. These areas offer serene spots to enjoy a tranquil evening stroll.
7 pm
A favorite spot for “Chicchetti e Ombra”, the Venetian aperitif
The chiccheterias along the fondamenta della Misericordia. It's a favorite spot for savoring the local flavors.
8 pm
A cocktail while gazing at the Venetian sunset
I would go to ‘Il Zattere’, at the 'Palazzo Experimental' hotel. Its location offers a picturesque setting for a memorable sunset experience.
9 am
A romantic diner
Da Fiore is an excellent choice, particularly their exclusive balcony table overlooking the canal.
12 am
A walk under the stars
I would opt for a stroll in the tranquil late-night Piazza San Marco, relishing the enchanting sound of the midnight church bell.