- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 28, 2004

VENICE, Italy — Da Ivo is the sort of restaurant every visitor dreams of discovering in Venice. It’s a cubbyhole of a dining room with just a handful of tables, 14 to be exact. The left wall of the restaurant hangs over a canal.

Passing gondoliers float by the open window close enough to reach in for a glass of wine.

Presiding over this tiny fiefdom is Natale Ivo. Born in Tuscany (the land of Pinocchio, he proudly informs visitors), Mr. Ivo has been a Venetian since the 1960s.

He’s grumpy and world-weary in the way you’d expect from someone who has watched Venice grow from a sleepy village of 55,000 inhabitants to the tourist madhouse it has become. But he’s still passionate enough about his profession to pull out a bottle of unfiltered olive oil from Tuscany or a pear of supernatural ripeness the moment one of his customers shows more than passing interest in his cuisine.

I didn’t go to Da Ivo to study barbecue, my beat as a columnist. It was supposed to be a vacation, and if there were any place on the planet I figured I could escape live-fire cooking for a week, it was in water-bound Venice.

Of course, it didn’t take long for me discover that Mr. Ivo has a grill, a tiny charcoal grill in the back corner of his kitchen. He claims to possess the only charcoal grill in Venice.

It was installed before strict new fire and air-safety regulations outlawed the addition of grills.

Mr. Ivo takes no small pride in both his tiny grill and the fuel it burns, charcoal made from olive wood.

Mr. Ivo can turn out a perfect charcoal-grilled porterhouse steak with the best of them: the meat seared on the outside, virtually mooing inside, doused with fragrant extra-virgin olive oil, the way they make bistecca alla fiorentina in his native Tuscany.

This being Venice, I wanted to see what he could do with seafood. I was not disappointed; Mr. Ivo uses a technique I’ve never encountered elsewhere on the world’s barbecue trail. He crusts his seafood with bread crumbs — no egg, no batter, just bread crumbs — before grilling.

As you might imagine, it requires a gentle fire and constant supervision to cook the fish through without burning the bread crumbs.

Once this feat has been achieved, the fish is served with the simplest imaginable sauce: gorgeous olive oil flavored with fresh and finely chopped garlic and flat-leaf parsley. The idea is to keep the focus on the fish.

Monkfish is a firm white fish with a delicate flavor. Its dense consistency makes it perfect for grilling because there’s little risk of it falling apart. Monkfish is available from many fishmongers and supermarket seafood sections, but if you can’t find it, you can certainly use another delicate white fish, such as halibut or cod. Mr. Ivo’s bread-crumb method also works well with shellfish such as scallops, shrimp and calamari.

For bread crumbs, Ivo uses untoasted crumbs made from day-old white bread with the crusts cut off. You can grind them in a food processor.

To be strictly authentic, you must grill the monkfish over a gentle fire on a charcoal grill or gas grill, or in your fireplace.

The fire should be mild enough that you can hold your hand about 3 inches above the grill grate for five to seven seconds before the heat forces you to snatch it away.

Be sure to brush the hot grate clean with a stiff wire brush and oil it well with a folded paper towel dipped in vegetable oil and held by tongs before being drawn across the hot bars of the grate.

For a nonconventional but easy and effective approach to this dish, try cooking the monkfish in a contact grill such as a George Foreman or a panini machine.

Preheat the machine (use one with the highest wattage you can find) and mist the grill plates with spray oil before putting on the fish.

You won’t get the delicate smoke flavor you achieve on a charcoal grill, but the resulting monkfish will be delectable nonetheless.

Grilled monkfish in the style of Da Ivo

BREADED FISH:

4 6- to 8-ounce monkfish steaks, each about 3/4 inch thick

1 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for brushing grill

Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 cups bread crumbs made from stale but untoasted bread ground in a food processor

Parsley garlic sauce (recipe follows)

Lemon wedges for serving

If using a charcoal or gas grill, build a moderate fire. If using a contact grill, preheat it to high and place the drip pan under the front edge of the grill.

Lightly brush the monkfish steaks on both sides with olive oil. Season generously with salt and pepper. Place bread crumbs in a wide, shallow bowl.

Dredge monkfish steaks in bread crumbs on both sides, shaking off the excess.

If using a conventional grill, brush and oil the grate. If using a contact grill, spray the grill plates with oil. Arrange monkfish steaks on the grill. If using a contact grill, close the lid. Grill fish until crusty, golden brown and cooked through, 4 to 6 minutes per side on a conventional grill or 4 to 6 minutes total on a contact grill. Use the flake test to check for doneness: Cooked fish will break into clean flakes when pressed with your finger.

Transfer monkfish to a platter or plates and spoon a little of the parsley garlic sauce over each piece. Garnish with lemon wedges and serve immediately with remaining sauce on the side. Makes 4 servings.

PARSLEY GARLIC SAUCE:

This simple sauce contains only four common ingredients and requires little more in the way of technique than chopping and stirring.

Alas, neither you nor I will be able to duplicate Da Ivo’s sauce because we can’t buy garlic and parsley the morning we plan to make it at Venice’s legendary Rialto Market and our olive oil probably doesn’t come from a tiny farm in Tuscany. No, garlic and parsley aren’t just garlic and parsley. They taste different in Italy. So does the olive oil. Use the best oil and freshest flat-leaf parsley and garlic you can find, and the sauce will at least come close.

1 clove garlic

teaspoon sea salt

6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, preferably unfiltered

2 to 3 tablespoons finely chopped, stemmed, flat-leaf Italian parsley

Trim root end off garlic. Cut clove in half lengthwise, and if it has a green shoot in the center, discard it. Finely chop garlic and place it in the bottom of a mixing bowl. Add salt; mash to a paste with the back of a spoon.

Whisk in olive oil and parsley and serve within 30 minutes of making. Makes about 6 tablespoons.

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