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At a Venetian B&B, stay the night and learn to cook

Email|Print| Text size + By Patricia Harrisand David Lyon
Globe Correspondents / April 12, 2006

VENICE -- Anna Maria Andreola's first lesson is that a freezer is good for ice cream and ice cubes and not much else. ''I shop every day," she says with a shrug as she leads us off to Rialto market early in the morning.

The foray is part of the package that Andreola offers at Le Mansarde, her small bed-and-breakfast located in the 18th-century palazzo where she was born. Not only do guests get a room or apartment with cooking facilities, they also get a cooking lesson. And cooking begins with shopping.

We follow her through the residential Cannaregio neighborhood and down an alley to the Grand Canal, where we board a ''traghetto," one of the bare-bones gondolas that ferry passengers across for about 60 cents. It is hardly a romantic cruise, but it saves 10 minutes of walking to a bridge.

There's been a fish market at Rialto since the 1300s, though the current, vaguely Byzantine brick structure dates from 1907. We had tentatively planned on veal as our main course, but Andreola quickly changes the menu when she sees that her favorite fishmonger has rombo (wide-eyed flounder) stacked on ice. ''This is my favorite fish," she exclaims. ''So sweet -- it's good with butter, flour, very little tomato." She has a pair filleted while we wait.

Fish in hand, we head to the sprawling produce market for cherry tomatoes. Andreola lights up again when she spies a basket of ''castraure," baby artichokes raised on the islands of the Venetian Lagoon. ''Risotto," she says. She also selects tiny, fragrant strawberries from the islands. ''We'll make ice cream."

While other tourists wander around snapping photos, we stride purposefully along behind Andreola to a far corner of the market where a man is sitting on a plastic bucket, patiently trimming huge Roman artichokes down to half-inch-thick, 4-inch-diameter disks. We take 10, which brings our total purchases to slightly less than $50. Andreola kisses us each on both cheeks as we part for the day with plans to meet later in her apartment one floor above our efficiency room.

Besides operating her B&B, Andreola works part time as a music teacher and sings in a gospel choir. She learned to cook from her grandmother, but her kitchen is a model of modern efficiency. We are greeted by the aroma of fresh bread, which Andreola had prepared earlier in the day in a bread maker. The machine sits on her counter along with a high-tech scale/food processor/slow cooker, a juicer, and an electric ice cream freezer. This last is key to dessert. Before we start the savory preparations, we crush a few strawberries and add the juice to sparkling wine for a toast and a few sips. Then we blend most of the remaining berries with cream, sugar, and eggs and dump the mixture into the ice cream freezer.

Of all her appliances, Andreola is most attached to her pressure cooker. ''I would have had my children in the pressure cooker if I could have," she jokes. The device not only cuts time, she says, but conserves flavors and vitamins. She puts the artichoke bottoms in the pressure cooker with a little water and a clove of minced garlic. Five minutes later, they're done, and she arranges them on a serving plate, drizzles them with olive oil, and garnishes with parsley.

While we trim and slice the baby artichokes, Andreola keeps up a running conversation about her husband and three children, interrupting herself periodically to ask if she is using a word correctly or to thank us for the chance to practice her English. When the baby artichokes are ready, she cooks them in the pressure cooker for three minutes, then adds a teacup of arborio rice for each of us and water to cover. She snaps on the lid. By the time she has set the table with Murano glass goblets and her mother's lace tablecloth, the risotto is done. Andreola reduces pressure under cold water and stirs in a dollop of butter, a dribble of milk, and a handful of Grana Padano cheese. The first course is ready.

The fish is equally fast. Once we've finished the risotto, she dredges the fillets in flour, melts some butter, and pan-fries them for a few minutes, adding a splash of wine and the halved cherry tomatoes at the end. Five minutes later, we sit down to the fish and artichoke bottoms and a bottle of pinot grigio we had picked up at the corner wine shop.

Dessert is ready when we are -- creamy strawberry ice cream with a few diced berries on top for good measure.

Le Mansarde

Rio Terra San Leonardo 1353/c

011-39-041-718826, 011-39-338-868-8935 (mobile)

E-mail: cazzar.ola@libero.it

Anna Maria Andreola's bed-and-breakfast currently has two quarters -- an efficiency room and a small apartment with separate kitchen, living room, and bedroom. (Additional rooms should be ready over the summer.) Rates with or without breakfast are $120/$132 for the room, $132/$145 for the apartment.

Contact Patricia Harris and David Lyon, Cambridge-based freelance writers, at harris.lyon@verizon.net.

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