Friday, January 3, 2014

Venice and The Crow's Nest: Old Florida Charm

Just south of Sarasota, along Florida’s white-sanded Gulf Coast, Venice has a rich history that spans from homesteaders and locomotive engineers, to the real estate boom of the 20’s and later serving as the winter quarters for Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus. Originally known as "Horse & Chaise," homesteaders settled into the region in the 1860s and renamed it Venice in due to the number of canals that meander through its town centre. Three bridges access the island’s downtown where sidewalks adjoin neighbourhoods to quaint shops and services. Shaded green space and parks offer concerts and activities and the natural beauty of several undeveloped beaches remain a major attraction with "old Florida charm". Listed in the National Register of Historic Places, downtown Venice is a showplace of northern Italian Renaissance style architecture and beautifully landscaped boulevards, as interpreted in the famed early 20th century New York landscape architect John Nolen.

John Nolen’s Master Plan of Venice, circa 1925, called for artfully laid out streets 
with the main avenues having beautiful tree lined medians

John Nolen

However, the vision for the city of Venice started in the early 1900's when Bertha Honore Palmer, a wealthy widow from Chicago, spent part of her fortune to purchase 140,000 acres of Florida wilderness, half of which was in the Venice area. Her cattle ranch was one of the biggest in the state and her home on the bay, an elegant winter residence named 'The Oaks', was complete with marble pillar lined walkways through formal gardens. She had a vision for what the area could become and had a master plan for a resort city designed, unfortunately it proved to be too costly for her to proceed, although she did successfully lobby to have the railroad line extended from Sarasota County to Venice in 1911 — an enormously important event, as it placed Venice on the path of progress and new development.

From the Gold Coast to the Gulf Coast, arrived fabulous Chicago socialite Bertha Honore Palmer, 
who moved to Venice with a vision of what the area could become

The Oaks

The formal gardens at The Oaks

Berthe Palmer (right) with family and friends

In 1916, the rail line was finally forged south along Florida’s west coast by the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, and hired the urban planner for New York’s Central Park, John Nolen, to create a retirement community for their union members. Today, the Italian Renaissance architecture and Nolen’s beautifully landscaped parks and boulevards are what cause Venice to be an exception to most beach communities as one of the first planned cities built in the United States. In 1923, Venice was connected to Tampa and Miami by a two-lane road that became the Tamiami Trail. During the real estate boom of the 1920s, and with the cash infusion of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, the dream of a model community became a reality. Homes and businesses featuring northern Italian architecture were constructed, and the city of Venice was incorporated in 1925.  

Venice Main Street with shops, boutiques and small family run restaurants

'Sea Venice' is a public arts project where local artists created unique designs for 
a series fibreglass dolphins and sea turtles, with all the proceeds going to the Venice Arts Centre

One of the many canals that meander though this languid Venice of the south

Hard times arrived with the Great Depression which left Venice in near desolation, however the community began its comeback with the arrival of the Kentucky Military Institute in 1932, and a U.S. Army Air Base in 1941. The Intracoastal Waterway was constructed, starting in 1963, making Venice an 'island' and increasing pleasure boating in the area. One of the few carefully planned cities in the United States, Venice is artistically landscaped with palms, flowers, silver trumpet trees, live oaks and pines, and is now a Florida 'Main Street City', a designation awarded by the State of Florida for historic preservation. Considered one of the best kept secrets in Florida, many buildings in Venice are on the national register of historic places and the Northern Italian architectural theme is once again being embraced. From a small fishing village to a destination for those seeking the sun of Florida's sunshine coast, Venice has evolved into a thriving town, filled with historic charm, natural beauty, and many family-owned shops, boutiques and restaurants. 

Venice Pier

Shells, shells and more shells 

A Venice waterfront landmark since 1976 with views overlooking the Gulf of MexicoThe Crow's Nest Marina Restaurant is one of the area restaurants that has been attracting a steady clientele since it opened almost 40 years ago. Originally a small seafood spot on the second floor of the Tarpon Centre Marina, The Crow's Nest took over the marina in 1982 and renamed it The Crow's Nest Marina. Serving a casual menu of local seafood and traditional Florida favourites, such as Seafood Bisque, Jumbo Crab Meat Cakes, Sesame Seared Ahi Tuna, fresh Florida Stone Crab, Seafood Pot Pie and the ever popular Florida Grouper Sandwich to a selection of salads, burgers, cheese and charcuturie, The Crow's Nest offers relaxed casual Floridean fare at reasonable prices with a waterfront view that's hard to beat.

The Crow's Nest Seafood Restaurant in Venice

The Crow's Nest Marina dock

Christmas ribbons grace each of the outdoor lanterns at Crow's Nest

A nautical-themed stained glass window inside the Crow's Nest

The Crow's Nest lunch menu 

An extra thick and spicy Bloody Mary complete with celery, lime and hot pepper

Cold and frosty Iced Tea

Crow's Nest New England Clam Chowder

Crow's Nest soup of the day, a Spanish Gumbo

Wild Florida Shrimp Cocktail with homemade cocktail sauce

The Crow's Nest Burger with cheese and frites

Grilled Florida Gulf Red Grouper Sandwich with frites

The 'Nester' Shrimp and Crabmeat Salad with Alaskan snow crab and wild Florida shrimp in a potato basket with salad greens and Dijon Ranch Dressing

Local fresh Florida Stone Crabs served with hot drawn butter

The Crow’s Nest Jumbo Lump Crab Cakes
Serves 4

3 lbs jumbo lump crabmeat
1 fl oz Worcestershire sauce
1 tbsp kosher salt
1 tbsp ground Coleman’s mustard
2 tbsp minced Italian parsley
1 shallot, minced
1/4 cup mayonnaise
10 oz cracker meal
1/2 fl oz lemon juice

Mustard Crème Fraiche:
1 cup crème fraiche
1/2 cups Creole mustard
1/2 tbsp Old Bay seasoning

For the sauce, mix everything together, season with salt and pepper, and set aside. For the crab cakes, mix everything except crab and cracker meal in a large bowl. Gently fold in the crab, being careful not to break up the lumps, then mix in the cracker meal until the mixture is combined and just holds together. Using your hands, form the crab mixture into 4-ounce cakes, and sauté in heavy pan over medium heat with some olive oil and butter until they are nicely browned, about 4-5 minutes per side. Serve warm with bowl of mustard crème fraiche on the side.