Truman Capote said, “Venice is like eating a whole box of chocolate liqueurs in one go.” LL Cool J, the city’s newest admirer, couldn’t agree more. Starring opposite Samuel L. Jackson and Colin Farrell in the action-packed movie S.W.A.T., the rapper-turned-actor is blissing out on all things eternal: his wife, Simone, and their four children; their seven-bedroom Tudor spread outside of New York City; and, when it comes to vacations, Italy. Born James Todd Smith and nicknamed LL Cool J (for Ladies Love Cool James), he became the most successful rap artist in history, selling more than 25 million albums. But after a turbulent period as “the Christopher Columbus of hip-hop,” as detailed in his 1997 autobiography, I Make My Own Rules, LL re-created himself as the actor James Todd Smith. His roles include Oliver Stone’s Any Given Sunday, Charlie’s Angels, and the recent romantic comedy Deliver Us From Eva. But one of his favorite stages is the ancient capital of canals. So settle back and listen as the rap gondolier sings a Venetian love song.
You recently vacationed in Italy. Where did you go?
“I went to Venice, Rome, and Florence. But I started my vacation off in Venice. I stayed at The Westin Europa & Regina hotel, which is amazing. I had a great one-bedroom suite with a terrace overlooking the Grand Canal. It’s right across from the church, the Santa Maria della Salute, that has the Black Madonna. It’s a great sculpture and historic landmark.”
What was your first impression of Venice?
“First of all, when you get to the airport, you take a water taxi to wherever you’re going. So once you arrive, there are no more cars. There are absolutely no cars in Venice! People who have been there know it, but people who haven’t might not even think of something like that. So we took a water taxi to the hotel. There’s a little dock there, and you walk right into the lobby from the water. The service at the Regina is incredible. They have amazing artwork on display and have a really, really incredible restaurant, La Cusina. Just all kinds of unbelievable Italian dishes. I had this pasta with tuna sauce, and this bread with olives baked into it with olive oil. They have all these different types of vinegars and olive oil and balsamic mixtures.”
What restaurant did you hit your first night?
“Antico Pignolo in the Montecarlo hotel, right near St. Mark’s Square. I actually had them make me a special dish: mashed potatoes. They laid some caviar on top with a little sour cream. It was really quaint, with a beautiful atmosphere, great lighting, beautiful bar, and wooden floors. It had a rustic feeling to it. I wasn’t really concerned with the prices; I was kinda just going for it. I don’t normally drink, but when my wife and I are on vacation, we like to drink wine, and I had the greatest bottles of red you can imagine.”
What’s another great dinner spot?
“There was La Terrazza Danieli, where we went up to the roof and ate outside. It overlooks the Grand Canal. We had fish, we had wine. It was incredible. If you want to eat right on a little canal, there’s Da Ivo, a wonderful trattoria with great food from Tuscany. And for seafood, everybody says that one of the best places is Al Covo.”
What’s your favorite Venice landmark?
“The Doge’s Palace, with its history and Napoleon coming through in the late 1700s. The Doge’s has this golden staircase in it, and some of the best art. There are private apartments, attics, and hidden passageways to torture chambers. It was a trip. Yeah, it was crazy. The architecture is a combination of Venetian and Renaissance. Different things were built at different stages. When new people started conquering, the architecture would change according to who was trying to take over the country or the city at that time.”
What one thing about the city’s history particularly intrigued you?
“Next to the Doge’s Palace, connected by the Bridge of Sighs, is the prison Casanova escaped from. Casanova was thrown in prison because so many people were jealous of him — he was romancing so many women — and because he studied what was known back then as the black arts [black magic]. On Halloween night [in 1756], Casanova escaped and made it to Paris. Most people died in that prison, but he somehow made it to the roof and jumped into the canal. It was pretty high, too. So that was amazing.”
Other than Casanova, what other historical figure did you learn about?
“Napoleon. We went all around Venice and saw what Napoleon did, like how he made the cemetery island called San Michele. When he conquered Venice, he set the city up, and one of the things he did was take one island and make it specifically for a cemetery and told people to start burying the dead there instead of all over town. It’s not the happiest thing in the world, but it was interesting.”
Switching channels, what was the most romantic thing you and your wife did?
“We had a picnic on a gondola. It started in the daytime and then went into the evening a little bit. The hotel concierge put it together for us. There was pasta, bread, and roast beef sandwiches. We just rowed around Venice and looked at the buildings. And, no, I didn’t sing. The gondolier was singing.”
What about shopping? Give us some tips.
“We went to one of the glass-blowing factories on the island of Murano, where they’ve been blowing glass for hundreds of years. Murano is across the lagoon from the main island of Venice. You walk in and they give you a speech on how this stuff is handmade. Then you walk through the factory and you see all the different stuff and you just go crazy in there, intoxicated by the event. We had a chandelier handblown at one of the factories. They wrote a special inscription on it for us and sent it to America. It was beautiful to see the different things they do with glass. All the various colors on the glass that’s fresh out of the oven. By the time you leave, you just grab your credit card. I’ve got my chandelier hanging in my house right now. It’s amazing.”
Where else did you spend your money?
“We went to Versace. All the designer stores were there: Gucci, Versace, Valentino. And there were a couple of other little boutiques, some interesting shops. My wife got a lot of nice clothes and shoes and all kinds of stuff — jewelry, bracelets … .”
Where’s a nice place for lunch?
“There are a lot of little cafes that are really good. During the day, we would go somewhere and have bread and olive oil and a light pasta lunch at some place like Osteria al Mascaron, a wine bar with good food. But if you really want to get some great fish, go to Fiaschetteria Toscana, a small, casual place that gets the freshest of everything. It has great wine, pasta, and bread, too. The Hotel Cipriani has a great lunch or dinner, and they’re famous for their chocolate gelato. The Cipriani is one of the greatest hotels in Venice. Harry’s Dolci is on the same island as the Cipriani. It’s owned by Harry’s Bar, and you can sit at a table on the outdoor sidewalk and look at the city across the lagoon while you’re having lunch.”
What’s a good way to spend an afternoon?
“We went to St. Mark’s Square and the pigeons were there. The pigeons are everywhere. If you put a piece of bread on your shoulder, you have like 1,500 pigeons on top of you. Did I do that? No. What I did do was listen to the music at one of the many cafes in the square, like Caffe Chioggia, which is famous for jazz. They also play music in the middle of the square. They have the symphony out there, and different people playing music.”
Any nightlife suggestions?
“You’ve got to go to Harry’s Bar. They’re famous for the bellini. It’s champagne with peach juice and it’s delicious. If you go before 7:30, you can sit in the bar, before everybody starts coming in for dinner. We had a great time there. You can also sit out and have a drink in St. Mark’s Square at Caffè Florian, the famous old cafe where Casanova hung out. Or you could go to one of the hotels on the Grand Canal, like the Gritti Palace or the Bauer Il Palazzo, which both have great outdoor bars and terraces.”
Venice is famous for its bridges. Which was your favorite?
“The Bridge of Sighs. They say it got its name because all the prisoners going from the prison to the guillotine were sighing when they crossed it. I don’t know if it was that or something to do with love. From what I remember, part of it was love and part of it was the prisoners. Walking around the city and going near the Bridge of Sighs and seeing the big clock tower in St. Mark’s Square was incredible.”
What about museums?
“There’s the Peggy Guggenheim museum. She was an American who lived on the Grand Canal and is buried in the garden with her dogs. She lived in this house and collected all the contemporary artists like Henry Moore and Jackson Pollock. And everything is still like she had it.”
What type of clothes would you recommend for a trip to Venice?
“On the weekends, I just wore a regular nice shirt and slacks. Or jeans and a shirt. I did it real comfortable. My wife was the one wearing all the dresses and different clothes. You know what I mean?”
Where can you see the locals at work?
“At the Rialto Bridge fish market. That was amazing. They had the widest selection of all kinds of fish from the Adriatic. They open early, close early, and the better the restaurant is doing, the earlier the chefs go to pick up their fish from the market.”
Speaking of restaurants, where can you get a wonderful meal when money’s no object?
“Quadri, a famous restaurant right above St. Mark’s Square. They have incredible seafood and pasta, but what’s best is the view. You can eat and look out on the square, and afterward hang out and listen to all the music. We also had dinner at the Gritti Palace, the famous hotel on the Grand Canal. The restaurant [Club del Doge] was beautiful and the food was good. We had a lot of wine and champagne. We just chilled and hung out.”
What was your favorite walk?
“From San Marco Square to the Campo Santo Stefano. You can start out at the Paolin bar, where they have some of the best gelato in the city, then walk into the square, where, 500 years ago, the courtesans of Venice held court. Back then, there were 14,000 courtesans in Venice, and most of them lived and worked in the Campo Santo Stefano square, where they were considered to be upstanding professional women who knew lots of languages and all about art and music and culture.”
What’s the overall feeling you get from the city?
“You feel safe. When you’re walking around at night, it can be 3 or 4 in the morning and you’re in an alleyway, and you don’t feel uncomfortable. You feel safe. My wife loved the fact that we had to walk everywhere, and we found ourselves, very late at night, being the only people around. We could hear our footsteps along the cobblestone streets.”
What do you love most about Venice?
“What makes Venice is that it’s surrounded by water. From what I understand, there are now 18 islands in the city, since many of the original 160 channels have been filled with sand. When you walk around, there are little bridges that lead over to different parts. And it’s a really old city. They have all these frescoes. The faces of the buildings are mostly multicolored. In the afternoon, when the sun is glistening and you’re going down one of the main waterways, the look of the city and the colors of the buildings are incredible. You can just imagine what it was like 800 years ago when the gold was still on the front of the buildings. It is something everybody should see at least once.”
the food, the shops, the canals … there’s so much to love in venice. here are the places ll cool j has a passion for.
bauer il palazzo
hotel gritti palace
the westin europa & regina
italian; very expensive;
italian; very expensive
club del doge
traditional venetian; very expensive
da ivo ristorante
tuscan trattoria; very expensive
seafood and pasta; expensive
gran caffè ristorante quadri
harry’s dolci venetian
regional italian; very expensive
la terrazza danieli
international; very expensive
osteria al mascaron
peggy guggenheim collection
palazzo ducale (doge’s palace)
rialto bridge fish market
san polo side of the grand canal
santa maria della salute
here are the spots we adore in venice.
hotel antico doge
four-star quality and a sumptuous breakfast buffet make a stay at this 12th-century palazzo a fantastic bargain.
a good value and a great location. ask for a room with a view of the courtyard or garden.
osteria da fiore
one of the best in venice. branzino all’aceto balsamico (sea bass with balsamic vinegar) and scampi in camicia di pane (breaded scampi) are house specialties.
trattoria alla madonna
a favorite seafood stop for locals and in-the-know tourists for generations.
011-39-041-522-4070. adult libations are served, but patrons are lured by the coffee — rated the best in the city.
011-39-041-520-5205. popular with the upwardly mobile venetian set, this trendy bar is tucked neatly off the tourists’ path.
a visit here for their world-famous leather goods is a must.
bell tower of st. mark’s square
climb to the top for a bird’s-eye view of venice.
galleria dell’ accademia
the grand museum of venetian art.
ride the venetian version of the local bus along the grand canal and out to the islands. www.actv.it