"There's a lot of hometown-ness in Venice," says Betty Intagliata, who didn't need much convincing to move here in 1981 after many cold winters in Manchester, Connecticut.
It's easy to see what she means. Venice, Florida, seems like a Mediterranean Mayberry set next to the Gulf of Mexico. It has lots of parks and lots of parades, and in summer, Centennial Park's snow-white gazebo hosts crafts festivals and weddings. In winter, carolers roam the columned archways of the Italian Renaissance-style shops in the MainStreet district.
At Tropical Scenes Island Interiors, Denise McNally stocks an eclectic mix of "Mermaid Crossing" signs and copper plant sculptures. A three-piece resin alligator surfaces in a window box out front. "I come in in the morning and put my gator out," she says. "Everybody opens, and they're sweeping the sidewalk. It's like Europe."
Her shop faces Venice Avenue, one of the town's three principal streets. It leads straight to the gulf, passing tennis courts and 1920s-era Mediterranean Revival homes with arched entrances and barrel-tile roofs.
Troy Ballew moved to Venice from Phoenix with his wife and two elementary school-age daughters. "They play out front, and we don't have to worry," he says. "[Venice is] smaller and slower. And that's a good thing."
The town has grown up a lot in the 45 years since John Ryan arrived as a 6-month-old baby. But even with 18,000 people now, Venice holds on to its small-town character. John recalls the day the Venice High football team headed off to become state champion in 2000. "If you saw it in the movies it would bring a tear to your eye―people lining the street to wave good-bye."
You might find Heather Bibbee down at The Soda Fountain having her favorite "handmade" milk shake: chocolate-peanut butter. Or, come sundown, she might be out with the couples and kids by the jetty to watch Beggar the dolphin do his tail-walking routine, hoping for handouts. "It's absolutely surreal," Heather says.
Local lore claims the dolphin was released from Floridaland, a theme park in nearby Osprey that closed in 1971. Like so many in Venice, Beggar found a place to stay for good, among lasting neighbors.
(published in 2005)