The Foods of Venice
Traditional Foods of Venice
Venice is defined by the sea. Indeed, it is rumoured her gondoliers are born with webbed feet, to help them walk on water. It is only natural, then, for seafood to feature heavily on any menu.
To see the abundance of seafood in Venice, visit the Rialto markets as the first light of day breaks over the city. Stalls groan under the weight of all the sea has to offer: fish of every size and colour, crabs, shellfish, sea snails, sea urchins, mussels; the variety is truly amazing. I couldn’t recognise much of what was on sale. Besides the offerings of the sea, there are also fresh water fishes (including eels), the best which come, or so the stall-holders told me, from Lake Garda.
Along with the seafood, the vegetable and fruits make a colourful display. Venice might rise from the sea, but the Veneto boasts a large and lush hinterland where market gardens abound, producing an incredible array of vegetables. Some of the more famous are the asparagus from Bassano di Grappa, the deep crimson radicchio, and purple artichokes from the Venetian island Sant’ Erasmo.
With rice introduced from Spain by the Arabs, this is also Italy’s main rice growing region. Giving a lush, creamy texture when cooked, the variety vialo nenano grown near Verona is preferred over the more traditional Arborio rice for risotto,
Should you ever tire of the seafood, cattle, lamb and pork are farmed on these fields. Game is a common feature on the daily specials of a menu. There are also farms for ducks, geese and all types of poultry. Salame d’oca (goose salami) is traditional antipasto fare.
Influences on Venetian Cuisine
Venice rose to power on the basis of her trade, and this is evident in her cuisine. The traditional style of cooking is light and fragrant—for example, fish is usually grilled or poached, rather than covered with heavy sources. The colours reflect the palette of the Venetian artists, and the influence of centuries of trading with the East cannot be ignored. There is the gold of saffron, the use of spices (ginger and nutmeg, cloves, coriander cinnamon dominate), dried fruits such as apricots and figs, as well as nuts and pulses.
With the Veneto bordering on the Alps, there is also an Austrian influence in her cooking. (Most squeraroli – the artisans who build gondolasa – originally come from the Tylrolean area of the Dolomites, for this is where the best boat-building wood is still grown.) Menus will boast sauerkraut, dumplings and goulash, as well as apfel strudel.
Coffee is another important item on the Venetian menu. Coffee arrived in Venice via Egypt in the late 16th century, brought by Arab traders. Initially deemed sinful, this ‘wine of Arabia’ was all too readily adopted by the city’s merchants. The first cafés open in Venice around 1645, and the famous Café Florian in the Piazza San Marco opened its doors in 1720, and remains open today, complete with string quartet.
Some Venetian Antipasto
Frutti di mare: a selection of fresh seafood, fresh from the morning market
Bagnacauda: a hot sauce heavily flavoured with anchovies. It comes with a selection of raw vegetables for dipping into it.
Or try a platter of dried meats (especially salame d’oca or goose salami), crostini, dried fruits and nuts
Deciphering the Venetian Menu
The menu is divided into Antipasto – literally, before the meal, in which shell fish predominates. This is followed by Il Primo, which is usually a soup, risotto or pasta dish, then Il Secondo (meat, chicken or seafood) and, of course, Il Dolce.
Both vegetables (il contorno) and salad (insalata) are ordered separately. Along with desert, there will also be a choice (or combination) of frutts (fruit) and Il Formaggio (cheese).
Il Primo: Some Suggestions
Pasta e fagioli: a thick, rustic soup
Polenta: made from cornmeal originally imported from America
Risi e bisi: a risotto with fresh peas and parmesan, sometimes with the addition of ham
Riso nero: a risotto stained blue-black from cuttlefish ink
Zuppa di Cozze: Mussels steamed with white wine, garlic and parsley, and served with crusty bread to soak up the sauce
Alle Veneziane—Not to Be Missed
Brodo di pesce - fish soup (delightfully simple, and varies daily depending upon what is available in the markets)
Carpione - Trout from Lake Garda
Moleche trite - Soft-shelled crabs from the Venetian lagoon,lightly fried.
Sarde in soar - A Venetian specialty of fried sardines on a bed of onions sautéed until they are melting, and pine nuts.
Seppie alla veneziana - Cuttlefish cooked in their own ink
Spaghetti alle vongole - Spaghetti with clams (which are tiny and sweet) One of my favourites.
Tiramisu - (the name means “pick me up”) A classic Italian desert of mascarpone, sponge fingers, coffee and marsala, claimed by the Venetians as their own
Abbacchio: Baked leg or shoulder of lamb, often flavored with anchovies
Anguilla del pescatore: Stewed eel
Anguilla alla veneziana: Eel in a tuna and lemon sauce
Baccalà alla veneziana: A traditional meal of dried salt cod, often cooked in milk
Bisato sul’aro: Eel baked with bay leaves. This dish originates from Murano, where it was traditionally cooked in the glass furnaces.
Fegato alla venetian: Thin slices of calf’s liver, cooked lightly and served on a bed of sautéed onions
Fritto mist: A medley of deep-fried fish, squid and shellfish,
Involtini: Thinly sliced beef, pork or veal, which is rolled around a variety of fillings, then gently pan fried. It is usually served with a tomato or cream based sauce
Lavarelli al vino bianco: A fresh-water fish served in white wine
Pesci al cartoccio: Fish baked in paper
Prosecco: The Venetian Bubbles
Prosecco is a sparkling wine from the Veneto. It originated in Conegliano, and may be dry - secco or moderately sweet - amabile. It also comes semi-sparkling – frizzante – and fully sparkling – spumante.
Combining it with fresh white peach juice makes the famous Bellini; with orange – mimosa; red grape juice – Tizano; with campari – Prosecco sprtiz.
What to Drink in Venice?
With the history of wine making in Italy dating over 3000 yrs, one becomes spoilt for choice. The Veneto boasts Italy’s largest production of superior DOC wines. Some reliable producers include Bardolino, Valpolicella, Breganze, Venegazzù and Pieropan.
White wines come from around Soave. Red wines are grown mainly between Lake Garde and Verona, predominantly form the corvine grape, but also from cabernet sauvignon and merlot varietals.
Prosecco is often drunk as an aperitif, while Grappa is drunk as a digestive after the meal—alone with a strong espresso.
And afterwards? Simply wander and enjoy the delights of Venice—preferably with a gelato in hand—or else find a place to sip a glass of prosecco or a strong coffee, and watch the world go by.
© 2014 Anne Harrison