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The Foods of Venice

I fell in love with Florence at the age of 10 and have travelled widely since, but somehow I always return to this most magical of cities.

Venice’s Traditional Foods

Venice’s Traditional Foods

Venice is defined by the sea. Indeed, it is rumoured that its 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 and 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 fish (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.

There is always somewhere interesting to dine in Venice.

There is always somewhere interesting to dine in Venice.

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 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 a string quartet.

View from my room, where I watched a grandma cooking for her family.

View from my room, where I watched a grandma cooking for her family.

Some Venetian Antipasto

Frutti di mare: a selection of fresh seafood, fresh from the morning market

Bagnacauda: a hot sauce heavily flavoured with anchovies; 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 shellfish 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.

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Both vegetables (il contorno) and salad (insalata) are ordered separately. Along with dessert, there will also be a choice (or combination) of frutts (fruit) and Il Formaggio (cheese).

A quiet corner in Venice.

A quiet corner in Venice.

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

A floating Venetian market.

A floating Venetian market.

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

Il Secondo

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.

Cozze: Mussles

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

Sogliola: Sole

Ah, Venice.

Ah, Venice.

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 – Tiziano; with Campari – Prosecco spritz.

What to Drink in Venice?

With the history of winemaking 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 from 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—along 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.

Always something different to find in Venice.

Always something different to find in Venice.

A quiet corner in Venice.

A quiet corner in Venice.

© 2014 Anne Harrison

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