Pasta and pizza are world famous, and are the staples we generally associate with Italy and its cuisine. The reality, however, is that Italy is home to variety of cuisines. When visitors come to Venice, one of the most popular destinations in the country, many therefore make the mistake of flocking to touristy eateries serving food that reflects their expectations (such as pasta and pizza) and not what the locals or veneziani really eat. With its unique lagoon location and proximity to the island gardens of Sant’Erasmo, genuine Venetian cuisine consists of some truly flavorful and refined dishes relying heavily on fish and vegetables. Here is a guide to some of the Venetian specialties you should really be trying when visiting La Serenissima…
1. Sarde in saor
This delectable agrodolce or sweet-sour dish is definitely our favorite. Consisting of fried sardine fillets marinated in vinegar, onions, raisins and pine nuts, saor was originally conceived in the Middle Ages as a method of preservation by Venetian sailors and fishermen. With modern refrigeration, preserving fish (and other foods) in this way is no longer necessary. However, the simultaneously sweet and tangy flavors characterizing this preservation method were clearly very appealing to the Venetians’ taste buds and, as a result, the dish lives on as a modern-day antipasto or appetizer.
2. Baccala mantecato
Coming in at a close second is another sublime fish-based antipasto. Baccala mantecato or creamed dried cod is prepared by soaking, poaching and blending the fish into a smooth mousse seasoned with olive oil, salt and pepper. You may also come across parsley and garlic in some variations. It is then served spread on slices of fresh bread or grilled white polenta, a typical staple of the Veneto region.
3. Risotto al nero di seppia
Rice is the other commonly grown staple in the Veneto region, and few dishes are more Venetian than this seafood-based risotto. The squid ink in this primo or starter may confer a rather alarming and seemingly unpalatable jet-black color to the rice. This dish, though, wins even the most skeptical visitors over with the distinct briny flavor of its squid, wine, onion, tomato and ink braise.
4. Risi e bisi
Our gastronomic guide to Venice would not be complete without mentioning another rice-based starter, risi e bisi or Venetian-style rice and peas. On April 25, St. Mark’s Day, this primo was traditionally served as an offering to the Doge of Venice from the peasantry from the lagoon islands. Not quite risotto nor quite soup, risi e bisi is made with vialone nano rice, pancetta, onion, butter, parsley and surprisingly enough, pea-shell broth! If you notice fresh peas gracing the stands at the Rialto markets (generally mid-to-late spring), you can be sure that it is the right time to sample this dish at a local trattoria.
5. Bigoli in salsa
Bigoli in salsa is another signature starter dish of Venice. Bigoli, or bigoi as they called in the local dialect, are essentially long, thick, whole-wheat strands of pasta resembling spaghetti. A salsa or sauce consisting of onions and salt-cured fish (sardines or anchovies) is then used to accompany the pasta. Traditionally served on giorni di magro or lean days such as Good Friday and Christmas Eve, this simple but delicious dish is now served all year round in Venice.
6. Fegato alla veneziana
Offal enthusiasts will relish this main course made with calf liver and stewed onions. The earthiness of the liver is complimented perfectly by the sweet, caramelized onions. With its distinct flavor combination, this classic dish has been known to convert many a visitor claiming not to like liver. It is often served on a creamy bed of polenta.
The Venetian lagoon is home to all sorts of wonderful crustaceans, making Venice the perfect place for seafood lovers. Moleche, small green crabs, are a seasonal, springtime delicacy eaten after they shed their shells. Speed is required when the crabs are being harvested, as within the space of a few hours they form new shells which harden after contact with water. Delightfully soft and tender, these crabs lend themselves well to fried dishes and salads.
When the Republic of Venice was a great seafaring power, sailors needed food that would last during their often long and precarious voyages. Among their most important rations were the dry, oval-shaped and most importantly, long-lasting baicoli or ship biscuits. Of deceptively simple appearance, preparing them is actually a very long process as they require two rises and double baking. Many a Venetian aristocrat was fond of dipping baicoli in creams and dessert wines. These days, you’ll generally find them served with coffee and zabaglione.
If you’re lucky enough to be visiting during the Carnevale (Carnival) period, then you must try fritole, which are sweet pastry fritters traditionally prepared and eaten as part of the festivities before Lent. Made with a rich batter consisting of flour, eggs, butter, milk, sugar, pine nuts and raisins, they are molded in balls, deep fried in oil and dusted with sugar. Highly recommended for those with a sweet tooth!
The Veneto region has a remarkably varied landscape and is home to a variety of microclimates, creating the perfect conditions for growing both quality red and white wines. The sparkling white wine Prosecco – and other concoctions such as the Bellini and Spritz that are made with it – has become quite fashionable as a pre-dinner drink lately. However, if we have to choose a white wine to accompany all the fish you’ll be eating here, then look no further than a bottle of Soave. To accompany heartier dishes, you may wish to try reds like Valpolicella or Amarone. For a taste of something really local, there are also white wines such as Orto di Venezia and Venissa. These wines are produced on the islands of the lagoon.