“Cities you go to, food you find” if there was a saying to define our beautiful Italy it would certainly be this. Our territory is in fact small in size but it is so rich in different climates and landscapes that it has given rise to a varied and complex cuisine over the centuries.
Italy is often identified as the home of pizza and pasta, of course both perfectly summarize the spirit and the essence of italianness but it would be a mistake to believe that these two delicious dishes are the mirror of the traditions of each italian region. If Emilia Romagna is famous for its sliced salami and its sublime Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, if Tuscany is the land of Chianina meat and Chianti wine, if Calabria is known for its spicy chillies and Sicily is the mother of Arancini (little fried rise balls with ragù sauce inside) and blood oranges, Veneto is home to radicchio, rice and Prosecco wine.
As you can see in a few lines and with a few examples we have already highlighted so many differences. Above i mentioned Veneto, the region which is lucky enough to have Venice as its capital. Moving now from a regional plan to a more specific one, that we could define Venice-centric, what are the culinary wonders that this splendid city give us?
Talking about food in Venice means making a leap into its old history. I always like to define the city as the most oriental that can be found in the western part of the world; this link with the East is in fact visible on every stone and on every mosaic of what they once called the Serenissima. The merchant traffic, the ships that sailed the seas of the known world, the waves of foreign merchants who stayed in the famous Fondaci (literally houses with wearhouses) to take care of their business, have in fact allowed the city to become a mix of different cultures and traditions.
This link between different cultures has inevitably manifested itself also in the venetian cuisine, which thanks to the numerous influences it has undergone, could be defined as one of the most varied in the world. But let’s not waste time chatting, on the contrary let’s go straight to the list of some of the most typical dishes of the lagoon. In other words, let’s analyse those delicacies that you absolutely cannot think of not tasting once you set foot in Venice.
It is probably the symbol of the city. There is no bacaro, restaurant or tavern that has not placed it on its menu. Its presence on the venetian tables is due to Captain Pietro Querini who, in the 15th century, after a shipwreck ended up staying for a few weeks in the Lofoten Islands, in Northern Europe.
There, he got to know the tradition of stockfish, codfish dried in the air and in the sun. On his return to the Serenissima, he made sure to take some samples with him and from that moment cod went straight into the culinary tradition of Venice. The recipe requires the boiling of the fish with bay leaves and lemon for about twenty minutes. Once cooked, the cod is just creamed with oil in a thin stream, salt and pepper.
The result is a soft and velvety cream perfect on bread croutons or on a slice of grilled polenta. A real treat!
Saor, which in venetian dialect means “sapore” so taste in english, consists of a sweet and sour preparation based on onions, vinegar, pine nuts and raisins. This delicious dish has ancient origins.
In fact, the presence of vinegar allows food to be kept for many days. Considering the lack of refrigerators, the saor was therefore the perfect method to consume even that fish (not only sardines) which was not really fresh. The recipe requires the frying of sardines and on the side the preparation of the saor. In a pan the onions (a lot of them) are browned with a drizzle of oil.Once dried, sugar is added to caramelize and the whole thing is deglazed with vinegar (the more vinegar is added the more intense the saor will be).
Lastly, fire off, pine nuts and raisins are put in. Finally we proceed with the preparation of the dish: a layer of saor has to be alternated with one of fried sardines, as if it was a lasagna, until the ingredients are used up. Saor must necessarely be prepared a couple of days in advace so the fish absorbes all the flavors and it becomes a real treat!
Polenta in Veneto is really eaten in every possible way, but if served with schie it becomes even tastier. First of all, what are the schie? They are very small shrimp typical of the venetian lagoon. Despite their small size, their taste is really intense. You can taste them fried but the version you’re going to prefer is the boiled one. In fact, if boiled and seasoned with a drizzle of oil, pepper and parsley and served with hot and soft polenta, they will simply be somptuous.
Here two great venetian products are combined: rice and squid ink. Risotto is certainly a widespread first course in all of the northern regions of Italy. Whether you prefer it soupy or dry, it is a truly versatile dish that can be prepared with the most varied ingredients: vegetables, meat and of course in Venice with fish. If you love the strong and at the same time delicate taste of squid, you definitely have to try their ink. The colour might seem uninviting for a dish but the taste will amaze you!
If you love shellfish, especially shrimp, you should definitely try the pasta, usually spaghetti, alla Busara. Its origins probably date back to after the war and could be sought in Istria (present day Croatia) but the dish is perfectly framed in the tradition of the city. The name busara has multiple meanings. Some claim it was an earthenware pot used on board ships, others say it means “lie” because of the presence of tomato sauce which somehow covered the taste of shrimp. Today one thing is certain, the shrimp in the busara sauce are definitely the protagonists and their taste gives the tomato a unique flavour.
It is a dish with very poor origins. Bigoli in sauce were considered a lean option because they were consumed during those days when the precepts of religion imposed abstinence from certain food. The ingredients to make the sauce are actually poor: onions and anchovies. Don’t be fooled though, the taste on the contrary is an explosion of rich flavors.
The realization of the recipe is really simple. For the sauce, brown the onion with a generous dose of oil and add the anchovies. While cooking, these will flake off and create a mouth-watering sauce. The bigoli, a type of long pasta similar to spaghetti but much thicker, must instead be boiled, drained and finally whipped with the sauce.
Don’t worry, if you don’t like fish, here’s a traditional venetian meat dish: liver…venetian style of course. Why is it defined like this? Because the dish is characterized by the presence of an ingredient that we have already mantioned extensively and which is very dear to the city: onions. The liver, usually from veal but it can also be found from pork, is simply cut into strips and cooked in a pan with oil, butter and onions. A sprinkle of vinegar is also inevitable as it is excellent to dampen the strong taste of the meat and the sweet but intense taste of the onions.
You don’t want to live Venice without having tried some typical sweets, do you? In addition to being delicious, the Buranelli are also the perfect souvenir for friends anf family. These cookies are typical of the island of Burano, one of the three main island of the venetian lagoon together with Murano and Torcello. The ingredients are among the most classic for sweet preparations: flour, eggs, sugar, butter and vanilla flavouring. The recipe is very simple; just assemle everything and create donut-shaped cookies, bake for about twenty minutes in the oven and you’re done. Try them, they are amazing!
If you are in Venice during the Carnival period (unfortunately, or fortunately for those who want to keep in shape, they can only be enjoyed in those weeks) you absolutely have to stop in one of the many historic pastry shops and taste the famous frittelle (in Venetian dialect fritole). Their origins are very ancient, they probably date back to the 14th century. They are made of a thick and sticky batter made from eggs, butter, milk , flour, yeast, sugar and flavourings which is then fried “spoon by spoon” in boiling oil and then stuffed. The classic venetian one actually has no filling but only raisin which is put directly in the row dough. The sweet tooth can taste the many variations with chocolate filling, classic cream, pistacchio cream and a bunch of other flavors. The whole city, at Carnival, smells like frittelle… it is the scent of joy!
Baicoli are typical cookies of the venetian tradition. They have ancient origins and they are said to have been consumed by sailors forced to long periods of absence from home because of their long preservation over time. They are made of a very simple dough based on water, flour, yeast, butter, sugar amd egg whites. The consistency of these sweets is very different from the above mentioned Buranelli; if those are buttery and crumbly, the Baicoli are on the contrary “hard” and crunchy. They are perfect together with mascarpone cream, eggnog or an excellent sweet wine.
We could mention many other dishes that make Venetian cuisine a real Italian gem, but surely the above mentioned onces are already enough to let you have a real deep dive in the most authentic Venetian essence.
Travelling doen’t just mean moving from one place to another. Travelling means opening your mind and heart to new experiences, it means living different cultures and traditions and knowing stories of exciting characters. But there is more, travelling also means experiencing the local cuisine because there is no monument nor museum that can convey the soul of a country, or a city, or a people as perfectly as the dishes that its inhabitants traditionally consume do.
Food is history, it is life, it is culture, it is art and beauty, it is sharing and joy so what would Venice be without its baccalà mantecato or its frittelle?
What more can I say? Fasten your seat belts, set the navigator towards Venice and…enjoy your meal!