A JOURNEY AT THE DISCOVERY OF THE BEST FOOD IN VENICE
“The only way to understand a city is to eat there” 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 rich in different climates and landscapes. This has given rise to a varied and complex cuisine over the centuries. Food in Venice is one of the best examples of it.
They often identify Italy as the home of pizza and pasta, of course both perfectly summarize the spirit and the essence of italianness. However, 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?
Typical food in Venice
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 you can find 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. Thanks to the numerous influences it has undergone, Venetian food 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 food in Venice. In other words, let’s analyse those delicacies that you absolutely cannot think of not tasting once you set foot in the lagoon.
Baccalà mantecato (creamed codfish)
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. In the 15th century, after a shipwreck he 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. 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. After you cook it, cream the cod 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!
Sarde in Saor (Sweet and Sour Sardines)
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, brown the onions (a lot of them) with a drizzle of oil. Once dried, add sugar to caramelize and deglaze the whole thing with vinegar (the more vinegar you add the more intense the saor will be).
Lastly, fire off, put in pine nuts and raisins. Finally proceed with the preparation of the dish. Alternate a layer of saor with one of fried sardines, as if it was a lasagna, until the ingredients are used up. It is better to prepare saor a couple of days in advace so the fish absorbes all the flavors and it becomes a real treat!
Polenta e Schie (Polenta with little shellfish)
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.
Risotto al nero di seppia (Squid ink Risotto)
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!
Pasta alla Busara
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). Today the dish is perfectly framed in the tradition of the city. The name busara has multiple meanings. Some claim it was an earthenware pot they 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.
Bigoli in Salsa (Bigoli in sauce)
It is a dish with very poor origins. Bigoli in sauce were considered a lean option. They would consume them 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. Boil the bigoli, a type of long pasta similar to spaghetti but much thicker, drain them and finally whip them with the sauce.
Fegato alla Veneziana (Venetian style Liver)
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 inside the dish there is an ingredient which is very dear to the city: onions. You simply have to cut the liver, usually from veal but also from pork, into strips and cook it in a pan with oil, butter and onions. A sprinkle of vinegar is also inevitable! It is excellent to dampen the strong taste of the meat and the sweet but intense taste of the onions.
Buranelli (Burano cookies)
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. Is is 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 them for about twenty minutes in the oven and you’re done. Try them, they are amazing!
Frittelle (fried donuts)
If you are in Venice during the Carnival period, you absolutely have to stop in one of the many historic pastry shops and taste the famous frittelle (in Venetian dialect fritole). Unfortunately, or fortunately for those who want to keep in shape, you can only enjoy them in those weeks.
Their origins are very ancient, they probably date back to the 14th century. It is very easy to make them: you just have to put together eggs, butter, milk , flour, yeast, sugar and flavourings. Then fry the batter “spoon by spoon” in boiling oil and then stuff it.
The classic venetian frittella actually has no filling but only raisin which you 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 say the sailors consumed them during their long periods of absence from home. The dough is very simple.You make it with 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 “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!
If you want to discover more about food in Venice and where to taste it, read our article about the 10 best Venetian Bacari!