Friday, 4 December 2015

Food in Venice - a personal view

In which we discuss Venetian food

As a city whose economy is dominated by tourism, in Venice there’s no shortage of places for the visitor to eat. The food does vary a little from what you might be used to in your local Italian restaurant, and if you are keen to sample the regional cuisine, it’s worth knowing what to look out for, since many of the establishments might aim to cater for the less adventurous tourist.

As you might expect, seafood features strongly in Venetian cuisine: fish, squid, cuttlefish, prawns, crabs and clams, but also unsual crustacean species, such as the canoce or mantis shrimp, with markings on the tail that look like eyes. A good place to see the raw ingredients is at the famous Rialto market. The guidebooks will tell you that this is where the locals have always gone for the finest produce, and perhaps that is so, although I suspect that most of them might shop at places nearer their homes, of which you will find numerous examples. I used to wonder if the local restaurants obtained their supplies here, and asked the staff at one of the better establishments, who told me that they got their produce from the nearby fishing port of Chioggia, which makes perfect sense, since the Rialto market isn’t big enough to supply the catering industry.

Of course, like in the rest of Italy, a lot of pasta is consumed, but in Venice they also eat a lot of rice. Years ago, in the days before cheap flights, I woke up in the morning during an overnight train journey to Venice and was rather puzzled when I looked out of the window and saw what looked like paddy fields. Of course, they were paddy fields. I was passing through the Po valley in northern Italy, a major rice-growing area.

The classic rice preparation is risotto, in which the rice is cooked in a pan by gradually adding stock, a little at a time, until enough of it has been absorbed and the dish is ready. There are lots of variants, which in Venice often incorporate various kinds of seafood. Unlike pasta, which can be put into a pot of boiling water and left until it is ready, the preparation of risotto requires the constant presence of the cook, so many restaurants do not offer it on their menus. I tend to assume that a restaurant that has risotto on the menu is probably better than one which does not, especially if it comes with a warning that it will take 20 minutes or so to cook.

The other ubiquitous grain is polenta or cornmeal, which can be served as a sort of mush to accompany various dishes, or as a sort of cake, both of which I find quite agreeable, although it’s not to everyone’s taste.

Fish and vegetables tend to be cooked quite simply, and with only a moderate use of garlic, herbs and spices. Things tend to be fried slowly over a gentle flame, so that onions remain pale and not brown. If you are renting an apartment and want to have a go at authentic Venetian cookery, it’s not difficult to reproduce many of the restaurant dishes with the aid of a good cookbook, or an online recipe.

I can’t claim to have extensive experience of the restaurants in Venice, but there is one establishment, first recommended to me by a friend who grew up there, where you can sample more or less all the typical dishes at a moderate price. The Rosticceria San Bartolomeo, also known as Ghislon, is in an alleyway off the Campo San Bartolomeo, close to the Rialto Bridge and therefore very central. It’s a self service establishment and here you can get starters and a range of meat and fish dishes, as well as snacks.

(Image from the restaurant's Facebook page)

This is a good time to list a just a few Venetian dishes to which I am partial, which you will be able to get here:
  • Bigoli in Salsa: Bigoli is a spaghetti-like pasta made from buckwheat or whole wheat flour. The salsa is a sauce made from slowly-cooked white onions and anchovies. Some versions also include sardines.
  • Risotto: Different versions are served at the Rosticceria, depending on the day.
  • Seppie nere : baby squid cooked in its ink, available with polenta, spaghetti, or in risotto
  • Pasta e Fagioli: Borlotti beans which are have been cooked until they form a sort of puree, then mixed with short pasta. This is like a thick soup. It sounds odd but is very tasty.
  • Baccala mantecata: A creamy preparation of dried salt cod that has been rehydrated, cooked, then pounded with olive oil and milk or cream into a paste. Served with polenta as a main course, but often also on rounds of bread as a snack
  • Fegato alla veneziana: Calves liver and onions. Accompanied by polenta.
If you just want a snack, the Rosticceria excels at these. I like their Mozzarella in Carrozza, essentially a deep fried mozzarella sandwich. This is available in various versions. My favourite is the one with anchovy (“Acciuga”).

This is a good time to mention that the snacks in the city as a whole are often very agreeable. Many of the bars serve tramezzini, triangular overstuffed white bread sandwiches with various fillings. They are made with large crust-less slices of white bread. The fillings are mayonnaise-based and include combinations like hard boiled eggs and anchovies, chopped ham and mushrooms, or prawns and rocket. The sandwiches are filled so that the middle is full and bulging. Then the edges are pressed together and the bread sliced on the diagonal, so that you end up with a triangular sandwich in which the hypotenuse has profile of a convex lens. They are delicious. Although easy to make, I have never seen them in the UK or Singapore, and you won’t be able to make them at home because that sort of bread doesn’t seem to be available (I’ve tried).

There are lots of other sorts of snacks, and you will be able to select them for yourself based on the way they look. They are known here as “cichetti”, which is more or less the Venetian equivalent of tapas, and you will find them all over the city. There are some well known cichetti bars behind the Rialto, such as the Cantina do Mori, which are lots of fun. Another which is near an apartment where I used to stay is the Cantinone (Già Schiavi), a wine shop which serves prize-winning snacks, situated across a canal from one of the last remaining boatyards that still makes gondolas.

For a bit of a blow out, I would recommend Corte Sconta, which is very well known, and in all the guidebooks, but deservedly so as the food is excellent.

If you are visiting Torcello (which I particularly recommend) or Burano, its worth considering a visit to Alla Maddalena on the island of Mazzorbo, especially in the colder months when they serve wild duck, shot by local hunters.

Here are some listings, but just in case you are not familiar with it, here is an explanation of the Venetian system of addresses. Venice is divided into six districts or sestieri, and the house numbers pertain to the district and not the street. So, for example, the address of Corte Sconta is Castello 3886, ie, house number 3886 in the sestier of Castello, which happens to be in the street called Calle del Pestrin.

So here are the listings:

Rosticceria San Bartolomeo
Calle del Bissa, just of Campo San Bartolomeo
San Marco 5424/a
open daily 0900 -  2130
Facebook page

Cantina do Mori
Sottoportego dei Do Mori
San Polo 429
0800 - 1930 closed Sun

Cantinone (Già Schiavi)
Fondamenta Nani, by Ponte San Trovaso
Dorsodouro 992
0800 - 2000, closed Sun

Corte Sconta
Calle del Pestrin
Castello 3886
closed Sun, Mon

Alla Maddalena
via Mazzorbo 7/B
Venezia Burano Mazzorbo 30142
closed Wed

So much for the food. Next time: drinks.

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