Flavours to Savour from the Legendary City of Venice
In a city that is renown for its architecture, it’s not surprising that the cuisine of Venice plays second fiddle. From the iconic sights of Piazza San Marco to the Doge’s Palace, it is known as a Mecca for tourists, not so much foodies. But that’s changing. Venetian cuisine is now taking its place among Italy’s other regions, thanks to top chefs and a bounty of local and exotic ingredients.
Lost in its shabby-chic beauty, it’s easy to forget that Venice first and foremost is an important port, bringing together travellers from all over the world through the centuries. The city’s connection and access to global ingredients plays a key role in the evolution of its food scene. In food shops and markets, I found colourful heaps of curry, paprika and chili powder, ready for scooping. Fresh, ripe melons, strawberries and exotic mushrooms may be out-of-season in other parts of the globe, but in Venice, they are available in abundance.
While Venice does benefit from the best offering of international ingredients, it is what is available at its own front door that makes its cuisine really shine.
Seafood lovers like myself can rejoice in the variety that springs from the warm waters around Venice, including moeche (soft-shell crabs) fried in an egg and parmesan cheese batter, seppie in tecia (succulent, tender baby cuttlefish stewed in their own sink, then served alongside golden polenta (cornmeal), or gamberetti (shrimp) tossed in a light vinaigrette, chilled and presented on top of beautifully fresh greens.
For a slice of heaven, I don’t think anything can beat twirling your fork through a big plate of spaghetti with savoury baby clams. Many restaurants offer this dish and it seems to be consistently belly pleasing and relatively inexpensive no matter where you go. Most restaurant menus go heavy on the seafood dishes and at eateries like the one located in the iconic hotel, The Gritti Palace (dating back to the 16th century) almost 90 percent of dinners oft for surf over turf.
Seasonal produce also pops up on menus. In the spring, there’s a plethora of dishes featuring baby artichokes (listed as castraure or fondi). These tender and tasty little nuggets land at your table, swimming in a sauce of olive oil, parsley and garlic. It’s very simple, but very delicious. Fat white asparagus is another favourite, as is red radicchio (from nearby Treviso) that might wind up in a base for risotto, the rice dish that Venetians are especially proud of – one that should be on your must-eat list.
When it comes to pasta, Venetians exhibit a fastidious attention to every detail and short cuts are not allowed. (That means no cheating with bullion cubes, for example. Instead, only slowly simmered, freshly made soup stock is used.) It makes recreating some dishes at home very time consuming, so I say use this as excuse to eat to your heart’s content while in the Venice.
I loved the pasta at Harry’s Dolci. I’m not alone. Its egg pasta is famous around the world and causes foodies to sign in reverence. It’s extremely light – really! – and needs no help from heavy sauces or copious added ingredients. It is made daily at Harry’s Dolci. The dough is rolled and rolled, until it is very thin, then sliced into thin ribbons the colour of butter and air dried at room temperature as they are draped over wooden sticks. At this restaurant, the entire food experience is enhanced by its location. While you nibble on pasta, the amazing skyline of Venice adds extra magic.
For dessert, I’m a big fan of Venice’s gelato. The very best may be from Gelateria Paolin. Its hazelnut flavour is truly to die for – rich, creamy and a lingering nutty finish. Venture out to Pasticceria Rio Marin and treat your taste buds to what may be the world’s best tiramisu, made with painstaking care the old-fashioned way with fresh mascarpone cheese and feathery light, baked ladyfingers. It will ruin you, so be forewarned. The North American versions just won’t cut it and you’ll be pining the real deal in Venice.
When it come to sipping, I can’t get enough of Venice’s most famous cocktail – the Bellini, a mix of Prosecco sparkling white wine and fresh white peach juice). A touch of cherry or raspberry juice gives it a rosy, pink hue. It was created by Giuseppe Cipriani, founder of Harry’s Bar in Venice, the favourite hangout out by authors Ernest Hemingway, Sinclair Lewis and Orson Welles. I’ve made a decent version of this using peach schnapps, instead of peach juice. Just make it with one part schnapps and three parts sparkling white wine. It’s not the original, but it will do in a pinch, if you’re trying to relive moments from your Venetian vacation.
Just a side note on Venetian restaurants: Do your homework. Because there are so many tourists that visit the city, some places serve bland, boring and overly expensive food. Avoid those that are next to big tourist attractions, like the Piazza San Marco. Venture off into the narrow side streets off the canals and look for diners not carrying guidebooks, fanny packs and cameras. Those are the locals and they are your best indicators of where to find great food. Buon appetito!
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