Fine foods and wine
On account of its geographic location, history and tradition, Venice has always been a crossroads of foods, tastes, customs and flavours.
Its connection with the inland parts of the Veneto and Friuli regions, the vast lagoon area and its trade relations with distant nations brought together many different culinary traditions, blending them together into a harmonious and varied cuisine.
Fish, shellfish and crustaceans are of course prevalent in Venetian cuisine.
The lagoon bed has always produced mussels, razor clams and small crabs, which, depending on their stage of development and the consistency of their shell, are harvested and cooked as either moèche or masanète.
The Adriatic Sea provides an abundance of oily fish, especially sardines, as well as cuttlefish, octopus and squid. Eel is also a popular catch.
The catch of the day reaches Venice every morning and is sold to the general public in the evocative setting of the Rialto Market, which is obviously one of the more famous parts of Venice for fresh and even raw fish dishes in the numerous establishments that have popped up around the market.
The sarde in saòr are floured and fried, then dressed with onions that have been lightly fried until translucent, pine nuts, raisins and vinegar. At this point the dish can be eaten cold or conserved for a long period of time.
Middle Eastern influence can clearly be seen in the preparation method, which also attests to a need to prepare foods that could be loaded onboard ships and consumed during the voyage without spoiling.
Despite the abundance of fresh fish, Venice also uses a considerable amount of baccalà, or salt-cod and dried stockfish from the distant Northern ports.
It would seem that the monks of the various convents throughout Venice once specialised in the preparation of baccalà. In fact, baccalà alla cappuccina – named after the Capuchin order - is a Venetian favourite. It seems that this talent for preparing salt cod derives from the rules imposed by the Council of Trento that prohibited the use of meat for extensive periods of time throughout the year. Given the fact that certain monasteries and convents found it difficult to acquire fresh fish on account of their location, baccalà became a popular alternative.
Even rice and cornmeal from the Middle East and the Americas hold places of honour in Venetian cuisine. Famous Venetian dishes include risotto al gò (the name for gobies in the local dialect, a fish indigenous to the lagoon), or risi e bisi (simply rice with peas and bacon cooked in broth). This dish was traditionally eaten by the Doges for St. Mark’s Feast Day to celebrate the patron saint of Venice.
Cornmeal, both yellow and white, gave rise to polenta, which is often a side dish for fried fish, stewed cuttlefish cooked with their black ink, or Venetian style liver and onion.
The lagoon, with its small island and cane thickets, also supplied abundant game. Ernest Hemingway loved hunting here. Venetian cookbooks include many duck recipes, including a delicious duck ragout for bigoli. Bigoli are form of long pasta, like spaghetti, with an extremely rough texture, so are perfect for collecting the tasty Venetian sauces.
Bigoli are typically dressed with this duck ragout, or simply “in salsa”, or with salt-cured sardines and lots of onion.
Another famous pasta dish is pasta e fagioli (pasta and bean soup), a country recipe that is very popular in Venice and throughout the entire region.
The lagoon islands, especially Sant’Erasmo, provide Venice with vegetables.
Sant'Erasmo produces the purple artichoke, a local speciality that risked extinction during the flood of 1966. An extraordinarily high tide completely submerged the island, inevitably destroying all the crops. Fortunately, this variety had also been sown in Tuscany, and so some of the original seeds were recovered and cultivation was recommenced.
This island also provides the best aromatic herbs in the territory.
A determining factor in the evolution of Venetian cuisine was the importation of sugar from Egypt and Syria around the year 1000, which gave patisserie new impetus thanks to the cutting-edge refining techniques, of which Venice was at the forefront.
Venetian dry biscuits are famous, with baìcoli, zaletti and crostoli – traditional Carnival and Mardi Gras cakes. Venice also has tasty frìtoe, soft round fritters with raisins that are filled with Chantilly cream of zabaione.