Eating in Venice
Posted: 16th August 2016
Looked at from the bottom up, the offerings of Venice’s shops and taverns can seem very similar: the same trinkets: commedia dell’arte masks, Murano glass and beads, Burano lace; the same chunky cakes; the same snacks – pot-bellied tramezzini sandwiches and dried-up cicchetti (the local form of tapas) on roundels of baguette … so that you might reach the uncharitable conclusion that they were all made in the same factory. When I advanced this theory to a colleague in Venice recently, and proposed they might all be supplied by the same outfit in Calabria, he slapped me down: the factory, he said, was in China.
He could have been right about the commedia dell’arte things and possibly some of the Murano and Burano artefacts are not what they seem, but the food (I presume) comes from a little nearer home. Venice has a permanent population of just 75,000 people and the bulk of the population at any given time is formed of tourists who stay a couple of days at the most. In some cases it is just a few hours. The food offered by most restaurants is essentially the same, and there is remarkably little innovation. Apart from a few restaurants often harnessed to luxury hotels, not much stands out. A generation ago, for example, La Corte sconta in Castello was considered a hot property, and so it remains. When I first went to Venice 23 years ago, there was much talk of Ai Gondolieri in Dorsoduro. Walking past it recently it still looks pretty swish. Both are in the current Michelin Guide. It takes a long time to tarnish a reputation in Venice.
We were lucky enough to have a little shopping street near our B&B, with a couple of bakers providing various forms of croissant (best with apricot jam or crème patissière) plum or apple cake and organic bread at €7 a kilo. There was a greengrocer and a fruit and veg stall with a witty proprietor (me: ‘are the peaches ripe?’ Him: ‘no, but if you keep squeezing them like that they will be’) and a couple of little supermarkets. The butcher was temporarily closed.
As always, quality starts in the market and the Rialto, across the famous bridge, is still a proper market. The late Marcella Hazan, who had a cookery school in Venice, used to wax lyrical about all the different forms of artichokes and asparagus she used to find there. Fresh courgette flowers are often stuffed with bacala (died cod), a dish I had at the restaurant Vinaria near the Accademia last month. Even in the afternoon, once the market traders have mostly gone home, the price of fruit from the few remaining stalls in the Rialto can be half what you pay elsewhere in the city. We bought some lovely ripe white peaches there (they were the purest poetry!) and ate them on the Campo San Polo on our way to the Frari. I remember the fish stalls best: the sight of the sea bass still buckled in rigor mortis. I assume the trawlers take their loads to Chioggia at the bottom of the lagoon, but it doesn’t take long for small boats to bring the fish up the Grand Canal to the Rialto.
If you are not feeling flush – as was my case recently – one way to eat is at a bacaro, or traditional wine tavern. The Cantinone gia schiavi, for example, was recommended to me by Steven Spurrier. There was quite an array of cicchetti and an impatient man drumming his fingers on the counter while I made up my mind: bacala mantecato (dried cod with butter), gorgonzola with walnuts, smoked herrings all tasted pretty good with a sappy Sauvignon Blanc from Collio. Elsewhere the bacari serve little meatballs or polpettine, or deep-fried aubergine. The disadvantage of the bacariis that they tend not to be open in the evening.
You can fill up on cakes as well. The fifty years that Venice was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire is evident from the piles of strudel, Kränze andKrapfen in practically every baker’s shop. The Austro-Hungarian word Kren is also still used for horseradish. The cultural exchange naturally went both ways, however and rixi e bixi – a risotto of peas and bacon – appears as ‘Risibisi’ in Vienna. I had my first taste of it there, in the flat of some cousins, almost half a century ago.
Venice has its own suitably sumptuous ducal cakes too, but many of these seem to be supplied from some source outside the city because they look identical from one pasticceria to the next. The busola, or compass cake, is pretty well everywhere available, as are the zaleti made from corn flour like polenta. We stopped at a theatrical cake shop in Barbarie de le Tole and had a lovely glass of Pantelleria muscat from the other extremity of Italy which made up for most of the deficiencies in the cakes.
I have made gnocchi in Venice and there is plenty of pasta such as the famous bigoli, but to be properly Venetian you must eat polenta. It comes hard or soft, yellow or white. I was told that the later was made using a special white corn but I suspect this is not true, and that milk is used as well as water to cook the flour. At the Quaranta ladroni in Cannaregio I had the classic dish of runny polenta with ‘schile’ or tiny shrimps. For the most part the specialities are pretty well the same: sarde in saor (sweet and sour herrings), seppia alla veneziana (squid cooked in its ink) or risotto nero (with squid and ink), seafood risotto, or fritto misto (deep-fried seafood). The best we encountered when we were looking for good value places with atmosphere was Da Alberto on the borders of Castello and Cannaregio. There we were amused at least by what appeared to be a party of very high-minded English priests.
With a teenaged son who won’t eat fish, we landed with some trepidation, but he liked the fegato alla veneziana (calves’ liver with onions) and almost everywhere it was possible to have a thin slice of steak with some roast potatoes and a contorno of vegetables. There were pizzas too, and the best we ate were at the Pizzeria da Paolo outside the gates of the Arsenale, but there is nothing intrinsically Venetian about pizza, and most of it was very similar (if not inferior) to what we eat at home.