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What to Eat in Venice
The catchword in Venetian restaurants is fish, often at its tastiest when it looks like nothing you've seen before. Even if you're not normally a fish fan, it's worth trying here—there's nothing quite like an expertly prepared fish that was, as the vendors like to say, swimming with its brothers only a few hours before. The best restaurants won't even give you a lemon, believing that it masks the pure, fresh flavor.
How do you learn about the catch of the day? A visit to the Rialto's pescheria (fish market) is more instructive than any book. And when you're dining at a well-regarded restaurant, don't be reluctant to ask your waiter for a recommendation, either: that's what a local would do.
You can sample regional wines and scrumptious cicchetti (bite-size snacks) in bacari (traditional wine bars), a great Venetian tradition. For centuries, locals have gathered at these neighborhood spots to chat over a glass of sfuso (wine on tap) or the ubiquitous spritz: an iridescent red cocktail of white wine, seltzer, and either Aperol, Select, or Bitter liqueur. Crostini (toast with toppings) and polpette (meat, fish, or vegetable croquettes) are popular cicchetti, as are small sandwiches, seafood salads, baccalà mantecato, and toothpick-speared items such as roasted peppers, marinated artichokes, and mozzarella balls.
Granseola (crab), moeche (soft-shell crab), sweet canoce (mantis shrimp), capelunghe (razor clams), calamari, and seppie or seppioline (cuttlefish) are all prominently featured, as well as rombo (turbot), branzino (sea bass), San Pietro (John Dory), sogliola (sole), orate (gilthead), triglia (mullet)—to name but a few of the options. Trademark dishes include sarde in saor (panfried sardines with olive oil, vinegar, onions, pine nuts, and raisins), la frittura mista (tempura-like fried fish and vegetables), and baccalà mantecato (creamed cod with olive oil). When prepared whole, fish is usually priced by the etto (100 grams, about 4 ounces) and can be expensive; but once you try it that way, you'll never want filleted fish again.
Risotto, Pasta, Polenta
As a first course, Venetians favor the creamy rice dish risotto al onda ("undulating," as opposed to firm), prepared with vegetables or shellfish. Pasta is accompanied by seafood sauces, too: pasticcio di pesce is lasagna-type pasta baked with fish, usually baccalà (salt cod), and bigoli is a strictly local pasta shaped like short, thick spaghetti, usually served in salsa (an anchovy sauce), or with nero di seppia (squid-ink sauce).
A classic first course is pasta e fagioli (bean soup with pasta). Polenta (creamy cornmeal) is another staple; it's often served with fegato alla veneziana (calves' liver and onions) or schie (lagoon shrimp).
The larger islands of the lagoon are legendary for fine vegetables, such as the Sant'Erasmo castraure artichokes that herald spring. Just a few stalls at the Rialto Market sell local crops, but most feature high-quality produce from the surrounding regions. Spring treats are fat white asparagus, and artichoke bottoms (fondi), usually sautéed with olive oil, parsley, and garlic. From December to March, the prized radicchio di Treviso is grilled and used in salads and risottos. Fall brings small wild mushrooms called chiodini, and zucca barucca, a bumpy squash used in soups and to stuff ravioli.
Tiramisu lovers will have ample opportunity to sample this creamy concoction made from ladyfingers soaked in espresso and covered with sweetened mascarpone cheese—a dessert invented in the Veneto. In addition to sorbets and semifreddi (ice cream and cake desserts), other sweets frequently seen on Venetian menus are almond cakes and strudels, as well as dry cookies served with dessert wine. Gelato (ice cream) is sold all over; the best is homemade, labeledproduzione propria or fatto in casa.
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