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Eating and Drinking Well in Venice
The catchword in Venetian restaurants is fish. 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, ask for a recommendation.
Traditionally, fish is served with a bit of salt, maybe some chopped parsley, and a drizzle of olive oil—no lemon; lemon masks the flavor. Ask for an entire sea-caught fish; it's much more expensive than its farmed cousin, but certainly worth it. Antipasto may be prosciutto di San Daniele (cured ham of the Veneto region) or grilled vegetables. Risotto—a rice dish cooked with shellfish or veggies—is a great first course. Pasta? Enjoy it with seafood sauce: this is not the place to order spaghetti with tomato sauce. Other pillars of regional cooking include pasta e fagioli (thick bean soup with pasta), polenta, often with fegato alla veneziana (liver with onion), and that dessert invented in the Veneto: tiramisù.
You can sample regional wines and scrumptious cicheti (bite-size snacks) in bacari (traditional wine bars), a great Venetian tradition. Crostini (toast with toppings) and polpette (meat, fish, or vegetable croquettes) are popular cicheti, as are small sandwiches, seafood salads, baccalà mantecato (creamy whipped salted cod), 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), and triglia (mullet). Trademark dishes include sarde in saor (panfried sardines marinated in olive oil, vinegar, onions, pine nuts, and raisins), la frittura mista (tempura-like fried fish and vegetables), and baccalà mantecato.
Risotto, Pasta, Polenta
Although legend has it Venetian traveler Marco Polo brought pasta back from China, it isn't a traditional staple of the local cuisine. As a first course, Venetians favor the creamy rice dish risotto all onda ("undulating," as opposed to firm), prepared with vegetables or shellfish. When pasta is served, it's generally accompanied by seafood sauces, too: pasticcio di pesce is lasagna-type pasta baked with fish, and bigoli is a strictly local whole- or buckwheat pasta shaped like thick spaghetti, usually served in salsa (an anchovy-onion sauce with a dash of cinnamon), or with nero di seppia (squid-ink sauce). A classic first course is pasta e fagioli. Polenta (corn-meal gruel) is another staple that's served creamy or fried in wedges.
The larger islands of the lagoon are legendary for fine vegetables, such as the Sant'Erasmo castraure, sinfully expensive but heavenly tiny white artichokes that appear for a few days in spring. Spring treats are fat white asparagus from neighboring Bassano or Verona, and artichoke bottoms (fondi), usually sautéed with olive oil, parsley, and garlic. From December to March the prized radicchio di Treviso, a local red endive, is grilled and served with a bit of melted taleggio cheese from Lombardy. Fall brings small wild mushrooms called chiodini, and zucca di Mantova, a yellow squash with a gray-green rind used in soups, puddings, 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. Gelatos, sorbets, and semifreddi (ice cream and cake desserts) are other sweets frequently seen on Venetian menu, as are almond cakes, strudels, and dry cookies served with dessert wine. The glory of the Venetian pastry kitchen is the focaccia veneziana, a raised cake made in the late fall and winter. And no Carnevale celebration is complete without fritelle, deep fried sweet buns filled with cream, zabaglione, or raisins and pine nuts.
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