Eating and Drinking Well in Venice
The catchword in Venetian restaurants is fish, often at its tastiest. 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 will proudly assure you they don’t even have a freezer on the premises.
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 and seltzer (or Prosecco) and either Aperol, Select, or bitters. 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.
Wines to look for
Tre Venezie regional wines (from the Veneto, Trentino–Alto Adige, and Friuli–Venezia Giulia) go far beyond the famous Amarone and include some spectacular white varieties like the crisp Malvasia and hearty Friulano, the smooth Garganega (Soave) and Ribolla Gialla, along with the versatile, just-dry-enough bubbly Prosecco.
Reds are dry and flavorful and relatively low in alcohol, the ideal accompaniment to regional cuisine: look for Cabernet Franc, Corvina, and Corvinone (Valpolicella, Bardolino), Groppello, Marzemino, Lagrein, Raboso, Refosco, and Teroldego Rotaliano.
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 fritturamista (tempuralike 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 (creamed bean soup with pasta). Polenta (creamy cornmeal) is another staple; it's often served with fegato alla veneziana (calf’s liver and onions) or schie (lagoon shrimp).
The larger islands of the lagoon are legendary for fine vegetables, such as the tiny Sant'Erasmo castraure violet artichokes that herald spring. Many stalls at the Rialto Market sell high-quality produce from the surrounding regions. Spring treats are fat white asparagus and round 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 risotto. Fall brings small wild mushrooms like finferli and chiodini, as well as zucca barucca, a bumpy squash used in soups and to stuff ravioli.
Tiramisu, a creamy concoction made from ladyfingers soaked in espresso and covered with sweetened mascarpone cheese, was 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, labeled produzione propria or fatto in casa.
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