Venice is a place of mystical Byzantine mosaics, serpentine arabesques, fantastic color, but above all, a place of rich and exotic flavors. Over one thousand years, the city has created a vibrant cuisine reflecting the empire's riches. Today, in a world of disappearing cultural borders, the delicate yet simple cooking of Venice retains its uncommon character.
Venice still depends on the bounty of the sea. Its cuisine is based on seafood, but it also celebrates the abundance of market gardens on outlying islands, mainland farms, and curiosities from around the world that are constantly brought to its kitchens. And Venetians flavor all this with their dramatic history, with spices and herbs from afar, and with the shimmering inspiration of its water and light.
In Venice the polenta is the color of saffron and rice is tinted with the ink of cuttlefish. Flower blossoms are fried or candied and eaten for their color as much as for their elusive, faintly aromatic flavor. Scents of ginger, nutmeg, mace, licorice, tarragon, and curry tease in the dishes. Ethereal dessert is named tira-mi-su which means "pick-me-up", and the haunting dark fragrance of coffee perfumes the air.
Meat comes in translucent, saline slices of prosciutto, the rosy transparencies of carpaccio, or stir-fried slivers of fegato alla veneziana, a classic of Venetian cuisine that says it all: Asian stir-fry sweetly flavored with caramelized onion and edged with a touch of acid.
Venice was an early laboratory important in the development of fine European cooking. Venetian merchants introduced such now-basic ingredients as sugar, rice, and coffee to the continent and long held a monopoly on the distribution of salt and pepper. If the morsels of food in a dish like fegato alla veneziana were bite-size, they were not cut small just to enhance the cooking, but to allow the fastidious Venetians to pick them up with their forks at a time when the rest of Europe was still licking its fingers. By the 16th century the cuisine was renowned throughout Europe for its delicacy.
Visitors today are often surprised at the simplicity of the food. The food of Venice comes to the table embellished and distinguished, ever so subtly, by Byzantine, Turkish, Dalmatian, Persian, Spanish, Jewish, Austrian, Indian, African, and even Chinese notions. The Venetian table is essentially a frugal one, and its cooks depend on the quality of the ingredients rather than elaborate techniques. Then, once the dish is done, it may be worthy of presentation in a great and frivolous display of Venetian glass, lace, silver, and linen.
While the seasonality of regional cooking everywhere is falling victim to technology and global marketing, the food of the Venice region continues to celebrate market freshness. Maintaining its tradition of fusing and interpreting many influences, it has also managed to sustain a unique, intriguing and often seductive simplicity.
The region around Venice - Veneto vies with Lombardy for the risotto-making crown, while Venice itself specializes in fish and seafood, together with exotic ingredients like pomegranates, pine nuts and raisins, going back to its days as a port and merchant city. The risottos tend to be more liquid than those to the west, usually with a seafood base although peas (bisi in the local dialect) are also common, as are other seasonal vegetables including spinach, asparagus and pumpkin. The red salad leaf raddichio also has its home in the Veneto, as does the renowned Italian dessert, tiramisu. Polenta is eaten too, while pork in all forms features strongly, together with heavy soups of beans, rice and root vegetables. Gnocchi tend to be served in an unusual sweet-sour sauce.
Pastries and sweets are also Venetian expertise, the thin oval biscuits called baicoli, the ring-shaped cinnamon-flavored bussolai (a specialty of the Venetian island of Burano), and mandolato, a cross between nougat and toffee, made with almonds. The Austrian occupation left its mark in the form of the ubiquitous strudel and the cream or jam filled krapfen (doughnuts).
The Veneto has been very successful at developing wines with French and German grape varieties, notably Merlot, Cabernet, Pinot Bianco, Pinot Grigio, Müller-Thurgau, Riesling, Chardonnay and Gewürztraminer. The quintessentially Italian Bardolino, Valpolicella and Soave are all from the Verona region and, like so many Italian wines, taste better near their region of origin. This is also true of the more rarely exported Prosecco, a light champagne-like wine from the area around Conegliano: don't miss the chance to sample Prosecco Rosé and the delicious Cartizze, the finest type of Prosecco. Grappa, the local firewater, is associated particularly with the upland town of Bassano di Grappa, where every alimentari is stocked with a dozen varieties. Made from grape husks, juniper berries or plums, grappa is very much an acquired taste, but beware - the acquisition can be a damaging process.
A Venetian specialty savored all over Italy is fegato alla veneziana (thin slices of calf's liver quickly sautéed and dressed with onion, then briefly stewed in olive oil and butter and sprinkled with parsley). Adventurous diners should try bisatto all'ara, a local variety of fleshy eel with a thin skin cooked on a bed of bay leaves. Bisatto can also be deep-fried or stewed.
Although pasta with seafood sauce is generally well prepared, other pasta dishes are better elsewhere in Italy. Venice is justifiably proud of its rice dishes, including risottos and a springtime specialty called risi e bisi made with arborio rice and baby peas. The fertile, salty soil of the larger islands of the lagoon is legendary for the quality of the vegetables that grow from it. Now just a few stalls at the Rialto market sell locally grown crops, but produce from the regions surrounding Venice is itself of high quality.
Spring treats are the fat white asparagus from Bassano and artichokes, either called castraure (baby artichokes sautéed with olive oil, parsley, and garlic) or fondi (hearts of globe artichokes, simmered in olive oil, parsley, and garlic). From mid-December to early March, red radicchio di Treviso (from Treviso) comes to market and is best grilled or used as a base for risotto. Fall brings small, brown wild mushrooms called chiodini and zucca barucca, a bumpy squash often baked, used in soups, or stuffed into ravioli. In the cooler months, keep an eye out for pasta e fasioi, a thick bean soup enriched with fresh pasta.
Tiramisu is the most popular dessert in town, but no matter how many times you try it it's always a bit different, as each restaurant follows its own tiramisu creed. Some possible variations including adding a sweet liqueur to the coffee, whipped cream or crème anglaise stirred in the basic mascarpone and egg-yolk filling, or bits of bitter chocolate scattered on top instead of cocoa.