Tell me what you eat and I'll tell you who you are. Oh yes, because the history of a city, sometimes of a nation, very often passes through the kitchen, for its gastronomic traditions. And this is also true for Venice. If you think about it, when you visit the city you realize that in"the whole city the city" are completely absent green spaces, except for those dedicated to leisure. Venice does not have an "out door", at least it was so in the centuries before, being completely isolated from the mainland. It was difficult to cultivate those basic necessities, essential for the survival of each community. But the Venetians were skilled and astute men and soon they understood how to make up for certain shortcomings, and even make money from them, paving the way for a very international cuisine.
And then we will see how the history of Venetian cuisine reflects the vicissitudes that led to the greatness of the Serenissima.
From the East to Central Europe: the fusion cuisine of Venice
The Republic of Venice had quickly become a great commercial power, the first to conquer the seas, with ships built at the Arsenale, towards the East: it took little time and the Serenissima became the gateway between the Eastern and Western worlds, establishing also opening and closing times. An absolute supremacy: the interchange with peoples so far away, often hosted also in the city for commercial reasons, have marked its history, even its culinary history. And this is the key to understanding the origins of Venetian gastronomy, which helps us to understand why certain foods, some apparently culturally distant dishes, are so strongly rooted in Laguna: the mixture of peoples and cultures. Already, the union between completely different peoples, the interpenetration of one culture in the other, dialogue, hospitality: Venetian cuisine was one of the first to confront the kitchens of the world, welcoming secrets and flavors, creating a fusion at the incredible and modern time.
Rereading the history of Venetian cuisine we note how this is so strongly characterized by the presence of spices. From the Latin species, which wants to indicate something exceptional, which escapes the usual. These particular, perfumed and colored powders came from the distant lands of the East, bringing with them the charm of unknown sensations, wrapped in an aura of mystery and myth, typical of unknown things. Thus, pepper, raisins, ginger, saffron, nutmeg, cinnamon and cloves began to take their place in the Venetian kitchen. They were used in many dishes of the gastronomy of the time, both meat and fish, and in exquisite sweet preparations: all delights that we find again today on the tables of families and on those of the oldest and most authentic taverns.
And to be honest they were also used in large quantities, since it was thought that these had a great beneficial power against diseases, especially those of the stomach: the link between gastronomy and well-being led to an extremely abundant use, almost excessive, which with the time has fortunately faded. The Venetians have strong palates!
But the Venetians were astute men and immediately understood that the peculiarity of the product, the exotic provenance, the high cost could turn it into a status symbol: they understood that the exclusivity of the myth was enough to make this commodity highly desirable, creating the demand instead of 'offer. Marketing was practically born. Venice thus assumed the monopoly of the spice trade between the Eastern and Western worlds: the precious merchandise arrived from the East in Rialto where the speziers made the first packaging of history, the famous "Venetian sacheti of Venetian speciaries", ready-to-use mixes for all tastes, which were sold throughout the West. Thus was born the mythical way of spices, exotic, precious and very rich.
The fruit of the knowledge of these products so fragrant and strong on the palate, and their introduction into everyday life was a spicy cuisine, which combined the sweet taste with the spicy, the savory with the sour one. Particular, international.
But from the East the Venetians brought home another fundamental element of their culinary history: the rice. It was so expensive that it was sold in beans, counted one by one. A very small amount could be used and was usually used to thicken the soups, after being ground into a mortar. We will have to wait many centuries to taste a real risotto dish.
A terrible shipwreck, on the other hand, allowed the introduction of the king of Venetian tables: the cod. It is the first half of the fifteenth century and the navigator Piero Querini, sailing for Flanders, was surprised by a terrible storm in the northern seas with his crew, after which he was shipwrecked in the Lofoten Islands, off the coast of Norway. They landed on the island of Røst where Querini showed great curiosity for the strange fish that those people consumed: a fresh fish that was salted or dried to the shy sun of the North to become hard as a piece of wood, and that with a wood was beaten to be consumed later. After about 3 months, at the time of his return to the Lagoon, Querini decided to take this stockfish with him, which he presented in the presence of the Maggior Consiglio and the Doge, and which began to be timidly consumed by the population that seemed to like its taste. It will be necessary to wait more than a century for the stockfish to gain its rightful place in the typical and everyday cuisine of the Venetians, when the Council of Trent sanctioned abstinence from meat for two hundred days: as a worthy substitute this fish from the North was decreed, which was to be consumed on Wednesday and Friday. All clear, except for the reason why the Venetians have always called bacalà (strictly with only one c) what in reality is stockfish, certainly a more valuable and tasty version.
It is the year 1000 when the crusaders brought sugar to the lagoon for the first time. The spread was immediate, thanks also to the noble family Corner who bought entire sugar cane plantations between Cyprus and Crete, making it easier to use the finished product in the city. The opulence of Venetian cuisine was also a way of expressing the greatness of the Republic, which is why the Doges commissioned real sculptures to be shown at state banquets made from blocks of sugar: even the artist Antonio Canova found himself often to carve in sugar. Think a little!
In Venice, however, the palate was not only delighted with culinary delicacies that they knew of the East, but also, or perhaps above all, with wines. The malvasias were very old wine cellars where you could buy and taste quality wines, scattered throughout the city: this is why in every Sestiere you can find a Calle Malvasia. The Venetians are robust, with a great capacity to tolerate alcohol, consumers of the famous ombre de vin. During the Austrian domination, in the eighteenth century, the soldiers stationed in the city had begun to imitate the Venetians and to go for Malvasia to sip wines. They did not speak a word of the local language and therefore requested their glass of red calling it with their language: "ein spritz". Oh yes, the same name that today brings the famous ever-popular cocktail in every aperitif. That wine, however, was too strong for the Austrians and asked to lighten it with water: I was unknowingly giving life to the spritz we drink today. This watered-down drink was not at all pleasing to the Venetians who replaced the water with something more robust, like bitters and select. But a drink can't drink on an empty stomach! Then the olive was added in a stick and half a slice of orange or lemon, and the spritz was served.
A spritz, thanks!
Local cuisine: products from the Lagoon and typical dishes
Venetian cuisine, as we have said, was a fusion of cultures and customs of distant peoples. But Venice also has an extraordinary territory that offers excellent products, which over time have found an incredible synergy with international kitchens, protagonists of the history of the Serenissima.
It was in the 16th century when the merchants stopped filling their merchant ships and the Venetians turned their interest to the mainland: the land was reclaimed and agriculture was invested, revolutionizing the territory and gastronomy.
The lagoon lands of Cavallino, Malamocco, Pellestrina, Lido, the islands of Torcello and Sant'Erasmo were populated with vegetable gardens and vineyards, basking in the sea breeze, kissed by the warm sun, and gave extraordinary products.
Among the best we recognize the purple artichoke of Sant'Erasmo, from which the castraure are obtained, the vegetable funds prepared usually stew that fill the stalls of all Venetian markets.
Lands rich in wild asparagus and bruscandoli, terminal tips of the young hop plant, yellow pumpkins and tasty radicchio, white and round onions to combine with meat and fish, peas and beans.
The possibility of growing wheat has given another exceptional product of the lagoon cuisine: polenta. Used as an accompaniment to more complex dishes, it is almost always chosen in its white version. The waters of the sea offer sardines and sardines for saor, peverasse (clams) for spaghetti, peoci (mussels) for soups, scallops and oysters; those of the Lagoon, instead, delicious schie, tiny prawns that must be eaten in a single bite, the goby fish, called gò, for the excellent risotto, up to moeche, small crabs in molting phase, fried and very expensive.
But what to taste when you arrive in the city? What are the dishes to try to take away a tasty culinary postcard?
The real traditional Venetian cuisine today is made of simple and nutritious dishes, rich in flavor that often link sweet to savory, sour to spicy.
Impossible not to taste the creamed bacalà, a cream made with fish cooked for a long time and served with grilled polenta slices. Prepared without cream or garlic, I recommend it. It's my favorite dish!
Sardines in saor, a specialty created to keep fish out of the fridge for a long time, combining the fish of our lands with oriental spices. A perfect balance between sweetness and acidity.
The Venetian liver, cooked with a substantial amount of onions cooked for a long time until they are almost creamy. You will be amazed by the sweetness of the dish.
Risi e bisi (rice and peas), pride of every good housewife, is the Venetian dish par excellence: served during banquets given by the Doge, today it is the dish of the feast of San Marco. Tasty and delicate.
Bigoli in sauce, fresh pasta prepared with a cream of anchovies and onions reduced in sauce. For very strong palates.
Cuttlefish with black, accompanied with grilled polenta. Then smile sparingly.
Granseola, cooked with oil, salt, pepper and lemon. Light and tasty. If you are on a diet ...
Polenta and schie, tiny and delicate prawns served on a soft and creamy polenta. Absolutely typical.
If you fancy sweet, Venetian pastry is made mostly of dry and spicy, fragrant and tasty preparations. Baicoli to soak, saffron zaeti, bussolà that smell of butter and vanilla, pevarini with pepper, soft and spicy pan del doge, soft and sugary fritters.
But don't you have your mouth water ?!
The Venetian tavern: from the ancient to the contemporary one of Riccardo
When we talk about Venetian cuisine, we cannot overlook talking about taverns. The kitchen, the food are also, perhaps above all, conviviality, sharing a beautiful moment with loved ones, friends and relatives: just a glass of wine, a good dish prepared with love, a chat with a friend to feel happy. And the Venetians knew this well, masters of good living!
The Venetian taverns took the place of the ancient malvasias in which the wine was poured: time was spent, perhaps after work, between a shadow of wine and a shot in the company.
Today, in a very cosmopolitan city, where the bacari seem to turn into anonymous bars, in which a good cicchetto is replaced with a slice of industrial pizza, of tourist menus all the same of dubious quality, the real taverns, the authentic ones have remained few . But there are, eh! They are those places frequented by the Venetians, who have their feet in the tradition and their arms extended to the contemporary kitchen. This is the case of Riccardo, magnificent host / chef of Osteria Contemporanea, just a few steps from the Cà d'Oro.
Riccardo is a tough guy, a determined, passionate host with a firm pulse, who has not bowed to the rules of consumerism, fast food, commercial and commercial tourist menus, for which he defines and defines his undemocratic cuisine. His is a Venetian cuisine, traditional but very contemporary: the flavors of history and the lagoon are all there, as there are also memories of his childhood in the family kitchen, but they are offered with new combinations, modern preparation techniques, a international language that never separates itself from love and passion, for dishes that are remembered.
At the base of Riccardo's dishes there is a frantic and precise search for excellent quality raw materials, capable of always offering an unexpected and different gastronomic experience every day: territoriality and seasonality are the keywords for a healthy, good, refined, beautiful kitchen! This is what the market offers every day to create the a la carte menu. This is accompanied by tasting proposals for every palate: Venetian tasting menu for typical dishes, or exclusively for meat or fish, or fish crudités, or for vegetarian customers, for a total of seven choices, each of which includes from 3 at 5 courses.
Riccardo mixes products from the land, the sea and the lagoon for a creative and suggestive cuisine: aromas and combinations of different textures that give the palate real bursts of flavors. The chef's creations are accompanied by a selection of quality wines: the prepared and welcoming dining staff will advise you in the choice and in the best and most suitable combinations.
What do you recommend? Well, taste the creamed salt bacalà served with crunchy green beans and hazelnuts: the chef contrasts the vegetable crunchy with the softness of the fish cream, for a pleasant swing of consistencies that delight the palate.
I love the contemporary saor of prawns, pomegranates and pistachios: the sweetness of the prawns balanced by the acidity of the pomegranate, sublimated by the crunchiness of the pistachio. A perfect balance.
I recommend you try Riccardo's pasta, all made with antique bronze drawn grains, prepared with meat, fish or vegetable sauces. The fish is always fresh and if you love the consistency I recommend absolutely the raw: the sea in the mouth.
The restaurant is tastefully furnished: a modern and minimal style, with a large window on the city, in a quiet and reserved area, where there are sober furnishings, never dull but with a strong personality. The floor is splendid, ancient in typical Venetian style. The mise en place is young and essential, it gives a feeling of familiarity, puts you at ease.
Riccardo, eclectic chef and daring poet of his wonderful kitchen.
Osteria Contemporanea, non-democratic but very rock cuisine!