The authentic flavours of Venice’s Lagoon

Venetian baccalà mantecato
Venetian baccalà mantecato
A mixture of history and legend, Venetian cuisine uses simple ingredients sourced from land and sea that are transformed into delectable dishes telling the story of the Serenissima's glorious past.

The dishes of Venetian gastronomic tradition tell the story of sea voyages and far-off lands when the Serenissima was a teeming crossroads of cultures, spices and flavours. A time when, in addition to the inevitable ombra de vin (a glass of wine), Venetian ‘osterie’ also served dishes based on what the sea, and the small patches of its cultivated land, were able to offer. Whether you happen to find yourself in a bacaro, an osteria or an elegant restaurant, Venice’s most notable dish is baccalà mantecato, salt cod cooked in milk and served with polenta. According to legend, a Venetian merchant, who had been shipwrecked on the Lofoten Islands, off the coast of Norway, discovered stockfish, which he brought with him when he returned to the Lagoon.

Another must-try are sarde in saor. Possibly the most ancient of all Venetian recipes, this dish originated on fishing vessels. This dish consists of fried fresh sardine fillets, marinated in gently cooked white onions, usually with vinegar, raisins and pine nuts. Rice is a mainstay on Venetian menus, and arrived on the scene thanks to the Byzantine merchants. While risi e bisi, a unique combination of soup and thick risotto made of fresh peas, is one of the most famous and ancient regional specialties of Venice, risoto de gò, prepared with goby, a type of lagoon fish, is the most typical. On the other hand, pasta e fazioi, pasta and beans, is a hot favourite with locals.

Typical local standouts include polenta con le schie, delicious fried baby shrimp usually sautéed with garlic and served over polenta, or moeche, a Venetian delicacy. ‘Moeche’ are young crabs that are caught shortly after they have shed their baby shells and have yet to grow their adult ones. They are usually served after being fried in a flour batter and boiling oil. Other delicacies include seppioline alla veneziana, cuttlefish cooked with their own black ink and served on a bed of polenta and bisato su l’aria, pieces of stone-cooked eel. On the other hand, an absolute ‘must’ for carnivores is fegato di vitello alla veneziana (Venetian-style calf liver) cooked with oil and white onions. According to legend, the Romans invented the original recipe. Those who enjoy richer, more intense flavours should try castradina veneziana, a 17th-century mutton and cabbage stew that serves as a reminder of the time when Venice was under quarantine during the plague and was supplied with this type of meat by the Dalmatae.

Venetian biscuits come in all shapes and sizes and are made with a variety of different flours. The most common include dry baicoli, zaeti, cookies made from cornflour, with raisins and lemon peel, bussolai (prepared by the wives of fishermen to sustain their husbands while at sea), pinsa, a simple biscuit made from stale bread, raisins, cocoa powder and candied fruit, and fugassa venessiana, leavened dough sprinkled with grains of sugar: Venice’s traditional sweet treats have the irresistible aroma of simple, homemade biscuits prepared with only the most basic ingredients. A perfect end to a delicious meal, they can also be enjoyed as a midmorning snack. They can be accompanied by either a strong cup of coffee or a rich, mouth-watering zabaione.

Finally, the nectar of Bacchus: while the Veneto is one of Italy’s most famous wine regions, few people know that Venice also boasts its own winemaking tradition. For centuries, a vineyard located on the Island of Mazzorbo has defied the lagoon’s high tides to produce the Dorona, a rare indigenous varietal known at the time of the Doges as the ‘golden’ grape due to its deep golden-green colour. The resulting wine is called Venissa. An interesting fact: the Murano-made bottles of handcrafted glass display rich decorations of hand-beaten gold foil thus honoring two traditional Venetian crafts.