Venetian cuisine may not be as well known or as defined as Tuscan or Sicilian cuisine, but the city’s (and Italy’s) adherence to seasonality has inspired top chefs from Mario Batali to Evan Kleiman to the modern Italian crudo bar at the Four Seasons Los Angeles at Beverly Hills.
Geography defines Venetian cuisine: As a series of interconnected islands, seafood dominates the table. What’s freshest and best is what comes from the Adriatic and surrounding lagoon, but that bounty of sea creatures is often unfamiliar to non-natives.
“Venetian cuisine’s layers of flavor and complexity in preparations and sweet-and-sour combinations are pretty interesting,” says chef Victor Casanova of Culina in the Four Seasons. Branzino (served whole and salt-encrusted) might be the quintessential dish of the region, but as Casanova notes, there are many other varieties to discover, such as rombo (turbot), squid (and all its parts), mini soft-shell crabs, scorpion fish, sea bream (orata), sardines and, more frequently these days, carpaccio and crudos (thinly sliced raw fish topped with sea salt and extra virgin olive oil).
Seasonality is essential. For the fish-savvy Venetians, that means fish and shellfish that’s less than 24 hours after being caught or even live at the market. Venice-based writer Nan McElroy (“Italy, Instructions for Use”) points out that it’s rare to see a filet at the table: Most fish is served whole, like the classic branzino sotte sale, and cleaned at the table.
To get an inside track on Venice’s seafood array, McElroy recommends a visit to the Rialto Market for a view of the indigenous varieties like baby squid (in spring), razor clams, large scallops, monkfish, sole and turbot.
“September is a good fish month,” says McElroy. When dining, she suggests asking the waiter what the recommended meal is — and be adventurous.
Don’t just order shrimp — or if you must, make it Venice’s own giant mazzancolle.
Fish that is local is labeled nostrani and should be sought out, says McElroy.
Venice’s culinary tradition of cichetti melds perfectly with film festival scheduling. Stand at the bar and order up bite-size portions of delicious and inventive mini-appetizers. Costing one to two euros each and best accompanied by a glass of one of the Veneto’s crisp whites, there is no typical cichetto, but look for mortadella cheese, small stuffed tomatoes, small-skewered sandwiches or crostini. Seasonal vegetables, like radicchio, roasted with salt or mini-cubes of sopressa, are also among the choices. One not to miss, says McElroy, is bacala mantecato, which is dried salt cod that is re-hydrated and whipped with olive oil.
For centuries the crossroads of international trade, today Venice survives on tourism, and menus are often quite pricey, particularly in the super-touristy areas surrounding the Piazza San Marco.
Sticker shock is to be expected, but consider that the ?52-per-person breakfast buffet on the top floor of the Hotel Danieli comes with a sweeping view of the lagoon and all of Venice’s major sites. (The vaporetto stop out front whisks you quickly to the Lido). Venture to Venice’s outlying sestiere (neighborhoods) for more reasonably priced fare.