From mainland Mestre an almost 4 kilometre long bridge takes you to Venice and the bus station at Piazzale Roma. Ponte della Libertà (Bridge of freedom) is like a highway on water and strongly reminds me of another city built on water, New Orleans. New Orleans and Venice seem like an unlikely couple, but they are both old and worn cities embracing a unique kitchen with a strong emphasis on seafood.
The stereotypical thought equating Italian food with pizza and pasta does not fare well in Venice. Venice takes you out of your comfort zone, bringing a range of new dishes and species to the table. Venetian food is all about polenta, rice, ciccheti and seafood. The shallow and brackish water from the Venetian lagoon yields a bounty that can be seen in dishes like spaghetti alle vongole, but the affinity also includes dried cod from Norway.
Norway exports all its dried cod, most of it to Italy, where it is called stoccafisso. The classical way of preparing dried cod in Venice is the baccalà mantecato, boiled dried fish mixed with olive oil into a creamy mousse served on grilled polenta or as a crostini, smeared on toasty bread. Baccalà mantecato is a typical ciccheti, the Italian counterpart to tapas, served in informal and small bars called bacaro/bacari. Ciccheti is eaten while standing whenever you are a little hungry or just want to socialize after work.
City of boats
A striking feature of Venice compared to other cities is the lack of cars and the diversity of boats. Jammed waterbuses (vaporetto), fast-moving ambulances, slow-moving gondolas, blue police boats with sirens, taxi boats (motoscafi) in slick mahogany, long transportation boats and gondola ferries (traghetto).
The gondola used to be the main means of transportation but is today a tourist trap. Then there is the boat that only visits Venice and turns it into a dollhouse. Venice is a busy port for cruise ships in the Mediterranean but the traffic has been criticized by UNESCO claiming it is detrimental to the shallow and vulnerable lagoon.
The 55 kilometre long venetian lagoon is rich in wildlife and sea life. For generations fishers have taken the journey from the lagoon in the night to the Rialto market with their fish and seafood. The Rialto market lies in the oldest part of Venice, Rialto, next to the Rialto bridge. I went there two mornings to see life at the market before the crowds descended upon the stalls.
– Squid ink pasta with parmesan, per favore
The osteria is another place where you can sample local food in Venice. They vary greatly but many offer a counter with ciccheti in addition to lunch and dinner. The typical pasta dish of Venice is bigoli in salsa; pasta made of buckwheat or whole-wheat served with onions and anchovies. Squid ink is so common in Venice you can buy it in the grocery store. Squid ink is used in dishes such as risotto (risotto al nero di seppia) or sautéed squid with polenta (seppie in nero con polenta). I tried the latter at Osteria da Alberto, and I have never tasted such tender squid before.
However, although I am in the city of polenta, I have to try the spaghetteria with freshly made pasta in the window. I choose the yellow pasta for my dish, while my son Loukas goes for pasta blackened by squid ink. I kindly ask the waiter if my son could have his squid ink pasta without seafood but with parmesan, a clear violation of the Italian pasta laws stating you should never use parmesan on seafood. Gusto di bambino, I explain, an argument that works in a country where the waiter comes running with water melon or chocolate to please your kid.
Do remember something in your glass together with your vongole or cicchetti. The region of Veneto is home to valpolicella, amarone and prosecco. Next time I will have a last look at Venice and its legendary drink, bellini.
Spaghetti alle vongole rosso
Spaghetti alle vongole is a popular pasta dish in Venice, but also common in the rest of Italy. Clams, white wine, garlic and parsley is all it takes, though it sometimes comes with tomatoes. It is an easy dish to make, yet elegant with a wonderful taste of the sea. If you cannot find the small vongole-clams, do use other clams such as blue mussels. Remember to soak the clams for some hours to allow them to let loose the sand.
I kg vongole-clams (or mussels)
3 cloves garlic
a handful of flat leaf parsley
a glass of white wine
about 10 small tomatoes
a nob of butter
salt and pepper
1. Allow the clams to soak in cold water for 2–3 hours to let them get rid of sand. Remove damaged clams.
2. Boil the spaghetti according to instructions. While the spaghetti is boiling, prepare the rest:
3. Finely chop the garlic, the parsley stalks and the parsley leaves. (Keep the stalks and leaves seperate). Divide the small tomatoes into two.
4. Add a generous lug of olive oil to the pan. Fry the garlic, parsely stalks and tomatoes for 5 minutes on average heat.
5. Increase the temperature and add the wine and clams. Shake the pan and cook with the lid on for 3–4 minutes until the clams have opened.
6. Remove clams that have not opened. Add butter and season with salt and pepper.
7. Add the drained spaghetti to the pan, mix well and scatter the parsley leaves. Serve with bread to soak up the juice.