I’m finally back from a two-and-a-half-week family vacation with my husband, parents, brother, and sister-in-law. We ate our way through Venice, Bologna, and Paris. We slept little, ate and drank well, and smoked two packs a day second hand. It sure feels good to be home.
Venice isn’t exactly the dreamy, romantic place I’d imagined. It’s impossible to shake the feeling that you’re in the world’s biggest theme park. Everything is so surreal, and there are throngs of tourists everywhere. It made me flashback to going to Epcot Center as a kid. Sweeping views of the Grand Canal are included with admission.
Gondola rides cost extra.
But the food is for real.
The Rialto Market, possibly the best market I’ve ever experienced, is pure sensory overload…A rainbow of fruits and vegetables.
Glorious tender lettuces.
Striking radicchio tardivo of Treviso.
Piles of purple carciofi of Sant’Erasmo.
(Coincidentally, I’d just read about these two seasonal regional treasures in the May issue of La Cucina Italiana on the plane trip over!) Neatly pared artichokes ready to cook.
Bouquets of just-picked squash blossoms.
Crates and crates of strawberries on the banks of the Grand Canal.
Tiny fragoline—that’s wild strawberries to me and you—bursting with flavor.
Then there’s the seafood from the lagoon…
Fish of every color and shape.
Endless varieties gleaming silver.
Octopuses with tentacles folded.
Ink-stained cuttlefish and also squid, tiny and large.
Every manner of crustacean from crab…
To these unusual mantis shrimp.
(Which by the way, I sought out in a restaurant only to be disappointed by their overly delicate texture and flavor.) And everywhere, fishmongers busily tending to the catch. Expertly filleting.
Making sure everything glistens.
Wrapping it up for eager customers.
Aside from the expansive market, dozens of gourmet shops, delicatessens, butcher shops, and bakeries lined the streets, offering up delicacies of the region. The window display of Drogheria Mascari lured us in more than once to buy spices, dried fruit, and wine.
We procured dry goods, cheeses, and different types of prosciutto from the various delis.
The Prosciutto Crudo di Sauris and Pancetta Coppata were memorably delicious. Of the variety of cheeses we tasted, a mild young asiago was my favorite.
We also tried one cheese—possibly Fontina Valdostana, but I’m not sure—so stinky that even my cheese-loving husband couldn’t bear it…for shame. The butcher shops tempted us with salamis every bit as delicious as French saucisson sec. In fact, the best salami of the entire trip was this salamino cacciatore, pleasantly spicy from dried red chile.
Though we didn’t share a common language, the friendly butcher managed to explain that it was an artisan sausage, not an industrial product.
Heart-shaped salamis definitely upped Venice’s romance factor.
All of the butcher shops were staffed by men except for one.
I had a crush on the lady butcher, but don’t worry, my husband knew. And speaking of butcher shops, there was one devoted exclusively to horse meat, which greatly pained my equestrian sister-in-law and therefore endlessly amused the rest of us. Breakfast meant a trip to a bakery for jam-filled croissants. I would seize the opportunity to pick out cookies or other sweets for later.
It seems we tried every gelato shop in town at least three times.
We let ourselves get carried away shopping because we were staying in an apartment with a kitchen. We stocked up on plump squid.
And shucked scallops with their roe.
And the sweetest scampi.
We selected several fillets of John Dory since it seemed to be the most popular fish that day. All the seafood was prepared on a six-inch cutting board with a three-inch pocket knife and sautéed in turn with extra virgin olive oil, garlic, peperoncino, lemon, and parsley. White asparagus (in case you’ve never had white asparagus, it tastes exactly like regular asparagus minus the green…and by green, I mean chlorophyll) was blanched.
Then served with a somewhat soupy lemon mayonnaise brought barely together with a fork in a shallow soup bowl. We tossed together a lush salad with greens and the succulent leaves of that brilliant radicchio.
Oh, and there was al dente spaghetti lunghi also with olive oil, garlic, and peperoncino and a fine grating of Parmegiano. A feast fit for a king.
Finding our kitchen woefully under-equipped, the next night we downsized to just scallops and scampi, switched to regular spaghetti because one member of our party was intimidated by the long kind, sautéed blossom-on baby zucchini with the usual flavorings, and brought in from a bakery schiacciata salata, a sort of oil-rich flatbread with an addictively crisp crust and chewy crumb.
And both nights, there was much wine. The surest way to experience a place as the locals do is to shop and cook like them.
The next best way to experience a place is to do your laundry there.
We felt very Venetian drying our laundry on a clothesline outside…Really, does no one in Venice own a dryer? I mean, it poured most of the time we were there.
When we weren’t cooking or self-catering, as the travel books like to call it, we dined out. It seems like every other door is a charming café.
Or an inviting restaurant.
We sampled the seafood, with the sarde in saor, Venetian-style sardines in an oniony sweet and sour sauce, getting mixed reviews from the family. Fun for all was grazing on chiccetti, little appetizers similar to tapas, and washing them down with sparkling Lambrusco. The best chiccetti were at the popular Cantina do Mori.
Hunger came again after a long vaporetto ride to the island of Burano, famous for its handmade lace and brightly-colored fishermen’s houses.
We lunched within the art-covered walls of Trattoria da Romano.
Sublime fish risotto, spaghetti with squid ink, gnocchi with creamy crab sauce, spaghetti Bolognese, fritto misto, and grilled sardines. Another crowded vaporetto ride delivered us to Murano, where I acquired a small millefiori bowl to use as a salt cellar.
The delicious and watery world of colorful Venice.
By the end of our visit there was so much rain that the water lapped over the banks of the Grand Canal. The canals were full and so were we.
Truth be told, I was never a great fan of Italian food before, probably because I’d only known it through Italian-American restaurants, cookbooks, and cooking shows. But experiencing the real thing for these few short days in Venice moved me. Now I have a new understanding of what is truly fresh seafood, what is truly al dente pasta, what is truly perfect risotto. Venice has given me a whole new respect for real Italian food.
Next up: Bites of Bologna.