Venice: Everything Comes from the Sea

Ditte Isager

From cuttlefish to monkfish tail, shore crabs to thick-bearded mussels, seafood is a way of life in this Watery city. Departures reports on the best of Venice’s defining cuisine and the pressures threatening to reshape it.

It’s lunchtime in Venice, and my friend Bepi and I are sitting under a red umbrella in front of a restaurant called Busa Alla Torre on the tourist-clogged glassblowing island of Murano. There are tourists here too, but Bepi, a retired bank auditor and part-time glass merchant from neighboring Burano, takes his eating seriously (“The best moment of the day,” he says, “is when your knees are under the table”). Plus, he’s an old friend of the establishment’s proprietor, Lele Masiol, so I’m pretty sure our meal is going to be something special.

Big, red-haired, red-faced and gregarious, Masiol looks like he should be running a pub in County Tipperary, not a trattoria on the Venetian lagoon. But he’s a local boy too, and when Bepi says “Today we want to eat alla Buranese”—Burano-style—Masiol knows exactly what he means and heads for the kitchen.

Five minutes later, he returns with a couple of plates covered in shrimp barely an inch long, lightly floured and fried and still in their edible shells. They are accompanied by a big spoonful of baccalà mantecato, a creamy purée of stockfish (the air-dried brother of salt cod), a dish so important to the local cuisine that there is a confraternità, or brotherhood, dedicated to its appreciation. It also comes with a small slab of grilled white polenta, which is about the most delicious bit of cornmeal mush I think I’ve ever tasted.

We’ve barely finished when the next course arrives: slightly larger shrimp, peeled and quickly boiled, then dressed with olive oil and parsley and served with fried baby artichokes from the garden island of Sant’Erasmo alongside a pool of soft white polenta. Polenta is the defining starch in traditional Venetian cooking (pasta and risotto were rare in working-class homes here until the mid-20th century), and there’s more of it with the next dish. This time it comes with moleche, softshell shore crabs about the size of silver dollars, in saor, which means marinated in vinegar with sweet onions, pine nuts and raisins. “Okay,” says Masiol, “now I’ll give you risotto di gô.” This is a dish found nowhere else but Venice, though rarely on the ten-language tourist menus. (“goby” in English) is a small fish that’s too bony to eat by itself but is used to flavor rice—which many cooks manage by putting poached in a linen bag and squeezing the juices into the pot. Because the flavor of is mild, Masiol has upped the ante by adding two varieties of minuscule clams, known locally as bevarasse and malgarotte, neither any bigger than a baby’s fingernail.

Finally, just to make sure we’ve had enough to eat, Masiol brings a gorgeous fritto misto. He has prepared it with moleche and lots of scampi, the emblematic Adriatic crayfish—actually a tiny lobster (and nothing to do, incidentally, with the garlicky shrimp dish that’s popular in Italian-American restaurants)—as well as thin bits of zucchini, onion, eggplant, sweet pepper and carrot. “Lele buys at least half of his seafood from retired fishermen who bring back just a little of this and a little of that,” says Bepi as we finish. “That’s why he has some of the best in Venice.”

I didn’t know it at the time, but as we were enjoying this excellent repast, the Giudecca canal, in the heart of Venice, was clogged with fishing boats (an estimated 200 of them) protesting the Italian government’s implementation of new European Union fishing rules. These would, among other things, mandate the use of nets with mesh large enough to let most of what Bepi and I ate at Busa Alla Torre slip through.

It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that in Venetian cuisine, everything comes from the sea. In this case, “sea” means the Mediterranean in general and the Adriatic in particular, but especially the salty expanses of the Venetian lagoon—a vast wetland, one of the largest in the Mediterranean basin, covering about 136,000 acres of mudflats, salt marshes and open water. Several of the islands in this lagoon yield vegetables of extraordinary quality, and its tidal fringes harbor wild ducks and other game birds that are an important part of traditional Venetian cooking. But the real bounty is the breathtaking array of top-quality fish, shellfish and cephalopods (squid, octopus and the like), some of them found only here.

%new_page%

Seafood comes to the city primarily through the Mercato Ittico all’ingrosso del Tronchetto, the big wholesale fish market near the Piazzale Roma (where the city’s bus depot and parking garage complexes are located). Fluorescent-lit, with aisles of wet floors lined with crates and Styrofoam boxes full of fish and shellfish of every description, it isn’t a very romantic place. Seafood of the highest quality is sold there, but because local waters produce nowhere near enough to supply the city’s needs, much of what’s on offer is frozen, and a lot of it comes not from the Mediterranean but from the Atlantic and the Pacific. A few years ago, in fact, the market issued a statement estimating that only around 20 percent of the seafood sold there was local. I’ve heard estimates that it’s probably closer to 10 percent.

Because the Tronchetto facility feeds the more famous and infinitely more picturesque Venice fish market near the Rialto Bridge—officially the Mercato del Pesce al Minuto, or Retail Fish Market—a fair amount of what’s sold there is frozen and/or foreign, too. Strolling through the market’s open-sided, Gothic-style pavilions (open Tuesday through Saturday) early last summer, I thought it looked like maybe 35 or 40 percent of the seafood was local—at least gauging by the proudly displayed labels marked Nostrani, meaning “Ours.”

Here is some of what I saw, in addition to the Sicilian swordfish and tuna and Scottish salmon: moleche, scampi, calamaretti (small squid), mazzancolle (tiger prawns), canestrelli (bay scallops), peoci (little thick-bearded mussels), bovoletti (tiny sea snails that are boiled, then dressed with olive oil, garlic and parsley), and three types of octopus—tiny folpetti, larger moscardini (with bodies about the size of golf balls) and piovre, which are three or four times larger still. There was also seppie grosse (large cuttlefish), seppie tenerissime (“very tender” smaller cuttlefish), orata (gilthead bream), coda di rospo (monkfish tail), razza (ray), San Pietro (John Dory), triglia (red mullet), solioglia (sole) and passerini (literally “little sparrows,” but a kind of small lagoon sole that is typically dredged in flour and fried).

At least some of this, I realized, might not be here the next time I visit.

“When I read about the new fishing regulations,” says Luca di Vita, “I saw five of my best-selling dishes disappear.” Di Vita and chef Bruno Gavagnin run Alle Testiere, a 22-seat urban osteria near the lively Campo Santa Maria Formosa that happens to serve some of the best seafood in Venice and not much else. Restaurants often bring you the menu plus a “fresh sheet,” listing the fish brought in that day. At Alle Testiere, the fresh sheet is the menu. On the day I visit, the small selection of dishes includes a shrimp and raw asparagus salad, spaghetti with bevarasse clams and four or five kinds of simple grilled fish. I order three of Alle Testiere’s classics: bay scallops on the half shell with wisps of orange and onion; remarkable gnocchetti (small gnocchi) with zotoeti, the tiniest squid you can imagine, in a sauce improbably but deliciously accented with cinnamon; and salty-fresh prawns alla busara, in a slightly spicy sweet-and-sour tomato sauce.

After lunch, di Vita sits down to talk about Venetian seafood and the new fishing regulations. “Look,” he says, “the Adriatic isn’t deep—maybe 35 meters [115 feet] at most—and shallower water means smaller fish and shellfish. The things we fish aren’t babies; they’re actually full-grown. They don’t get any bigger. The new laws are perfect for the southern Mediterranean, but not for here. These little creatures are our treasure, the base of our cuisine.” Alle Testiere gets a lot of its fish not from Tronchetto or the Rialto market but from Chioggia, the fishermen’s port at the southern end of the lagoon. “A lot of restaurants here have survived the financial crisis by buying cheaper fish—frozen and imported,” says di Vita. “For us, this isn’t an option. Either you choose to work with fresh fish every day or you don’t. We do.”

Another restaurant that does is Al Covo, whose proprietor, Cesare Benelli, has been known to post his daily bills in the window so anyone can see when and where he bought the local seafood he’s serving. A warm, charming place off the Riva degli Schiavoni near the Arsenale, Venice’s medieval shipyard and armory, Al Covo serves traditional Venetian dishes with subtle modern touches. The marinated fresh anchovies with eggplant and the black spaghetti (colored with cuttlefish ink) with scampi, confit cherry tomatoes and wild fennel are irresistible. The bigoli (thick whole-wheat spaghetti) in a sauce of anchovies and onions is about as perfect an interpretation of this Venetian standby as you’ll find anywhere. To me, though, Benelli’s greatest triumph is his fried seafood. In late spring and autumn, he prepares moleche with strings of red onion and matchstick potatoes—fish-and-chips as I suspect must be served in heaven. And year-round he produces a simple classic fritto misto, which at the very least will include scampi, calamari and bay scallops along with zucchini, onions and usually another vegetable or two, but will often contain whatever other little fish or crustacean Benelli has bought that day. Whatever’s in it, it will be fresh, crisp and perfect.

%new_page%

Venetian seafood, particularly the small stuff, lends itself very nicely to cicchetti (sometimes spelled cichetti), the bar snacks that are often called Venetian tapas. These are served mostly in small, lively establishments called bacari, though the line between a bacaro and an osteria is not very well defined. The oldest bacaro/osteria in Venice is Do Spade (Two Swords), dating back to 1488. One of the newer places, where Bepi and I end up one evening, is Ostaria al Garanghelo, opened in 2003 (and not to be confused with Osteria al Garanghelo, on Via Garibaldi). The paper placemats on the tables in this long, wood-paneled room—which includes, unusually for Venice, a high communal table with 18 stools around it—are printed with Venetian sayings. One is In ostaria no vago ma co ghe so ghestago (I don’t go to the osteria, but when I do go, I stay), an easy sentiment to understand at a place like this. My Venetian-Italian dictionary defines garanghelo as baldoria, which means revelry or merrymaking. Bepi says the word also implies a casual meeting with friends.

Chef Renato Osto, also a co-owner of al Garanghelo, doesn’t tamper with tradition. His food is simply, unapologetically Venetian, which is not to say it lacks inspiration. His baccalà mantecato is very creamy and almost elegant—so smoothly beaten, cracks Bepi, that “it’s made with more elbow grease than olive oil”—while his sardines in saor seem especially pure, the onions soft but still white instead of caramelized brown, with no sign of pine nuts or raisins. The tomato sauce in which his octopus swims, on the other hand, is dense and intensely flavored. Osto also has a long menu of risotto and spaghetti dishes, many of them piscatorial in nature. His risotto with scampi and porcini—“a kind of surf and turf,” Bepi calls it—is positively decadent. If you order his spaghetti alla busara with scampi and jumbo shrimp, the waiter will bring you a bib; you’ll need it as you slurp up every last bite.

Of course, there are a number of places in Venice where you can have first-rate seafood in grander settings, if that’s what you’re after. Do Forni (Two Ovens), just off the Piazza San Marco, for one, is a handsome, old-fashioned ristorante with tuxedo-clad captains, serving carts, hotel silver and dressed-up Venetians out for a night on the town, all under the watchful eye of Eligio Paties, an old-school professional who’s been in charge since 1973. More than half the menu here is seafood, and the specialty of the house is a gloriously simple dish of lightly poached scampi and large scallops on a bed of arugula and a sauce made of nothing more than olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper. I sample two varieties of fritto misto, one with little croquettes of baccalà mantecato, miniature sardines, squares of mozzarella and thin wedges of eggplant, and the other with moleche and oversize scampi. Next comes a particularly fine-grained version of the classic risotto nero, full of cuttlefish and its ink, followed by an attractively straightforward grilled Adriatic sole with lemon butter. It is all immensely satisfying, and it occurs to me as I finish that if I lived in Venice, I might never eat meat again.

The next morning I’m awakened by a chorus of dissonant horns. Looking out my window, down to the canals, I see the fishing boats are back for another day of protests, zigzagging among the vaporetti and water taxis and gondolas. I’m as much of a conservationist as any sensible person in the 21st century, and I’m sure the EU regulations weren’t imposed without good reason. At the same time I feel sympathy for the fishermen, whom I suspect fear losing not only their livelihoods but their very identities. There’s a possibility that the Italian government will be able to negotiate some exceptions for traditional fishing practices; there’s also a possibility that Venetians won’t pay any more attention to the new rules than Parisians do to the smoking ban in cafés.

I hope something works out. Catching and selling and cooking and eating the abundance of the lagoon has shaped Venetian life for as long as there have been Venetians. Here, in this city built on and defined by water, far more than lunch and dinner comes from the sea.

Tables to Get

Al Covo

First-rate fish, plus the best steaks in Venice, in a friendly environment. Dinner, $70–$240. At 3968 Castello, Campiello della Pescaria; 39-041/522-3812; ristorantealcovo.com.

Alle Testiere

A little jewel of a place that offers some of the city’s finest seafood, prepared with skill and imagination. $ Dinner, $65–$175. At 5801 Castello, Calle del Mondo Novo; 39-041/522-7220; osterialletestiere.it.

Busa alla Torre

An authentic restaurant among the tourist trattorias, serving specialties of the lagoon as well as classic meat and fowl dishes. Lunch, $40– $140 (not open for dinner). At 3 Campo Santo Stefano, Murano; 39-041/739-662.

Do Forni

Venetian elegance, with a large menu of seafood and other dishes prepared in a classic style. Dinner, $90–$230. At 468 San Marco, Calle degli Specchieri; 39-041/523-8880; doforni.it.

Ostaria al Garanghelo

A casual wine bar that serves up serious food, including excellent fish and shellfish pastas. Dinner, $40–$140. At 1570–71 San Polo, Calle dei Boteri; 39-041/721-721; algaranghelo.it.

$ Establishment accepts no charge/credit cards or accepts cards other than the American Express Card.