The Venetian light, ethereal and translucent as it shimmers off the shallow waters of the lagoon, has been the focus of much praise in literature and art. In ‘Death in Venice,’ Thomas Mann describes a ‘vaulted sky of delicate azure and utter purity,’ light like ‘dazzling crystals dancing;’ while Turner’s famous Venetian watercolours depict the city always through a veil of golden mist, sparkling evaporate blurring the skyline of distantly visible spires and campaniles. This trip however, after the fete days of Christmas have passed, and the fireworks and festivities of New Year’s have given way to the inevitable hangover, we encounter La Bella Venezia in an altogether different mood...
With clouds drawn in like heavy drapes, the light low and air damp, the city appears to turn back in upon itself, and, as though taking advantage of the brief lull afforded by the beginning of another year, returned to pay quiet homage to the element that has always most ruled her fortunes – not air, but water.
Creeping over the cobbles of the piazzetta, lapping up and over the edge of the Riva Schiavoni, the acqua alta, or high tide, has stealthily taken the city in its watery grasp. Persistently leaking skies and an atmosphere of chilly damp mean that all but the bravest of tourists are hiding indoors, first in the shops, galleries, and museums, and then later, in thickly carpeted hotel dining rooms, or in the more well-advertised restaurants. The famous gondole, forlorn and dripping, are temporarily abandoned to float high on their wooden tethering stakes and wait out the deluge, ‘closed for business’ tacitly indicated by their faded cloth covers.
The Piazza di San Marco is an eerie place on such a night. No crowded outdoor café tables, not a soul in sight in fact, even the famous pigeons adjourned to their hidden roosts in the tiled roof tops. Just two sombre rows of lighted hollow arches and an expanse of empty space to see. But listen carefully, and you’ll hear the distant but distinct sound of heels against cobble. Follow the sound across the square if you are game, and out its farthest side – in the darkest days of a Venetian winter, it is necessary to depart from the better trodden tourist tracks to find a little nightlife!
Weave through the darkened lanes of San Marco, and cross the Grand Canal at the Accademia to arrive in the less-frequented Sestiere di Dorsoduro. Here, a quick right at the end of the bridge, and then the very next right again will lead you to a peaceful canal crossed by a single arched ponte – the Rio di San Trovaso.
Stop and take a look, between rain showers the opaque green waters of the canal are pond-still and darkly reflective in the night. Where the water becomes shallow though, like on the stone steps that lead down into the canal itself, it is perfectly clear and clean, beckoning almost. As though to suggest that if you were to descend the stairs into the water, and submerge yourself below, there might be more to see down there than just foggy darkness. As though, perhaps, and just perhaps, you might instead see miraculously clearly through the ancient depths, and in doing so, somehow be witness to all of the magnificent history of the city at once, as well as to all her darkest secrets.
But don’t stare too long, lest this urge translate into action! Onwards, south along the canal, listening still for signs of life – just by the ponte and tucked away on the left. A small sign that reads ‘Vini al Bottegon,’ windows fogged thick from the inside, and soft yellow light casting a small arc on the cobbles outside – Cantinone Gia' Schiavi the little bacaro we’ve set out to find…
It is difficult to define a ‘bacaro.’ Particular to Venice and scattered across all six sestieri, bacari are open from mid-morning until late in the evening, serving prosecco, spritz, and wine in little round glasses called ombre (or shadows, for the shade cast by the domes of San Marco), along with an array of bite-sized Venetian snacks called chicchetti. Bacari are neither simply bar, nor restaurant, but a delicious stopping post of sorts, and a crucial part of the social and historical fabric of the city.
Maneuver yourself into position beside the bar at the Schiavi, and experience for yourself. Start with a spritz, Aperol or Campari, at one eighth the price of the same drink ordered in the Piazza, you’ll have plenty of change left for some chicchetti! And not to worry if your Italian is not up to scratch as, when it comes to choosing chicchetti, pointing will suffice.
Arranged on the counter top, on large platters, and boards, and small in vitrines of glass, an array of tiny delicacies, mostly positioned atop crostini, or a square of grilled polenta. Marinated sardines and anchovies, pureed baccalà (salted cod), cold meats and creamy cheeses, or choose from a variety of little tiny panini, or polpettine (little meatballs) and croquettes, breaded and fried, or cooked in rich tomato sauce.
You don’t need to eat everything at once though, save some things for tomorrow. There are seven more stops on this bacari itinerary, and, with no break in the cloud, or sign of reprieve from the rain, the morning is likely to have us looking indoors for cover once again…
By the new morning, the dream fog of the night before appears to have lifted slightly. Some bustle has returned to the previously deserted lanes, an audible scrape of aloft umbrellas against brick as people maneuver to pass one another in the narrow calles. In Venice though, the fog can never be said to have completely lifted, and the barrier separating what is dreamt from what is ‘real’ is always at its very thinnest.
In his ‘Pictures of Italy,’ Dickens describes all the other towns which he visits realistically, but, with sure instinct, makes Venice the city from a dream, a place of wonder, of unreality, and floating indistinct loveliness. And, to be sure that this is truly the case, one need only travel back across to Mestre on the Ponte della Libertà after a few days on the isle. Hereupon the ‘real’ reality inevitably startles as it disappointingly reasserts itself.
For now though, as we stand on the banks of the Grand Canal watching low barges laden with produce from fields in nearby Treviso and Choggia unload at the Rialto Markets, the dream fog remains firmly settled.
Browse the stands to find fresh artichokes pared to their tender hearts and bobbing in water ready for the pot. At each stall, beautiful heads of curled radicchio di Treviso are piled, this most picturesque of the leafed vegetables being particularly beloved by Venetians.
Between the arches of the neighbouring fish market, live crabs, freshly caught in the lagoon are unloaded. These are not your conventional cooking crabs, but the little green variety usually sought by children on beach holidays as they scamper across the rocks and through shallow pools. Known by the Venetian name moeche, the crabs are harvested by fishermen just as they are in the process of shedding their shells. For approximately 24 hours between shells, when their skins are soft, the unlucky crabs are liable to be given a new coating of beaten egg courtesy of a Venetian cook before a quick deep-frying in hot oil.
It is desirable to have some prosecco in hand by the time the clock strikes eleven on a Venetian morning and, fortunately, the narrow streets behind the market are host to numerous little bacari in the process of opening their shutters ready to offer exactly this.
Easily visible from the market square if you turn back to look towards the Rialto bridge, Al Merca, the first on our improvised tour, is a tiny hole-in-the wall where you can sample variously filled panini as well as breaded polpettine of meat or tuna, (see my recipe for polpettine below). It’s standing room only, but they’ll happily serve your prosecco in a plastic cup, and hand the cicchetti over on napkins should you wish to find a comfortable perch facing the Grand Canal and watch the waterborne marketplace traffic flow by.
If eating-in is preferable in the showery rain, a few steps further towards the Rialto will take you to Banco Giro. Here, you can sit at a high table and enjoy a similar view while nibbling some more elaborate chicchetti – baccalà mantecato for instance, a popular dish of salted cod whipped together with olive oil, garlic, and parsley, inventively served on a square of grilled polenta cooked in cuttlefish ink.
Heading further into the district of San Polo, behind the market and into a maze of tiny calle and sottoporteggi (little tunnels), you can find two of the city’s oldest and most famous bacari. Walk down the Ruga Ravano, San Polo’s main thoroughfare, and, with the Rialto bridge to your left, continue until you spot the tiny Sottoporteggio Pozzetto. Turn right and look up for the arch overhead and you’re there.
All’Arco, reportedly frequented by Cassonova himself in the day, serves some of the most traditional chicchetti you can find. It is crowded with locals all day long, but there are a couple of comfy seats by the windows if you don’t mind squeezing in. Here, the gorgonzola dolce, carved into a thick wedge and spread on an angular crunchy slice of baguette deserves a special mention for being one of the most sublimely delicious cheeses I’ve ever eaten… but it’s not just cheese on bread – there is also more baccalà, polpette, and some of the very traditional chicchetti classics, such as boiled eggs, halved and topped with a fillet of anchovy and a pickled pepper, all skewered neatly through with a toothpick!
Stepping out of All’Acro, turn immediately left and left again to find Do’Mori, tucked away to the right on the Calle dei Do’ Mori. Inside, the dim light and low roof hung with copper pots puts you in mind of some kind of ancient mariner’s hide-out. The customers of yesteryear are easily envisioned, returning seafarers and weary fishermen, stationed on the dark wood stools, drinking by candle light and trading stories about their travels and travails.
The seats are equally as inviting nowadays, and with an excellent wine list, (including a 2010 Tignanello at €18 a glass), it’s worth lingering a while over the salumi and cheeses. It is also worth sampling some of the very traditional Venetian dishes still made here, such as baby octopus (polpo) cooked in red wine. Or, if you like sardines, try the famous sarde-in-saor – made from flouring fresh sardine fillets and shallow-frying before leaving to marinate in a vinegar sauce and layering between sweet cooked onions, pine nuts, and raisins, (see recipe below).
If you’d like to sample another Venetian classic, a delicate fritto misto made with a number of the smaller fish and fresh translucent prawns of the lagoon, leave Do’Mori via the opposite door from which you arrived, turn left, and then head straight along until you reach the Sottoporteggio Spade. Where you emerge from the little tunnel you’ll find Do'Spade. A stone’s throw from the Campo Pescaria fish market we were at earlier, this is an excellent place to try all of the little lagoon delicacies dredged through the lightest of batters and fried fresh to order.
If you prefer your crustaceans raw rather than deep fried, then it’s time to leave San Polo and head back over the Rialto bridge to Cannaregio. This is the most overlooked of the Venetian sestieri, but my favourite for local restaurants and authentic food.
Wandering the wide Strada Nova, La Cantina is easy to find – behind a bank of outdoor café tables, just on the left before you the cross the Rio San Felice. The chicchetti menu changes daily to reflect what is fresh enough to be eaten crudo – blush pink gamberi on our visit. There is also a selection of fresh oysters, some pickled ox-tongue for the adventurous, as well as a delicious choice of prosciuttos and culatellos on crostini.
If you still have some room left in your stomach (or even if you don’t), be sure to stop by the Trattoria da’Oro alla Vedova – a short stroll back along the Strada Nova in the direction of the Rialto, and left at the little Rio Ca’ d’Oro. You’ll find this final bacaro tucked into the far corner at the end of the lane.
Push open the heavy frosted doors and take a place at the worn wooden bar… another ombra, a few more warm polpette, some marinated peppers served with delicious crusty bread… best to get comfortable, take a seat and order a bottle perhaps? What time is it by now? Is it worth seeing if they can do a table for a late lunch?
If you stay for long enough, by time you get up to leave the rain may have begun to lift a little, and maybe, if you stroll down to the traghetto a gondolier will be rolling back his blue water-covers, cautiously examining the sky, deciding once again to reopen for business.
Float gently down the length of the Grand Canal, under the Rialto, past all the faded palazzos, and then under the Accademia before briefly out into the lagoon itself – look westwards, past the Isola San Giorgio, over the long arm of the Lido, a single ray of setting sun through the heightening cloud, the fog lifting, and another year officially begun.
The following recipes work well as starters, or serve as they are intended, with an aperitivo – a spritz, or little ombra of vino.
‘In-saor,’ or sousing with vinegar, dates from a time prior to modern methods of refrigeration, when it was necessary to find a way to preserve the daily fishing catch. To give the sardines time to marinate in the vinegar, and the polenta a chance to set, this dish needs to be started at least 24 hours in advance. After this time, it will keep well for a few days, even up to a week, and so can be served up any time with a slice of freshly grilled polenta.
(Serves 4 as a starter – up to 16 as single bite-sized cicchetto)
For the sarde:
- 16 medium-sized fresh sardines – scaled & gutted, head & backbone removed, butterflied.
- 2 large white onions – finely sliced
- 2 bay leaves
- Handful of pine nuts
- Handful of raisins
- Small amount of white wine
- 175mls white wine vinegar (or white balsamic vinegar)
- 1 teaspoon of coriander seeds – crushed
- 2 cloves – ground
- 1 teaspoon pink peppercorns - crushed
- Plain flour for dusting
- Light olive oil for frying
- Salt & black pepper to season
For the polenta:
- 240g coarse grain polenta
- 1.5 litres vegetable stock
- Salt and pepper to season
- Some olive oil
I’d strongly recommend trying to convince your friendly local fishmonger to help you clean and prepare the sardines as otherwise the first step in this recipe is a bit involved. In the event, however, that your persuasive powers fail, what you’ll need is, one pair of long kitchen gloves, an apron, some kitchen scissors, maybe even a shower cap (flying fish scales do have a tendency to get everywhere), and a short-ish, sharp knife.
Holding a sardine by the tail, remove the scales by running the knife at a perpendicular angle along the body of the fish, towards the head. Once all the scales are removed, snip off the head of the fish using kitchen scissors, and make an incision along the length of its undercarriage to the tail. Remove the innards, and then turn the sardine over and open out, cut side down, onto a cutting board. Gently apply pressure along the backbone of the fish using your thumb. This will loosen the spine and make it easier to remove. Flip the fish back over and, placing the tip of the small knife under the backbone of the fish, pull this forward from tail to head to remove. Rinse the butterflied fillets briefly underwater, and remove to a large plate.
Once you have a lovely pile of butterflied sardines, dust each of these lightly with some plain flour that has been seasoned with salt and pepper.
In a large frying pan, heat approximately 1.5cm deep of light olive oil over medium heat ready to shallow-fry the fillets. Fry until lightly golden on both sides, then remove onto a plate lined with paper towel to drain.
Now, heat a small dry frying pan over low heat. Add the pine nuts and lightly toast until golden, taking care that these don’t burn. To prepare the raisins, cover these with a little white wine in a small bowl and allow to soak while you prepare the other ingredients.
Sautee the finely sliced onion in some light olive oil over a medium-low heat, allowing to soften slowly. Stir frequently over the next 20-30 minutes to ensure that the onion does not begin to stick or burn. Once the onion is looking transparent and lightly carmelised, add the crushed coriander, ground cloves, and crushed pink peppercorns, followed by the vinegar. Stir, and allow to cook together for a further 3 minutes before removing from the heat.
To assemble, place a layer of sardines along the bottom of a deep dish and top with a layer of onion mixture, then a sprinkle of pine nuts and raisins. Continue to layer, covering the sardines with the onions, pine nuts and raisins until the sardines are all used up. Finish up with a layer of onions on top, then pour over any additional vinegary sauce that may be left over in the onion pan. Cover with cling film and place in the refrigerator to marinate for 24-48 hours. (I like to top the dish with one of the bay leaves before covering it, but this is just a conceit that makes it pretty to look at while it rests in the fridge!).
To make the polenta, bring 1.5 litres of vegetable stock to a boil in a large pot.
Slowly pour in the polenta, beating vigorously with a wooden spoon as you do so to prevent lumps from forming. Once all the polenta has been poured in and begun to thicken, turn the heat down to a slow simmer, and cover. Continue to stir occasionally as the polenta cooks. Like porridge, polenta does have a tendency to sputter volcanically, so take care when lifting the lid from the pot. If the sputters are particularly violent, this is an indication that the heat is too high, so adjust this downwards.
The cooking time for polenta will vary depending on the coarseness of the particular polenta you are using. Follow instructions on the packet if unsure. Some polenta will be ready after 30 minutes, coarser polenta will need up to 90 minutes. You’ll know the polenta is ready when it has stiffened to the point where you could almost stand a wooden spoon up in it.
Do a quick seasoning test during cooking and add salt and pepper if necessary (usually a fair bit of seasoning is needed to properly flavour polenta, but the amount you need will vary depending on the seasoning of the cooking stock).
Prepare a shallow rectangular baking dish to receive the polenta by lining with greaseproof paper and brushing on a light coat of olive oil. Pour the polenta quickly into the dish, while it is still hot and fluid, to a depth of approximately 1cm. Shake gently to level, cover with cling film, and place in the refrigerator to set until needed.
Turn the polenta out of the tray once set and remove the greaseproof paper. Cut, using an oiled knife, into small squares, or rectangles approximately 5cm x 5cm (or slightly larger if serving as a starter). Now brush the squares with a light coating of olive oil before grilling over very high heat in a griddle pan.
For the polenta to form a nice crust, you must press it gently against the bars of the griddle with a spatula, and leave it to grill a good 5-6 minutes before turning over to cook the other side – don’t be tempted to turn it over prematurely, but have a quick peek under one corner to check progress if you must!
Take the sardines out of the fridge at least a few hours prior to serving so as to bring them back up to room temperature. To assemble the dish, arrange a slice of the grilled polenta on a plate and top with one or two of the sardine fillets. Make sure to pile a generous helping of the onions on top, along with a few pine-nuts and raisins as well.
Polpettine dei Bacari
These polpettine are crispy on the outside and super-soft and juicy on the inside due to the addition of mashed potato. Ridiculously moreish and easy to eat when skewered with a little toothpick, they and work really well alongside a bitter aperitivo such as Campari.
I’ve used minced beef for this recipe, but a number of bacari do a version with tuna, which I also love. If you’d like to try this instead, just sub-in some canned tuna in place of the mince, the rest of the ingredients remain the same.
It is useful to have a frying thermometer to hand for this recipe as the polpettine need to be deep-fried relatively slowly in order to give them time to cook through. If you don’t have one of these however, you can proceed with a little trial and error, adjusting the temperature of the oil as you go.
(Makes approx. 60 little tiny party sized meatballs)
- 500g minced beef
- 3 cloves of garlic – crushed
- 1 large potato (approx. 300g)
- 1 slice of day old white bread (approx. 25g)
- 120mls milk
- Small bunch of parsley – roughly chopped
- ½ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
- 4 eggs
- Salt & freshly ground pepper
- Plain flour for dusting
- 50g coarse homemade bread crumbs (or Japanese panko breadcrumbs also work well)
- 750mls sunflower or canola oil for deep frying
In a small saucepan, cover the potato with water and boil over a moderate heat, skin on, until cooked through.
While the potato is cooking, lightly fry the garlic in a little oil, removing from the heat as it begins to colour. In a large bowl, mix the garlic through the mince beef with a fork, also adding two eggs, the Parmesan cheese, as well as the chopped parsley, and seasoning generously with salt and pepper.
In another bowl, soak the bread in the milk, allowing it to absorb the liquid and become spongy.
Meanwhile, drain the cooked potato and, while it is still hot, use your fingers to peel away the skin. Pass the peeled potato through a ricer, or mash by hand until it is soft and free of lumps.
Now, squeeze the bread to remove any excess milk, and then add to the mince mixture, stirring together thoroughly. Also mix through the mashed potato at this point.
Form the polpettine by pinching up a small amount of meat mixture and rolling together between your palms to make little balls of approximately 2.5cm in diameter, (much larger than this and they won’t cook through properly when it comes to frying).
When you’ve finished rolling, place the polpettine in the fridge to chill for a couple of hours before coating and frying.
When you are ready to cook, lay out two large plates and a bowl. In the first plate, place some plain flour for dusting, and season with salt and pepper. In the second plate, place the breadcrumbs also adding a little salt and pepper to these. And in the bowl, beat together the two remaining eggs.
Roll the polpettine first through the flour, then shake off any excess, before dipping in the egg using a fork. Allow any excess egg to drip off before finally rolling through the breadcrumbs to coat.
To fry, place a frying thermometer along with the sunflower oil in a small, deep saucepan, taking care not to fill the saucepan over halfway with oil. Heat on medium for approximately 5 minutes, or until the thermometer reads between 160-170°C.
At this temperature, it should take 5 minutes for your polpettine to turn a golden-brown colour when fried in batches of 5 at a time. Over-filling the pan is dangerous, and will result in the polpettine taking longer to cook, so try to stick with smaller batches.
If your polpettine are becoming too dark too quickly, then remove the oil from the heat briefly, turning down the flame, and placing the oil back on to heat once it has cooled a little. It is a good idea, whether you are using a thermometer or not, to slice open a few of the first batch just to see if they have cooked through. Place your finger in the centre of the meat filling – if it is piping hot and rubbly in appearance, it’s cooked. If not, turn the heat down a bit for the next batch and fry a few minutes longer.
Once cooked, pop a toothpick into each of the little ball and serve warm or at room temperature, with something delicious to drink.
Risotto al Nero with Scallops and Radicchio
Venetians love to colour pastas and risottos jet black using squid or cuttlefish ink. The piles of squid in the Campo Pescaria market are testament to this, sold with their ink sacs still inside, little rivers of black staining the crushed ice beneath. The ink can also stain your lips as you eat, giving you a temporarily ghoulish air, but then, in the spooky days of mid-winter, a spooky kind of dish seems just thing.
If you’d like to serve this recipe in bite-size, some flat-bottomed spoons (the sort that you can buy at Asian supermarkets) make for a nice presentation.
(Serves 4 as a starter, or up to 30 people as a spoon-top chicchetto. Adjust scallop numbers in accordance with the number of diners)
For the stock:
- 3 fresh medium-sized squid – cleaned and cut into rings
- ½ brown onion – finely chopped
- 2 celery stalks – finely chopped
- 2 cloves garlic – crushed
- 2 bay leaves
- 100mls white wine
- 100g fresh tomatoes – chopped
- 15g cuttlefish ink (or two tablespoons) – available from fishmongers fresh or in sachets
- 1.3 litres of water
- Salt & pepper
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
For the risotto:
- 170g Arborio rice
- ½ brown onion – finely chopped
- 60g butter
- 100mls white wine
- A further 10g cuttlefish ink (just over one tablespoon) + some extra in reserve
- Small bunch fresh parsley – finely chopped (approx. 2 tablespoons)
- Salt & freshly ground pepper
- A few tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
- 12 scallops – trimmed, coral removed and retained for use in the stock. (Allow three scallops per person as a starter, one per person as a chichetto.)
- A little olive oil
- 2 heads of purple radicchio (endive)
- Some extra parsley – finely chopped
- ½ lemon – juice only
In a large pot, heat the oil olive over medium heat – add the onion and celery and fry gently until the onion is translucent. Now add the crushed garlic, and bay leaves, and cook for a further two minutes.
After this time, turn the heat up to high and add the rings of squid as well as the coral trimmed from the scallops. When the squid flesh has turned from translucent to white, slosh in the white wine, shortly followed by the chopped fresh tomatoes. Now add the water, and cuttlefish ink. Allow to reach a boil before turning the heat down to its lowest setting and seasoning with salt and pepper. Cook at a simmer for 1.5 hours. After this time, strain through a sieve, returning the strained stock to the pot and placing over a low heat.
To make the risotto, heat 40g of the butter along with 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a wide heavy-bottomed pan, (the reserved 20g of will be added later). Fry the onion gently until translucent. When the onion is cooked add the Arborio rice, and stir to coat. Fry for 1 minute, then add the white wine, stirring vigourously as the rice absorbs the wine.
Once all the wine has been absorbed, begin to add the squid stock, one ladle-full at a time. As you cook, stir the risotto gently with a wooden spoon. Unlike most risotto recipes, we can’t add cheese at the end as it would turn the risotto grey-ish and clash with the clean, briny flavour. We are relying therefore, on stirring alone to coax the gluten from the rice grains and create a lovely silken texture.
After about 25 minutes of stirring and ladle-ing, you should have gotten through most of the stock. Do a quick taste-test to ascertain if it needs further cooking or seasoning. If the grains are still on the hard side, add more stock and continue to stir until this has absorbed. Add salt and pepper to taste.
When the risotto is cooked to perfection, add the 10g of cuttlefish ink, as well as the chopped parsley, and final 20g of butter. The risotto should be dark and glossy-looking by now, but if not, top up the colour using a little more ink. Stir in the juice of half a lemon to finish.
Meanwhile, to cook the scallops, heat a little olive oil in a non-stick frying pan over high heat. When the pan has reached temperature, carefully introduce the scallops, allowing to sear for at least one minute on the first side, before gently turning to cook the other side.
To serve, arrange the scallops upon the radicchio tips and place atop a portion of the risotto before scattering with chopped parsley. Or, using a teaspoon, divide the risotto up onto the flat-bottomed spoons, top each with a single scallop, and a place a little tip of radicchio along with a few flecks of green parsley.