Venetians who see this selection may not necessarily agree with our choice, yet we would like to believe it is representative of the lagoon region’s favourite food. And the food we have liked to eat over the three decades of visiting the archipelago and its surrounds.
We recommend A Taste of Venice by Donna Leon and Roberta Pianaro (Germany and English editions) and Good Venetian Cuisine (La Buona Cucina Veneta – Italian edition), and a visit to Venetian Restaurants. This is the ultimate food guide to Venice, more of which in a moment.
We have to admit that we never tasted these top five dishes on the main islands. The fish risotto we tasted on Burano, to be expected. The veal liver with onion sauce we tasted in Adria, home of the ciabatta, further south in the Po Delta. The whipped cod we tasted in Mestre on the mainland, after a recommendation to a cafe we believe is no longer there. The stuffed squid, we tasted on numerous occasions across the Adriatic region. The baked apples were a treat on Murano.
Venetian cuisine is characterised by dishes that fall between the rustic tradition based on local foods and the aristocratic tradition based on haute cuisine. Both are authentic. The Venetian influence is far and wide.
Before we look at our favourite Venetian dishes we want to introduce you to some of our favourite places in this lagoon archipelago.
4 Restaurants, 1 Cafe, 1 Ice-Cream Shop
We cannot promise if, by the time you get to Venice and make it across the lagoon to the Lido, this delightful restaurant will still have its famous clam bake on its menu. If it is you are in for a treat because this is one of the great fish dishes. Clams are the epicentre of this dish, surrounded by mussels, prawns and shrimps in an aromatic white wine sauce spiced with capers, served with croutons.
The smooth consistency of the chocolate icing gives the sachertorte its celebrated Viennese appearance but it is the inner apricot glaze that makes it iconic. There are now many versions of the cake. And would you believe that among the best that can be found is at Caffe la Serra on the Viale Giuseppe Garibaldi just up from the Giardini stop in the Arsenal area? No we guess you wouldn’t.
We are biased of course because we believe the island of Burano is the jewel in the Venetian crown, and we suggest you take your pick of the restaurants, but if you want to ‘taste the lagoon’ the restaurant of the Barbaro family is the place to eat risotto di gò, the fishy rice dish now popular beyond Venice, and the myriad dishes made with the fish of the Adriatic, especially their sweet and sour sardines.
We found this place many years ago during a visit to the glass shops on Fondamenta Navagero. It is a short walk from Oball.due, a gallery that features the work of local artists and designers. Valmarana is now one of the best restaurants in Murano with a range of dishes, among these their fish stew appetiser is mouth-watering, and for those who prefer meat to fish their beef fillet has a surprise twist. Their pasta dishes – spaghetti with scampi in particular – is worth the effort.
You are walking along the wide paving that is the Fondamenta Zattere al Ponte Longo staring across the rippling water at the island of Giudecca, you are approaching one of Venice’s landmarks – Nico’s ice-cream shop – and one of Italy’s signature foods – the gianduiotto, a chocolate and hazelnut bar + ice-cream. Time to indulge.
Our favourite street in Venice is the Via Giuseppe Garibaldi in the Arsenal district. Any one of the places to eat could feature in this review. We decided on Giorgione because it is next door to El Refolo, a wonderful shop full of the best artisanal delicacies Venice has to offer. Check it out. At Giorgione we are looking forward to their baccalà matecato, easily among the best anywhere. They also serve the delicious fish pie made according to the traditional recipe of Pellestrina at the southern tip of the Lido and the fishers entrance to the Venetian lagoon.
1 — Risotto alla Buranella / Risotto di Gò (ghiozzo di laguna)
creamy rice in fish stock
A traditional speciality of Burano in the Venetian archipelago, made with carnaroli or vialone nano rice and a fish stock made with ghiozzi, the small goby fish of the lagoon, it is impossible to replicate unless you live in Venice.
A fish stock made from fresh anchovies or sardines or sprats is a respectable substitute. It will not replicate the ‘piacevole sapore e gran carattere’ (pleasant taste and great character) of the goby.
Da Primo, Osteria Al Fureghin, Raspo De Ua, Ristorante Da Forner, Trattoria Al Gatto Nero and Trattoria da Romano keep this delicious risotto on their menus, while Osteria Al Museo add baccalà to their version.
- 2 litres water
- 500 g goby fish
- 320 g carnaroli / vialone nano
- 2 celery stalks
- 1 onion
- 100 g butter
- 100 g parmigiano cheese, grated
- 50 ml white wine
- 30 g olive oil
- 1 garlic clove, crushed
- 1 tbsp parsley, chopped small
Put the fish into a large saucepan with water, onion and celery, bring to the boil and simmer for an hour. Strain into a separate pot and keep warm.
Pour two tablespoons of oil into a large, deep frying pan, sauté the garlic for a few minutes without letting it brown, toast the rice until it begins to stick to the pan.
Decrease heat, deglaze with wine and start adding the stock (about 1.2 litres), allowing the rice to absorb the liquid until it is al dente.
Cream with butter and cheese.
Turn heat off, cover and rest for ten minutes.
Dress with parsley.
2 — Fegato di Vitello alla Veneziano
Venetian veal liver in onion sauce
Now associated with the cuisine of Venice, and the surrounding region, this veal dish is popular throughout the Alpine countries. Thought to have been brought back from northern Europe by the Romans, a plausible scenario.
- 900 g veal liver, sliced thin
- 900 g onions, sliced thin
- 300 ml chicken jelly stock
- 100 ml olive oil
- 45 g butter
- 30 ml wine
- Parsley, chopped
Sauté onions in half the oil over a low heat covered until they are soft, about 30 minutes. In a separate pan pour remaining oil and fry the liver in two batches, about five minutes each time. Meanwhile add the stock to onions and reduce while the liver is being fried. Add the liver with seasonings in the pan, and cook for two minutes stirring constantly. Transfer to a serving plate. Deglaze the liver pan with the butter and wine, pour over the liver and onions, garnish with parsley. Serve with polenta.
3 — Baccalà Mantecato
whipped dried cod
In 2001 a calendar event of significance was noted when an assortment of Venetian artists, historians, restauranteurs, writers and baccalà lovers launched the Dogale Confraternita del Baccalà Mantecato.
Baccalà is stick, mantecato is beaten, thus beaten stick fish.
Their aim was the dissemination of the traditional recipe – cod, garlic and olive oil – because baccalà mantecato is not just food. ‘It is history, religion, adventure, secrets handed down from cook to cook, from mother to daughter: the pleasure of the palate, mind, heart.’
Stockfish is imported into northern and southern Italy, to Calabria, Campania, Liguria, Sicily and Veneto, taking two-thirds of the Norwegian production.
In northern Italy they like their stockfish lean and thin, in southern Italy they prefer it fat and thick but in Venice they demand the best and it is graded as such, imported by fish merchants from the Polesine, south of the lagoon city.
Legend has it that Venetian merchant Pietro Querini and 68 sailors sought refuge from a storm on the Lofoten Islands, where they witnessed the art of air drying the north Atlantic cod, turning it into hard stick-like fish.
It is not known whether they brought recipes as well as dried fish back from Norway. That was in the 1430s. In 1563, after the Council of Trent and the directive on a required abstinence from meat, dried cod dishes were served every Wednesday and Friday in parts of Italy. Bartolomeo Scappi, chef de cuisine of Pius V, established baccalà mantecato as a traditional dish.
This is the original recipe and method as determined by the Dogale Confraternita del Baccalà Mantecato in Venice.
- 250 g stockfish, soaked for 48 hours in 12 changes of fresh water, skinned, de-boned
- Olive oil
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 lemon, quartered
- Salt, pinch
- Pepper, pinch
Put the cod in a pot, cover with lightly salted cold water and bring to a low boil, simmer for 20 minutes with lemon and bay leaf. Whip the cod by hand with a wooden spoon, letting it absorb the drizzled oil ‘as if it were a mayonnaise’ to produce a shiny homogenous mass.
Season and finish with a little of the cod cooking water.
‘The dish is traditionally garnished with chopped parsley and accompanied by fresh or grilled Venetian white pearl polenta.’
It is also served as a cichéto.
4 — Calamari Ripieni in Brodo di Pesce
stuffed squid in fish broth
One of the oldest recipes from the Adriatic, and not exclusively associated with Italy, never mind Venice. Think of it as a dish that predates the invasion of American foods, vis beans, chillies, corn and tomatoes, filled with the produce from field and forest.
- 8 small squid, cleaned, bodies separated from legs
- 250 ml strong fish stock
- 150 ml white wine
- 75 ml spring water
- 1 egg, beaten
- 50 g leaves (from chard, chicory, spinach), cooked, chopped
- 45 g breadcrumbs
- 2 tbsp herbs (from lovage, marjoram, rocket, sage), fresh, chopped
- 8 anchovy fillets, chopped
- 20 g pine nuts
- 15 g raisins, soaked in 50 ml red wine
- 10 g walnuts, crushed, chopped
- 10 small capers, rinsed and drained
- 20 black peppercorns, coarse ground
- 8 toothpicks
Blend breadcrumbs and herbs for two minutes, flush out with water and leave to soak, about an hour. Pour red wine from the soaked raisins into a saucepan, boil and wilt the leaves, about three minutes, drain and leave to cool. Pour white wine into the stock, boil, add squid and simmer the bodies for five minutes, leaving the legs to cook gently. Combine all the ingredients, spoon into squid sacs, secure with a toothpick. Place the squid in the stock and simmer for 30 minutes. Serve with the legs in a small ladleful of the broth.
5 — Mele al forno con Crema Pasticcera
baked apples with custard
Italian apple growers have specialised in the popular varieties for many years now, producing Braeburn, Elstar, Fuji, Gala, Golden Delicious, Granny Smith, Idared, Jonagold, Morgenduft, Red Delicious, Stayman Winesap, Pinova and Topaz. This has resulted in the proliferation of traditional apple desserts, among them baked apples with custard. Venetians like their custard dishes.
- 500 ml whole milk, warmed
- 180 g sugar
- 120 g egg yolks
- 1 lemon, zest
- 40 g potato starch
- 5 g vanilla
- 4 apples, peeled, cored, cut into wedges
- 60 ml lemon juice
- 50 g butter
- 50 g sugar
- 15 g icing sugar
- 1 tsp cinnamon
In a pan heat the butter and as soon as it is melted add the apples and brown sugar. Cover and cook for 10 minutes over a low heat, occasionally stirring the ingredients. Stir in the cinnamon and lemon juice.
In a bowl beat the yolks with the sugar until frothy. Add the vanilla and potato starch and gradually the warm milk. When the custard is smooth pour into a small pot, add the lemon zest and cook over a medium heat, stirring constantly.
Place the apple mixture into ovenproof tins, pour the custard over each tin.
Bake at 200ºC for 10 minutes.
Dust with icing sugar and serve.
The Other Ones
These dishes would also find their way into any Venetian’s top 5.
Venetian restaurants pre-cook a basic risotto to save time, halting the procedure after ten minutes when the rice is part-cooked. Ironically, given the relationship the people of the lagoon have with air-dried cod, it is the perfect method for risotto alla stoccafisso. More
Bigoli is a long thick spaghetti-like pasta generally made fresh. When it is combined with a duck ragù heavily flavoured with herbs nothing compares. A traditional Venetian dish with a growing reputation further afield. More
8 — Spaghetti con alici dell’alto Adriatico
(spaghetti with anchovy sauce)
We have put our own twist on this dish, using the colatura di alici (fish sauce extract) that originated on the Amalfi Coast now made in Sicily, but insisting on Adriatic anchovies.
9 — Cicheti (toothpick snacks)
Many years ago there was a wine bar at the canal side of the Piazzale where the vehicular traffic has no place else to go. It served variations of all the traditional toothpick snacks of the Serenissima – anchovy, cod, crab, cuttlefish, mussel, octopus, sardine, shrimp, snail, tuna, whelk among the fishes, beef, ham, nerves, meatballs, salami, sausage, spleen among the meats, bread squares, chickpea balls, corn fritters, egg, polenta squares, puff pastries among the baked foods, artichoke, aubergine, courgette, onion, potato, rocket among the herbs and vegetables, black pepper, breadcrumbs, cheese, garlic, lemon, parsley, salt, vinegar among the aromatics. With imagination cooks and chefs brought these food items together and following the tradition that created this culture the cicheti were washed down with wine. This ancient activity has been revived in recent years with the emergence of new bàcari (wine bars) where many old favourites and several new favourites are among us again.
Antipasto di Mare — mixed seafood.
Arancini di Ragù e Verdure — rice balls with meat and vegetables.
Bicchierini di Crema di Piselli e Gamberetti — pea and shrimp cream.
Bovoletti — snails.
Bruschettine con Baccalà — small crusty bread with creamed cod.
Calamari Fritti — fried squid.
Calamari Ripieni — stuffed squid.
Crostini Baccalà — crispy bread with creamed cod.
Crostoni alle Melanzane — bread squares with aubergine.
Crostini di Baccala Mantecato — creamed cod on crusty bread squares.
Fagioli Stufati — stewed white beans.
Fagottini agli Scampi — shrimp pastry squares.
Fiori di Zucca Fritti e ripieni di Baccalà — fried courgette flowers stuffed with creamed cod
Folpeti — seasoned baby octopus.
Francobollo (Tramezzino Quadrato farcito con Granchio, Gamberetti, Prosciutto, Coppa di Toro) — small sandwiches with crab, shrimp, ham, salami.
Fritelle Gustose al Mais — savoury corn fritters.
Frittata al Radicchio di Treviso — omelette with Treviso radicchio.
Frittoin — fried fish twisted into a cone.
Gamberetti — shrimp with melon, rocket and walnuts.
Gelati di Pesce — fish ice-cream.
Granchio e Insalate di Fagioli — crab and bean salad.
Involtini di Salmone e Robiola — fish rolls.
Latticini di Seppia — cuttlefish eggs.
Medaglione di Orata — sea bream medallion.
Mento di Vitello con Cipolla — veal with onion.
Mini Panini con Baccalà Mantecato, Speck e Tarassaco, Finocchiona, Lardo Pepato con Pomodorini Secchi, Bresaola di Manzo con Crema di Carciofi — sandwiches with various fillings.
Mozzarelle in Carrozza — mozzarella sandwich.
Museto — salami.
Nervetti con la Cipolla — nerves with onion.
Palline di Ceci — chickpea balls.
Pane Fresco con Patè di Fegato d’anatra — fresh bread with duck liver pate.
Panino Scrocchio — sourdough salami bread.
Peoci al Forno — baked mussels stuffed with parsley, garlic, salt, pepper, breadcrumbs, oil.
Polenta e Sopressa — polenta squares with salami.
Polpette — Fried breaded meatballs (boiled meat, ham, sausage, egg and cheese).
Polpettina di Zucca con Formaggio, Pancetta e Patate — pumpkin meatballs with cheese, ham and potato.
Polpettine al Sugo con Menta — meatballs in mint sauce.
Polpettine di Pesce — fish balls.
Riso con Gamberi e Fagiolino Corallo — black rice with prawns and beans.
Sarde in Saor su Polenta calda — sour sardines on hot polenta.
Sarde in Saor — sweet and sour sardines.
Seppie al Nero — black cuttlefish.
Seppie alla Griglia — grilled cuttlefish.
Uova con l’aciugheta — Half eggs stuffed with seasoned anchovies in oil.
10 — Crema Fritta alla Veneziana (breadcrumbed fried cream)
It was between castagnole (fried candied pastry) and crema fritta for our carnival item, and this got the vote.