I don't know about you or anyone else, but for me there are certain places on this planet that contain something akin to "magnetism", "cellular memory" or "deja vu".... whatever you want to call it - but the instant you arrive for the first time you feel it deep down in your bones. I've felt this electric connection three times so far and it was so momentous that it was unforgettable, keeps drawing me and makes me return to these special places time and time again. One more than the others I must admit, and so I keep planning on ways to return and it saddens me when time passes and I'm not able to go back or stay longer each time.
The first time I noticed the attraction was in San Sebastian, Spain on a visit with friends, who on a dare decided to visit the gypsies and off we went to search out our "futures".... little did I know I would not only encounter this but would come face to face with my past as well. It was a most interesting and challenging trip to say the least and left me curious and to this day, with a desire to know more. A second time I experienced something like this in a cemetery in Paris, when looking for famous names brought me to a crypt that was all to familiar for me and where I knew where everything was and how to enter and what I would find inside. Another memorable trip you could say.
But more than any other the place that holds the most yearning for me; that calls me to back streets to search out little known places is Venice. Over the years this strong attraction has led me back to "la Serenisima" time and time again, only finding peace once I am walking the small alleyways that lead me to surprising finds along my adventures and I navigate the intricate walkways like a native, always knowing which street to take and what I will find at the end of my journey yet never stopping to visit the places touted about in the travel magazines nor going during high season, for I am not a tourist but a traveler. Most of the islands are well known now and I hop from one to the other easily and each one has it's own special charm. I can communicate well in Rome, but I can do this especially well in Venice even taking into account that a long lost dialect is still spoken there that is not actually Italian yet it's familiar.
I've scoured most of the islands on the lagoon, alone and with friends made there who have made me feel at home and who join me on my treks to see what will be the day's treasure hunt to uncover. There is Isla, my good friend and daughter to a restauranteur on Burano Island where I've stayed many times and who's "Nona" has called me her "tempo perso gran figlia" or long lost grandaughter where we have our "home base". The only directions she gave me to find her house was "the yellow one with the bicycle" and there it was, right where I knew it would be. She has shown me "her" Veneto and I've come to savor our time together, literally too, becoming familiar with the locals choice for eating establishments on all the islands as well as loving the markets where shopping is a ritual that's as old time itself both on the main island and on San Erasmus where the market gardens prosper and give us the very best fruit and vegetables anywhere on Earth. We've had many a picnic under the trees here sharing wonderful bounties with Maximo and Julio after they've helped us pick our favorites. Food just tastes better here. I also love zipping around on their small boats or even the vaporetos.
There are some "other" eating places here, I've even seen a McD's (OMG! I couldn't believe it) by San Marco and I've heard there was a Chinese restaurant on Canareggio but there's no way I'd go there. Here, Northern Italian is THE way to go and there are some special dishes that reign above the rest as far as the "Venezianos" are concerned:
In Spain, Tapas is the thing we all love. A "bite" of something delectable you can pop into your mouth and savor slowly, hoping from one place to another sampling the special ones as you go along your way.... In Venezia, they're called "Cichetti" usually served with an "ombra" or glass of wine (no cars here so all the wine is fine.... as long as you can swim I guess), eaten standing while conversing with the locals. Typical "cichetti's" are Mortadella with some cheese, a rice stuffed tomato (the tomato's here are fabulous, dark and red, meaty and sweet), a rice ball stuffed with an olive and deep fried, some fried prawns from the lagoon (a local delicacy), fried potato and ham, marinated seafood and the local herring or sardines, Cod is also King here. Cheap, wonderful food shared with warm, happy people.
Don't forget that Venice was the center of the Universe when their Empire was in full swing. This was the most sophisticated place on earth and all cultures came here to offer their wares, so the very best spices and favors of the world could be sampled on the prominent resident's tables. One of the most famous dishes that is now known the world over but hails from here is "Risotto" and their version, made a special way, is amazing and full of flavor and done with rich fish stock. Polenta is also from the area and served daily, made thick and laid on a wood board to "gel" then cut with a string in wedges to catch the rich sauce. There is only one type of pasta associated with this area and this is "bigoli" a thick spaghetti type but hollow inside, a hearty and heavy pasta favored in the region with a strong anchovy sauce I love!. Other favored dishes are the "fegato a la veneziana" (liver venetian style, cooked with melting onions to sweeten the bitter aftertaste of the meat), the "baccala Mantecato" or creamed cod is an important recipe here as are "seppie col nero" or squid in it's own ink (a personal favorite of mine, YUM!), "Sardee in Saor" which is sardines marinated with vinegar and flavored with raisins and pine nuts, and let's not forget fried "moeche" very small soft shell crabs fried and eaten whole and last but not least another favorite of mine (which I make on holidays) Mozzarella in Carrozza (Fried Mozzarella topped with an Anchovy Sauce, heavenly!)..... You'll find duck, artichokes, beans, chicory and all types of seafood, vegetables and fruit where the star is the food and bold flavors are a must.
Here's some ideas for you to try:
Bigoli alla Veneziana.- Flavorful sauce tossed onto hearty noodles, topped with parsley. Amazing!.........
1 pound bigoli or thick spaghetti
Salt to taste
10 small anchovies, packed in oil
2 large onions, finely sliced
Extra virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons capers (optional)
Freshly milled black pepper to taste
Italian Parsley, chopped and to taste
Cook bigoli in large amount of LIGHTLY salted water until done. Anchovies are salty and will season the dish. While bigoli are cooking, make sauce. Chop anchovies and pound them into a paste in a mortar and pestle. Saute onion in olive oil until it is golden and translucent, but not browned. Stir in anchovies and cook, stirring, to dissolve the anchovies. Add optional capers and season with pepper. Drain pasta and put into serving dish. Pour sauce over and serve at once.
Sardee in Saor.- Sardines marinated in vinegar with raisins and pine nuts. Wonderful.....
2 pounds sardines, cleaned
2 pounds onions, thinly sliced
1/4 cup olive oil
3/4 cup white wine vinegar
1/4 cup white wine
2-3 bay leaf
1/3 cup raisins
1/3 cup toasted pinenuts
Heat 1/4 to 1/2 inch of oil in a large heavy skillet until it is hot enough that food sizzles when added to it. Lightly flour the sardines on both sides and fry in the hot oil until lightly browned, less than a minute per side. Using a slotted spatula, lift the sardines from the oil and drain on paper towels. Season with salt. Drain the oil from the skillet, but don't wipe it clean. Combine the onions and the olive oil in the skillet and cook over very low heat until the onions are very soft and just beginning to turn golden (not brown). This can take as long as an hour. Stir the onions from time to time, scraping the bottom of the pan to release any browned bits of sardine that are stuck there.
When the onions are soft and sweet, add the vinegar, white wine and bay leaf and increase the heat to medium. Cook until the liquid has reduced to a glaze. When you tip the pan to the side, there should be only a couple of tablespoons of liquid left. Remove the pan from the heat, discard the bay leaf, and stir in the raisins and pinenuts. Arrange 1 layer of sardines in the bottom of a small baking dish. Cover it with a thin layer of onions. Repeat with the remaining sardines and onions, pouring any liquid that's left in the pan over top. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 2 days before serving.
Frutti de mare Rizotto.- Rizotto cooked with a lovely seafood stock, a staple in Venice.
4-1/2 cups water
2 fish heads + shrimp skins
1 smal onion, cut in half
2 celery stalks with leaves
2 bay leaves
6 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup finely chopped shallots
1-1/2 cups arborio or carnaroli rice or medium-grain white rice
1/2 cup dry white wine
3/4 pound uncooked shrimp, peeled, deveined, and coarsely chopped (save skins, see above)
3/4 pound bay scallops
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
Combine water and celery, onion, bay leaves and all fish parts in a medium saucepan. Bring to a simmer and cook about 45 min., cover partially, and keep warm over lowest heat. Check to insure you don't reduce too much. This is the liquid for the risotto and it should always be warm. Always!
Heat 3 tablespoons olive oil in a large heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat. Stir in shallots and saute until light golden, but not browned, about 4 minutes, stirring and watching carefully. This is known as the soffritto. Stir in rice and saute 2 minutes to toast the grains. Stir to be sure every last grain is toasted. Add wine and cook, stirring, until liquid is absorbed, about 2 minutes. Add 1 cup fish stock mixture to rice and simmer until liquid is absorbed, stirring of course. Continue cooking and adding fish stock, one ladleful at a time, or enough to see that the rice is always just covered by liquid. Stir constantly, and add more stock only when each ladleful of liquid has been absorbed. The rice should be tender but still slightly firm in center and mixture is creamy. Total cooking time will be about 18 to 22 minutes.
Heat remaining 3 tablespoons olive oil in a large heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Stir in shrimp, scallops and garlic and saute until shrimp and scallops are opaque in center, about 2-3 minutes. Do not overcook or the seafood will become rubbery. Cook until shrimp begin to get pink and STOP. Stir the seafood into rice and cook 3 minutes longer.
Season to taste with salt and pepper and stir in parsley. Transfer to serving bowl and serve.
NOTE: In the North you do not put Parmesan Cheese on Risotto. Never. (You can of course, but it won't be authentic.) Also, this is a dish you can't leave while cooking and is best served as soon as it's done, so stand there and KEEP STIRRING, this is what makes Risotto creamy and it's worth it. You can use this same procedure, varying the cooking liquid and add on as you like, different regions each have their specialties.
I have Bigoli and the sardines done and have all the ingredients ready for the Risotto which we will have with the Squid in it's own ink. The aromas from my kitchen are amazing and everyone is waiting for me to finish the Risotto to sit down for dinner. Ah, anticipation is power! This will have to fill in for a trip to Veneto for the time being and hopefully some projects I've got in the works will allow me to visit my second home very soon and find the part of my soul that always remains there when I leave the islands............. I hope you will try & enjoy these!