HOW ITALIANS REALLY EAT
Venice's Little Plates
An occasional look at some of Italy's favorites
By Daniel Williams
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, July 28, 2004; Page F01
Seventh in the series
Venetians are extremely forthcoming when visitors ask about the origin of this or that custom, art treasure or monument. In fact, one answer is rarely enough -- they seem to enjoy supplementing every explanation with at least one alternative tale.
Take Campo dei Mori, a well-known square. In one breath a Venetian may tell you it is named after Moors who used to trade nearby, or for the Moorish figures that adorn a wall or for a family that either hailed from a place called Morea or was surnamed Moro. St. Mark, the patron saint whose body was smuggled from Alexandria in the ninth century, is said to be buried in St. Mark's Basilica, although other informants will also note that the church burned down a hundred years later, but nonetheless, the body is still said to reside there. If you are dissatisfied with the location of a pair of pillars at the Ducal Palace that was a favorite locale for the execution of prisoners (by hanging upside down), there's another pair of "fatal columns," as they are called, at the Molo, the waterfront pier. In the space of a few minutes, you can learn that the shape at the tip of a gondola is meant to recall a dragon, an ax, a Roman ship or a bird.
So it is no surprise that when one wants to know the origin of the bacaro, the name for Venice's characteristic pub, you get a choice: It derives either from Bacchus, the Roman god of wine, or from a particularly modest wine once produced on the mainland. Ask about ombre, the name for the tippling that goes on in the bacaro, and you also get options. It may have to do with the position of the shadow from St. Mark's tower at a certain time of day, or it might be a slang term for enjoying a swallow -- that is, a "shadow" of a drink from the small glasses that also might be called ombre.
"In Venice, everyone knows everything and nothing, so they are willing to let you decide," said Sebastian Mugnaini, one of the proprietors of Al Volto, a traditional bacaro not far from Rialto Bridge just off the Grand Canal. At Al Volto, at least, you can anchor yourself in one certainty: A bacaro is the perfect place to begin exploration of Venetian cuisine, itself a subject of numerous variations.
Curiously, Venetian food gets short shrift from many Venice lovers compared with other regional cooking. In an otherwise exhaustive written tour called "Venice," first published in 1960, British writer Jan Morris states flatly that Venice "is not, for example, a gourmet's city" because its chefs had stopped conjuring up "wild boar, peacock, venison, elaborate salads and architectural pastries," the glorified dishes of centuries of prosperous empire. "By now the victuals of Venice have lost any traces of antique glory and generally conform tamely enough to the Italian cuisine," Morris wrote.
It's true that the peacock has disappeared from Venetian menus, but meals here far from conform to the Italian norm. If anything, Venice is a prime exhibit in the case against the existence of Italian cuisine at all: In all the country, there is hardly cooking with a stronger regional flavor than Venice's. Its distinctiveness comes partly from its role as a maritime power. During most of Venice's 1,000-year history of independence, the city faced east. Among other things, Venice was a clearinghouse for trade in spices. In food shops, you can still see curry, chili, paprika and other spices piled up in pyramids, open to the buyer's gaze, in the manner of a Middle Eastern bazaar. At Al Volto, you can try the sardines saor (the fish in an onion marinade), a sweet-and-sour snack with roots in China. The sardines saor on Al Volto's counter are part of a typical spread of Venetian snacks called cicchetti. They resemble the tapas of Spain. Besides the sardines, Mugnaini was serving up herring, olives, creamed cod on toast and a variety of tendons.
Unlike in Spain, where tapas are generally eaten at night before a late supper, morning is a preferred time for Venetian grazing among the cicchetti. There is no inhibition on washing them down with wine even in the morning -- Venetians are hearty drinkers, all the better to fortify themselves against cold and foggy winters and tourist hordes in summer.
The other notable peculiarity of Venetian eating is the loyalty to seasonal favorites. Like all of Italy, Venice has access to the globalized phenomenon of out-of-season produce: melon and strawberry year-round, mushrooms from the Balkans in late summer to supplement the Italian autumn harvest. But Venetians are also devoted to produce grown nowhere else but on islands in the lagoon itself and are keen to keep alive a taste for seafood in season -- things like eel and soft-shell crab.
"We are stubborn," said Mayor Paolo Costa, a Venice native. "Many of our traditions have faded, and food is one thing we can cling to." It was May, and Costa remembered how as a boy his household was filled with artichokes from Sant'Erasmo, the largest agricultural island in the Venetian archipelago. "For two weeks, it was artichokes, artichokes, artichokes," he recalled.
Actually, artichoke is too general a term for what is produced on Sant'Erasmo. The local variety is a small artichoke that, according to the Venetians, thrives on the salty water below. Over at Da Fiore, a fine restaurant that specializes in Venetian cuisine, the artichoke is mixed with hops, also grown in the lagoon, and blended in risotto.
"My labor is to find our own Venetian raw materials," said owner Maurizio Martin. The artichoke also comes in two types: the castraurli, which grows at the top of the stalk and the botoli, which sprouts in clusters around it. The precious castraurli can be eaten in slices with oil, like a salad. Because the letter "l" is frequently dropped in Venetian dialect, you might see them in the market labeled castraure and botoi. Take your pick.
Daniel Williams is The Post's Rome bureau chief. His last article in this series was about beans in San Giovanni Valdarno.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Fried olives, at far left, await patrons strolling by the bacaro Al Volto in Venice, near the Grand Canal. Below, shrimp served as cicchetti at the bacaro.
(Photos Dave Yoder For The Washington Post)