Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Venetian food sets the senses alight

Fegato – liver and onions, Venetian style
Were you to ask most people in the UK to name an Italian food, it’s a fairly safe bet that spaghetti bolognese might be mentioned, along with pizza, pasta in general, panettone and ice cream.

Setting aside the point that the Bolognese would eat their classic ragu with tagliatelle and not spaghetti, some might be able to get a little regional, knowing that, for instance, it was Napoli that gave birth to the pizza.

But what of Venice and the Veneto? Many would be stumped, although it’s most famous dish outside Italy is almost certainly tiramisu – and when made properly, it comes without any alcohol.

On this matter, The Other Half approves, even though the presence of mascarpone in the ingredient list means he hasn’t ever tried it. Then again, while I don’t mind a dash of sweet sherry in a trifle, he disapproves of that too. I wonder if this is a sign of a Yorkshireman considering booze in a pudding as an unnecessarily spendthrift act?

But let’s set that aside for the present – although Yorkshire will make an appearance later.

When we first visited La Serenissima seven years ago, brief homework beforehand had meant that we knew about tiramisu, together with a few other local delicacies. Early spring is wonderful for many reasons, but it is not the time to expect rise e bisi – the iconic Venetian pea risotto.

It is, however, just in time for the very end of the radicchio season. Grown on the mainland around Treviso, this bitter, red and white leaf, is a regional speciality.

Tiramisu at the Peggy Guggenheim
As with most anywhere else, the key to finding the best food is finding where local people eat. By and large, that means avoiding anywhere declaring itself a ‘restaurant’. As an acquaintance insisted before the trip: look for trattorias.

On our first night, this led us to Ai Cugnai, around the corner from where we were staying on Dorsoduro. There, surrounded by locals – at least some of whom we suspected worked at the nearby university – we began our culinary trip in an old establishment that has clearly been in one family for many years, and is currently headed by the son, with the father now taking it easier by helping wait on tables.

In a friendly and relaxed atmosphere, we both began with a vegetable soup. Nothing complex, but perfectly cooked vegetables in a tasty broth.

Next up for me, an absolute classic of local cuisine: fegato – liver and onions, with polenta on the side. Again, this was not complex food, but good ingredients cooked well.

The following day, as the sun blazed down on us, we lunched al fresco at the cafe inside the Peggy Guggenheim museum – delightful confit salmon for me, with seasonal veg and a cream that had been ‘soured’ with lemon (as opposed to being yer actual bought ‘sour cream’), plus an excellent tiramisu. With no alcohol.

All the culture vulturey can be quite tiring. That evening, we crossed the Ponte dell’Accademia and, thanks to the excellent memory of The Other Half, found once more a place that we had enjoyed back on the first visit in 2010 and where I’d first experienced fegato.

Lunchtime calamari
Trattoria da Fiore was busy, but the staff managed to find us a table – next to a couple from Harrogate. In late middle age, they were quiet, but we were so close it was impossible not to hear to comments about how wonderful are the gardens at Prince Charles’s Highgrove home.

When the wife – who was only inches away from me – ordered fritti misti (fried fish and sea food) she appeared confident of what she was getting.

Except for one small detail: she clearly believed it was a version of goujons, complete with dipping sauce. The absence of any such sauce left her, after a short while, close to despair.

“It’s very dry,” she murmured in a drawl that was atremble with innate sadness.

They called the waiter.

“Do you not have any tartare sauce or may-o-nnaise?” she asked, her mournful voice bursting with the suggestion that there was not a culinary establishment on Earth worthy of the name that would not, at the very least, have these in tear-open sachets.

The young man explained, in excellent English and entirely patiently, that this was the way the dish was an no, they didn’t have such condiments in the building. He left.

A moment or so later: “I’m sure he could have found something,” she intoned wearily.

I was biting my tongue, trying desperately not to burst out into hysterical laughter, and with a memory unfolding in my head of Catherine Tate’s ‘disgusted couple’ sketches.

Later, albeit without this as my intent, I restored some dignity to us Brits in a conversation with the maître d’. He had come to check whether our meal was fine. I responded with asking whether the radicchio in my pasta dish was from Treviso and wasn’t the season over yet? All this enthusiastically, I should add.

The Other Half says that his expression suggested that he was genuinely impressed.

Rather earlier, our young waiter had come around carrying a platter of the fresh fish and seafood the place had that night. There was no smell – in other words, this was as fresh as you can get. I picked two shellless crabs for my starter.

Superb guinea fowl at La Bitte
I’d never had them before – genuinely doubted whether they were really shell less (and then how do you eat them etc). But oh my, they were lovely. Sweet – but not the overpowering sweetness of much British crab meat. They came with a little polenta, some of that Treviso radicchio – a perfect counterbalance to the sweetness – and some lettuce.

And I enjoyed – very much so – a big, bold pasta dish of mushrooms, gorgonzola, walnuts and radicchio for my main.

The following day, after long wandering, we had a basic lunch. But though we expected little, it was perfectly decent. I enjoyed a large plate of calamari, with lemon. Done right, what else do you need?

That evening, we pulled big time in culinary terms.

Thanks to top food journalist Joanna Blythman, we knew to try to get into La Bitte, which was only about a 10-minute walk away from the hotel where we were staying.

It has no website booking facility, but our hotel rang up for us and did the business. We were in.

La Bitte is small and rustic and intimate. It is dedicated to the meaty food of the mainland Veneto rather than the fish of the lagoons.

And oh my god – it is a joy.

We both started with a smoked carpaccio of beef: plenty of it; delicate beyond belief and sitting atop a pillow of fresh, tasty salad leaves – all dressed in Balsamico. If it sounds simple, well then yes – it was. But how many places get such apparent ‘simplicity’ so right?

For me, I followed that with guinea fowl.

Good grief – half a bird, tender as anything yet falling off the bone, served with a velvet-smooth cream sauce. How the hell can that be done? It’s a culinary contradiction! For the meat to flake, it needs long-slow cooking, yet doing that will render it tough and dry.

I asked.

Apparently, the game is cooked long and slow. In cream, together with pancetta and sage.

So when the meat is lifted out and some of the cream sauce strained, it’s flaking and yet moist.

Served with quenelles of Jerusalem artichoke, this was utterly stunning. I’ve been to posh places in London that cannot come close to this. It was simply glorious.

Ravioli at  Taverna La Fenice
Maintaining an almost dangerously rich note, I ended with a vanilla panna cotta – impossibly light yet rich, and with a caramel sauce that had the authenticity of length, with just the suggestion of burnt toast at the end.

Stunning – simply stunning.

Over the rest of the visit, we returned to Ai Cugnai (where I sampled sarde soar – in effect, sardines done in a way similar to rollmops) and enjoyed a really fine pre-opera lunch at Taverna la Fenice, which managed to combine posh with local, seasonal quality.

There, we enjoyed there first asparagus of the year in simple crudités, with virgin oil and mustard – and I had an excellent dish of white meat ravioli with a gusty gravy (you can’t call it a ‘sauce’) and slivers of truffle.

One of our other discoveries this trip was the wine: forget the piss poor excuse for a pinot grigio or soave that you are likely to be served in UK hotels, the real deal is excellent.

Venice is a joy for many reasons. But this was the visit that helped us really appreciate just a few of the ways in which it can tantalise the tastebuds.

Just promise me that you won’t ask for any tartare sauce.

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