Eat like a Venetian

It never gets old: the lagoon, the water-lapped maze of streets and canals, the salt-worn, crumbling buildings and campi (squares) hidden away like secret pockets. Whether enshrouded in winter fog with impending high waters or under the warm, beating sun, Venice is truly unforgettable. Although I have called Tuscany home for 14 or so years, Venice has long held a place in my heart. I find any excuse to visit friends there and indulge in cicchetti: my very favourite way of eating food (it is almost the only way I have ever eaten on countless visits to Venice; I have dined in a proper sit-down restaurant just twice). 

Cicchetti (pronounced chi-ke-tee) are a way of life in Venice. The word comes from the Latin ciccus, meaning “small thing”. Think of these morsels as appetisers, aperitivi, hors d’oeuvres, or (if you must) compare them to Spanish tapas, but cicchetti are undeniably, distinctly Venetian, with rich history behind them.

Served in bàcari, cicchetti are generally small enough to be eaten in one or two bites. You can hold them with one hand while the other holds a spritz, the classic, jewel-toned aperitif of Venice, or an ombra, “a shadow” – a little, rounded glass of wine, just enough for a few mouthfuls, named after the shadow of Piazza San Marco’s bell tower that wine sellers used to follow to keep their wine cool.

Eating cicchetti, perhaps leaning on a stone counter or perched on the bridge of a canal, and hopping from one bàcaro to the next for a bite before wandering home, has long been an economical way to socialise. It’s also not only an evening thing; you’ll find some of the most traditional bàcari hold opening hours that allow market sellers or goers to stop in for breakfast and last calls just before dinner. Do Mori, which has been in operation since 1462, opens at 8am and closes at 7.30pm, for example; all they sell is wine and cicchetti. 

Typical cicchetti include both warm and cold dishes, plenty of seafood – which the lagoon city is known for – and also meat, eggs, salumi and vegetables. Creamy whipped cod, known as baccalà mantecato, served on crisp, fried polenta crostini or slices of baguette, is a must, and the just-out-of-the-kitchen polpette di carne (crumbed and fried meatballs) are always worth lining up for. Take your pick from the counter line-up of deep-fried and battered calamari, folpetti or boiled baby octopus, crostini layered with punchy pickles and gorgonzola or prosciutto, large grilled prawns or scampi served with a puddle of soft white polenta, simple halves of hard-boiled eggs topped with an anchovy, or boiled artichoke bottoms that you can pick up with a toothpick.

When I asked some Venetian friends for their favourite cicchetti, I got similar answers. “I start with baccalà mantecato,” said Manuel Bognolo, a crab fisherman on the Giudecca, whose go-to bàcaro is Cantinone Già Schiavi. My Renaissance historian friend Rosa Salzberg agreed, though her ideal place for it is “in one of the low-lit bars on the fondamenta in Cannaregio on a cold evening”. Edoardo Gamba, a Venetian architect, expands on his favourite cicchetto situation because, to him, “it coincides almost always with a moment of rest and ciacoe [chatting], which signals that it is mid-Saturday morning. As this often happens while towing the shopping from the Rialto market or a visit to Mascari [a wine shop near the Rialto], my cicchetto has the appearance and taste of the crostino with gorgonzola and anchovies of Arco, obviously accompanied with a red ombra.”

My personal favourite cicchetto is sarde in saor: fried, fresh sardine fillets marinated in softly cooked white onions and doused with vinegar, raisins and pine nuts – preferably prepared the day before serving. It’s a delicious, reviving, sweet-and-sour dish that is relatively unchanged from Venetian recipe books of the 1300s. Venetians will prepare many things in saor, from grilled slices of aubergine or wedges of radicchio to fried pumpkin, scampi or other types of fish. Without refrigeration, the technique of marinating fried food in vinegar was a well-used method of conservation for Venetian fishermen and merchants. 

Tartare di tonno

It’s only natural in a city where seafood is such an important part of the cuisine that a rather international but very popular preparation like tuna tartare has become a common sight in Venetian bàcari. In the Dorsoduro quarter of Venice, Cantina del Vino già Schiavi (also known as Cantinone or Al Bottegon) serves a particularly loved cicchetto of tuna tartare with bitter cocoa.

This is a more classic combination of flavours, inspired by what you might find on a traditional beef tartare – but it works so well with tuna.

Quantity Ingredients
200g sashimi-grade raw tuna
2 anchovies preserved in oil, finely chopped
2 tsp capers, rinsed and finely chopped, plus extra for garnish
Zest and juice of one lemon
1 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
8 toasted baguette slices
Makes eight cicchetti

  1. With a very sharp knife, chop the tuna into small dice, about 5mm wide and set aside in a bowl. 

  2. In a separate small bowl, combine the anchovies, capers, lemon zest and half of the juice to start with, and the olive oil. 

  3. Season to taste with salt and freshly ground black pepper, then mix this dressing through the tuna. Taste and adjust for seasoning – you may like a little more lemon juice or another pinch of salt.

  4. Spoon onto toasted baguette slices and add a caper on top as a garnish. 

Insalata di aringa grigliata

This salad is partly inspired by a recipe in the Veneto chapter of Ada Boni’s Italian Regional Cooking. It utilises renga, as it is known in the Veneto, or aringa, smoked whole herring.

Quantity Ingredients
1 smoked herring
125ml hot whole milk
½ red onion, thinly sliced
3 to 4 radicchio leaves, torn
1 celery stalk with leaves, thinly sliced
60g cooked borlotti beans
1 hard-boiled egg, quartered
¼ green apple, skin on, finely sliced
A few parsley sprigs, finely chopped
2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1 tbsp red-wine vinegar, or lemon juice, plus extra for the onions if desired
Serves four as a shared cicchetto or antipasto

  1. Place the herring in a container with a lid and pour the hot milk over it. Leave to cool, then place in the fridge for eight hours. Drain off the milk and rinse in fresh water. Pat completely dry. 

  2. To obtain the fillets, cut the head of the fish off, and then, using the backbone as a guide, slice lengthways just above the backbone and as close to the bones as possible. Remove the backbone and any large bones that may be remaining, any guts, and cut off the tail. You should now have two clean fillets.

  3. Grill the fillets of herring in a griddle pan over a high heat for two minutes, then allow to cool and break apart with your hands.

  4. In the meantime, if you want to take the edge off the red onion, soak the slices in a bowl of hot water with a splash of red-wine vinegar while you prepare the salad. You can also choose to leave them as is; the bite goes quite nicely with the herring.

  5. Arrange the salad with radicchio, celery, borlotti, the egg quarters, apple and the (drained) onion slices. Scatter over the herring and parsley and dress with the extra-virgin olive oil and vinegar. You probably won’t need salt on this salad, but adjust to your taste.

Sarde in saor

This is one of the traditional dishes that Venetians take on their boats with them, along with bovoletti and roast duck for the Festa del Redentore, a joyful festival held on the third Sunday of July that celebrates the end of the plague of 1576.

  1. Dust the sardine fillets in the flour and shallow-fry in oil for one minute each side over a medium-high heat until golden and crisp. Season with salt and set aside on some kitchen paper to drain until needed.

  2. Soak the raisins in the white wine for 15 minutes to soften them. 

  3. Meanwhile, cook the onion gently in a frying pan with the olive oil just until it is soft and transparent, about 10 minutes on a low heat, then add the vinegar, the wine from the raisins (set the raisins aside), some freshly ground pepper and the spices, if using. Let it simmer gently for about 10 minutes, then remove from the heat. Taste the mixture; if it is too sharp, stir in a pinch of sugar.

  4. In a small terrine or deep dish, place a layer of sardines, top them with some of the onions, some of the raisins and the pine nuts, and continue layering until the sardines are used up, then top with a layer of onions, raisins and pine nuts, and finish with the rest of the vinegar sauce poured over the top. Cover and allow to marinate for at least 24 hours in the fridge before serving. This keeps well in the fridge for up to a week.

  5. These are best eaten at room temperature, removing from the fridge an hour before you want to enjoy them. Serve the sardines on slices of toasted or fresh baguette, or grilled polenta.

Carpaccio alla Cipriani

Sometime in June 1950, this dish was invented by Giuseppe Cipriani of Harry’s Bar for his friend and favourite client, the well-known Venetian countess Amalia Nani Mocenigo, who (as the story goes) had been put on a strict diet by her doctor. It included having to avoid cooked meat – there are many different stories as to why, low red blood cells being one of them, but her granddaughter Barbara Garavelli Nani Mocenigo recounts on her blog that her mother always explained nonna had been poisoned by an anchovy and could never eat cooked meat again. So the countess couldn’t order her usual entrecôte, but Giuseppe instead prepared a lean dish of raw prime beef, in the thinnest slices, with a light mayonnaise, spiked with mustard and worcestershire sauce. It has been a classic ever since.

Quantity Ingredients
200g beef fillet
2 egg yolks
1 tbsp lemon juice
200ml extra-virgin olive oil
½ tsp dijon mustard
White pepper, to taste
½ tsp Worcestershire sauce
1 tbsp whole milk, or as needed
Serves two as a light lunch or three to four as antipasto

  1. To prepare the beef, make sure it is cleaned of any connective tissue and fat (trim it away if not) so you are left with just lean meat. Put the fillet in the freezer for 30 minutes so that it is nice and firm.

  2. In the meantime, you can prepare the sauce. Blend the yolks with a pinch of salt and the lemon juice with a hand blender and slowly add the olive oil in a thin stream until it is incredibly creamy and very thick – you may not need it all. Stir through (and adjust to your taste) the mustard, white pepper, Worcestershire sauce and milk to loosen the sauce to your liking. You may even like to add more lemon juice or more salt. Set aside.

  3. Remove the fillet from the freezer and slice into 3mm slices with a very sharp knife, then flatten the slices with the flat side of the blade, using a bit of pressure until you flatten them to about 1–2mm thin. This will result in neater, more compact slices than if you batter them with a meat mallet.

  4. Scatter salt over the top (place the salted meat in the fridge to keep well-chilled until needed, if you’re not serving right away), then serve the carpaccio with the sauce drizzled over the top. You can also put the sauce in a squeeze bottle so you can decorate the dish “Kandinsky style”, as they like to do in Harry’s Bar, in a sort of criss-cross pattern.

  5. You could easily make this into more of a cicchetto by placing small slices of beef onto toasted bread crostini with a drizzle of the sauce over the top.

Cioccolata calda di Marco

When he worked as a bartender in Florence’s best bars long ago, my husband Marco perfected this smooth, dark, thick hot chocolate – it’s hard to go back to drinking regular hot chocolate after tasting this. This recipe makes enough for two teacup-sized hot chocolates, which I think is the perfect size. This is on the not-too-sweet side, so feel free to adjust to your taste, but I do think the whipped cream is essential, especially if you want to feel as if you’re sitting in historic, decadent Caffè Florian in Piazza San Marco with one of their iconic hot chocolates con panna.

Quantity Ingredients
125ml single cream
1 tbsp icing sugar, sifted
35g unsweetened cocoa powder, sifted
2 tbsp sugar, or to taste
250ml whole milk
Makes one large drink, or two smaller drinks

  1. Whip the cream with the icing sugar until thick, soft peaks form. Keep chilled in the fridge while you make the hot chocolate.

  2. Combine the cocoa powder and sugar in a small saucepan and add the milk, a little at first, and mix with a spatula or a whisk until you have a thick paste with no more dry bits, then add the rest of the milk, stirring in as you go, until it is smooth. 

  3. Bring the mixture to a gentle simmer over a low heat and let it cook for about one minute while you stir, until it is thickened slightly. 

  4. Pour into cups, top with some whipped cream – you may not need all of it but you never know. 

Taken from Cinnamon and Salt: Cicchetti in Venice by Emiko Davies, published by Hardie Grant at £20