A couple of months ago, I heard about an upcoming film at the UW Union on Venice that was produced by the distinguished, award-winning travel documentarian, Marlin Darrah. Debra and I had been to Venice, but we thought it would be worthwhile to take Steve and Kelly to see a quality film highlighting the city, narrated in person by the man himself. After an hour or so of endless crowd shots of Piazza St. Marco, gondolas and pretty young women, we left a little disappointed. Awarded-winning filmmaker?? Really? Where was the insight? Where was the glimpse of the underbelly, the soul of Venice?
Worst of all, there was no mention of the Cicchetti bars!! Pronounced “chee-KET-eeh,” cicchettiare Venice’s answer to Spain’s tapas. The best cicchetti bars are located in the back alleys around the Rialto fish market. Cantina Do Mori is said to have been in continuous operation in its current location since 1462.
With standing room only (there are no tables), Venetians stop in throughout the day to snack on strange looking tidbits often fixed at the end of toothpicks - accompanied by a glass of Veneto wine. I don’t bother to ask what anything is… if it looks good, I eat it. And so far, it’s all been good.
For a seafood lover, there’s no place like Venice. The cuisine here relies heavily on the daily bounty of the Venetian Lagoon, which is home to a dizzying array of sea creatures. Our four days gave us time to sample only a very few of the most popular choices offered in restaurants, the four most notable (for me) being:
1. Seppia al Nero (Squid in its Own Ink)
Seppia, or cuttlefish, is a squid-like creature which sprays black ink when threatened or in danger. The meat is sweet and delicious when grilled, and is usually served over a bed of linguine, which is colored black by its ink. I had tried this exotic dish on a previous trip to Venice – on this visit, only Steve gave it a try… I think that it made him very happy.
2. Baccala (Dried Salt Cod)
Dried salt cod is hugely popular in Venice, despite the abundance of fresh fish. It’s usually whipped up with some herbs, spread on crostini and served as cicchetti.
3. Sarde in Saor (Marinated Sardines)
This is another classic cicchetti selection. Sardines are cleaned, fried, and then placed in a marinade of vinegar, onions, raisins and pine nuts. It goes really well with a white Veneto wine such as a Soave Classico. I love these.
4. Branzino Me Alati (Salt-Crusted Mediterranean Sea Bass)
Branzini rules! At least one of us had some variation of branzino every day while we were in Venice. The classic Italian way to prepare a whole branzino is to bake it in a thick salt crust. Debra and I first had this preparation in Liguria about 20 years ago, and it’s a very popular technique in Venice. The salt forms a hard shell around the meat while it cooks, and the scales are left on the fish while cooking to prevent the salt from penetrating the flesh. After cooking, the crust is carefully cracked and peeled away before filleting the fish. The flesh of the fish is incredibly sweet, moist and tender.