Venice is a magical city, built on the water of the famed Venetian lagoon, and there is an illusion that the entire city is floating on top of the emerald waves. The cuisine of the city is highly inspired by this surrounding water. Many of the main key dishes in Venetian cuisine are seafood based, boasting a variety of fresh fish, shellfish, and other underwater delights that have been lightly seasoned with olive oil, herbs, garlic, and vinegar. Though don’t expect only seafood to be available throughout Venice’s calli (streets). The array of geography - including coastline, mountains, plains, and hills - that comprise the region of Veneto, in which Venice is located, helps to shape the city’s cuisine with many layers of flavor. Hearty meats, local vegetables, pasta, rice, and unique spices help to round out various courses within Venice’s seafood-heavy cuisine.
To truly experience Venetian cuisine, visit one of the city’s many Bacari. These small taverns are located directly off the streets and offer a truly special experience that is often superior to that of the more expensive touristy restaurants. Usually somewhat hidden, often with only a single light or sign to mark their presence, Bacari have only a few stools or offer standing room only at the bar or counter. They serve delectable finger foods as well as wine or prosecco, giving people the chance to truly immerse themselves in the traditional happy hour of Venice.
For an up close and personal experience of Venice’s seasonal items and fresh seafood, be sure to visit the Rialto Market. Located near the famous Rialto Bridge, this market is the main location for locals to buy fresh food and is a key cultural element of Venice. From the sounds, to sights, to colors of this bustling market, the atmosphere captures the true heart and soul of Venice and gives people the opportunity to sample a variety of meals and snacks.
Venetian cuisine offers a variety of enticing and interesting antipasto (appetizers). They can be enjoyed at restaurants as the start of meal or at Bacari as cicchetti – bite-sized appetizers served as an accompaniment to drinks.
The most common and notable of which is sarde in saor. This common starter is a beloved recipe and a true staple throughout Venice. Originally created by fishermen of the city to preserve fish in the Middle Ages, this sweet and sour appetizer consists of fried sardines that have been marinated in vinegar and mixed with fried white onions, raisins, and pine nuts. The result is a one of a kind dish that is tangy, savory, sweet, and indisputably Venetian. The intensely flavorful dish can be eaten on its own or alongside crostini - small slices of toasted bread.
Another iconic dish for appetizers in Venice is baccala mantecato. Featuring one of the city’s most fundamental ingredients – cod – this dish consists of creamed, dried cod. The creamed cod is created by first soaking then poaching the fish before blending it with an abundant amount of olive oil, garlic, and parsley. The cream is then spread on crusty crostini or pieces of fried polenta.
Though these unique appetizers may not be everyone’s cup of tea, they are a must-try when in Venice!
For a typical first course meal in Venice, expect rice to be a standout star as Venetians are known to be the “masters of risotto.” Risotto is a dish that hails from Northern Italy and is made by slowly cooking rice with broth until it reaches a creamy and hearty consistency. In Venice, a variety of unique recipes represent the Venetian mastery of this elegant dish. Risotto al nero di seppia, or risotto with cuttlefish ink, is a surprise with its midnight black hue. The secret ingredient of squid ink helps to flavor and color the dish. Another special risotto from the region is risotto di go is a recipe that was created on the island of Burano. This delicate white risotto is made with a particular fish found in the Venetian lagoon – ghiozzo. The famous dish risi e bisi is another staple item in the Venetian first course. This risotto is made with peas and sometimes pancetta and can be found on even the most elegant of restaurant menus throughout Venice due to it being a cultural mainstay.
Outside of risotto and other rice-based dishes, pasta is another typical dish served during the first course. Spaghetti alle vongole, or spaghetti with clams, is a classic for this course. Bigoli in salsa is also popular. Bigoli is similar to spaghetti, but it is much thicker and is often paired with a sauce made with onions and anchovies. Pasta e fasoi is also popular throughout Venice. This traditional winter dish is rich and flavorful, featuring pasta that has been slow cooked with beans, garlic, lard, onion, and celery.
Throughout the second course in Venice, expect a variety of somewhat peculiar dishes that capture how unique Venetian cuisine is to that of the traditional view of Italian food.
For adventurous foodies, moeche fritte are a must-try. This delicacy is created by deep frying small, soft shelled crabs. They are seasonal, as fishermen fish for these little crabs at the precise moment when they are changing shells. This ensures the crabs are soft and delicate. A perfect dish for those looking for truly authentic Venetian cuisine!
Another unique dish is fegato alla veneziana. Made of calf liver and onions that have been stewed in oil and butter, this dish represents the Venetian way to cook liver and is said to be able to turn any visitor who claims they don’t like liver into a fan.
Bisato su l’ara is a typical dish on the island of Burano. Known for being a meal that would satisfy the lagoon workers of days past, this recipe consists of large eels from the lagoon that are cooked in bay leaves.
Though unique and somewhat surprising, the dishes in this course are flavorful, hearty, and can only be found in Venice!
Throughout Venice, especially during the time of their world-famous carnival, there are many delicious and sweet recipes to delight in. Some key desserts capture the spirit of Venice better than others.
The fritole – or doughnut – is a distinctive dessert offered during nearly every parade or carnival held in Venice. The fritole are filled with pine nuts, raisins, or other delicious fillings and can only be called fritole if they are prepared by a fritolere, a man or woman specializing in the creation of these treats.
Baicoli, or ship biscuits, are a key dessert in Venice. Originally made for sailors to enjoy on long journeys back when Venice was a huge seafaring power, these biscuits are slightly sweet and very dry, making them perfect for dipping into classic Venetian beverages such as coffee, milk, or tea. Similar biscuits called zaeti are served on holidays. These are made with a blend of corn and wheat flours as well as raisins and lemon zest.
Though one might think that the wine culture of Venice is limited due to the city’s location on the lagoon, Venice offers a variety of wonderful wines that come from all over the Veneto region. Wines such as the Raboso, the Cartizze, the Colli Berici, the Soave, and the Bardolino Bianco can all be found in Venice, often appearing alongside some cicchetti– small bite appetizers, similar to tapas.
With the vast array of bacari lining the city streets of Venice, the locals enjoy a aperitivo, or happy hour, nearly every day, featuring a variety of the region’s best wines, including prosecco and a Spritz cocktail. Prosecco is a sparkling wine derived from the Veneto region, and though it is comparable to champagne, it is its own specialty. Easy to drink, it is often enjoyed with finger foods and desserts. The Spritz is a famous Venetian aperitif made of prosecco and bitter liqueur like Aperol, Campari, Cynar, or Select. Garnished with a slice of orange and sometimes an olive, the Spritz is common and highly valued throughout Venice thanks to its drinkability and flavor.