Like all Italian cities and regions, Venice and the Veneto have a very distinctive traditional cuisine. Mirroring the city’s history and development it has elements from land and sea augmented with innovative ingredients introduced from distant lands over the centuries.
The basis of the cuisine is the fish of the Venetian lagoon, to which was added rice and, after the discovery of the New World, maize which became a staple as the base ingredient for polenta. Add to this bacalà, dried Norwegian stockfish, which was brought to Venice in 1432 by the Venetian merchant Pietro Querini, and you have the main elements of Venetian cuisine.
Ironically, bearing in mind the legend that pasta was brought to Italy from China by Venetian explorer Marco Polo, it is almost completely absent from traditional Venetian cuisine. It features in only one properly Venetian dish, bigoli in salsa, although nowadays you find spaghetti al nero di seppia as a variant on the more traditional risotto nero, cuttlefish ink risotto.
Sadly, as a result of mass-tourism, really authentic Venetian cuisine is becoming harder and harder to find in the city. Many city centre restaurants offer, at best, famous dishes from other regions of Italy, such as spaghetti alla carbonara or, at worst, foreign Italian-style concoctions such as spaghetti alla Bolognese.
In recent years, cicheti (often Italianized as cicchetti) have become famous outside Venice. These are traditional bar snacks and small plates served in a traditional Venetian bar or bacaro together with an aperitif or ombra. Their popularity has acted as a stimulus for innovation and development recently with many bars offering new and original flavours.
If you are visiting Venice for the first time and want to try some authentically traditional dishes, look out for restaurants serving the following, which act as a good introduction to Venetian cuisine:
sardele in saor: sweet and sour Venetian sardines with onion, pine nuts, and raisins. Probably one of the oldest Venetian dishes, sometimes prepared with mazzancolle, a type of king prawn.
bigoli in salsa: buckwheat pasta, served in a slow-cooked anchovy sauce.
risi e bisi: a pea risotto, considered the national dish of the Venetian Republic and served on Saint Marks Day (25 April). It’s best eaten in the spring when sweet fresh peas are available.
risotto nero: black risotto, made with white rice but coloured with cuttlefish ink. As beautiful as it is tasty.
bacalà mantecato: dried Norwegian stockfish, cooked in milk and whipped up into a mousse.
pinza: a kind of bread pudding with pine nuts, sultanas. You’ll never find two bakeries that make it in the same way.