When visiting Venice, Italy, be sure to try some of the unique seafood delicacies of the region. The ten dishes listed here will be sure to delight and provide excellent examples of Venetian cuisine.
For a seafood lover, there is perhaps no better place in the world to visit than Venice, Italy. The cuisine of this historic city relies heavily on the wonderful bounty of the Venetian Lagoon, and the vast array of sea creatures which inhabit it. Every morning, the Rialto Market of Venice is overflowing with the exotic catches of the day, from tiny snails called bovoleti to razor clams (cape longhe) and humongous swordfish. Besides the lagoon, some of the fresh seafood is sourced from fish farms, or from the mountain streams of the Alto Adige. Wherever the source, the fish is of amazing quality and the variety unparalleled.
While in Venice one can – and most certainly should – sample some of the seafood delicacies of the region found nowhere else in the world. Simply sticking to old Italian staples such as cheese pizza or spaghetti with meatballs would be an unfortunate choice when presented with uniquely Venetian dining options. The following list presents ten of the most popular, and most typical, seafood dishes to be found in Venice, Italy. Preparation of these dishes is generally simple, relying on the quality of the ingredients and basic cooking techniques. Prices may vary depending on if you are dining in a fancy restaurant or an unassuming trattoria, but the flavors should be second to none, no matter the location.
1. Pesce Fritto Misto (Fried Mixed Fish)
Pesce Fritto Misto is a staple of many a Venetian osteria, providing a sampling of deep-fried smaller fish from the day’s market selection. Typically these mixed-fries will include seafood choices such as calamari, scallops, small shrimp, bait fish, and perhaps some larger prawns or a modest-sized whole fish. This hearty meal is usually served with white polenta and lemon wedges, and perhaps no more than a sprinkling of salt and parsley for seasoning. Ostaria al Garanghelo in the San Paolo district is a wonderful place to sample this dish, where local fisherman and tourists alike can be found dining and celebrating the best of Venetian food.
2. 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 of the seppia is sweet and delicious when grilled, and is often served in Venetian restaurants over a bed of linguine or risotto colored black by its ink, perhaps mixed with other seafood. This beautiful, exotic dish is certainly one that should be tried while in Venice as you are unlikely to find it similarly prepared elsewhere in Italy. The ink gives the pasta or rice a rich, briny flavor difficult to describe.
3. Baccala (Dried Salt Cod)
Dried salt cod is popular in many world cuisines, and Venice is no exception despite its ready abundance of fresh fish. In Venice it is generally served as a primi piatti (first course) with polenta, or chopped up and mixed with mayonnaise as part of the popular bar snacks known as Cicchetti. Be sure to try some while enjoying a Venetian “Spritz” – an aperitif made from prosecco, Aperol or Campari, and orange slices.
4. Sarde in Saor (Marinated Sardines)
This classic dish is one of the most popular Venetian first courses. Sardines are cleaned, fried, and then placed in a marinade of vinegar, onions, raisins and pine nuts. The sweet-and-sour flavor is delicious, and wonderful with a refreshing glass of local white wine such as a Soave Classico. If one’s only experience with sardines are those of the canned variety, then trying this specialty of the Venice region is a must.
5. Pizza con Pesce (Seafood Pizza)
Seafood pizza in Venice is unlike pizza served anywhere else in the world. It is tastefully prepared with a topping of calamari and mixed shellfish such as shrimp, clams and mussels – often still in their shells! The shells open as the pizza bakes in the oven, releasing their sweet juices onto the crust and tomato sauce base. Of course, there is absolutely no cheese served on such a pizza, as in true Italian cooking cheese and seafood are considered highly incompatible. Venetian pizza, like much of the pizza you will find in the north of Italy, has a very thin crust and makes an excellent single-course meal.
6. Branzino Me Alati (Salt-Crusted Mediterranean Sea Bass)
This sea bass has become a popular dish in restaurants in the United States, where it is frequently served grilled and filleted tableside. A classic Venetian way to prepare a whole branzino is to bake it in a thick salt crust. 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. The crust must then be carefully cracked and peeled away before filleting the fish. The resulting flavor is incredibly sweet, and the meat is exceptionally tender. A large branzino can easily serve two, especially with a side order of risotto or pasta. If a large branzino prepared in such a manner is not to one’s fancy, many restaurants will also serve smaller branzino for one, simply grilled with lemon and olive oil.
7. Carpaccio di Tonno (Tuna Carpaccio)
Carpaccio is reportedly the invention of Giuseppe Cipriani, founder of the famous Harry’s Bar of Venice. The dish classically features paper-thin slices of beef drizzled with a light balsamic vinaigrette or mayonnaise-style dressing. Today, carpaccio is increasingly prepared with other meats, including “steak”-like fish such as tuna or swordfish. The result is even lighter than the beef-based original, and a wonderful way to savor the freshness of prime seafood from the Venetian marketplace. Tuna carpaccio makes a wonderful light lunch or first course, and something that should be enjoyed, like sushi, only where one knows the fish is at its freshest.
8. Granseola (Spider Crab)
Spider crab is prepared in many different ways in Venetian cuisine, but perhaps the best is when tossed lightly with pasta and a light, fresh tomato sauce. Served pouring out from the crab’s shell, this dish makes for a wonderful, artistic dinner. A great place to enjoy spider crab is the Osteria “Sora al Ponte” in San Paolo, not far from the Rialto Market. This popular Cicchetti bar serves a full, simple menu along with nightly bar snacks.
9. Folpetti Consi (Boiled Baby Octopus)
This Venetian dish might best be enjoyed by the truly adventurous only. Tiny young octopus are boiled with carrots and celery until tender, then seasoned lightly with oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper. The flavor is delicious, but the texture and appearance might be a bit much for some diners. Ristorante al Vecio Pipa on Burano is one establishment which prepares this simple yet daring dish well.
Rombo, also known as Turbot, is a uniquely Mediterranean fish, not unlike the flounder. It is a flat fish which begins its life swimming vertically but then settles down to the bottom of the ocean floor, with its body then adapting to the change in environment. Rombo is quite popular in Venetian restaurants for its delicate flavor, and it can be prepared in a number of different ways. At the wonderful, non-pretentious Ostaria Ale Do Marie on a tiny street in the Castello district, I once enjoyed a beautiful rombo baked in a light tomato sauce. Rombo is a fish certainly worth sampling if one finds it on the menu in Venice.
These have been just ten of the hundreds, if not thousands, of delicious seafood selections one can enjoy while in Venice, Italy. When visiting this beautiful city, make sure to sample some of these delightful dishes for a truly Venetian experience.
Recommended restaurants for Venetian seafood:
Ostaria al Garanghelo
Calle dei Boteri, 30125, Venice Italy
041 721 721
Ristorante al Vecio Pipa
Strada San Mauro 395, Burano Italy
41 730 045
Ostaria Ale Do Marie
San Francesco della Vigna, Castello 3129, Venice Italy
041 296 0424
Osteria “Sora al Ponte”
Ponte de le Becarie 1588, Venice Italy
041 718 208
* Steves, Rick, and Gene Openshaw. Rick Steves’ Venice 2010. Berkeley, CA: Avalon Travel, 2009. Print.
* Hanley, Anne. Venice: Verona, Treviso & the Veneto. London: Time Out Guides, 2005. Print.
* Tihany, Adam D., Antonucci , Francesco, Fabricant, Florence, Venetian Taste. Artabras Publishers, 1997. Print.
* Venetian Seafood, LifeinItaly.com.
* Personal experience
This article was originally published on Associated Content on May 13, 2010.