A visit to Venice offers the opportunity to discover fascinating gastronomic traditions. Italian cuisine is one of the most beloved and famous cuisines on the planet with its simple ingredients, fabulous flavors and enticing aromas. Venice, like every other region of Italy, is known for its traditional food specialities.
While most people think of pizza and pasta when they think of Italy. The reality is that Italy is home to a variety of cuisines. As Venice is one of the most popular destinations in the country, many make the mistake of flocking to tourist eateries to eat their favorites. But pasta and pizza are not what the locals really eat.
Due to Venice’s location on the sea and close proximity to island gardens of Sant’Erasmo, genuine Venetian cuisine consists of some truly flavourful and refined dishes that rely heavily on fish and vegetables. The lagoon is famous for the quality and variety of its fish, the inland river waters’ fresh fish are cherished in their cooking.
Top Venetian Dishes!
1. Moleche (Soft Shell Crabs)
Moleche is a type of sea creature which is native to the Venetian Lagoon. During the springtime and autumn these small green crabs shed their shells and form new shells within a few hours. If captured at just the right moment, they are very soft and tender to eat. Venetians will serve them in fried dishes, aromatic stews and inventive salads.
2. Castaure (Violet Artichoke Buds)
Castaure is considered a very special treasure to savor. It is the first bud of a violet artichoke. These artichokes are grown on the Venetian Island of Sant’Erasmo and have a violet hue. They are picked while still tender and then boiled. They are so soft after boiling that you are able to eat it as is, no peeling required.
3. Sarde in Saor (Marinated Sweet and Sour Sardines)
This intriguing dish is a must taste while in Venice. Translated the name actually means ‘sardines immersed in flavor’. It is a sweet-sour dish that consists of fried sardine fillets marinated in vinegar, raisins, onions and pine nuts which is served as an antipasto or appetizer.
Saor was originally conceived in the Middle Ages as a method of preservation by Venetian fishermen and sailors. And while modern refrigeration techniques have made fish preservation obsolete, this dish still remains beloved by Venetians and non-Venetians alike who love its tantalizing mingling of flavors.
4. Polenta e schie
For those who don’t know what polenta is, it’s a boiled cornmeal that is typically baked or grilled. Schie, is a type of shrimp that is only found in the Venetian Lagoon. In polenta e schie, the shrimp are first cooked and then seasoned in lemon, garlic, salt and pepper before being poured all over the polenta.
Back in the day this dish was a dietary staple for Venetian peasants. Ironically these days, the dish isn’t as readily available or cheap nowadays with the declining shrimp populations. That’s why if you are lucky enough to come across this dish, and you like seafood, then it is something you must try!
5. Baccala Mantecato (Fish mousse)
This is one of Venice’s most notable dishes and if you are a seafood lover, then you are going to love baccala mantecato! This is another old-fashioned method which was used back in the day to preserve fish.
Salted Baltic Codfish is soaked and then poached for many hours until it softens and the bones dissolve. It is prepared with olive oil, garlic, parsley and then creamed in a blender and transformed into a beautiful smooth mouse that is usually served on bread.
6. Risotto al Nero di Sepia (Rice with Squid Ink)
Few dishes are more Venetian than this seafood-based risotto. Rice is another stable that is commonly grown in the Veneto region. While this is an unusual looking dish as the squid ink in this starter dish may confer a seemingly unpalatable jet-black color to the rice. The dish always wins over the most skeptical visitors with its distinct flavor of wine, onion, tomato and ink braise.
7. Fritto misto (Fried Seafood)
This is the Venetian version of fried fish. This dish will combine Venetian seafood items like shrimp, calamari, fish balls and sometimes anchovies. They are then covered in batter and deep fried. In fact did you know that calamari literally means fried squid in Italian.
8. Risi e Bisi (Peas and Rice)
This is one of the most ancient and famous regional specialties of Venice and will be offered in most Venetian homes and restaurants. Even if you are not the biggest seafood fan, we recommend that you still give this a try. This dish is a tasty combination of pea-shell broth and thick risotto that is made with peas, onions and chunks of pancetta bacon. Legend has it that the Doge of Venice used to stand outside his palace and would salute his subjects by holding a plate of Risi e Bisi, and urging them to eat rice.
9. Bigoli in salsa
Bigoli in salsa is a signature Venice starter dish. Bigoli, or bigoi as it is called in the local dialect, are essentially thick, long, whole-wheat strands of pasta which resemble spaghetti. A sauce or salsa which consists of onions and salt-cured fish either anchovies or sardines is used as an accompaniment.
10. Confetti Candy
Confetti is a Venetian Candy that is colorful, pretty and tasty. It consists of sugar-coated almonds and comes in a variety of colours which represent specific momentous occasions. Venetians often give this type of candy to family and friends when they celebrate big events.
11. Fegato alla veneziana
This is a main course which is made with stewed onions and calf liver. The sweet caramelized onions are complimented perfectly by the earthiness of the liver. This distinct flavor combination has been known to convert many visitors who claim not to like liver. It is served with creamy polenta.
A staple in Northern Italy, polenta enjoys its greatest popularity among Venetians! Originally known as part of ‘cucina povera’ (food of the poor), polenta is interestingly now considered to be a gourmet, upscale food! Ah, that creamy, golden pool of ground semolina cornmeal that results from 30 to 45 minutes of constant stirring with a wooden stirring stick! Venetians prefer polenta over pasta (although they do have pasta dishes).
Frittelle is a delicious, tasty Venetian desert which is only available during the carnival season. They are small, deep-fried balls which have a similar consistency to donuts, but much fluffier, with pine nuts and raisins, and are sprinkled with sugar on top. They can either be plain, or filled with a cream mixture or Nutella.
Throughout carnival they are in every pastry shop and baker throughout Venice, and each shop has their own specialty version of them. This treat was so beloved that once it was declared the national dessert by the medieval Serenissma Republic and could only be created by an authorized fritoler, a job one could only inherit.
Recommended Reading: Venice Carnival Sweets.
What to drink in Venice?
1. Venetian Coffee
Italians love their coffee! Venice, like so many other Italian cities, has adopted the lovely tradition of caffè sospeso or “suspended coffee’. You can pay for not just one, but two cups of coffee at the café and leave money with the coffee barista to buy a stranger coming in after you a cup too. Venetian cafes do an excellent job of brewing espresso drinks. In fact, the first ever coffee house to exist in Europe opened in Venice back in 1683.
The Veneto region has a remarkably varied landscape which is home to a variety of microclimates that make it a perfect place to grow grapes that produce high quality wines, both red and white. When you’re enjoying all the delicious fish dishes you will eat here, may we recommend a nice white wine as an accompaniment. Look no further than a bottle of Soave.
For the heartier dishes, when you may prefer a red, we recommend Amarone or Valpolicella. If you wish to sample something really local, there are also the delicious white wines of Venissa or Orto di Venezia. These wines are actually produced on the islands of the lagoon. Wine is always a great gift to bring home for your family and friends.
3. Wine Spritzers
Venetian wine spritzers are a supremely popular pre-dinner drink in local eateries. Variations are plentiful, but many feature Prosecco, a bitter liqueur, soda water and an olive.
Proseco is a light champagne-like sparkling wine which is known as an aperitivo. One famous type of spritz invented in Venice is the Bellini, which is an awesome mix of white peach juice and Prosecco!
What is grappa? Grappa is the strong alcohol that comes from distilled grape skin, seeds, pulps and stem remnants from wine grape pressings. Grappa has been the farmers’ and peasant’s drink of choice when it was customary to enjoy a strong drink after a hard day of physical labor.
Where to eat in Venice?
It is hard for us to provide you with a list of good restaurants in Venice because honestly there are so many you are really spoilt for choice. But in saying that it is also easy to find very bad overpriced food there too!
To avoid the tourist trap restaurants a good indicator is if someone is outside the restaurant trying to lure you in with a tourist menu whilst offering a free bellini, we recommend to keep on walking. Or if you are offered a menu with pictures and it is in several different languages, it is a pretty good indication that you are not about to be served authentic, fresh food.
Also don’t overlook some of the tiny bacari, they only hold a dozen or so people but can have some surprisingly good food. Order some Cicchetti, which are small dishes like tapas, shared with friends over a glass of wine. Cicchetti Bars have their own specialities and are known to have some of the best dishes around. So, don’t ignore these small places.
Once you are full, take a moment to head out and explore the beautiful city of Venice. All that walking will balance out the delicious food and drinks!
Venice Food Tours
Here are some of the top Venice Food Tours:
- Food and Wine Tour with Cicchetti Tasting
- Small Group Wine Tasting and Food Tour with a Local
- Full-Day Prosecco Wine Tour and Tasting
- 40-Minute Sparkling Wine & Italian Prosecco Tasting
- Guided Walking Tour with Food Tasting
- Food and Wine Tour with Cicchetti Tasting and Gondola Ride
- Venetian Style Carnival Pub Crawl
- 2.5-Hour Street Food Tour with a Local Guide