Stretching from the shores of the Adriatic to the snow-capped peaks of the Dolomite Mountains, Veneto is a diverse region tucked away in Italy’s north-eastern corner. Most visitors to Veneto make a beeline for the ancient architecture and winding waterways of the region’s capital, Venice, but there’s more to Veneto than its crown jewel.
Veneto is made up of seven distinct provinces – Belluno, Padua, Rovigo, Treviso, Vicenza, Verona and Venice – each with their own celebrated calling cards. Take Verona, not only the city of Romeo and Juliet but also home to a perfectly-preserved Roman amphitheatre. A short hop north and you’re in Lake Garda, where spectacular sunsets seem to set the sky on fire. And for the adventurous, the mountain town of Cortina offers a spectacular ski area with a hint of Italian glamour.
Typical Venetian cuisine
With such striking differences in landscape and culture, it’s no surprise that Veneto has one of the most varied cuisines in all of Italy. From Venice’s Middle Eastern influences, to the surfeit of seafood pulled from the Adriatic and the fertile vegetable-producing soils of Treviso, the food of Veneto is no one-trick pony. Join us as we tuck into a slice of the region’s foodie favourites.
Prepare yourself; unlike much of Italy, pasta isn’t actually the carb of choice. Instead, rice and polenta dominate dinner tables across Veneto. This matches a trend throughout Northern Italy, where rice and corn have long grown in abundance, making them readily available and cheap.
Risotto is a popular primo (first course) in Veneto. It’s often made with Vialone Nano Veronese rice, which is grown in the spring-water-irrigated paddy fields of Verona and has IGP (Indication of Geographic Protection) status. Alongside rice, you’ll find polenta served as a staple side with meat, fish and vegetables. The slowly simmered ground corn is either creamed together with butter and cheese, or left to cool then fried in olive oil to make satisfying slabs of polenta cake.
Saying that, there is one typically Venetian pasta. Bigoli is a thick, spaghetti-like shape with a pleasing bite and rough texture that’s perfect for holding sauce. You’re most likely to see it paired with a simple sauce of slow-cooked onions and anchovies, for the region’s favourite pasta dish: bigoli in salsa.
Cicchetti (pronounced chi-KET-tee) are more or less a way of life in Venice. Often called ‘Venetian tapas’, cicchetti are snacks or small plates served in bars called bàcari. Venetians pack into these (often tiny) wine bars like sardines, spilling out onto the side streets and back alleys of the city to chat, grab a bite and raise a glass, before a relaxed stroll to the next bàcaro to repeat the ritual.
Depending on the bàcaro, the cicchetto on offer can range from small crostini topped with an array of local delights, to more substantial dishes like polpette (meat or fish balls) or flash-fried fish from the Venetian lagoons. Talking of which…
Because of Veneto’s location on the Adriatic coast, seafood plays a starring role in its cuisine. Island enclaves like Burano are known for their centuries-old fishing communities, while Venice’s Rialto fish market fills up daily with fresh catch from the surrounding Laguna Veneta. From sardines to squid and pilchards to prawns, you’ll find fish dishes top of the menu almost everywhere – with only the region’s mountainous inner reaches bucking the trend.
Even though there’s no shortage of fresh fish, Venetians are also partial to a type of dried cod made nearly exclusively in Norway, called stockfish, or baccalà in Italian. The dried cod is used to create one of the region’s most iconic dishes, baccalà mantecato, which sees it simmered in milk then combined with olive oil to create a whipped condiment that’s best spread on crostini.
Middle Eastern heritage
Aided by its direct pathway to the Adriatic sea, Venice has a history of trade with the Middle East. Since the days of the Byzantine empire everything from silk to spice has passed through the city. This heritage continues to shape Venetian cuisine today; spices like cinnamon, saffron and nutmeg are all commonplace in a way you won’t see in other Italian regions.
Few dishes embody this spice-laden history more than the classic Venetian duck ragù, which blends rich duck meat with red wine, bay leaf and cinnamon. Slow-cooked until the duck falls off the bone, this sumptuous sauce is another great match for Veneto’s very own bigoli pasta, but we love it with our rustic gnocchi.
Venice and its lagoons might get the plaudits, but look inland towards the fertile soils of Treviso and you’ll find some of the best vegetables in all of Italy. From eye-catching Radicchio di Treviso (a bitter leaf that was the first Italian vegetable to gain IGP status), to the rose-like looks of Castelfranco (a variety of red-flecked chicory), Veneto’s vegetables look as good as they taste.
With so much great produce, it’s no surprise that vegetables are given the sort of status that some other Italian regions reserve only for meat and fish. Venetians have no qualms with a vegetable-led supper; you’re just as likely to see the leaves of the radicchio used in a simple salad as you are starring in a more substantial dish like risotto al radicchio.
Wines and tipples
Veneto’s fertile soils mean it is a productive winemaking region. Perhaps its most famous export these days is Prosecco, which is rapidly becoming the world’s favourite sparkling wine. Although the region now produces Prosecco in huge quantities, the best bottles come from Valdobbiadene in northern Treviso. The region isn’t just about sparkling wine though, with mineral whites like Soave (which hails from Verona) and juicy reds like Valpolicella meaning there’s something for nearly every type of wine drinker.
Venetians also know a thing or two about the perfect aperitivo, with Prosecco appearing in all three of the region’s favourite pre-dinner sharpeners. A good place to start is with that classic combination of peach puree and Prosecco, the bellini, which was first poured at Harry’s Bar in Venice in 1948. For even more refreshment, try an ice-cold sgroppino, which blends lemon sorbet with Prosecco and vodka to create a drink once loved by Venetian aristocrats for its palate-cleansing powers. Of course, the most celebrated must be the Aperol spritz, with its bold orange hue. Born in the Venetian province of Padua in 1919, it wasn’t until the 1950s that topping up the bitter spirit with Prosecco became chic. Nowadays it’s everywhere, but for us there’s nothing like sipping a spritz on a side street in Venice.
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