We spent our Christmas this year in Venice, a beautiful, misty old city I immediately loved. I’m convinced now more than ever that off-season is the way to travel. The Venice of my guidebooks – crowded streets, lines for Saint Mark’s Basilica, packs of people pushing by you – was nothing like the Venice of Christmas time. The streets are easily passable; the main square is only scattered with tourists posing like scarecrows with the pigeons; and there are no lines at all, except for Midnight Mass. With cars forbidden, Venice felt like a city of long ago, cloaked with a quietness that is so rare today.
The food was also wonderful. Here are five foods I’m still thinking about.
1. Seafood risotto
Rice spotted with bits of mussels, fish, shrimp, and other swimmingly good things. In Venice, surrounded by water, seafood risotto is sublime. We had it twice. Once, the rice had a satisfying bite in the middle. Once, it was softer throughout, nearly a porridge. Both times, we lapped it up. I’m dreaming now how to make it myself, maybe with a shrimp stock. (I’ve read that simmering leftover shrimp shells in water is the easiest way to make a seafood stock. Has anyone tried that?)
Anything cuttlefish. I thought this seafood might be chewy and oddly shaped, like octopus, but it was cut into tender bite-sized pieces and draped in a thick jet-black sauce, savory and warm and as comforting as a crackling winter fire. (Though not as fun to look at …) We tried it a few times – once with polenta on the side (which almost made this list; we ate polenta over and over again in Venice, and I grew more curious about the corn-based dish I had thought was bland and boring) and once in a risotto. Delicious.
We had Christmas dinner at Taverna Ciardi, a cozy traditional restaurant a winding kilometer or two from Piazza San Marco. We thought the fixed-price menu in Italian listed two choices for a starter, a first course (in Italy, pasta or rice), a second course (meat/seafood), and dessert. Oh no. We were served two plates each for each course! We had cuttlefish, octopus salad, risotto, spaghetti, fish … and just when we couldn’t imagine ever putting a fork in our mouths again, the waiter brought out glasses filled with a thick fizzy whiteness. What was it? Oh, lemon sorbet, vodka, Prosecco, the waiter said. He had me at lemon sorbet. We toasted and sipped and felt our fullness dissipate into a clear citrus happiness. Oh my. A web search with results like this and this makes me think it must have been Sgroppino. I’m very happy to have met you, Sgroppino!
The first night we arrived, tired after taking a train, two planes, a bus and a waterbus, we almost didn’t have dinner. But somehow, we pulled ourselves up and walked a minute to Vino Vino. After risotto and cuttlefish and feeling like a person again, I ordered a dessert that came with muscato, a sweet wine. The waiter, a kind Italian gentleman, said they had replaced the regular option with pan-ah-TOE-nay. Which was? A Christmas dessert, a holiday cake. It’s good. Okay. Let’s do it. We would have panettone two more times before we left, once as part of our Christmas feast and once left in a complimentary little carton in our hotel room. It can be made many ways, but the kind we had in Venice was yellow, airy cake, sometimes dusted with powdered sugar. We also saw locals in the grocery store buying panettone in natty angular boxes with a cord to carry on top.
5. Sarde in Saor
I must be my father’s daughter, because I’m in love with sardines and anchovies. Fresh or fried or plucked from a jar and sauteed with olive oil and garlic and chili flakes and tossed in pasta – but let’s not too get carried away, Brianne. Sarde in saor is a Venetian specialty, sweet-sour fried sardines. I’ve since seen recipes with pine nuts, raisins, cloves, sugar, bay leaves, white wine. I have no idea what was in ours, but they were fantastic, scrumptious little fish. Dad, you would have loved them!