Yes, in Italy, they eat pasta, but Venice and the neighboring Veneto region are relative newcomers to both pasta and Italy. Venice and the Veneto, which the Venetian Republic dominated for centuries, only became part of the Kingdom of Italy in 1866 to escape the rule of the Austrian Empire, imposed after the Napoleonic Wars. Before that, the people of the Veneto didn’t speak much Italian; they primarily spoke Venetian. The Italian language and customs? They’ve adopted those, including pasta, relatively recently.
Abandoned agricultural storage building in a rice field in northern Italy
This guide is the testament of a woman who based her cooking life on the truth of every dish she cooked and taught, the vigorous truth of clear, uncluttered taste, taste that arises neither from obeisance to dogma, nor from a craving for attention, but evolves inspired by, and respectful of, the ingredients that nourish it.–Victor Hazan in the introduction to Ingredienti
Marcella Hazan, the “godmother of Italian cooking” and the woman many credit with bringing Italian cuisine to the U.S., died in 2013, leaving behind two years’ worth of handwritten notes in Italian in preparation for Ingredienti. Her lifetime collaborator, Victor Hazan, translated and edited these notes, resulting in what is undoubtedly a classic before its time.
With Marcella Hazan’s cookbooks in my suitcase, I was already “tasting Italy” on my way back from London to my home in France. I had a plan: to use her books to learn how to cook Italian food.
That was nearly twenty years ago. It didn’t take me long to realize that the precious ingredients required were simply not available in provincial France. French supermarkets sold pasta made in France with French flour, not Italian pasta made from grano duro. Frenchtomatoes were watery-tasting, even the canned ones. Mozzarella and Parmigiano-Reggiano were rarities found only in a few exclusive shops in Paris. The French were just starting to get interested in olive oil, although in the Southeast it had long been the fat of choice thanks to its Greek and Roman history.
Disappointment quickly set in. Marcella’s Italian recipes weren’t going to taste of Italy using French ingredients. It is no wonder that she wanted to write Ingredienti. She knew this was a problem when living outside Italy and felt the need to enlighten her readers about how to choose and treat ingredients.
It was only later when I moved to Switzerland, where good-quality Italian ingredients of all kinds — tomatoes, pasta, cheese, fruit — were readily available that I returned to Marcella. From Geneva, it was also easy to travel to Turin to the Slow Food gatherings. During the Terra Madre conference, I’d arrive every morning with a roller suitcase and, over the course of the day, fill it with food to take back to Switzerland.
Later, in my Italian food journey — even when living in Italy — Marcella, and later Victor, became for me household words, their books like a treatise, a bible, that I refer to in times of doubt, for example, when I make “red” spaghettini alle vongole, which I must have made a hundred times using Marcella’s recipe.
As important as this book is, Marcella Hazan’s recipes are not only about ingredients. The true secret to her success is the lucid precision of the explanations. A scientist by training with two doctorates, her instructions are methodical, almost mathematical. She counts in minutes and half minutes, and you can count on what she says. Though her cookbooks were not written as culinary classes per se, once you’ve followed her risotto instructions a couple of times, you are struck by the rigorousness of the recipe, of how each step is in its proper place, and each time given is exact, and it becomes like a work of art or a perfect mathematical equation, with no excess and no frill.
Ingredienti is indeed a testament to Marcella Hazan’s undying commitment not only to Italian cooking, but also to the importance of choosing products and the actual process of shopping, on which we put too little emphasis. Marcella had an intimate relationship with products, knowing them inside and out as if they were the baby she’d raised. “Choose a pepper by its size, shape, and heft. It should be large, heavy, shiny, firm, and cubical in form. The long tapered ones are not as solidly meaty.” Now you have a clear image in your mind of what to look for next time you buy a pepper. The entire book is like this, leaving you with the impression that you’d been going to a market class with Marcella for a week and held the artichokes or peppers or onions in your hands.
Speaking of extra-virgin olive oil, she says, “if olive oil were a drug, it would have a place of honour among miracle drugs,” saying that “it well might be the most significant contribution to my survival.” Although she embraces the use of lard and butter, used in her native Emilia-Romagna, olive oil was the superstar in her kitchen.
On the important subject of pasta: one can’t say fresh pasta is always better than dried pasta. Fresh pasta, made with eggs and flour, longs for butter and cream, which seep into the crevices of its rough surface; dried pasta, made with water and flour, is a perfect marriage for olive-oil and tomato-based sauces, which slide gracefully around it. You’ll never look at pasta the same way once you’ve “consumed” this chapter; in fact, you’ll want to read it over and over, making sure not to miss a single point.
She tells you everything you need to know about Parmigiano-Reggiano, not to be confused with generic parmesan cheese. Its goodness depends on the origin of the milk, the breed of cow, the age, the season, and, of course, the method used to make it. Though this is not a recipe book, Marcella throws in the prize of Victor’s grandmother’s recipe for Parmigiano crostini, not to be missed.
The book is broken down by category of ingredient, including “Produce,” “The Essential Pantry,” and “Salumi,” with individual chapters devoted to classic Italian ingredients such as artichoke, eggplant, and tomatoes; pasta, risotto rice, olive oil, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and red wine vinegar; prosciutto, pancetta, and lardo, and a whole host of other products.
For those who live in locations in the U.S. where Italian ingredients are not available in the same way, just as I did in France, the book includes a fairly exhaustive list of online suppliers of good-quality ingredients with precise indications of what to order from whom.
Count on reading the book from front to cover in one or two sittings, and then keeping it on your kitchen shelf for easy, repeated reference, as you might do with a prayer book. As with all of Marcella and Victor Hazan’s collaborations, there is never an extraneous word, sentence, or idea, so you’ll want to read the important passages numerous times.
Like a yogi, Marcella repeated the same “postures” over and over, meditating upon the ingredients, seeking the truth in them with a focused faith and methodical effort. As a result, Ingredienti reads much like a text written by a spiritual master in old age. It is concrete proof of her dedication; it is the wisdom of years lived in perfect harmony with food, based on her immeasurable knowledge and intimate relationship with ingredients, but also on an almost spiritual reverence for their integrity. It is, indeed, a testament of Marcella and the truth she sought by going to the essence of every foodstuff she touched, and of the truth she attained in her reasoned, scientific manner.
There are many ways to visit Venice, but if you want a real Venetian experience without disappointments, here are some tips.
Don’t stay near Rialto or San Marco. There’s nothing at all wrong with the neighborhoods, but they are more expensive and more touristy.
Don’t eat in restaurants with colored photos of all the dishes on a plastic sign outside. They tend to be touristy and unauthentic.
Don’t take the vaporetto everywhere. The vaporetto is good for seeing the palaces on the Grand Canal on a sunny day or at night when they’re lighted, but walking lets you fall by chance on hidden palaces, churches, bridges, canals and cafés. These are the great joys of Venice.
Don’t take Alilaguna if you’re coming from the airport. You can’t see a thing through the windows, and the trip takes about twice as long as the No. 5 airport express bus to Piazzale Roma (20′), which leaves from directly in front of the main airport exit.
Don’t walk the streets looking for a restaurant. Choose restaurants in advance instead of walking in spontaneously when you’re hungry. Venice has its full share of tourist traps, especially around San Marco and the Rialto. Note: there are good restaurants in these neighborhoods, but do your research and reserve ahead of time and you’ll have a happier experience.
Don’t go to just any shop or restaurant. Try to frequent places run by Venetians and Italians. This is not racist or chauvinistic; it simply means you’re more likely to have an authentic experience and support the economy in Venice.
Don’t set out on your day’s sightseeing without studying where the major landmarks in Venice are located. Know where San Marco, Rialto, Accademia, Ferrovia and Piazzale Roma are in terms of north, south, east and west and your day will go much more smoothly. It’s also good to memorize the vicinity of major landmarks and the names of the sestieri or six city districts: Castello, Cannaregio, San Marco, Dorsoduro, Santa Croce and San Polo.
Don’t think you can get everywhere like you do in a city with a grid layout. Maps are not always the best way to get around. Let yourself get lost. When you’re really lost, look for the arrows near the street names marked San Marco, Rialto, Accademia, Ferrovia and Piazzale Roma.
Don’t buy tickets each time you get on the vaporetto. Buy a Venezia Unica Citypass for one, two, three or seven days. Yes, it’s expensive, but so are individual tickets at 7.50 Euros a shot.
Don’t go to Venice uninformed. Do your homework before arriving. No matter what, you’ll spend a lot of wonderful hours getting lost, but you’ll make better use of the restricted opening hours.
Don’t sleep in. Museums and churches tend to close early and some even close for lunch.
Don’t rely on your guide books for opening and closing hours. They’re invariably out of date and times tend to change according to the season and the budget. Web sites are not always up-to-date either, but they’re more reliable. City museum opening times can be checked on the MUVE site. Otherwise, look at websites for individual museums.
In France, many a festive occasion is highlighted with sea bass. And since France and Venice are first cousins once removed, it turns out to be rather the same in Venice. A big fat bass is considered a treat.
Both places make sea bass in a salt crust, which is perhaps the cooking method that best preserves the juices, but when you have a nice wild one, which is rare enough these days, it will stand up to roasting.
I got inspiration for this recipe from a traditional Venetian recipe called branzino con patate et olive, or sea bass with potatoes and olives, in which they cook the bass on a bed of thinly sliced potatoes. One finds it in the better restaurants, but rarely in the touristy ones, perhaps because it’s time-consuming, although not difficult.
I’m wild about vegetables, so I added the sun-dried tomatoes, which add not only color, but a deeper flavor and more texture, an idea I got from Hosteria Al Vecio Bragosso near San Apostoli in our neighborhood of Cannaregio. The baby Swiss chard is also my addition.
Sometimes I add olives, sometimes not. Other times, I add capers, and other times both. This partially depends on whether the bass is wild or farmed. The farmed ones lack full flavor and these additions add some life as well as contrast to the dish. Onions can also add spark, especially to a farm-raised bass.
As always, my French touch means that I add a bit more wine than the Venetians. I do like my sauce. After all, that’s what life is all about, isn’t it?
Whole sea bass, wild if possible, cleaned and scaled, about 3 lbs. or 1.5 kg
4 large potatoes, scrubbed but not peeled 10 sun-dried tomatoes, chopped finely 1 large onion, thinly sliced Parsley, chopped coarsely 2-3 cups white wine 4-5 branches of fresh rosemary Olive oil
One bunch of young Swiss chard or bietola
Black olives (optional) Salt and pepper to taste
Heavy metal roasting pan
Pour 2-3 tablespoons of olive oil into the roasting pan. A broiler pan or heavy roasting pan is perfect.
Place the potatoes and sun-dried tomatoes in the pan, in a single layer, turning them to evenly coat them in the olive oil.
Salt and pepper to taste.
Place in oven, turning every 5 minutes and adding oil if they start drying out. Cook until the potatoes start to feel soft, but firm, when pricked with a knife or 15-20 minutes.
Remove the vegetables from the oven. Turn carefully in the pan juices.
Evenly distribute the onions, parsley and branches of rosemary, setting one branch aside.
Place the sea bass on the bed of potatoes. Insert one branch of rosemary in the cavity.
Salt and pepper to taste.
Add one cup of white wine to the bottom of the pan.
Place in the oven and lower the temperature to 400°F / 200°C, adding more white wine every time it evaporates and turning the potatoes each time. This prevents the potatoes from sticking and rehumidifies the sun-dried tomatoes.
After 15-20 minutes, use a metal spatula and check whether the top of the fish is cooked by carefully trying to lift it off the bone. It is important to use a metal spatula because it “cuts through” the fish; a rubber one is thicker and might mangle the flesh. If it can barely be lifted away from the bone, the top is nearly cooked, so remove the pan from the oven and carefully turn it. You may need two heavy-duty spatulas or utensils to do so because of the weight.
Return it to the oven for another 15-20 minutes, checking it in the same manner using a metal spatula to see if it is cooked, and adding white wine as necessary.
When the fish is fully cooked — just enough to lift it off the bone — lay the leaves of chard over the fish and vegetables and return to the oven for 1 minute, just enough to wilt it.
Remove the baking pan from the oven and turn the chard in the rendered juices. Filet the fish; it will usually be possible to simply lift it off with a metal spatula.
Serve salted capers as a garnish.
Serve any white wine left in the pan as sauce.
Tip: If you hesitate about adding this much white wine, you can substitute half of it with freshly squeezed orange juice. The exact cooking time of the sea bass varies depending on the thickness of the fish, thus the importance of using the spatula technique. There is no need to add lemon when serving, since the white wine gives an acidic edge. You can also use turbot for this dish; follow the same steps, but because it is not as thick as bass, the cooking time will be less.
Rosalba Zuanna Carriera was born into a modest Venetian family in 1675, but her world was not devoid of images, since her paternal grandfather was a painter and her mother a lacemaker. Her father was steward of the Procurator Bon, equivalent to a clerk.
Forever conscious of the family’s lack of means and therefore of dowry, her mother is said to have ensured that her three daughters learned Italian, French and Latin, as well as lacemaking, hoping to marry them into good families.
Many say this is the ultimate Venetian specialty, but considering that Venetians eat mainly fish, one could easily argue that point. A good fegato can be the highlight of a day or weekend, however.
Everyone loves caramelized onions, but some people dislike even the idea of eating liver. Calf’s liver is finer than beef or chicken, and when it’s topped with sweet onions, it is indeed a highly refined dish.
You’ll see the influence of my background in French cuisine; I went a bit heavy on the white wine when deglazing the pan, but it renders a succulent sauce.
One of the crucial elements to the success of this dish is that the liver be of exceptional quality and thinly sliced. Thick slabs simply don’t work and take away from the refined aspect of this dish.
Another secret is to slow cook the onions and to just seize the liver, no more. If you cook it more and on slow heat, it will become leathery.
400 g onions 3-4 tablespoons olive oil
400 g calf’s liver cut in extra-thin slices 1-2 cups white wine Salt and pepper to taste Italian parsley, chopped
Skillet large enough to spread liver in a single layer
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Meet Jonell Galloway, a freelance writer and editor specialized in French cuisine.