It’s impossible to identify just one dish that personifies the food of Veneto. Though most only visit the region’s capital city, Venice, it actually spans from the mighty port town of Venice to the mountains up north, then inland to Verona and its cuisine reflects that, with each area enjoying its own local specialty.
Along the coast seafood is preferred, while inland meat reigns. Polenta abounds throughout the region, from the mountains to the sea, but rice and pasta enrich soups or flaunt the catch of the day. Veneto produces some of the finest olive oil in the world above Lake Garda, lemons and lavender along the shores, and world-class wines in every corner. You can find asparagus from Bassano and radicchio from Treviso, shipped throughout Italy and the world as an exemplary of the radicchio world. I grew up cutting off chunks of asiago cheese, produced in Vicenza, while waiting for dinner and sprinkling it atop my pasta. Veneto is also a region that prizes desserts, compared to other Italian regions, which pairs perfectly with its love of parties and excess. With the abundance of fruit grown there and spices that come in from the port, they’ve never lacked a delicious dessert.
Risi e bisi
Risi and bisi is simply a dish of rice and peas, but getting it right is less simple. Considered a cross between a minestrone (vegetable soup) and a risotto, it’s not too wet, not too cold, and the perfect dish for the change of seasons. In fact, the best peas come in the early days of spring. Originally from Venice proper, it’s now found throughout the region.
Sarde in saor
A favorite in Venice, sarde in saor is an appetizer of fried sardines served with caramelized onions. The dish takes a poor fish and turns it into a welcome flavor to any meal. Actually, the dish dates back to the 1300s when home cooks were looking for a way to conserve fish. Their solution was an agrodolce sauce made with vinegar, white wine and raisins for their sweetness. Supposedly the onions were added later to aid in killing bacteria. Others say it was for fishermen to avoid getting scurvy. Whatever the case, the tangy appetizer is the perfect balance of flavors.
Folpi alla Veneziana
The thing with the Veneto is, you can still find and hear a ton of dialect. Confused by this one, I finally understood when I realized that folpo was Venetian for polpo, or octopus. Boiled folpi alla veneziana is a traditional Venetian appetizer of octopus, cuttlefish eggs and shrimp served simply with parsley and lemon and maybe a side of boiled potatoes. Once considered a poor-man’s dish, these are now a valued appetizer in Venetian and Padovan osterie, great for washing down large quantities of a Venetian white.
Pasta e fasoi
Nearly every region has a version of pasta e fagioli, or pasta and beans. It was an easy, inexpensive and nutritious meal that even the poorest could afford. First a sort-of stew is made with beans, onion, celery, carrot, potato, garlic, salt, pepper and bay leaves and cooked for hours. Pour it over pasta to create the perfect cold-weather comfort food.
Pastissada de caval
There are two menu staples in Verona and the surrounding area that might surprise you: donkey and horse. The pastissada de caval is dialect for stracotto di cavallo, which is what you’ll likely read on menus. It is horse cooked for hours and hours in wine and spices until it’s melt-in-your-mouth tender and almost always served with a side of polenta. If horse is too much for you, try pasta with a donkey ragù – it has a softer taste but is still a local classic!
Polenta e uccelli
Cornmeal polenta is a staple across the Alps and that goes for northern Veneto as well. Here you’ll find the classic “polenta and birds”. In the past, hunters would put up a ring of nets among the trees, then scare the birds into the nets, effectively catching dozens at a time. Though today it’s not considered very sportsmanlike and is actually illegal, at the time it was more about sustenance than sport. Today you can get the dish served with a fair conscious and, luckily, birds with a bit more meat on their bones than those from once upon a time. It’s simple and delicious!
Bigoli con l’anatra
This dish represents two staples in the Veneto diet put together: Bigoli and duck. Bigoli are a long, fresh pasta, like thick spaghetti eaten in a variety of ways throughout the region. During periods of fast, the bigoli were covered with a simple sauce made from anchovies cooked with oil until melted (bigoi co la sardea). The only fresh egg pasta of Veneto, bigoli have always been made in home with a special tool, called a torchio, that every household owned.
In this case, the bigoli are made with a duck ragu. Ducks prosper in water-rich areas, and the coastlines, lakes and rice fields of Veneto are about as water-rich as it gets. Rich Venetians ate Duck with fruit, but the dish of the people was without a doubt Bigoi co l’anara, or Bigoli con l’anatra.
A relatively new Italian dessert – tiramisù was invented post WWII – today it’s a favorite dessert throughout the world. With savoiardi cookies dipped in fresh coffee and a mouthwatering cream made of egg yolks, sugar, mascarpone cheese and a splash of liquor, tiramisù is simple and delicious. Plus, there’s no name more apt to describe the dessert: it literally translates as a “pick-me-up.”
Be careful when ordering a coffee in Veneto – the caffè corretto is so popular it’s sometimes served by default. A caffè corretto is a shot of espresso “corrected” with a shot of liquor, usually grappa but better if brandy. If you ask a Veneto, they’d say it’s science: coffee pumps up the heart and nervous system and alcohol dilates blood vessels and relaxes. Together, they help digestion, calm nerves and reinvigorate.
A word on wine from the Veneto
Veneto is a major producer of Italian wines – some of which you’re likely to know even in the United States (prosecco anyone?). It has approximately 220,000 acres of vineyards and is the biggest DOC wine-producer in Italy (denominazione origine controllata), meaning that the wine was produced in that region and is held to strict industry standards and quality assurance. The region also hosts Vinitaly each year in Verona, the largest wine exposition in the country.
Just like the food, the wine is split between eastern Veneto, near the Venice Lagoon and among the hills of Treviso and along the coast, and the western part near to Lake Garda and Verona. In the east they produce prosecco, Italy’s infamous sparkling white wine. Also rich Raboso Piave, Refosco and a lighter, simpler Marzemino. In the west you can enjoy delicious Soave, a white with varieties soft enough for perch ravioli and strong enough to hold its own with a meat dish. (Read about the adorable town of Soave) Valpolicella and Amarone, both produced in the region, are two of the most appreciated reds in the country.
This is obviously just a brief introduction to the food of Veneto, but it’s a good start to travel beyond Venice and taste something new!
Read more about Italy’s rich regional cuisines:
The Food of Valtellina
The Mixed-Cultured Food of Friuli Venezia Giulia
My Favorite Foods in Tuscany and Umbria
The Food of Liguria
How to Make Pasta Like an Italian