The Veneto Diaries . A Prologue

. Traveling to Venezia .

I took the early morning train from Vicenza to Venezia almost every Saturday as a teenager. On my way to my favorite destination,  I stared out the window, hoping to capture the Renaissance villas hidden by the misty hills of Vicenza with my 35mm camera. Traveling towards Venezia Santa Lucia I jotted down my thoughts in green ink on the pages of handmade paper notebooks and dreamt of becoming a writer.  

The trip seemed to last just minutes and I was inevitably caught by surprise when the train jolted to a halt at the bustling station of my journey’s end. Vicenza was my home town and Venice was my getaway. To this day, the Veneto shapes the background to my love of Italy, which in turn gives form to my life story. 

As a foreigner growing up in Vicenza, I loved to find myself in the midst of diligent tourists gathered together from all parts of the world, cluttering the streets and waterways of Venice. The steps of the stazione  were the perfect location for brief multi-lingual exchanges with questioning travelers. My shy suggestions given to inquisitive tourists on how to escape the mainstream, were a fleeting and seemingly predestined introduction to my arrival at a place that simply represented a second home to me.

After taking my time to observe the morning situation on the water’s edge, just long enough to soak up the salty Venetian air, I maneuvered my way quickly through the crowds filling up the main streets in the direction of the Piazza San Marco. I crossed over the Canal Grande at the famous Ponte Rialto, ignoring the stalls filled with souvenirs along the way. Beyond the Rialto’s marble steps was the threshold to my favorite neighborhood in Venice, the Sestiere San Polo.

Passing through the Campo S. Giacomo di Rialto, my pace would slow as I reached  the Erbaria fruit and vegetable market, where I listened to conversations among Venetians on how to cook local artichokes or radicchio. My 35mm camera was put to good use, capturing stacked crates of every seasonal vegetable imaginable, from the beautiful cranberry colored borlotti of the late summer, to white asparagus and peas in the spring.  At the Campo della Pescaria, sturdy tables were filled with an abundance of fresh fish, protected by the loggia built to protect this magnificent open air market.

I believe that not only my love of cooking but of vegetable markets was born during my weekend trips back and forth from Vicenza to Venezia. The Veneto is as I often say, where my heart lives; it is truly the place I feel most happy and at home. When I can, I travel to the Veneto from the Netherlands, where I have lived for many years. My very first destination when traveling to Italy, is Vicenza of course.

While my life story is intertwined with countless wanderings through the streets of Venice, I feel the greatest affinity with the entroterra of the Veneto. The beautiful word entroterra translates from Italian as ‘inland’; it can however also mean ‘interior’ or ‘outback’. With a short stretch of the imagination, this word implies the vast countryside to the west of Venice. Historically intertwined with La Serenissima, the inland regions of the Veneto are beauties in themselves.

Time flew by as if in a dream, as I wandered in awe from market stall to market stall. Careless of getting lost in the winding streets built on an ancient world, unplanned discovery was made of colorful fruttivendoli storefronts (the Italian name for the green grocers), of pasticcerie (pastry shops) and of glorious panifici (bakeries). Lost in the beauty of the moment, the chime of the midday church bells served as a reminder that the time for a Venetian pranzo had arrived. 

I casually navigated my way back to Santa Lucia station, prolonging my travels just a few more delicious hours before making my way back to Vicenza.  Traveling in the general direction of home,  I was happily distracted by the perfume of cooking, coming from home kitchens and of course, from the “bacari” dotting the San Polo “sestiere”. It was here I discovered cicchetti, Venetian dialect for “small bites”.

At the time I made no distinction between Venezia and Vicenza and its mutually shared ritual of sharing food with a Prosecco or a Spritz in the late afternoon. Immersed in the vita quotidiana (daily life) of the Veneto, it wasn’t in a name but in a common custom that I associated the activity of gathering together informally in and around the main squares of the region, in the shadow of church towers or the statue of the lion of San Marco, the symbol of the Venetian republic. 

. History and the stories it tells .

Rivers of ink have flowed in the writing of books about Venice, the most famous city of the Veneto. It goes without saying that library shelves are filled with the fascinating history of this magical city.  Art and architecture, language and culture, politics and intrigue and the flux of people’s and culture most definitely converge on this city floating on water. I know I will never tire of reading and learning about this part of the world.

Since human history is told with food stories, so too is the narrative of Venice. One of the things that fascinates me the most, is the origin of ingredients and the convergence of worlds and flavors that can be traced in the food traditions of the Veneto. While my desk has been stacked in the last few years not only with cookbooks, but with volumes of history, art and even novels about this part of the world, I am not quite ready to write a scholar’s history of food. That being said, the winding road of learning and experience will always lead back to the Veneto. In this introduction to a new blog category entitled “The Veneto Diaries” I sketch a personal story, the only one I can tell with certainty. 

. About Vicenza .

The Basilica Palladiana of Vicenza, located on the Piazza dei Signori is surrounded with osterie, cantine (both words for tavern or pub) and even locali, which I loosely translate as ‘place’. In the shadow of its symmetric archways; spilling out from its ground floor; and spread out along its copper rooftop, the Basilica is alive with activity at all hours of the day. Standing in awe of the view from this Piazza, I can almost hear the echo of life lived here through the centuries.

Anytime after ten or so, empty cups of espresso and cappuccino make way for another kind of refreshment. Brightly colored Spritz cocktails, made with mineral water or a splash of Prosecco catch the eye of the passersby, as friends and family gather at the bar counters and small tables around the main square (not to mention throughout the city). In the late afternoon, between four and seven or so, the bustle of work is traded in for conversation. The famous bacari of Venice are called osterie here. Huddled for cover under the roof of the Basilica in winter, and spilling over onto the Piazza when the season permits, every gathering is an opportunity to share food. And as a good friend of mine says, people from the Veneto like to drink wine, so why not pair it with food?

. What’s in a name .

In Vicenza and surrounding area Venetian cicchetti generally go by a different name. While some places in Vicenza will call their food creations cicchetti, it is generally agreed that this word originates from Venice. The same custom however, flourishes not only in Venice, but in the cities of Padova, Vicenza and Treviso. 

In the Veneto dialect, the Italian verb pungere (which translates as ‘to sting’ or ‘to bite’) is called spunciar.  The reference to a bite or a sting is a metaphor for something small to eat, the traditional companion to a glass of wine. What goes by the name of cichetto in Venice, is known as a spuncio, spuncetto, spuncione or spunciotto in the surrounding areas of Vicenza and Padova. It is also interesting to note that a spuncio implies a type of food that can be enjoyed without a plate or a fork. 

Whether in the form of milk bread tartines, grilled polenta crostini, or in the shape of thinly sliced local salame sopressa or wedges of Asiago cheese, spuncioti are to be found in a wide variety of flavors. People from Vicenza and surrounding area consider themselves down-to-earth and practical, so their spunci are rustic, homestyle foods connected to the traditions of their countryside.

The influence of Venice and the Adriatic Sea are reflected in the Vicentino love for fish. Almost every osteria, or even the more sophisticated style enoteca wine bars in and around Vicenza, will make an assortment of fish-focused spuncioti. The iconic ingredient baccala is essential, and just one of the things Vicenza happens to be famous for. 

Just as in Venice, the ritual of wandering from place to place to talk and taste while enjoying drinks is a popular pastime. In Vicenza and the surrounding area, it goes by the expression andare per osterie, which translates roughly as ‘going to taverns’.

. Making Friends and a Blog Collaboration .

Faraway friends are made through food, and this is how I became friends with Tina Prestia; an expert in the making of fresh pasta, food writer and professional chef, Tina is a wealth of knowledge and passion. Through a mutual admiration of all things in the Italian kitchen, Tina and I started out as pen pals on Instagram a few years ago. We haven’t met each other in real life yet, (after all who has seen anyone in 2020 right?) but I am sure we will someday. 

Tina has an elaborate cookbook library, and I ask her advice frequently on recipe origins. Her connection with Venice is a uniquely personal one, and she has hundreds of stories and photos to narrate it. This is how our plan to collaborate was born. We chose the subject of Venice, and more generally of the tradition as our starting point because this is where our life paths and passions cross. We have spent weeks comparing notes, books and opinions, which I have to say is my favorite thing to do, except for traveling to Italy of course.

In a soon to be published sequel to today’s introductory blogs, we both will write a recipe (or two) that complement the wealth of a vast food experience. Stay tuned as I share my favorite fish recipe, and Tina sketches how to create your own cicchetti party at home. For now, I invite you to read Tina’s blog and her love letter to Venezia. Follow her Instagram page for passionate musings on life in Italy, beyond delicious home cooked food and her travel escapades.