Interview with Laura Zavan, bewitched by Venetian cuisine
by Fabio Falzone
Mesmerized by Venetian art and architecture, many forget to enjoy the wonderful flavors and local products that the Serenissima has to offer. Author and food stylist Laura Zavan reminds us of the pleasures we might be missing out on with her book, “Venise, les recettes culte”, recently published in France by Marabout (25,00 euros, 272 pages). Born in Treviso, Zavan moved to Paris twenty years ago, and has published in her new country of adoption twelve books on Italian cuisine. Her ability to explain recipes with style and simplicity has made her an ambassador of Italian food. As an author, her success is proved by the fact that her most famous book, “Ma Little Italy”, is still in print after six years from the launch. Her latest work, with photographs by Grégoire Kalt, marks Zavan’s return to Veneto, as our guide in a unique gastronomic world that is often unknown even to Italians. Through her recipes we can discover the history and culture of Venice, where people from faraway lands and from the nearby inland came into contact centuries ago.
How did you come up with the idea for this book?
I realized that many of my friends came back from their stays in Venice without having tasted any of the local food, which is a shame. I wanted to spark their curiosity, and to invite people to explore a unique cuisine made of flavor and stories, culture and traditions – which I briefly explain in the book, through anecdotes about the origin of the local ingredients used.
Why do you think Venetian food is so little known, even to Italians?
I have come to realize that Italian cuisine in general is wildly famous, but its infinite local variations are not – because recipes change every 30 km, and everyone believes their version is the best!
What makes Venetian food so unique?
It is based on local products, and relies heavily on fish and vegetables – the core of contemporary “light” cuisine. It uses ingredients that come from the lagoon, which enjoys a special microclimate and has a shallow, well-drained sea bottom. A visit to the Rialto market is all you need to convince yourself that Venetian vegetables are different: they grow in the island-garden of Sant’Erasmo, where the slightly saline land gives them an unbeatable flavor. Local fish is very tasty, and doesn’t really need seasoning or condiments: it’s perfect with just a drizzle of olive oil and some lemon juice. There is also a great variety in poultry, which Venetian aristocrats started to farm in the inland after the Republic fell.
With my recipes and tips, I help the reader discover all of these fantastic products.
How is the book organized?
I divided recipes by type: snacks (the so-called ‘cicheti’), appetizers, first courses, second courses, side dishes, desserts, and lastly a couple of pages on wine. The book also includes five thematic itineraries, with maps to explore different neighborhoods in the city. In the end, I’ve added a few suggestions on where you can go eat and what products you should buy in Venice.
How did you choose the places you recommend?
I chose restaurants where the cooking is still traditional, honest, based on selected, local products – and I listened to my Venetian friends’ reviews.
And you avoided trends…
I did. I mentioned the now popular “spritz” at the bottom of my list of ‘cicheti’ because its fame has now reached even Paris. But I thought the most relevant thing to say about it is that a lovely wine bar called Cantina has decided to boycott this cocktail, exactly because it has become so ubiquitous, and because they refuse to use industrially made liqueur!
Let’s explore the Venetian cuisine’s lingo a bit further. The menu begins with ‘cicheti’, served in ‘bàcari’. Is it true these are the ancestors of street food and happy hours?
Yes, ‘bàcari’ are the working class pubs in Venice that started to open in the mid-1800s. The word also means “wine to celebrate”. People go to ‘bàcari’ for a before-dinner snack (‘aperitivo’), which includes a little wine (drank from a small glass the locals call ‘ombra’, which literally means “shadow”) and a few ‘cicheti’ (which literally means “small amount”) – that is appetizers such as ‘folpetti’, meatballs, or codfish and polenta.
The book’s first recipe is for codfish – a real staple in Venetian cuisine. According to legend, it all started with a shipwreck in 1431…
That’s right. The Venetian captain Querini was shipwrecked in the Norwegian Sea, off the Lofoten Islands, where he and his crew were welcomed in Røst for 100 days. They learned to prepare stockfish by drying codfish in the open air for two months, and realized it was easy to store, nutritious and practical. It gained popularity after 1561, when the Council of Trent dictated a strong reduction in the consumption of meat. The name ‘baccalà’ probably comes from Spanish: the Habsburgs of Spain ruled the neighboring region of Lombardy for a century and a half, and were great fans of ‘bacalao’. Finally, in 1570, Pio V’s chef Bartolomeo Scappi sanctioned it as a favorite dish of Italian cuisine by including it in his recipe book, “Opera”.
Venice is an unusual city, lived in an unusual way by its inhabitants. Has this influenced local food?
I think food reflects the city’s history. At the height of its success, in the 15th and 16th century, Venice was the most important business city in Italy and the largest market for Eastern spices. There were vendors everywhere, and the first ‘bettole’ were opening – our wine bar’s ancestors. People met in the streets to do business and to eat together. During the Carnival – which could last up to six months – everyone ate together for days. In the 1800s, the first ‘bàcari’ opened. Eating out has always been a Venetian tradition.
Venetian cuisine was subject to various international influences too.
Certainly. The Serenissima established the first spice trade route into the Orient, opened a number of shops along the coasts of the Mediterranean, and was able to import all kinds of products: wheat from Cyprus, wine and olive oil from Crete, currants and salt from Cephalonia and Zakynthos in Greece. The Hebrew influence is obvious in the vegetables and duck salami, while the French and Austrian rulers contributed recipes with potatoes, horseradish and beer.
What would you suggest to someone looking for the less touristy parts of town, where one might enjoy authentic Venetian flavors and social rites?
Avoid the typical itineraries that go from Rialto to Saint Mark’s square. Getting a little lost is the best way to discover Venice! Or you can hold on to your map, but let curiosity guide you to explore more peripheral areas of the city. My favorites spots are Fondamenta degli Ormesini and Fondamenta della Misericordia in the Cannaregio ‘sestiere’: they are quiet areas where you can take a walk right by the water, and there are no stores. It’s an area of ‘bàcari’ where an important part of Venice’s nightlife takes place. I suggest stopping either at Al Timon for a ‘cicheto’ or at Anice Stellato to eat.
Which are the must-try recipes for someone visiting Venice for the first time?
Baccalà in its every interpretation: creamed, seasoned, or ‘alla vicentina’ (literally meaning “Vicenza-style”, it is cooked in milk, parmesan, anchovies and parsley), served with Veneto’s typical white polenta; squid with black ink sauce, with polenta or rice; sardines or “sfogi” (small soles) ‘in saor’; ‘granseola’; boiled ‘canoce’ (a species of Mediterranean slipper lobster) with a little bit of olive oil; Venice-style liver (‘fegato alla veneziana’)…
And what dish may surprise someone who’s already an expert?
In May, the “castraure” – small artichokes – are wonderful either raw or fried. In the winter, I would definitely suggest the incredible late-season Treviso chicory. There are also dishes made only by traditional restaurants, such as spaghetti “casso-pipa”: the shellfish is slow-cooked (“pipare”, in the local dialect) in a terracotta pot (“casso”) with cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves. It was originally a humble recipe that used up what was left after fishing. And one last suggestion: the local fish fry.
What are the most interesting wines to try?
“Orto di Venezia” is a unique white wine from the lagoon, created by a French gentleman by mixing vermentino, fiano and malvasia istriana. “Venissa” is a recent rarity, obtained from Dorona grapes (an ancient native variety) by the Bisol family in Venissa, an estate on the island of Mazzorbo, connected to Burano.
If we wanted to cook something special at home, where would we find the best ingredients?
The best local foods can be found at Pantagruelica in San Barnaba and Casa del Parmigiano in Rialto. For fish, I recommend going early in the morning to Marco Bergamasco’s fish shop in Rialto.
Can you tell us about your favorite places?
L’Arco for “cicheti”, Anice Stellato for fried food, La Vedova if you want to go to a good “bàcaro”, La Maschereta for its wine – and to meet a very special person, the host and sommelier Mauro Lorenzon. La Zucca is ideal if you like vegetables. La Cantina is a winery that also brews its own beer, serves the best cold cuts and cheese, and has really nice daily specials… everything tastes deliciously homemade. Vini da Gigio is my favorite restaurant: its has a passionate, traditional, welcoming vibe, with owners who greet the clients, serve at the tables and cook; it also offers a great wine list. For something sweet, go to the Tonon pastry shop: their products have a rare, truly homemade flavor! The famous Caffè Florian is perfect for a simple espresso.
Can you suggest a place in Venice where the flavor of the cuisine and the beauty of the view come together like magic?
Osteria Bancogiro, in Campo dell’Erbaria, which only a few decades ago was the location of the fruit and vegetable buyers’ market, closed to the public… now is accessible, but still magical and secluded. Sit at the tables outside, overlooking the Grand Canal, and enjoy your dinner by candlelight. I always appreciate Bancogiro’s dishes and “cicheti”, also for their creative twist.
Why do you think Italian cuisine is such a success in France?
Because it is an accessible cuisine based on good quality products, made with simple, flavorful ingredients. You need very little for an extraordinary dish – all you have to do is learn how to make it, and know the right places where you can buy what you need. Only very few French dishes that can be as tasty and be ready in twenty minutes. The “grande cuisine française” has been advanced by great chefs with wonderful results, but is too complex for everyday life. I feel like Italian cuisine “came in the back door” in France, meaning it has a homey, popular, accessible quality to it. This is what has made it such a widespread success, and why it is now appreciated even in top-notch restaurants.
You have published twelve books in France. What is the recipe for a successful cookbook?
Passion, honesty, love for good and beautiful things, for my country, for people and for my readers… plus, every recipe is tested, and sometimes tweaked, when I cook the dishes for the photo shooting. Then everything gets eaten of course!
Your “Le basi della cucina italiana” app (developed by Tommasi and Mozart) was a hit in Italy. What innovations does it offer?
I think the most appreciated is the read-aloud function that can read the recipe to you while you cook. The app is now one of the top ten downloaded cooking apps in Italy, and has sold more than the book – a real rarity.
What could Italians learn from France, to better promote our country’s cultural heritage?
The French know how to present and sell their products better than Italians. We are a nation of great individuals, generally very contentious. But instead of wasting precious energies in fighting against one another, we should realize that teamwork and networking solve a range of problems. We need to wake up, cooperate, and learn to know and express our unique heritage better than we do.
Photos © Grégoire Kalt