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Venetian Culinary Souvenirs: Polpettini & Spritz

Venetian Culinary Souvenirs: Polpettini & Spritz

You can also you olives to garnish your spritz (photo by Creative Commons user die.tine)

Cynthia Houng | Chef's Blade

I fell in love with Venice before I ever set foot in the city. I was 19 and an undergraduate at Berkeley, taking Elizabeth Honig’s class on “cities and commerce.” We began with Venice, at the height of its glory, and ended in Amsterdam, following the northward shift of early modern European commerce. I cannot say what made me love Venice. I knew the city only as an abstraction, a jumble of maps, myths, and fragmentary images.

The year that I turned 24, I flew to Venice, alone. My Air France flight–loaded with Parisians on holiday–almost left CDG without me. On the plane, I sat next to an elderly couple. The husband, a law professor (now retired) at the Sorbonne. The wife, a fragile, bird-like woman, who fretted endlessly over my decision to travel alone. I confessed that I spoke no Italian, a confession that only heightened her alarm. Our flight over the Alps was magical. We floated over the French-Italian border (”la frontiere,” according to my new friend) in the middle of a crystalline afternoon. As we flew over Mont Blanc, I could almost reach out and touch the Alps. We descended into a shimmering Byzantine mosaic. The Venetian lagoon opened at our feet. From the sky I could see the city, a mirage of red roofs and gold stone. (Later, I would realize that the stone was actually pure white. The gold was an illusion, a product of the honeyed Mediterranean light reflecting on the Lagoon.)

The real Venice enchanted me.

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Venice (photo by C.H.)

I was also very lonely. I ate every meal on my own, and stayed in a hotel about 30 minutes from the city, in Mestre, Venice’s industrial twin. During that first visit, I experienced little of Venetian cuisine. I bought sandwiches from carts and survived largely on breakfast (from the hotel, generous, with capucchino and fresh breads, brioche with almond paste and fruit) and gelati.

I didn’t actually eat any real, sit-down meals in Venice until I returned in 2007 for the Biennale. I wound up dining with the Senator and his wife at Do Forni. I also made friends with another Taiwanese expatriate, a young woman studying Italian at the university and working, part-time, as a freelance translator.

With her, I finally experienced the range of Venetian cuisine. One hot summer night, she took me on a tour of Venetian cicchetti. We drank white wine (1 euro per glass) and ate our way through the city. Some of the dishes were quite complex. Others were simple and relied entirely on fresh produce and quality ingredients. At our first bar, we ate fresh chilled melon (provided, gratis, by the house), a squid salad, fried mussels, and baby squid with bits of fennel (the batter was light, lacy, and somewhat spicy, with white pepper and something quieter, more red), and marinated sardines (sarde in saor).

At a small bar in Canareggio (near the Jewish quarter), we bought polpettini (tiny meatballs) on toothpicks, and ate them while wandering Canareggio’s cobblestone streets. We finished the evening at the water’s edge, drinking a Spritz in Dorsodoro, and watching boats (mostly luxury yachts) cross the Lagoon like so many glittering jewels.

After I returned to California, I missed Venice, and decided to try my hand at polpettini, because meatballs, unlike other Venetian recipes, do not rely exclusively on the Lagoon’s bounty. My recipe probably bears little resemblance to the ones that we ate in Venice, but they bring the city back to me.

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