1950s Archive

A Gastronomic Tour of Italy

Originally Published August 1955
any old text must be inserted here


Luckily for the-traveler, many of the best Merchants of Venice purvey food.

The spreading eastern hip of the thigh-high Italian boot is a rich and diverse land called Venecia. Bordering on three neighboring countries, and with a topography varying from Adriatic lagoons to the majesty of the Dolomites, it is far too complex to be compressed into a single region. Cartographers have simplified matters by dividing it into three Veneros, one mountainous, one coastal and controversial, dominated by Trieste, and the third flat but memorable, crowned with the most romantic jewel of Italy, Venice itself.

It is this latter area, subtitled Venero Euganea, which here consumes all our available space, and not surprisingly. It is as richly full of the good things of life as the proverbial fruitcake. In addition to the unique, incomparable Venice, the awed traveler finds three other famous Italian cities in this small area: Padua, site of a venerable university, Vicenza, shimmering center of Palladian architecture, and Romeo and Juliet's Verona.

In retrospect, St. Mark's and Tintoretto's fabulous murals may well outshine the epicurean phase of Veneto Euganea. Who has the impudence to speak of baby octopus fried in deep oil, or polenta, or scampi, when the Palace of the Doges still dazzles the eyes with its opalescent splendor and the spell of Veronese and Tiepolo and Titian remains unfaded? But impudent or not, impressionable people find it impossible not to indulge in reminiscences of Venetian food and wine. We find it difficult to don artistic blinders and hew straight to the gastronomic line in this charmed land, directing hardly a glance at a gondola or a Gothic palazzo, but that's what we've got to do. So we'll turn your artistic guardianship over to a chap named Ruskin and get down to Venetian fare, and where to find it in full flower. Although the keystone of Venetian cooking is the magnificent sea food of the upper Adriatic, its most celebrated dishes are founded on simple things, the lowly liver and onions, for example, or rice and peas. A skilled cook from Veneto transforms these into unsuspected delicacies, and we think you can do the same by following the recipes at the end of this story. But the basic treasure, Adriatic fish and shell fish, is less transportable. The impressive scampi, and their fragrant smaller cousins gamberetti, leave one groping for superlatives. Calamaretti, those succulent baby octopuses fried quickly in deep hot olive oil, and bisato alla veneta, an aromatic stewed eel, are two other specialties which make immediate converts. The subtle savor of sea food runs through rice and pasta dishes. A Venetian risotto may be studded with scampi, squid, cockles or mussels, and spaghetti is often ensconced in a gentle anchovy sauce. There are conventional fish too—sole, mullet and the toothy dentex. The ever-present dried stockfish is transformed into a rarity in Vicenza. Stewed in milk with finely chopped onions, garlic, parsley, butter, oil. anchovy paste, cinnamon, pepper and salt, it becomes baccalà alla vicentina, a noble dish for ruddy, unprejudiced people. The hearty and unassuming polenta thrives more in Venecia than in other parts of Italy, and corn meal has rarely been put to better use. Polenta e oséi, corn meal served with small, spit-roasted birds, will delight all but the too tender hearted. In the domain of wines, Venetia is one of the four outstanding regions in Italy, luxuriating in such noble names as Bardolino, Valpolicella and Soave. But this is another story, one which will be told by Frank Schoonmaker in a future issue of Gourmet.


There is much more to be said about epicurean resources, but the subject of dining in Venice just won't wait any longer. It is a pleasant ritual to contemplate, and there is no more auspicious place to discuss this delicate matter than a table at the CAFFE FLORIAN on the Piazza San Marco.

A landmark among the great cafés of the world, Florian still retains its ancient marbletopped tables which swivel as readily as a lazy Susan, its red velvet wall benches, and horse-hair chairs under its arcades. Elaborate gauche murals on its walls have been preserved under glass. On a rainy day (and there were plenty of them during our visit last April!) it is a providential retreat. The client&$232;le is varied. There arc oblivious lovers, camera-laden tourists, lonely women, and businessmen scribbling figures on the tabletops. The waiters are quadrilingual but less attractive than the enormous brindle cat with a red ribbon around his neck who lounges about the place. Florian is essentially an open air café however, and when its vast acreage of tables is fully occupied on a holiday afternoon in summer, it is truly fabulous. Immense banners fly from three flagpoles, St. Mark's glistens with color and the Campanile towers over thousands of citizens congregated in the square.

If your time is limited and you don't wish to waste it over a protracted meal, Florian serves a quick lunch of sandwiches and pastry, with good coffee to go with them. They can even make a good dry Martini, something which generations of American travelers have requested.

Within a short stroll of this animated terrace are several pleasant prospects for the inquiring gourmet. Directly across the square is a rival café, somewhat smaller, but distinguished by a smart little dining salon under its arcade and a siring quartet to add a touch of gaiety. It is called QUADRI and is a charming spot worth remembering. Behind you, occupying a choice local ion on the Grand dual,is HARRY'S BAR, a celebrated cultural center boasting the best mixed drinks in Venice, and a patronage top heavy with Anglo-Saxons. If you're homesick for the dulcet tones of American voices and in search of commendable food as well, Harry's Bar is a good, if somewhat expensive, solution.

Subscribe to Gourmet