Venice seafood: Beyond the canals

Seattleite Ronald Holden explores Venice's local seafood scene and finds a common thread of sustainability.

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Canoce in a Venice market

Seattleite Ronald Holden explores Venice's local seafood scene and finds a common thread of sustainability.

An informal group of Seattle restaurants was promoting wild Alaska salmon from Bristol Bay earlier this month, with the argument that eating salmon is the best way to protect the endangered salmon runs.

Similarly, eating local shellfish in the Mediterranean provides a reliable demand for the shellfish growers. The Mediterranean Sea — under a million square miles, barely a mile deep — is tiny compared to the world's great oceans. (The mighty Pacific is 65 times as vast, three times as deep.) It's as placid as a big lake, teeming with aquatic life — 250 species of shellfish alone.

Along the Mediterranean coast of France, boats set out nightly to catch rockfish and eels for the local bouillabaisse, while oysters grow on the rocky reefs west of Marseille. Along the coast of Sicily, they go for prize swordfish, bluefin tuna, grouper, anglerfish, mullet, and sardines. Octopus and cuttlefish are everywhere. And in the northern Adriatic, where the Mediterranean dead-ends between the east coast of Italy and the west coast of Slovenia and Croatia, there's a thriving business cultivating shellfish (mussels, clams, oysters, scallops), especially in the shallow lagoons between Venice and Trieste.

With a PhD in marine biology, Trieste-based Aurelio Zentilin runs the marketing arm of a thriving shellfish cooperative and writes an entertaining blog about mollusks. Fluent in Italian and French, he also hosts a YouTube series titled "Mollusk TV" that provides down-to-earth advice on selecting and cooking shellfish. Restaurant professionals regularly invite him to their gatherings, where he willingly shares his expertise and his recipes.

So let's start, as does Zentilin, at the retail fish markets of the Adriatic. The most active is in Venice: The Pescharia (officially known as il Mercato del Pesce al Minuto) on the Grand Canal, which has sheltered dozens of fishmongers in a red brick hangar alongside the Rialto bridge for centuries. If you find tourists here, they're snapping pictures of Venetians buying dinner. Caught in the surrounding waters: Squid, sardines, sea snails, and shrimp-like creatures called canoce.

They go by many names, these stomapods. Latin, squilla mantis. Everyday Italian, canocchie. Romantically, they're cicada di mare, cicada of the sea. But in Venice, they're known as canoce (pronounced ka-NOH-chay): 6- to- 8-inch mantis shrimp, paler and smaller than the giants of the Barrier Reef, fished in cold-weather months in the shallow, sandy lagoons of the northern Adriatic.

A seasonal treat, they're sold live in the fish markets. Housewives and restaurateurs marinate them briefly in lemon juice and olive oil, then boil them quickly in acidulated water. The heads are severed with scissors, their abdominal carapaces snipped open, and the meat extracted from their thumb-sized fleshy tail to be served as a part of a shellfish platter or stirred into a creamy risotto.

A baby lobster it's not. The flesh is softer, more tender than a langoustine, the flavor more subtle even than farm-raised Gulf shrimp. (There's a reason for crab and shrimp boils seasoned with Old Bay: You're adding the flavor.) Canoce shells do not lend themselves to further extraction, be it for sauce or stock.

Now, where to go for the “real thing,” a seafood dinner in Venice? The city is a densely packed archipelago, an intricate latticework of some 120 islands and 400 bridges, home to perhaps 50,000 people. (Higher numbers refer to the commune of Venice, which extends well into the mainland.)

On any given day, there are probably 100,000 tourists wandering about as well, some enjoying the schmaltz of a serenade aboard one of La Serenissima's 450 gondolas. Even as its foundations crumble, the city remains an enchanted place, drawing sustenance from its love of edgy art (especially the Bienale) and the vitality of its swarming tourism.

If you visit Venice, you wander. You might have a map in your pocket with the name of your hotel to rescue you, when you can no longer bear the lightness of being lost. Venice is a city of lost tourists looking for that special doorway, that magic courtyard, that perfect palazzo. They haunt the souvenir shops along the Rialto bridge, they line up outside churches and museums, they congregate in restaurants with tourist menus in five languages. They eat bad pizza, and then complain you can't get a good meal in Venice. Some hunger for an authentic trattoria where locals eat after the daytrippers have gone back to their cruise ships and pensiones for a good night's sleep.

I found a couple, both specializing in seafood fresh from the Pescharia. From time to time you come across a narrow fondamento with a bar, or a campo with some tables outside, the sound of clinking glasses and lilting Italian conversations filling the night air, and you want to join in, you wish you spoke the language better, you wonder how to order what that table is having over there.

What I'm having are those cozze-vongole (mussels and clams in tomato sauce). You're looking at me enviously because I'm the one sitting at the table under the umbrella, drinking local white wine with Venice native Marco Giol, the owner of a motor launch that navigated the canals and is tied up at the end of the rio. He's having the sweet cape longhe (razor clams). We're being pampered by Francesco Agopyan, the owner of this secret spot, Trattoria Antiche Carampane.

Among the fishmongers down at the Rialto market, Francesco trusts only two, and they deliver every morning. His clientele, regardless of passport, is Venetian (or enterprising enough to have a Venetian make a reservation). They don't scorn tourists — far from it — they just don't eat dinner with them. There's a sign on the door: "No Lasagna, No Pizza, No Menu Turistico."

To reach the second authentic restaurant, the Osteria ai 40 Ladroni, on a quiet canal of the Cannaregio, you first cross the Campo del Ghetto. That would be the original Ghetto, or slag-heap, considered the least desirable spot to live in Venice, all bright and shiny these days with a Jewish museum. Keep going. The spot you're headed for, on the Fondamenta della Sensa, is sought-after by locals because it's well outside the San Marco-Rialto-Academmia tourist triangle and serves dazzlingly fresh seafood.

Pay no heed to the tourist comments on TripAdvisor and similar sites. They'll never be happy unless it's cheap and deep-fried; the worthwhile comments are in Italian (“A chi piace il pesce e la cucina casalinga questo è un posto assolutamente da provare, noi non vediamo l'ora di ritornare!” which translates to, "If you like home cooking this is a spot you must try; we can't wait to return.") Shrimp with polenta, a perfect scallop in its shell, calamari, a sublime cod fritter, the sweetest razor clams imaginable. Not a tourist trap, for sure.

Finally, Zentilin's own favorite spot, Terra e Laguna, in Aquileia, a Roman crossroads that was once the second most important port in Italy. (Pope Benedict XVI stopped by to celebrate Mass in Aquileia's historic basilica six months ago.) Local white wines — Riesling, Pinot Grigio — are served slightly frizzante (tingling), as is customary. The clams and scallops are served raw; even the branzino from local waters comes out sashimi-style, dressed only with strawberries. Risotto with mussels and black rice is served cold.

The Adriatic, by the way, is the same temperature as Puget Sound, and a single mature mussel, Zentilin reminds me, filters 21 liters of 14-degree water a day — over five gallons. Farmed shellfish, he's convinced, are the key to healthy waters, since they eat the same thing as shellfish in the wild. Compare that to farmed fin-fish, whose feed has to be imported, and whose waste has to be disposed of. And Zentilin's shellfish cooperative has the full support of the local government.

“There's a mutually beneficial relationship here between our shellfish industry and tourism,” he says. Not American tourists, necessarily, but Germans above all. It's just a 300-mile hop across the Alps from Munich to the warm-water playground of the Adriatic, and Germans love mollusks.

  • Antiche Carampane, San Polo 1911 (Rio Tera delle Carampane), Venice, Italy. (39) 041.524.0165
  • Osteria Ai 40 Ladroni, Cannaregio 3253 (Fondamenta della Sensa), Venice, Italy (39) 041 715736
  • Terra e Laguna, via Minut 1, Aquileia, Italy (39) 0431 919444

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About the Authors & Contributors

Ronald Holden

Ronald Holden

Ronald Holden is a regular Crosscut contributor. His new book, published this month, is titled “HOME GROWN Seattle: 101 True Tales of Local Food & Drink." (Belltown Media. $17.95).