Creatures of the Venetian Lagoon
Sea walnuts, goby, soft shell crabs & sardines.
Despite having been there a couple of times on quick visits as a typical tourist, one of them when I was 18 or 19, I never really had a good understanding of what Venice, Italy really was and represented. This is a city built on water, that I knew, but I had the impression that those canals were as lifeless beneath them as the canals of The Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas. That’s far from the case I recently discovered.
The Venetian Lagoon is fascinating for what it represents to world in both ecological and historical value. This was one of the world’s first global culinary cities, where foods from different continents intersected and were dispersed. Venetian food was in a constant state of change with the introduction of new ingredients, such as spices from the Far East, and the overconsumption of others, such as the oysters that disappeared in the 8th century.
On my recent trip there, during the Venice edition of the Care’s conference, which was launched by the chef Norbert Niederkofler of the restaurant St. Hubertus of San Cassiano in the Alps but is now roving across Italy, much my time was spent away from the throngs of tourists around Piazza San Marco. Instead, I spent a good deal of time on the outer islands of Venice, meeting cooks and fishermen whose lives depend on what’s living in and around the lagoon.
A poster child for rising sea waters, the Venetian is emblematic of a food system in flux. Invasive species from have arrived on the ballast of ships and are thriving in warmer waters, yet the culinary community in the city is battling them like in army, as Francesco Brutto of Venissa on the island of Mazzorbo described in our recent conversation on the podcast. At the two restaurants he runs at Venissa with Chiarra Pavan, all of the seafood on their menus is invasive, while other restaurants like Locale, Dama and Oro at Hotel Cipriani are quite conscious of reflecting the ecosystem of the lagoon on their menus
New Worlder is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
The Cicala di mare (Squilla mantis) or canocia in Italian, sea cicadas are 6- to- 8-inch mantis shrimp that are fished from the sandy bottoms of the lagoon’s marshes during the winter months when they leave their burrow to mate. They are sold live in the Mercato di Rialto and are usually served boiled – heads removed, and the meat extracted from their tails – with a touch of lemon and olive oil.
Found in the mouths of the rivers that feed into the lagoon from October to March, schie (Crangon crangon) are very small grey crustaceans similar to shrimp. Once considered an ingredient for the poor, though today they are being applied to high end gastronomy and demand is increasing. However, trawl nets of illegal fishermen are depleting the vegetation they live within. They are often served with polenta.
For centuries, fishermen have been gathering these common green crabs (Carcinus aestuarii) usually in the Spring or Fall during their molting stage, when their shell is soft and flesh is sweet. They are separated into boni (will molt within a few weeks) and spiantani (will molt in days). The crabs are cooked alive in boiling water, and then usually dusted in flour and fried.
This mollusk that lives on the lagoon floor, cuttlefish are the same class of Cephalopoda as squid and octopus. As they are caught with relative ease and not frightened, their ink sack remains intact and it’s believed that the fishermen of Venice were the first to start cooking cuttlefish with their ink, which is a classic winter dish served with polenta called Seppie al Nero.
The small grass goby (Zosterisessor ophiocephalus), which weaves elaborate dens in the seaweed to lay eggs within the murky bottoms of the lagoon, has traditionally been caught by hand by reaching into the mud. The fish has a lot of bones and not much flesh, so it’s difficult to cook and takes. Along time, though the flavor can be exceptional. One of the classic dishes of the island of Burano, you can find risotto di gò at restaurants like Local.
Rapana venosa, the veined rapa whelk or Asian rapa whelk, is a species of large predatory sea snail that first arrived in the North Adriatic in the 1970s and it is invasive in the Venetian lagoon and beyond where its numbers are increasing. It preys on native fish, so it’s particularly threatening to the balance of the lagoon’s ecosystem.
Sardines & Anchovies
Small fish like sardele (sardines) and sardon (anchovies) are staples of Venetian cuisine and found in great numbers in the lagoon. Sardines are the main ingredient of one of Venice’s most famous dishes, sardele in saor, where they are fried and then pickled in onions and vinegar and eaten with raisins and pine nuts, which likely originated as a way to preserve fish on long sea voyages and dates, at least, to the 1300s.
Atlantic Blue Crabs
The large blue crab (Callinectes sapidus), or Granchio Blu in Italian, hails from the Atlantic Ocean, but was first reported in the Mediterranean in Venice in the 1990s and has been spreading rapidly. It’s feeding on the native species and quickly lessening the lagoon’s biodiversity. In years past, fishermen would toss them back in the water when they appeared in their nets, though now restaurants around Venice are finding ways to incorporate them in local gastronomy and others are processing the pulp for export to increase demand for their catch.
With rising sea temperatures, bluefish (Pomatomus saltatrix) are appearing in much greater numbers in the lagoon. They entered in the Mediterranean with the opening of the Suez Canal and with rising sea temperatures have moved into the Adriatic in greater numbers and its feeding on native species sardines and anchovies.
Folpetti (Eledone moschata), sometimes called baby octopus for their small size, have long been food for the poor in Venice. They are one of the cheapest seafoods you will find in Venice, often grilled or pan fried and sitting on counters of bacari (taverns) as cichéti (tapas).
The warty comb jelly (Mnemiopsis leidyi), or sea walnut, is native to western Atlantic, but has become invasive in the Mediterranean and is increasingly found in Venice. It’s consuming zooplankton and the eggs of native fish, which is having disastrous consequences in the North Adriatic, and has no natural predators. While there is a habit of consuming jellyfish like these in Asia, there is little knowledge of their culinary in uses though there are hints that that might change. For example, at Venissa, I had them in a lagoon-style curry and nasturtium.