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During the week in Venice that Tom and I are just back from, we indulged in so much seafood that we could almost feel gills beginning to form on our necks. Most fish and shellfish from the Adriatic Sea and the Venetian lagoon are so unlike anything we get at home that every meal was an adventure. Here are highlights.

 

Antipasti at Giorgione

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Friends who live part of every year in Venice took us to this simple family-run trattoria in their neighborhood. We started with granseola, a kind of spider crab, and cicale di mare, mantis shrimp. Both were simply boiled, chilled, and dressed with olive oil and lemon. Neither flavor resembles those of our blue claw crabs or shrimps of any size, but both were delicious.
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Main courses at
Al Covo

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This is a handsome, chef-owned, Slow Food member restaurant with a mission to “research, appreciate, defend and propose” the products of the territory around the Venetian lagoon. We ate there with our Venetian friends also, who patronize it often.
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My main course, above, was breaded and fried sarde “de alba” (“dawn” sardines: a name for fish caught first thing in the morning and cooked that same day) and canoce (another local name for mantis shrimp).
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These are the two halves of Tom’s main course, a fritto misto dell’Adriatico. It was served that way, in sequence, apparently so that none of the fried things would get cold. They were sole (smaller and sweeter than any variety we get here), anchovies, scallops, squid, shrimp, monkfish, polenta, and several vegetables. Enough food for a hungry boy scout troop..

 

Dinner at Ai Barbicani

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On our first visit to Venice, many years ago, we had two very pleasant dinners at this little restaurant in the city’s medieval section. We were delighted this year to find it still in business, warm, charming, and even better than we remembered. They presented us with welcoming glasses of Prosecco and good-night glasses of grappa.
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We each had this most unusual antipasto of marinated raw seafood. There were shrimps in raspberry sauce; anchovies in vinegar and currants; thin, thin strips of cuttlefish mantle, and nuggets of monkfish. Fascinating flavors and textures, very attractively presented.
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Then we had an extravaganza of mixed grilled seafood: There were two big sweet-fleshed scampi, two even bigger mazzancolle (king prawns), a large sole, a small salmon steak, and chunks of coda di rospo (the ubiquitous monkfish), all perfectly grilled and amazingly fresh and moist. Even the platter on which they were served was almost a work of art.
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Dinner at Osteria da Fiore

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This entire trip to Venice was a gift to ourselves for our 50th wedding anniversary, and on the day itself we dined luxuriously at this Michelin one-starred restaurant. It had what for us is an ideal combination of elegant French ambience and service with the best of lightly modernized traditional Venetian cooking. We adored it.

Our first courses were spaghetti with tartufi di mare (Venus clams) and agnolotti filled with fresh peas in a sauce of astice (spiny lobster) with fresh ginger – the latter a particularly intriguing exotic note.
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Small soft-shell crabs from the Venetian lagoon – moleche in Italian, moeche in Veneziano – are available only briefly in spring and fall. Delighted to find we were there just before the end of the season, we both chose them for our main course. Perfectly deep-fried, they were the best dish we ate in the entire trip.
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We also had our best wine of the trip at Fiore, which Tom talks about in his blog. All in all, a great celebratory trip and a wonderful meal for an important anniversary.

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With only four days in Naples on our Italian trip earlier this month, there was no way Beloved Spouse and I could eat as many of the region’s foods and culinary specialties as we’d have liked. So we focused on – and feasted on – the many excellent kinds of fresh fish and shellfish available there. The beautiful Bay of Naples may not be the pristine pool it once was, but the local seafood remains spectacular in variety and flavor. Here are the dishes we enjoyed.

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Crudo

The word crudo means raw. Appetizer plates of raw fish are very popular in Italy. This one consisted of tender, paper-thin slices of baby octopus and salmon, lightly dressed with olive oil, lemon, and salt, and served on a bed of wild arugula. The interplay of the succulent octopus, the silky salmon, and the mildly bitter arugula was superb.
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Impepata di cozze

Years ago we knew cozze impepata as Neapolitan street food. Sidewalk vendors tended huge drums of boiling salt water heavily flavored with black pepper. They’d suspend a big bunch of mussels over the drum in a perforated dipper, pour water over them until they opened, and dump them onto a paper plate to be eaten with the hands. In this day’s restaurant dish, the mussels were steamed in their own broth, with garlic and oil as well as pepper. Each way, the glory of the simple preparation depends on very fresh, sweet, wild-harvested shellfish. And lots of pepper.

 

Spaghetti alle vongole veraci

This version of spaghetti with clam sauce, from the harborside restaurant La Bersagliera, may be my absolute, all-time, life-long favorite dish of pasta. I order it every time I’m there. Those tiny two-tube clams, the vongole veraci, have more luscious flavor and more intense sweetness here than in any other place and any part of Italy that I’ve ever had them. There’s not much else to the dish – olive oil, parsley, garlic, salt, and a touch of hot pepper – but either the clams from this locality or the way this kitchen handles them produces something purely magical.

 

Scialatelli con frutta di mare

Here are those marvelous mussels and clams again, in another kind of presentation. Scialatelli are fresh egg pasta, cut into a shape like thickish spaghetti but with a softer texture and milder flavor.  The lightly cooked pomodorini – cherry tomatoes – added a bright touch of sweet vegetable acidity to the rich shellfish flavors.

 

Mezze paccheri con coccio

It’s a Naples tradition to serve large tubes of paccheri pasta in a sauce made with chunks of the fish locally called coccio. It’s a kind of gurnard: a big-headed, bottom-feeding fish with large side fins like wings, a relative of our Atlantic sea robins. In America, sea robins are usually considered trash fish, but that whole family can be quite delicious, as Neapolitans know.  Another piscine relative is France’s rascasse, considered indispensable to bouillabaisse.

 

Frittura di paranza

The heap of small fishes on this plate included anchovies, tiny mullets and whiting, and possibly a sardine or two. Each was thinly coated in a tasty batter and fried to a perfect crunchiness. Lemon juice and salt brought out the best in them. Absolutely fresh fish and a really good hand at the fryer are what make this dish: It’s not “fishy” at all.

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Grigliata di calamari e gamberi

The big grilled squid mantle you see here was very tender, meat-sweet, and quite rich, its flavor heightened by exposure to the flame. The two shrimp were also excellent; I’d have been glad of a few more of them. The little mixed salad alongside made a nice contrast of texture and flavors.

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Spigoletta al forno in sale

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A spigola is a European sea bass, which can be a very large fish. Our smaller spigoletta probably weighed about two pounds when whole. Baked to perfection in a salt crust, it was a splendid fish: moist, rich, sweet, tender. (I know: I keep using the same words to describe these dishes. That’s because they were all like that – utterly delicious examples of their kind.)
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Looking at these dishes all together, it’s obvious that there’s nothing exotic or complicated in their preparation or presentation. Given the right ingredients, they’d all be easy to turn out from an American home kitchen. But oh, those ingredients! It’s nearly impossible to get fish and shellfish so fresh, so fine, and so flavorful here. The opportunity to indulge in them would, all by itself, have made my trip to Naples worthwhile.

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Devotees of Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano detective novels enjoy them almost as much for the hero’s eating habits as for his ingenuity in solving crimes. In every story, the police commissario in southwest Sicily takes time to relish the dishes of his region – most of all, those involving seafood – and the descriptions positively make the reader hungry.

montalbano cookbookThey also make this reader want to cook them. I have a number of Sicilian cookbooks and general Italian cookbooks with Sicilian recipes, but when the Montalbano urge is upon me I turn to Stefanio Campo’s I segreti della tavola di Montalbano: Le ricette di Andrea Camilleri. Twice in the last two years I’ve written about making recipes from that book (here and here), so I was due – overdue, in fact – for another indulgence.

Neither of the earlier experiments with the recipes included any seafood, and I was sure Montalbano would want me to make some of those. So, for a dinner party for Labor Day weekend, I chose this menu:

Alici con cipolle e aceto

Sauté di vongole al pangrattato

Pasta con le sarde

Brusciuluni

Granita di limone

Acquiring the necessary fish was a challenge. Fresh anchovies (alici) and fresh sardines (sarde) are rarely and unpredictably available locally. We haunted our fish store for weeks and almost gave up, but at last came a day when both kinds had just come in.

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We bought them at once. Tom heroically undertook the job of heading, tailing, and boning the little critters – a lengthy and maddening procedure – and we put them in the freezer, crossing our fingers that they would still be okay when defrosted.

Truth to tell, we pretty much had fingers crossed about the entire menu, since we’d never made any of those recipes before and there was a lot of translating, modifying, and quantifying to do. It was a busy cooking day for both of us, but well worth it, as it turned out. The rewards were great, from first bite to last swallow.

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Alici con cipolle e aceto

Montalbano’s housekeeper Adelina leaves him this dish of fresh anchovies in The Terracotta Dog. They’re first “cooked” like a séviche in white wine and vinegar, then drained and layered with thinly sliced cipolline – small, flattish Italian onions – covered with olive oil, and allowed to marinate for a few hours.

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They were gorgeous! Still fresh and sweet, with just the right balance of acidity and oil – perfect to pile on a slice of crusty ciabatta bread. Infinitely better than any prepared ones I’ve bought in this country. Even the cleaner/deboner says they were worth the trouble they took.

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Saute di vongole al pangrattato

Montalbano “gobbled up” this sauté of clams with breadcrumbs one day at a restaurant in Mazàra in The Snack Thief. Small clams – vongole veraci – are steamed open in sparkling wine with some garlic and olive oil. Then they’re dressed with parsley, salt, and pepper; laid in a gratin dish, sprinkled with breadcrumbs and olive oil, and baked for 15 minutes.

We can’t get those Mediterranean clams here, but New Zealand cockles are a reasonable substitute. (Small Manila clams will also do.) There is some Sicilian sparkling wine, but the Montalbano recipe calls for prosecco, so we used that and also served it for the aperitivo.

This too was an excellent dish. The cockles had a lively, briny sweetness that was heightened by the simple condiments, and despite the seemingly long cooking they remained tender and moist.

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Pasta con le sarde

In The Terracotta Dog, Adelina tells Montalbano she’s going to make him pasta with sardines, to be followed by purpi (octopus) alla carretiera. “Exquisite but deadly,” our hero thinks, and gives her a hug.

This classic, rich Sicilian pasta dish really should be made with very feathery wild fennel, but that doesn’t occur here, so we have to substitute bulb fennel, with some crushed fennel seed to boost the flavor. The freshest possible sardines, cut in pieces, are sauteed in olive oil with chopped onions with some mashed salted anchovy. Cooked, chopped fennel is added, and then raisins, pignoli, and saffron. Bucatini, cooked in the water that boiled the fennel, are tossed with the sauce and the dish topped with toasted breadcrumbs.

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I think this was the best version of the dish I’ve ever tasted (though Tom reminds me of a splendid one we had at a famous seafood restaurant in Rome – Carmelo alla Rosetta – some years back). All the flavors married beautifully in each mouthful, yet still retained their individual goodnesses. Fresh sardines are another animal entirely from the canned ones we all know, and they love the warm, gentle flavor of cooked fennel.

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Brusciuluni

Here we departed from our seafood theme. Brusciuluni is Sicilian dialect for braciolone, a large stuffed and rolled piece of beef. In Un mese con Montalbano (a book of short stories that hasn’t been issued in English yet), one of the inspector’s detectives invites him home to dinner. Fazio asks if his chief would prefer fish or meat. Montalbano knows Signora Fazio is an excellent cook, but also that she comes from an inland town where fish is never available, so he shrewdly chooses meat.

The result is this brusciuluni: a butterflied piece of meat (flank steak, in our case) rolled around a stuffing of caciocavallo, salame, hardboiled eggs, raisins, pignoli, and breadcrumbs. It’s braised in a thin tomato sauce, taken out to cool completely, then sliced, laid out on a platter, and topped with the hot sauce for serving.

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It was an attractive presentation, and a rich and filling course. One slice was all anyone could manage. Here the numerous flavors of the meats and cheese, eggs and herbs blended into an earthy, harmonious unity, an entity different from their individual flavors. Humble as the basic ingredients are, the dish derives from the cooking of the monzùs, the French chefs who served Sicily’s great houses in the 18th century.

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Granita di limone

In contrast to that composed meat course, dessert was a matter of utter simplicity. Adelina regularly makes lemon ice for Montalbano. In The Terracotta Dog, we learn that she uses a one-two-four formula: one glass of lemon juice, two of sugar, and four of water. The inspector considers it “a finger-licking delight.”

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We’d also had a cheese course after the brusciuluni, and the bracing granita was the ideal light finale to the meal. I’d made a test batch a few days in advance, and to my amazement, instead of turning into a mini-iceberg, the soft fluffy crystals retained their shape perfectly in the freezer. This is going to be a regular hot-weather dessert for us now, and a frequent reminder of our many debts to Andrea Camilleri.

P.S.  If you’d like to know about the wines Tom chose to accompany each course of the meal, you’ll find his post about them here.

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It’s sad when an old friend lets you down. This week, still in my older-books mode, I went looking for recipes in Jack Scott’s The Complete Book of Pasta. I bought it when it came out in 1968, five years before Marcella Hazan appeared on the culinary scene and started a great change in Italian cooking in American homes. Scott’s was a wonderful book to us then. (Tom simply drooled over its centerfold, shown below.) It gave us some recipes that have been favorites ever since. But many other Italian cookbooks have joined my collection since then, so I hadn’t gone back to it for anything new in years. Alas, it was not a good idea.

First I tried linguine allegre – translated as lively linguine with anchovies. It’s actually a mongrel sort of sauce. You sauté anchovies, celery, red bell pepper, capers, olives, basil, parsley, and garlic in butter and olive oil. Stir this mixture into a simple tomato sauce and simmer it all for 40 minutes. Now, all those flavors are good, but having so many of them cook together for so long blurred their distinctions and didn’t produce any synergy. As opposed to the Spanish recipes I wrote about two weeks ago, in this case the whole seemed like less than the sum of its parts.

An oddity was a direction to cook the linguine with less than the usual amount of salt in the water because of the saltiness of the anchovies. I think you’d need a fantastically sensitive palate for that to make a difference.

Well, I said to myself, even Homer nods. Let’s try another one.

Tagliolini freschi con carote, or fresh noodles with carrots, caught my eye because carrots aren’t often a featured companion to pasta. In fact, that name ignores two other principal ingredients: sliced mushrooms and julienne strips of prosciutto, quickly sautéed in butter and oil with the diced, precooked carrots. It sounded as if it’d be very nice on homemade egg noodles.

It was nice enough, but there wasn’t anywhere near enough of it. The recipe called for 6 mushrooms, 4 carrots, and 8 slices of prosciutto. The only liquid was ¼ cup of the pasta cooking water, added to the sauté pan at the end. This was supposed to be enough to dress 1½ pounds of fresh egg noodles. Fortunately, I doubted that, so I cooked only half as much pasta. Even so, there were still a lot of nearly naked noodles on the plates, with hardly any flavor of the other ingredients.

The recipe also called for grated parmigiano to be passed at the table, but trying a little on one forkful seemed only to emphasize the dryness of the dish. It did need salt and pepper, which weren’t mentioned in the recipe at all. Overall, another disappointment.

I almost feel guilty to think that this book, which gave me so much pleasure in the past, now seems to be so unrewarding. But a lot has happened since 1968. Many trips to Italy have exposed me to wonderful regional pasta preparations. I’ve published 60 of my own pasta recipes in my two cookbooks and enjoyed many more from books by other people that have appeared over the years. There’s far more access to excellent Italian ingredients and more knowledge of how to bring out the best in them. So dishes that were once new and exciting now have a lot of powerful palatal competition. I guess, as the philosopher Zeno didn’t quite say, you can never dip a ladle into the same tomato sauce twice.

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