A Venetian Shadow

venice canaletto-veduta-del-canal-grande-

Just returned from from Venice whose fatal charm is still as strong as ever despite the crowded vaporetti and tourist hype. The reflected light off the water still shines as unique and beautiful reflecting onto the colors of the buildings and still magically morphs into shadows. The light of Venice is legendary. Canaletto’s 18th century scenes of  Venice’s Grand Canal play on the reflections of light and shadow. In Venice the Italian phrase bere un’ombra means “to drink a shadow” and un’ombra, “the shadow”, they are referring to is a glass of wine.

venice san marco

In the past, Piazza San Marco was filled with vendors of all kinds. At the foot of the massive Campanile across the square was a wine seller. During the day, he used to adjust his stand to stay in the shadow of the bell tower and soon “let’s go in the shade” became an in-the-know way of saying “let’s go have a glass of wine”.

The movable wine shop is no more but “drinking a shadow” remains the traditional phrase for drinking a glass of wine in the seductive city of Venice.


wine and venice

However un’ombra is not a typical bicchiere di vino, (glass of wine) drunk with a meal but a small glass typically ordered with *cicchetti, an assortment of appetizers or tiny snacks served at a Venetian bàcaro, a tavern or wine bar unique to Venice. Un ombra typically is an inexpensive, young wine ( vino sfuso)  sold for around 1 euro a glass in bars  served with a delicious cicchetti it is an essential Venetian ritual for a person’s health and well-being.

Small Bites in the Shade

crostini and pesto

Pesto Genovese & Sun-Dried Tomato Crostini

8 ounces Mascarpone cheese, softened
8 ounces cream cheese, softened
1 cup La Bella Angiolina Ligurian Basil Pesto
1 jar Italian Sun-Dried Tomatoes packed in extra virgin olive oil
1 loaf of rustic Italian bread
In a mixer or with wooden spoon, blend softened cheeses until smooth. Gently fold in pesto or place a dollop on top. Spread on bread slices and top with a piece of  roasted or sun-dried tomato.

polenta and cod

Grilled Polenta with Cod Fish Mousse

10 oz. dried salt cod
4 cups milk
1 medium yellow onion, halved
1 rib celery, halved
1 clove garlic, crushed
1⁄2 cup olive oil, plus more
1 1⁄3 cups Biancoperla white corn polenta
24 small radicchio leaves
2 tbsp. finely chopped parsley

Place cod in a 2-qt. saucepan, and cover by 2″ with cold water; boil for 20 minutes. Drain cod, return to saucepan, and repeat process twice more. Transfer cod to a 6-qt. saucepan and add milk, onion, celery, garlic, and 10 cups water; boil. Reduce heat to medium-low; cook until cod is tender, about 20 minutes. Drain cod, reserving 1⁄4 cup cooking liquid; discard vegetables and skin and bones from cod. Process cod and cooking liquid in a food processor until smooth. While processor is running, drizzle in 1⁄2 cup oil; continue mixing until smooth. Transfer to a bowl and season with salt and pepper; chill cod mousse.

Cook polenta according to package instructions. Transfer to a greased 12″ x 9″ rimmed baking sheet; smooth top and chill until set. Cut polenta into 2″ x 3″ rectangles; brush with extra virgin olive oil. Grill polenta, turning once, until slightly charred, about 4 minutes. Top each rectangle with radicchio leaf and a dollop of cod mousse; sprinkle with parsley. (adapted from a recipe at Saveur Magazine)

*the word cicchetti is derived from the Latin ciccus meaning very small

The Vocabulary of Venice

Venice Eric streetsMost cities in Italy reflect the food, wine, art and design of a particular region and then there is Venice. A stand alone city of palaces and churches built on 117 islands linked by nearly 400 bridges with canals instead of streets and boats rather than cars and buses. Unique unto its own, dependent on the sea, Venice went well beyond Italy’s borders looking across the Adriatic to the East rather than Western Europe for her power and prestige. A cosmopolitan city for her time, Venice was different. Her ruler was called the Doge. He wore a funny hat called a corno ducale  and was elected from the ranks of the aristocracy and could only rule with the support of the aristocrats and the common man. The influence of the East brought a certain exotic elegance to Venice as seafaring merchants and traders brought their goods and services to Venetian ports. In Venice artists and painters, printers, ceramists, glassworkers, woodworkers, lace makers, goldsmiths and sculptors were considered professional artisans and unlike many other parts of Italy where artists were funded in part by the Church or commissioned merely for the honor (without remuneration), the artisans of Venice were paid for their work and produced prolifically.

A city with such a lineage merits a vocabulary of its own to describe all the nuances of living in La Serenissima, beginning with the Italian word for house casa.

ca‘ — the abbreviated form of the word “casa” used for the noble palazzi of Venice, once private residences now museums that line the Grand Canal.

calle – (pronounced ca-lay), the most commonly used word for street, known as via or strada elsewhere in Italy. There are numerous variations.

stretto – a narrow passageway.

campo – everywhere else in Italy a square is called a piazza while in Venice the only piazza is Piazza San Marco ; all other squares are campi from the Italian word for field or meadow. Almost every one of Venice’s campi carries the name of the church that is or was associated with it.

androni – ground floor of a palazzo, often flooded during periods of aque alte (high waters).

piano nobilethe reception floor of a palazzo above the androne.

canale — there are three principal canals in Venice; Canale Grande (the Grand Canal), Canale della Giudecca, and Canale di Cannaregio.

rio – each of the other 160 or so smaller canals.

rio terrà – a filled-in canal now used as a street.

fondamenta – a walkway along the side of a rio.

riva – promenades along the Grand Canal near the Piazza San Marco and the Rialto (one of the four bridges across the Grand Canal and the oldest.

ramo – meaning “branch,” a small side street.

salizzada – meaning “laid with cobblestones,” so any street you see in Venice prefaced with salizzada was one of the first streets in Venice to be paved.

sottoportego – a passage under a building. sottoportego and venice

It is well know that the foods of Italy are local reflections of the culture and traditions of the region and all have their own regional names. Long thick strands of pasta are called stringozzi in Umbria, pici in Tuscany and bigoli in Venice. The exotic spices of Byzantium and the East flavored, colored and named the food of Venice with dishes like baccalà mantecato (creamed cod), risi e bisi (rice and peas), sardee in saor ( sweet and sour sardines with onions, pine nuts and raisins) and fegato alla Veneziana (liver and onions ). All but preludes to the notorious Venetian pastries that like the arabesque architecture and gilded mosaics reflect the sweet, serene, stunningly beautiful life of Venice.

pan di gogi best

An Italian Paperback Writer Needs a Noble Font

Between the bolded B and the underlined U on your computer Word tool bar is the italicized I, the paperback writer’s best friend. At least that was so in the 16th century when Venetian printer, publisher and businessman Aldus Manutius  developed a typography ideally suited to fit a large amount of text into a small amount of space and so the paperback book was born. Pointed and clicked on for centuries by writers, students and graphic designers, the italics cypher is a letter with a secret intent, much abused and overused with little regard for its original use and meaning. Designed by Manutius in 1551 to mimic the cursive writing of Greek and Latin manuscripts favored by humanist scholars of the High Renaissance, it was considered a scholarly and noble font that also easily adapted to the paperback book.

Today it has as many uses and misuses as handicapped parking spaces or the comma. And although there is a desire to eliminate cursive writing in our schools, the judicious and proper use of italics in writing honors a tradition of italic typography that if lost would surely diminish our written language. It would be a little like drinking imitation coffee. The intent is there but the depth of flavor is missing. Without the emphasis, contrast and clarification of italics, the writer’s words might prove tasteless.

*The Venetian house of Aldus Manutius is located in the sestiere of Santa Croce on Rio Terra Secondo. Slightly off the beaten path Santa Croce is relatively close to the Rialto Bridge and Piazza San Marco by vaporetti (water bus). Savor many of the areas fine restaurants and see interesting museums and the baroque palazzo Ca’Pesaro