How to Eat Fish in Venice

Dining is one of the best parts of the Italy travel experience. Of course, as you’ve probably read before, there are rules when it comes to enjoying a meal in Italy. I hate rules. But I do appreciate tradition, as well as learning about how Italians use and eat different ingredients.

So I was excited when Nan McElroy, author of the Living Venice Blog and the “Instructions for Use” travel series, approached me with a post about eating fish in Venice. I hope you enjoy this post as much as I did and I also hope that her tips come in handy when you’re in Venice for your next dining adventure.

Nosh Venice Fish, But Leave That Lemon Alone: Advice from a Fresh Fish Fanatic

Venice CalamariYou’re town for a few days, for the Biennale, for the Film Festival, for the Regata Storica; before cruise, after cruise, or for the month, and tonight, you’ve chosen the restaurant where you’ll treat yourself to Venice’s precious pesce.

If you’ve done your homework and chosen your eatery carefully, you’ll rarely be disappointed. Even non-fish fans, if they can be tempted, become converts, as often this freshest of fish bears no resemblance to the more common frozen fare — something that, should a restaurant even consider serving to a local, will at best cause them never to return; at worst, incite a heated argument that can end with the guest either storming out or being asked to leave. Harrumph.

Venice has always treasured (if not totally depended upon) its fish, whether from the lagoon or the upper Adriatic, and never tires of finding new ways to consume it and serve it to their guests. You’ll select from baked, grilled, sauteed, raw and even whipped versions of familiar (or less so) species; flat, fat, large and small; shellfish and mollusks, with and without shells, without and without backbones. Traditionalists will opt for the fabulous frittura, often rating various locales’ versions on crispness, abundance, and the fish-to-vegetable ratio — each important when defending your choice for the best fritto misto fried fish platter in town.

Fish Plate with LemonAnd the lemon wedge? A common fish-dish accompaniment anywhere else in the world, but  to a Venetian fish purist an appalling idea. Figurati should a slice wend its way to the plate.

Come mai, why is that? Because (explained the self-proclaimed fresh fish purist), the fish served at your dining table is a treasured thing: it’s just arrived from the sea (or better have), “swimming with its brothers” as they say, only hours ago; it’s expensive (we had to wait years for that branzino to get to a catchable age — not six- or 12-months for a force-fed farm-raised antibiotic-ingesting mutant); and a delicacy, whether a tiny schie lagoon shrimp, a robust rombo turbot, or a magnificent blue or yellow fin wrestled from the Japanese sushi trade.

And you want to put lemon on it? Macché! Don’t even think about it.

Branzino fishIt’s true — where lemons are concerned, what’s obvious to maniacal fresh-fish devotees may not be so obvious to everyone else. If you ask a few of them, they’ll tell you there are actually some fairly logical reasons to let the lemon lie.

First, the fresh fish you find served in Venice have marvelous, sometimes delicate flavors (mostly non-fishy, by the way); the chef has prepared today’s catch to enhance them. If you smother them with lemon juice, what will you taste? In their eyes, the lemon homogenizes these very distinctive fish dishes — and nobody wants that. In fact, lemon is more for fish that’s, well, been around, that has defects to overcome — not for fresh fish flesh. Finally, expert fryers will work tirelessly to serve you the crispiest frittura possible. So what happens when you squeeeeeeze a half of lemon over the mound of crunchy fried fish?

Lemon mush, that’s what. Una tragedia, a real heart-breaker.

In a labor-saving move, or perhaps because they lack the fish-faithful culture of a born-and-raised Venetian, many restaurants have just given in and included the lemon as garnish. There are other eateries though, who will flat refuse to serve you the lemon (along with any sort of grated cheese, by the way), so best be prepared.

Rhombo ChiodatoWhy not compromise? Before you request a lemon wedge, or crush the one on your plate over its contents out of habit, why not simply sample what’s been served to you as is? If you’re eating in a restaurant famous for its fish, you’ll be surprised at how unnecessary the lemon might seem (try a light olive oil drizzle if you must). And — you’ll be immediately categorized as a informed fish fan. (When in Venice, and all that…)

So, will you become Venice’s next fish purist? Who’s to say? In any case, the fresh fish found here is certainly worth indulging in. Enjoy!

Dining in Rome: Rooftop Restaurants and Special Occasions

Refined Rooftop Dining from Rome’s Hotel 47

In the first installment of “Ask the Italy Expert,” a feature in which I ask Italy travel specialists to help me answer reader inquiries, Stefania Troiani of Rome Shopping Guide about outlet shopping and pastry shops in Rome. This week’s questions are also about Rome and eating. What can I say…? Those are two topics I get asked about the most!

So, I called in another Rome expert. This time it is Erica Firpo behind the gorgeous travel blog Moscerina, to which she has been posting anecdotes about life in Rome since 2005. If you follow Italy travel news on Twitter, you may know Erica as @moscerina or @NG_Rome. The “NG” in the latter stands for Nile Guides, for which Erica is the local expert in Rome. After contacting Erica, I also learned that she wrote the Rome Little Black Book, a dining and entertainment guide for the Eternal City. Once again, I knew I had called on the right Italy expert for the job!

Following are the questions submitted by real Italofile readers and Erica’s expert advice.

Question 1: Rooftop Restaurants
Hi, Melanie! Can you recommend the best restaurants in Rome? Non- touristy and relaxing? ;). I am looking for a client. I’m not sure where she is staying, she has not set a budget- just wants great food and nice atmosphere- any rooftop restaurants with views maybe? Thanks, Laura

Rooftop restaurants in Rome are almost always, as a rule of thumb, atop hotels, which can mean they are touristy and perhaps a little too stuffy. Since a Roman sunset is a sight not to be missed, my advice would be to have a champagne toast on a rooftop– St. George Hotel (panorama of all the domes of Rome), Hotel Raphael (above Piazza Navona), Grand Hotel de la Minerve (view of the Pantheon’s dome), or Forty-Seven Hotel (looking toward the Tiber to the Temple of Fortunus), and then make your way around the neighborhood to a fabulous dinner. My favorite restaurants? Santa Lucia and San Teodoro — both are nestled in piazzas, away from the hubbub, and have delicious menus. Santa Lucia’s specialty is fish, while San Teodoro is creative interpretation of Roman cuisine.

(I also recommended San Teodoro in this post about Restaurants Near the Roman Forum.)

Question 2: Special Occasion Restaurants in Rome
Hi, Melanie. I wonder if you can help please. It will be my daughter’s 21st birthday on the 15th July. As a surprise, we are looking to take her (and her sister who is 26) to Rome for a few days. On her actual birthday, I would like to go to a nice restaurant (but maybe somewhere that’s more fun than posh) and as part of that, I would like to arrange a special birthday cake (which they would bring at the end of the meal). Would it be possible to arrange something like this in Rome and have it booked in advance? Any ideas appreciated! Thanks, Linda

Most restaurants will ask that you choose from their desserts, or if desiring a cake, choose from their pastry chef of choice. Casina Valadier, which may be more posh than fun, has an excellent pastry designer whose cakes are fantasies in marzipan. La Pergola‘s pastry chef is perhaps Rome’s most creative: his chocolate creations are unique to the world. [La Pergola is also Rome’s most coveted restaurant with 3 Michelin stars for cuisine, service, and price.] For a fun evening of eating (and less taxing on the wallet), Felice a Testaccio has excellent Roman cuisine and a fun, hip atmosphere. I just asked about birthday cakes since I’ll be celebrating there- the chef suggested a pick from his desserts, and order one in advance especially for the evening.

Laura and Linda, I hope these answers will help you plan the perfect Roman holidays for your client and your daughters. Thank you so much, Erica, for your extremely useful answers.

If you’d like to submit a question or if you are an Italy expert who’d like to offer some advice, contact me. Hopefully, we can collaborate on the next installment of Ask the Italy Expert!

Photo ©

Italy Article Round-Up

In case you missed these recent articles on travel to Italy…

New York Times
Sicily, Through the Eyes of the Leopard

The Washington Post
See Naples…And Eat

Sydney Morning Herald
Ready for Super-Bol (A Search for the Best Ragu in Bologna)

Los Angeles Times
Exploring Sun-Splashed Venice’s City Squares

The Guardian (UK)
Instant Weekend…Turin

The Boston Globe
Eat Them All, Pray For More, Love the Neopolitan Pie
Ancient Capri Still Casts Its Powerful Spell

Seattle Times (Rick Steves’ Europe)
For Italy In the Extreme, Go to Naples

The Independent (UK)
See Italy – From the Wheel of a Ferrari
Lyrical Charm in Capri

The Vancouver Sun
How To Enjoy Rome With the Kids

The Financial Times
Do You Need Another Reason to Visit Florence?

Harry’s Bar Offers Discount to ‘Poor Americans’

For Americans touring Venice, one of the most famous places to visit is Harry’s Bar, a former haunt of Ernest Hemingway. Unfortunately, as the dollar has sunk (and continues to sink) against the euro, Harry’s, which has always been expensive, is out of most American tourists’ price range. So now, in light of the current economic downturn, Harry’s Bar has begun to offer a “discount to ‘poor’ Americans suffering from a weak dollar and subprime blues.”

According to Reuters, the following sign has been posted outside of the bar:

Harry’s Bar of Venice, in an effort to make the American victims of subprime loans happier, has decided to give them a special 20 percent discount on all items of the menu during the short term of their recovery.

Now, let’s hope that other restaurants and hotels in Italy extend similar charity to traveling Americans this summer. We’re gonna need it!

Is It Still Italian If the Chef Isn’t?

While it’s hardly shocking for Americans – we’ve been eating Italian food cooked by Mexicans and Salvadorans for years – Italy is now grappling with the conundrum that many of the cooks in the country’s top-rated restaurants are non-Italians. Ian Fisher’s article today in the New York Times points out that Antico Forno Roscioli, which recently won accolades from Gambero Rosso (equivalent to Michelin in Italy) for Rome’s best carbonara, has a chef from Tunisia. Further, L’Arcangelo, which came in second in the competition, has a head chef from India.

Is this really a big deal? Some of the chefs cited in Fisher’s piece – from Jordan, China, etc. – noted that many customers turned tail at the sight of a non-Italian behind the counter or in an apron. But, I have to agree with the owner of Sabatini in Trastevere that as long as the right training is there, nothing should change. It’s just part of a globalizing world. What do you think?

Ten Euro Trattorias

Italy’s leading paper Corriere della Sera has a small English language section that delivers news and the occasional lifestyle article. While digging, we found this recent nugget on Low Cost Italy’s Ten Euro Trattorias. While the article doesn’t provide an exhaustive list of cheap eats (it is a mere round-up of some other food articles), it does name a few, including Buffet da Pepi (Trieste, Friuli-Venezia Giulia), Taverna del Leone (Positano, Campania), and Antico Forno Roscioli (Rome).

Roberto Rizzo, the author of the article, also names staf chef Davide Oldani’s D’O, a budget-friendly restaurant in Milan’s San Pietro all’Olmo district that offers a two-course lunch menu for €11.50. D’O’s dinnertime tasting menu isn’t a steal at about €32, but it’s not bad for a one-star Michelin restaurant.

Gastronomic Tour of Emilia Romagna

Tamburini Prosciutti

You can eat well just about anywhere in Italy. But Italians know that Italy’s culinary heart lies in Emilia Romagna. Ragú alla Bolognese, premium balsamic vinegar from Modena, Parma ham, parmigiano cheese, mortadella – all of these scrumptious items come from Emilia Romagna. That’s why epicures who want to get the most out of an Italian tour may be interested in Tour de Forks’ Emilia Romagna Tour. This week-long tour, which takes place October 21-27, travels around Bologna, Modena, Parma, and Ravenna, giving guests a chance to sample the best of the region. We’re licking our lips at the thought of it…

Italy Article Round-Up From the Past Few Months

Here are some of the Italy travel articles you may have missed over the past few months.

New York Times
Prato, Italy: In Tuscany, the Revealing of a Forbidden Love
Bread-Making and Truffle-Hunting in Italy (Piemonte; actually a short review of two tours)
Bologna, Italy: Finding New Life in the Arts
La Dolce Vita, Both Day and Night (Readers Picks in Rome)

The Washington Post
They Got Game. In Several Languages. (About European (and Italian) basketball leagues)

The Daily Telegraph (UK)
Italy: An Insider’s Guide (a list of the 30 best things in Italy; a bit similar to our recent posts “20 Things We Love About Italy” parts 1 and 2.)

The Guardian (UK)
Eternal Attraction (Rome)
Venetian Bites
Big City Bites: Parma

Los Angeles Times
20 Ways to Take Back the 20% Our Dollar Lost to the Euro (great advice from Rick Steves; not specific to Italy, but there are several Italy tips)

Bend Weekly (Oregon)
Serene Pleasures of the Veneto (via Copley News Service)

Sydney Morning Herald
Life in Ruins (Siracusa, Sicily)
A Cloister Walk with Thee (Assisi)

New Zealand Herald
Venice Calls – and to Hell with Explanations (a sort of Eat, Pray, Love piece on traveling alone to Italy)

Where the Fashion Forward Eat and Sleep in Milan

Nhow Hotel, Milan

Here’s a hotel and restaurant that we hope Jessica over at Italylogue will have a chance to check out while she’s in Milan.

Located in the hip Tortona district, Milan’s Nhow Hotel, which opened last year in a defunct General Electric power plant, has put a high-design touch on all of its rooms and common areas. There are bedrooms decorated to look like comic strips, a “crystallized” Swarovski chair, and a flowering Alexander Calder-type installations in the dining room. According to the Nhow brochure (PDF file), the hotel changes the look of the common areas every four months. So, it’s like staying at a gallery almost every time you visit.

If the Nhow’s minimalist design starts to bore you, then head over to Dolce & Gabbana’s Gold, the fashion design duo’s restaurant/bistrot/lounge bar. Like D&G’s, Gold is deliciously over the top. Though we wonder if anyone actually eats there.

New Look ‘Cucina Italiana’

For years, I was a subscriber to the American English version of La Cucina Italiana, a magazine that featured, you guessed it, the best of Italian cuisine. At the beginning of my subscription, I eagerly anticipated each new issue. But, with each passing month, the magazine became stale for me.

One of the reasons I grew numb to the magazine was because of its editor, Paolo Villoresi, a Pavarotti-proportioned gourmand who tended to think that readers were interested more in his life story than in the food of Italy. In addition, I thought that the publication could do better with regards to its photography and features. It seemed that La Cucina Italiana’s audience was the over-50, Italian-American set, a generation that probably already knew how to cook half of the recipes in the magazine anyhow.

I passed by the newsstand a few days ago and, to my surprise, found a spiffed-up La Cucina Italiana. The magazine has gone through a metamorphosis, thanks to Laura Lazzaroni, the new editor-in-chief. I found out the scoop from another blog (A Rake’s Progress, currently shut down for some reason):

“The publisher of the magazine was a fatherly — and plump! — chef and entrepreneur, Paolo Villoresi. His love of Italian food and Italy infused every page of the magazine. Getting my hands on the newest issue was as fulfilling as the best recipe within its covers! From a business standpoint, Paolo had been licensing the rights to the name, La Cucina Italiana, from the original publishers in Milan, Italy. Several months ago, the publishers took back the rights to the American version of the magazine. Paolo is now gone.”

The blogger that provided that information hates the new CI, and I, too, have some criticisms. One, there is an overemphasis on pretentious design (SMEG and Missoni Home are great…but get to the food already!). Two, the recipe format is a little strange. For example, it lists the item first then the amount (this takes a little getting used to). Third, this issue (November/December 2007) has too many recipes! That shouldn’t be a criticism of a magazine, but it could stand to be edited down a bit.

On the other hand, the new version of La Cucina Italiana is a fantastic source for gourmet travelers. The profiles on Peck (“Milan’s Temple of Taste”) and Another Italy, which featured travel info and recipes from Ragusa, Lecce, Macerata, Turin, and Prato, were the types of articles one would expect from Food and Wine or Gourmet, not from CI.

I also loved the editorial entitled “Caravaggio’s Kitchen,” which was a recreation in photographs and recipes of cuisine painted by the artist. According to the article, the idea of “Caravaggio’s Kitchen” came from photographer Gianni Ummarino and his wife Maria Piras, whose full book of “real” still life photographs will be available at Christmas. It’s quite stunning how well the pair managed to capture these images. It’s life imitating art imitating (still) life.

No, the new version of La Cucina Italiana is not perfect. But, it has gotten me excited about cooking again (which is the goal of food magazines, right?). Welcome to the 21st century, CI!

Bathing in Viterbo, Eating in Venice…

Here are some links to some recent articles we found interesting. Enjoy!

NY Times
Wild Spas: The Divine Therapy
Vatican Airline Takes to the Skies
Genoa: You’ll Wonder Why Columbus Ever Left

Miami Herald
In Matera, Art – and Life – Go Underground
Top Picks: Good Eats in Venice

Eat the Cannoli, Drink the Cappuccino

Though this is a few weeks old, I thought I’d share this amusing take from the San Francisco Chronicle about drinking cappuccino in Italy after 11am. I admit, I am guilty on both counts: both urging readers not to order the frothy concoction “after hours” and ordering one for myself despite the common “wisdom.”

Many of us American tourists want to try to blend in while we travel, so we’re always trying to “do as the Romans do.” But try as we might – ducking into dark corners to check out our travel map, eating our french fries with those little plastic forks, drinking cappuccino at a proper hour –  we can be spotted for who we are from a mile – er, kilometer – away.

So, go ahead and do what feels good when you travel. As long as you’re not hurting anyone or disrupting anyone else’s enjoyment, feel free to be you.

Photo by Jaana-Mari

Cook’s Tour of Milan

I’m very lucky. The very first time I tasted risotto was in Milan. We were en route to Verona and ate the creamy, saffron-tinted risotto milanese at the train station cafe. Even given the locale, it was still an epiphany.

Apparently, I’m not the only one who has dreams about one of Milan’s most prized dishes. Mimi Sheraton’s Times’ piece A Cook’s Tour of Milan shows us that the city of high fashion also turns out fine cuisine.

The Making O’ the Green

On March 17, people the world over will turn their thoughts to all things green. But in Genoa, Liguria, they won’t be thinking about green beer, rather pesto, the home-grown pasta topping made from heaps of basil, olive oil, parmigiana and pignoli. This Saturday in Genoa marks the Pesto Championship, an effort by the local tourist board to re-introduce the traditional way of making pesto – with a mortar and pestle. Even when it’s made using a Cuisinart, pesto always sounds magically delicious to us!

Photo by Monkeycat!

Dining Near the Forum

I recently received an e-mail from an Unofficial Guide reader asking about the best places to dine near the Roman Forum. The Forum “complex,” which includes the Roman Forum, Palatine Hill, Colosseum, and Trajan’s Market (and, to a lesser extent, the Capitoline and the Vittoriano) is ultimately a tourist area. So, as like in other cities, the best restaurants are rarely concentrated where tourists tread.

However, exploring the lanes around the Forum can yield some fine food. The very first restaurant I thought of when she mentioned she was looking for a nice place to celebrate near the Forum is San Teodoro. It is listed in the UGCI and is just sandwiched in the area between the Forum and the Circus Maximus. It doesn’t overlook the Forum per se, but it does have an elegant atmosphere. Two other recommendations in that area are Ai Tre Scalini (via SS. Quattro 30 (near Colosseum); 06-709-6309; Closed Mon.) and Alvaro al Circo Massimo (via dei Cerchi 53; 06-678-6112; Closed Mon.).

Ancient Rome admirers may also want to consider L’Archeologia, a restaurant on the Appian Way that DOES provide views of ruins. Please note that I’ve never eaten here – it’s on my list! – but I’ve heard good things.

I would love to hear from others with tips on Forum-area dining. Please add your comments below.

Photo © Ramiro Sànchez-Crespo

Gourmet’s All Italy Issue

Gourmet MagazineThose of you with a subscription to Gourmet magazine – or at least a keen eye at the supermarket checkout – already know that the January 2007 issue of Gourmet is all about Italy. We were thrilled to pick up this issue at the newsstand yesterday, as it includes an article by Lidia Bastianich about the food of Istria and Friuli; a Food Lover’s Guide to Milan; and a profile by Colman Andrews (formerly of Saveur) on renowned Tuscan restaurant Gambero Rosso (Piazza della Vittoria, 13, San Vincenzo (Livorno); 0565-70-10-21.) Other regions covered in this issue are Sicily, Alto Adige (a piece on cheese by Sean Wilsey), and Puglia.

Unfortunately, none of this content is available on the Gourmet website. So go out and get this issue while it’s still around.