Experience -- Shop, Cook, Then Eat Like A Local
Updated: Feb 18, 2022
The first time we were in Venice, we stayed in this beautiful, upscale AirBnb
with a fully equipped, modern kitchen.
My husband, son, and I had already partaken of delicious meals in a range of settings and budgets-- we'd slurped mussels fresh from the lagoon while seated on a red tiled, open air patio; devoured brick oven pizza made with toppings you seldom find at home, all while in a dark, rustic, homey establishment; and wandered the alleys of the island with white "takeout" boxes in hand, each filled with freshmade pastas and sauces (Dal Moro's). The common denominator was the delectableness of each meal.
Part of the allure of Italian food is the fresh ingredients and often simple prep work. In Venice, many chefs hike or boat over to the Mercati di Rialto to pick out fresh seafood hauled in by local fishermen at 7:30 a.m. In fact, this market has been the "go to" for nearly 1,000 years.
By some standards, 7:30 a.m. isn't early. However, this WAS a vacation, after all. We managed to get there by noon, bought several types of fruit, none of which made it all the way back to our flat. Snacks happen. Nonetheless, the spread of vegetables, fruit, spices, and seafood was an inspirational feast for my eyes and planted the seeds of cooking for myself, vacation or not. There were the beautiful purple artichokes shown at the header of this article. Know as Romagna or globe artichokes, they are an Italian heirloom that is harvested in May or into June.
Peas (and in the background on the right, squash blossoms).
And this was still there in the early afternoon. Monkfish. More terrifying than inspirational for me, but highly engaging for my 12-year old son. Yes, monkfish is delicious--when someone else does the messy prep, cooking, and clean up. If nothing else, I know where some scriptwriters get their ideas for monsters for their movies.
Monkfish aside, I wondered: could I go to an Italian market and replicate a northern Italian meal? Would the standard ingredients you buy in a grocery be better than in the US? (Spoiler alert: heck, yes). Our Airbnb was in the sestiere of Castello, a location that is walking distance from the touristy San Marco area but remains a genuine family neighborhood replete with the echoing sounds of kids leaving for school most mornings. By walking less than ten minutes, passing by the Naval Academy (the Arsenale) we were in the even more authentic neighborhood on Via Garibaldi where we found a grocery filled with locals doing their weekly shopping. Outside, well-dressed senior citizens lounged at the park and kiddos played ball. Authentic Venice. I decided to go simple (aka, I "cheated" a bit). I sought out pre-made pasta and focused on constructing a good sauce. I chose Salmon Ravioli (little did I know that a few years later, I'd be taking a lesson in Florence in the home of a fabulous cook who would teach me to make several different pastas from scratch).
Notably, Pastificio Rana is the most popular fresh pasta in Italy (and elsewhere in Europe) and is now more readily available in the US. However, their website notes that the CEO traveled the US for three years getting to know the culture prior to producing pastas, so I have no doubt that what we have available in the US is slightly different than those produced in Italy. In the US, they currently sell pasta filled with Maine lobster, not the salmon version available in Italy, probably a smart marketing decision but also a reflection of the Italian preference for using local ingredients.
Trying to choose sauce ingredients was challenging when 1) I don't read or speak Italian and 2) I'm trying not to purchase too much, since I'm only intending to cook one meal. Our AirBnb was stocked with good olive oil, butter, and basic spices, so I went with what I had. The sauce was comprised of olive oil, garlic powder (I always use fresh garlic at home), a four-cheese (grated) mix and some very soft cheese vaguely reminiscent of sour cream called Spalmabile. I could read enough Italian to learn you could use this cheese as a quick snack or cook with it...but had NO idea what it was, except it said fresh cheese. Researching for this post, I did find a description of it being a savory cream cheese. Amusingly, I first spelled it wrong when searching and came up with some amusing recipes involving Spam and cheese. Don't do that. Unless you want to. You be you.
We had a mixed salad that was heavy on the arugula. Ironically, I don't eat much arugula in the US, but their variety was milder and very tasty.
During future trips to Europe, I'd cook at least once in every AirBnb, experimenting with local, regional breakfast sausage in Ireland and buying fresh veggies, cheese, and various charcuterie in Florence and again in Venice. Monkfish still has not made it on the menu.
But by far the best Italian food experience has been my lesson in the home of Manuela in Florence. More on that later.
Cooking while on vacation may not be your jam, but for me, it's an immersive cultural experience that enriches my knowledge of the people and places I visit. And, it's just fun!