Good restaurants are born of passion. It might come from a desire to serve the very best food in the neighbourhood, or it could stem from an expertise and love for fine wines. Maybe it’s a deeply held instinct for generosity and hospitality that sets the restaurant apart from its competitors. For me, and for my first restaurant Polpo, it was my obsession with a city – Venice.
If you’ve been there, you will be fully aware of its ability to seduce and stupefy. It is common to hear of visitors suffering from Stendhal Syndrome – condition that renders victims queasy, faint and speechless – as they struggle to absorb and process Venice’s overwhelming beauty. Been there. Done that. But what still draws me to La Serenissima, now I’ve hardened myself to its aesthetic charms and strengthened my immune system to its hypnotic lure, is the surprisingly vibrant and youthful food scene.
First, however, a word of warning. It is very easy, as an unsuspecting tourist, to get duped into thinking a packed, well-lit restaurant overlooking the Rialto Bridge where the waiters are all dressed like gondoliers is a safe bet. Wrong. With few exceptions, restaurants with a view are tourist traps with mediocre food that’s about as authentic as the plastic trinkets sold in St Mark’s Square. Restaurants with large displays showing photographs of all the food? Run away! Remember, very long menus listing every Italian classic and 30 different pizzas are a dead giveaway, too. There is a direct inverse relationship between the length of
a menu and the quality of the food.
The culinary heart of Venice is to be found in the bàcari that nestle in the unfashionable backstreets. These tiny wine bars serve small snacks and dainty tumblers of young local wines, but the quality of ingredients is high and the recipes and traditions are passionately authentic. The locals eat here and it is where you should eat, too: my favourite is All’Arco. For a sit-down meal of exceptional quality, freshness and simplicity, you can do no better than Alle Testiere. As a rule, any Venetian restaurant that belongs to L’Associazione dei Ristoranti della Buona Accoglienza has committed to cooking real food in the genuine traditions of the region.
But, like all good restaurants anywhere in the world, these places are driven by passion. Add to that a fastidious connection to the seasons and a slavish daily pilgrimage to the morning market at Rialto, and you have a real recipe for success. (Many good restaurants in the city refuse to open on Sundays and Mondays because the fish market is closed.)
No matter what time of the year you visit, a market trip is an essential part of your itinerary. October is particularly lovely in Venice. The fruit and vegetable market positively glows orange at this time of year with a good range of pumpkins and squashes, and even in the UK we are seeing more and more interesting new varieties. Here is a startlingly simple recipe (below) that makes the most of a small number of ingredients to great effect. It’s one of those dishes that’s greater than the sum of its individual parts. Ask the delicatessen to slice your prosciutto as thinly as possible – you want to be able to almost see through it.
Roasted pumpkin with prosciutto and Parmesan
• 2 medium butternut squash
(or acorn squash)
• 1 heirloom pumpkin (chioggia and iron bark are also good varieties)
• 12 very thin slices prosciutto
• 200g grated Parmesan
• Extra virgin olive oil
• Handful torn sage leaves
• Handful pumpkin seeds
• Flaky sea salt
• Ground black pepper
1 | Preheat the oven to 200°C. Cut the squash and pumpkin in half and remove the seeds and the hard stalk. If the skins are thick, remove these, too, with a peeler or a very sharp knife. Cut the remaining pumpkin and squash into bite-sized pieces and toss them in a roasting tray with a good pinch of salt, a few twists of pepper, the sage leaves and a good glug or two of olive oil.
2 | Once all the pieces are well coated, place into the oven for 20–30mins until cooked through. To test, push a skewer into the flesh; if it’s done there should be little or no resistance.
3 | Remove from the oven and while still warm, divide equally among six warmed plates. Loosely drape over the prosciutto, distribute the Parmesan and pour a good drizzle of olive oil over the top. Scatter over the pumpkin seeds and serve.
Russell Norman owns and runs Polpo, Polpetto, Mishkin’s and Spuntino, all in London.