Monday, 21 April 2008

Frugal eating Venetian-style

I’ve now been a week in Venice and have had plenty of opportunity to suss out the cheapest way to eat. Not that anywhere in Venice is exactly cheap but there are ways of keeping your restaurant bills down.

The standard Venetian - and Italian - formula for a meal is antipasti (usually some kind of fish or vegetables here), primi (pasta, gnocchi or risotto), secondi (main course) and dolci (sweet). The obvious strategy is to cut two of those courses which is fine when the helpings are generous as they tend to be in the trats, less good in the swankier restaurants where it’s better to have a pasta and main course (oddly the starters aren’t that much cheaper than the main courses)

The idea of having a pasta course obviously makes sense when you think that it takes the edge off your hunger and you therefore need less meat or fish. Yesterday I ended up having two courses which hardly had any expensive ingredients at all - some tiny, sweet shrimps with polenta and a local dish called bigoli in salsa which is splendidly frugal - wholewheat pasta with onions and anchovies.

I just googled the recipe to see how it’s made and find it usually includes white wine or vinegar which figures - the Venetians are very keen on sweet and sour flavours. I felt it could do with something green - parsley or rocket, even. I shall have to try it when I get back. In the event we aren’t doing much cooking here.

My other great favourite is spaghetti alle vongole which is one of those recipes that demonstrates that frugal eating depends on where you live. Here clams are dirt cheap and fabulously fresh. Back home there would be little point in making the dish. The clams in my local fishmonger cost the earth and bottled clams simply don’t taste the same. You could add or substitute mussels but clams have a particularly sweet flavour.

There are also some great beans here which look like a giant borlotti bean but which taste more like a middle eastern foul. They’re used to make a muddy brown soup which looks pretty unappealing but tastes fantastic. You get so used to using tinned beans that you forget how delicious they are when they’re freshly cooked.

The other great bargain is the contorni - vegetable side dishes. You don’t really think of Venetians as having a vegetable-based cuisine but they have some terrific produce. I haven’t yet got to the market but have seen a number of the floating vegetable stalls which are piled high with the most mouthwatering veg. The other day we had the classic risi e bisi which is like a soupy risotto made with fresh peas and pea pods (traditional Venetian cooking really is quite frugal). Another one to try at home when peas come into season next month.


Career Misfit said...

Well done, Fiona. Having been to Venice earlier this year I was rather of the mind that it was quite possibly the most un-frugal thing a person could do. We happened to catch one of the Rialto market days, and although we weren't there to buy any food for ourselves the stalls of fresh fish and vegetables were nevertheless a wonderful sight to witness. We also got drawn into one of the many tourist trap restaurant areas near to Saint Mark's basilica and had the most awful meal I've eaten anywhere in the world: I'm sure they gave us bagged salad and Heinz tinned spaghetti!

Fiona Beckett said...

Venice is a minefield, you're right, career misfit. The only way to deal with it is to go off the beaten track and avoid the tourist hotspots between the Rialto and St Mark's. We've had a couple of good meals on the Giudecca and on the back streets round the Dorsoduro.