Cicchetti are a way of life in Venice. Think of these bits as starters, appetizers, hors d’oeuvres, or (if you must) compare them to Spanish tapas.
They are usually small enough to eat in one or two bites; you can hold them with one hand while the other holds a spritz. Typical cicchetti include hot and cold dishes, lots of seafood – for which the lagoon city is known – and meat, eggs, salumi and vegetables.
Moscardini col sedano (baby octopus with celery)
It is a lively and refreshing dish, with a delicious crunch. You can add boiled potatoes, fresh halved cherry tomatoes or pickled black olives. But I appreciate the simplicity of this two-ingredient salad.
The octopus should be cleaned before use. If purchased frozen, they have usually already been cleaned. If it’s fresh, you can ask your fishmonger to do it, or to make it at home, just remove the beak, cut out the eyes, empty the head and rinse thoroughly.
3 medium-sized baby octopuses (about 500g)
2 stalks of celeryleaves and all, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons olive oil
Juice of ½ lemon
Grilled polentato serve
Bring a pot of water (deep enough to cover the octopus) to a boil. Some like to make the tentacles very curly; to do this, dip the octopus in boiling water up to the tentacles, then take it out and repeat two or three times until the tentacles are rolled up. Drop octopus into boiling water, reduce heat and simmer over low-medium heat until very tender (a fork should easily pierce it), about 45 minutes.
Remove from the water and when cool enough to handle, remove the skin (which may be a bit gelatinous). Rinse then coarsely chop each octopus, separating the tentacles.
Place in a bowl. Add the celery and its leaves with the olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper, adjusting the seasoning to your taste, then mix. Serve with grilled polenta.
Branzino marinato al cumino (salted sea bass with cumin)
This dish is inspired by a recipe from the cookbook produced by Slow Food, Ricette di Osterie del Veneto, from Ristorante Al Vecchio Marina. The use of a spice like cumin, which is rare in Italian cuisine, is perfect for this dish. It’s also an intriguing choice for curing a fish like sea bass – which in Venice is prized for its delicate flesh and is traditionally roasted or boiled for very special occasions, such as Christmas Eve.
You have to start this recipe at least two days before you want to serve it (five days, according to the traditional recipe, but I can’t wait that long).
1 whole bar (about 1 kg), or 2 sea bass filletsscaled but with skin (about 800g)
120g coarse salt
120g raw sugar
Juice of 1 lemon
1 teaspoon of honey
1 teaspoon cumin seedscrushed, plus a pinch for garnish
2–3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
20 slices of baguette
1 clove of garlic
To fillet the whole fish, first make a diagonal slice that almost cuts off the head and follows the opening of the gills. From here you will cut the first fillet by locating the backbone and using the backbone as a guide, cut all the way through the fish to the tail and remove the first fillet.
Now flip the fish and repeat. You should end up with a head, bones, and tail all attached. This makes the most wonderful broth for fish soup or fish risotto, so set it aside.
Otherwise, ask your fishmonger to spin it for you (and if you want to keep the rest for the broth, tell him).
Gently pass the fillets under cold water then pat them dry. Mix the salt and sugar and sprinkle about half of this mixture in a glass or ceramic dish, place the fillets on top, skin side up, then completely cover with the rest of the sugar and salt mixture. Place in the refrigerator to harden for 24 hours.
The next day, remove the fish from the curing mixture, rinse gently and pat dry. Place in a new, clean glass or ceramic dish. Mix the lemon juice with the honey and cumin and pour it over the fish and leave to marinate for another 24 hours.
Remove the fish from the marinade and pat it dry. Slice the fish slightly on the diagonal; you want to do this as thinly as possible and then discard the skin. Season the salting with a generous drizzle of very good quality olive oil and a little cracked pink or black pepper, and another pinch of cumin. Cover and let stand until ready to serve. (It can be kept like this for at least three days in the refrigerator).
When ready to serve, toast the baguette slices and rub them once with a fresh clove of garlic before buttering them, all while the bread is still warm. Place a slice of smoked sea bass on top and serve immediately.
Crema fritta (fried cream)
Fried custard is a specialty of the Venetian carnival, and from January 17 for the feast of Anthony the Great until Mardi Gras, you can find these sugar-crusted golden cubes in the bakeries, patisseries and bacari (bars) of Venice. Sometimes they are even made with sweet polenta cooked in milk until creamy instead of custard.
2 whole eggs
2 egg yolks
200g of sugar
120g all-purpose flour
500ml whole milk
Zest of 1 lemon
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
100g dry breadcrumbs
Vegetable oilfor frying
Separate the eggs and reserve the whites for later. Whisk the four egg yolks in a heavy-bottomed saucepan with half the sugar. Add the flour and whisk again to obtain a smooth and thick batter. Add the milk, little by little at the beginning, until you obtain a smooth and fluid mixture. Add the lemon zest and vanilla, and place the pan over low heat.
Using a wooden spoon or whisk, watch the cream as it heats, stirring slowly but constantly to make sure it doesn’t stick to the bottom (the edges of the pan are the first place where it will begin to thicken). Once the mixture begins to thicken, you will need to stir more frequently to ensure it stays smooth and continue stirring until it is quite thick and semi-solid – the cream should hold its shape. This should take around 20 minutes.
Scrape the custard from the pan and place it in a buttered shallow rectangular dish (something like a brownie pan is ideal) and let this mixture cool completely, covered. You can do this the day before and leave it overnight in the fridge if you prefer. Once cooled, cut the custard into 16 squares, about three by three centimeters, or whatever makes the most sense in your skillet.
Whisk together the two egg whites set aside earlier in a shallow bowl. In another shallow bowl, place the breadcrumbs. Dip the custard cubes first in the egg white to coat all sides, then in the breadcrumbs in the same way and place on a clean plate until all the custard is crumbled.
Prepare another shallow bowl with the remaining sugar.
Put enough oil in a small saucepan to cover the cubes of pastry cream (about four centimeters minimum) and heat over medium heat. It should be around 160°C, or if you don’t have a candy thermometer, you can test the oil by dipping the end of a wooden spoon into it – it should immediately bubble up like prosecco.
Fry the custard in small batches for about 90 seconds or until golden brown. Drain briefly on paper towel, then toss the hot fried custard in the sugar, rolling it on all sides to coat. You need to do this while the custard is piping hot or the sugar won’t stick. You can serve them immediately or even eat them at room temperature, but it is best to eat them the day they are made.