In Search of the Disappearing Venetian Risotto

When I went to Venice recently to interview Donna Leon, food was on my mind.

After all, her Commissario Brunetti mysteries each have a few passages dedicated to the culinary specialties of the lagoon city. I asked her about the place of food in her stories, and she didn't give it much importance, but pointed out that in her books all the meals take place in a quiet, peaceful atmosphere. She describes the natural ritual of communal eating that's disappearing in many stress-filled Western societies.

In our long talks, Leon — a resident of Venice for the past-quarter century — lamented the disappearance of old Venetian stores, grocery shops and services for residents in what she calls the city's Bermuda Triangle.

In my few days there, I noticed that's not all that's missing. In the Venetian tourist jungle, I couldn't find the wonderful comfort food of my childhood. The area between the Rialto and Accademia bridges and St. Mark's Square is infested with restaurants catering exclusively to tourists, serving items that are definitely not part of traditional Venetian cuisine: spaghetti drowned in acidulous tomato sauce, extra-thick crust pizza — global food that no food-loving Italian would ever order.

The food passages in Leon's books triggered wonderful childhood memories: My mother was Venetian, and I grew up on the sublime cuisine that reflected the city's long history as a trading center and the liquid frontier between Europe and the Middle East.

Venetian cuisine embraces the scents and spices of the Middle East and tastes of the Mediterranean and beyond: Byzantine, Turkish, Persian, Spanish, Jewish and — thanks to Marco Polo — even Chinese. Venetian cuisine is sprinkled with cloves and cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and even curry. Venice is known for its saffron-tinted polenta and sarde in saor: sardines on a bed of onions, pine nuts and raisins. Then there's the tartness of radicchio and the airiness of baccala mantecato, whipped codfish.

But, in my mind, most of all, Venetian cuisine means risotto — the uniquely Italian way of cooking rice (Carnaroli or Arborio) by first toasting it in sauteed onions and then gradually adding simmering broth or water, stirring tirelessly, then adding a dollop of butter and letting it stand for a few minutes to rest for the stage known as mantecatura.

And in Venice it's not just any risotto but the creamy consistency of "risotto all'onda" — literally, "on the wave": When you shake the cooking pot, the surface should ripple, like a wave. I have indelible memories of the taste of risotto with asparagus, or blackened with the ink of tender seppioline — little squids — or best of all, with fresh shellfish from the Adriatic.

Well, forget ordering any kind of risotto, wavy or otherwise, inside the Bermuda Triangle. And even outside the tourist area, it isn't easy to find a reasonably priced restaurant with risotto on the menu. Risotto is not fast-food; it takes time, attention and, most of all, tender, loving care. It's hard to find a restaurant willing to bother.

Unless you tell them you're part Venetian.

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