Eating Venetian: Cicheti
by Judith Newton
We are sitting on the ledge of a low brick wall that separates the sidewalk from a small canal in the Dosoduro, a quiet and unusually verdant section of Venice. My husband Bill and I are eating cicheti (chee-keh-tee), Italian tapas that, in this case, consist of crostini—slices of baguette toasted with olive oil and topped with creamed salt cod—creamed salt cod with parsley, mushrooms and ricotta, and something sweet that might be figs and mascarpone cheese. The creamed cod (Baccalá Montecato) and creamed cod with parsley are our favorites. The Cantine del Vino gia Schiavi, a popular wine bar where we have purchased our cicheti, is jammed with Italians and a few tourists. Some, like us, have spilled out onto the canal ledge. A few sit on the steps of the stone bridge that spans the water, though sitting on the steps of a bridge is, strictly speaking, illegal.
There is an air, as happens frequently in Venice, of a party taking place, a party to which everyone who happens by is invited. The party in Piazza San Marco, the center of tourism, is almost always huge, and there’s the sound of piano, strings, accordion, and someone singing in the background to set a festive mood. But the small party at the San Travaso bridge feels more like a neighborhood gathering. The only sounds are the lapping of water in the canal, the buzz of voices from inside the Cantine, and the quiet conversations of those parked on the cool, rough ledge, plastic cups of wine by our sides, paper plates gingerly balanced on our laps. The light of the late afternoon deepens the green of the small canal and softens the yellow and tawny orange of the buildings on the other side of the water.
We have decided not to have dinner with our travelling companions this evening, and the moment seems stolen. We are not in a restaurant, not ordering two or three courses, not making conversation, and not drinking rather too much wine. We are perched on a ledge eating appetizers for our dinner, not saying much, just taking in the scene. There is something that is Venice about this too.
We don’t experience Venice as we do other places, where streets keep going rather than ending, without warning, in shimmering canals. Our passion about the place has less to do with the official sights—the mosaics of the Basilica, the prisons of the Doges palace, the Tintorettos on the gilded ceiling of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco—than with the way the light changes on the water and the stone. Like our moment on the ledge, going to Venice is a break with our usual way of traveling and, as with the tangy fish on toast we have just consumed, it is all the more delectable for being so. It’s this feeling of what is stolen, unplanned, delightful that I want to remember, to revisit, maybe recreate.
Cicheti for dinner on our deck with a view of tree tops and the Bay? Reader, how do YOU bring back the moments of travel you most want to remember?
(Whipped Salt Cod adapted from the Epicurious version of a recipe in Lidia Matticchio Bastianich’s Lidia’s Family Table)
1 lb baccalá salt cod soaked overnight in a large bowl of cold water. Change the water often to remove excess salt.
1 russet potato (about ½ lb)
2 fat garlic cloves, finely minced
1 c extra virgin olive oil
½ c half and half
½ c poaching water from cooking the salt cod
Freshly ground pepper to taste
1. Cut salt cod in 6-inch pieces and place in water to cover by one inch. Bring to a boil, set pot lid ajar, and cook at bubbling boil for 20 minutes or until the cod begins to flake. Do not let the cod break apart. Drain and cool in a colander. Keep one cup of cooking liquid.
2. Rinse potato. Put it, unpeeled, into a pot and cover with cold water. Bring to boil and cook until you can easily pierce the potato with a knife. Cool and then peel it using the back of a knife.
3. Put cod in food processor and pulse to break up the fish.
4. Add minced garlic and pulse a few times more.
5. Add cut-up potato and light cream. Puree the mixture while adding olive oil in a thin stream. If the mix is too dense, add some of the cooking liquid.
6. Season with freshly ground pepper.
7. Serve on pieces of Italian bread which have been brushed with olive oil and toasted for four minutes in a 400 degree oven. Also good as a dip for vegetables.
Photo of Cantine gia Schiavi by designwallah