The world’s most lavish banquet hall may be the obstinately oversized Sala del Maggior Consiglio in the Doge’s Palace with its gilded ceilings and Tintoretto oil paintings. During the glory days of the Most Serene Republic of Venice up to 2,000 dignitaries and honorary guests would fill the 15,000-square foot Higher Council Hall to celebrate the conquests of the powerful marine empire with lavish food on silver platters and wine in delicate Murano glasses. A nighttime regatta (il bucintoro) with candle-lit barges on the Grand Canal would often close the festivities.
The very wealth of Venice—with its encyclopedic offering of fine art and architecture—is built in part upon two of our most banal cooking ingredients. Salt and pepper were hot commodities controlled in great measure by the Venetian Republic. The ruling doges created a global network of trading partners and merchants (including Marco Polo) to dominate the sugar, spice, coffee, grain and codfish businesses as well.
As a result, a good measure of cultural open-mindedness is reflected in the cuisine of the Veneto. Rice plains produce risotto flavored with local wines (risotto all’Amarone), cheese or vegetables (including fragrant white asparagus). Seafood includes scampetti (shrimps), sardines, marinated anchovies and pasta with nero di seppia (squid ink). Boiled meat dishes are served in Padua with spicy sauces and mustards. Tiramisu is a well-known dessert with Veneto origins.
The Veneto’s welcoming spirit means that it also excels at cocktail culture based on cicchetti (finger foods) and Prosecco. Toasted bread is lavished with creamy baccalà, caramelized onions, marinated sardines or creamed cheeses.
Baccalà: Dried codfish (merluzzo seccato or stoccafisso in Italian) enjoys a long and prosperous history as one of the Veneto’s main dishes. Baccalà mantecato is puréed cod with oil and garlic.
Horse meat: A taboo in many cultures, the Veneto is populated by butchers specialized in carne equine. It is cured for carpaccio, made into sausage or steak, or served as a stew (pastissada).
Radicchio: Red chicory from Treviso is an enormously popular ingredient with a playfully bitter flavor that works well with creamy risotto or grilled in olive oil over charcoal.
Sardines: A popular item at the fish markets of Venice, sarde in saor is a sweet and sour dish marinated with white wine, vinegar and sugar.
Stracchino: Also common in Lombardy and Piedmont, this is a spreadable cheese with a sour aftertaste. Its name comes from stracca, or “tired,” because cows were made to walk long distances to be milked.
White asparagus: The onset of spring is celebrated with white asparagus, featured in risotto or with shaved egg, across the Veneto (especially Bassano).
Beef Stew with Amarone
2 pounds beef shank (veal shank, osso bucco cut)
2 cups Amarone
3 stalks celery, rinsed and diced, about 1¼ cups
2 carrots, peeled and diced, about 1¼ cups
2 small onions, peeled and diced, about 1½ cups
1 bay leaf
5 whole black peppercorns, crushed
2 tablespoons chopped lard (or butter)
2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon corn meal (or corn starch)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 tablespoon beef extract, such as Bovril (beef bouillon cube, beef base)
4 cups cooked polenta
In a large glass baking dish, place the beef and Amarone. Add diced vegetables, one bay leaf and freshly crushed peppercorns. Marinate, covered, in the refrigerator for 24 hours, turning meat over from time to time.
Before cooking, remove beef from marinade, drain excess liquid, and thoroughly pat dry. Tie shanks with cooking twine. Season well with salt and pepper.
Grease the bottom of a large Dutch oven with lard and butter, and heat over medium-high heat. Add meat and brown. Pour marinade over browned meat, adding more water, if necessary, to just cover meat.
Stir in beef extract, reduce heat to low, cover and cook at a very low simmer for 2 hours, adding water if necessary. Do not let the liquid come to a boil.
Transfer meat to a serving bowl. Raise heat to medium and stewing sauce, allowing to thicken. If sauce is too thin, mix 1 tablespoon corn meal or cornstarch with ¼ cup of cooking liquid, and whisk back into sauce. Pour thickened Amarone sauce over beef. Serve stew with freshly cooked polenta. Serves 8.