First Tastes of Veneto
Updated: Feb 22, 2022
Now that we’ve been here in Northern Italy for quite a few months I thought I’d go into some of what we’ve experienced and learned about the food and drinks in this region. Each area of Italy really has its own flavors and food traditions. The spaghetti with meatballs that you might think of as quintessential Italian food are most likely not what you are going to find here (or most anywhere in Italy, along with fettuccini alfredo, Caesar salad or Italian dressing.) For the record, you can get a plate of spaghetti with tomato sauce and then a second plate of meatballs if they are on the menu. But rarely will they be found together!
Enjoying the views from the Castle in the wine town of Soave
Before I jump in though, I am acknowledging right now that I certainly do not know everything about cuisine in the Veneto region. I wouldn’t even consider myself a true foodie, but I do find it interesting how different each region’s food is and how different it is from the "Italian" food that we eat in the US. I hope to learn more while I’m here and will either do a separate post down the road or update this one when I do know more! But I think it’s worth it to share what I’ve experienced so far, because much of it was not at all what I thought it would be! Whether you are moving here or just coming for a visit these are some the foods and drinks that you can expect to find a lot of!
We bought a bottle of Prosecco the size of an infant! LOL
While you can, of course, find various types of pasta here I was surprised to see that polenta is extremely prevalent as well! We’ve most often seen it grilled and sliced into small rectangles, although a few places have served it more like grits; which has really warmed my Southern husband's heart. (And stomach!) There are a LOT of corn fields around here, we actually have one right behind our house, so initially I thought, okay this makes sense. Lots of corn… therefore polenta. But then I heard that the corn we see here is actually used to feed animals. My source was another American, so I’m not sure if that’s correct or what the real deal is! I just know they do love to eat it up here!
The very popular grilled polenta. With a red meat of some sort!
It was not surprising that seafood is very popular in Veneto. While Vicenza itself is not on the coast it’s only about an hour away, so it’s easy to find super fresh fish and all sorts of things that I don’t even know what they are! You’ll often find a type of pasta, often spaghetti, with “vongole” (clams), which is also popular in Naples, so we are very familiar with that and enjoy it quite a bit.
However, the signature seafood dish of the region is baccalà (or Baccalà alla Vicentina). It’s a fish similar to cod, and sometimes even called cod, but is actually a different fish found in Norway (stockfish, I believe) that was introduced to Italy bec of a shipwreck that happened in the 1400s! (History is wild, y’all!). Anyway, it’s dried and beaten, then cooked with onions, anchovies, milk and a dry cheese like Parmesan. I’ve most often seen it served with polenta. Baccalà Mantecato is also very popular, usually more as an antipasto (appetizer) served on a crostini or with a slice of polenta, of course. It’s the same dried fish but mashed and whipped with extra virgin olive oil, heavy cream and sometimes garlic or other spices. It looks kind of like a crab dip in texture, but has a more subtle flavor.
Clockwise from top left - Polenta (grits-sytle) with baccalà, Baccalà Mantecato with costini, a seafood pasta dish, and spaghetti vongole.
Bigoli con Anatra - Duck Ragù Pasta
This is by far the most popular, most often found at basically any restaurant, pasta dish in the Veneto region. The pasta shape is called bigoli and looks like a thick spaghetti. You may have heard of pici, which is from Tuscany and is very similar in shape and size. “Anatra” means duck, so this is bigoli pasta with a duck ragù. It can also be called “sugo d’anatra”. The ragù consists of onion, celery, carrots, spices and white wine, in addition to the duck. It’s extremely delicious! Poultry in general is more common here than in other regions I’ve been to (but still not as popular as in the States, in my estimation). You won't see as many large slabs of red meat being served here like you would in say, Tuscany, but they are here. This duck dish is a MUST try when in Veneto and it’s easy to find a good plate of it!
Bigoli con Anatra with potato croquettes.
Cicchetti – SmallSnacks, similar to Spanish Tapas
These Italian-style tapas are highly popular in Venice. Usually, and historically, they are served at a “bacari”, or small tavern/bar, with a house wine (often a prosecco) and are eaten standing at a bar, counter, or high-top table. The variety of options can be overwhelming, but also fun! Everything from small meatballs to dried meats, to hard boiled and flavored eggs, to various toppings on crostini (small toasted bread bites) including the above mentioned Baccalà Mantecato. These days you can sometimes find them as appetizers at restaurants too.
Various cicchetti in Venice!
Carpaccio – raw meat
I’ve been surprised at how much I have actually enjoyed eating straight up raw meat! This dish usually consists of super fresh beef, veal or tuna veeeeeerrrrrrry thinly sliced and just served raw. Often it’s accompanied by olive oil, lemon slices, arugula, and Parmesan cheese. All of those flavors and textures together are a delight for your palate. Even if you are wary of the idea of raw meat, I highly suggest giving it a try just to make sure because you might end up loving it! If you told me 10 years ago I'd be eating raw meat I would have NEVER believed it!
Carpaccio with olive oil, mushrooms and radishes
Grana Padano - Cheese
This cheese is similar to the more famous Parmigiano Reggiano. It’s a hard, somewhat - crumbly cheese, but there are not as many regulations around its production as there are for Parmigiano. Made from unpasteurized cow’s milk, its flavor is generally less sharp and is a little less crumbly in texture. It hails from the Po River valley, which is just south of Vicenza and Veneto, so it tends to be the go-to cheese served to sprinkle on top of your pasta dishes. Personally, I don’t like it as much as Parmigiano. Sometimes it tastes a little too sour to me but as with everything, some are better quality, and therefore better flavored, than others.
Bigoli con Anatra again but with a bowl of Grana Padano to sprinkle on top!
My favorite though, is Asiago cheese. The town of Asiago is only one hour’s drive north of us, so it’s very easy to come by! Made from cow’s milk in an alpine (mountainous) region, it’s very versatile because it can have different textures based on how long it’s been aged. So if you want to slice it for sandwiches (“panini”) the younger, fresher cheese is perfect. If you want to grate it to top salads or pasta go for the more aged version. True asiago cheese can only be produced in a certain geographic area and is a D.O.P. product, meaning it’s protected by the EU as only being authentic if it’s from that region. You’ve probably heard of and tasted Asiago before, but like so many things here, you’ve GOT to try to the legit thing when you can! I am really looking forward to going up to Asiago and doing a cheese tour there! It’s so good!
Cheese and goods at an alpine products festival we went to in Asiago, but not necessarily all Asiago cheeses!
Fritto/i – Fried Food(s)
We were familiar with what’s called “fritto misto” in Napoli, basically a mix of small fried vegetables and seafood eaten as an appetizer. It was usually not heavily breaded and was more tempura style. We certainly enjoyed it! Up here in Veneto, you can still find that, especially with seafood. But we’ve also found that other more heavily breaded, small, fried appetizers are common. I was surprised at how frequently we have found fried mozzarella (sticks or balls) on menus. (I wonder if that's because there are a lot of Americans around here and we tend to like them, or if it's an authentic Italian thing. NOTE: they don't usually come with any dipping sauce, just FYI!) Also common are potato croquettes, basically mashed potatoes breaded and deep fried, or olives stuffed with ground meat, breaded and fried. Things like this were also popular in Napoli, so I don’t know why I’ve been so surprised to see them all over the place up here, but I feel like I see them a lot more in this area than down there. At our local, but larger grocery, they cook these tasty bites up fresh every day and sell them at the deli counter. They are a fun addition to a little dinner party!
Mozzarella fritti, zeppole (Italian hushpuppies basically - fried dough), and calamari.
Horse Meat It is not the most popular thing around here, but it’s not totally UN-common either. Historically, horse was a pretty commonplace meat to consume, sometimes even recommended by doctors for certain ailments. Long considered a delicacy, it’s still around, despite some talk over the years to abolish it. Personally, I’m not really here for eating horses. But if you are, I say "When in Rome..."! If not, don’t. Simple as that. Either way it’s called “Cavallo” so you can look for it to either try or avoid!
Chris did try the cavallo. He was pretty meh about it though.
What is more Italian than pizza?! Not surprisingly, you can find pizza on basically very corner. For us though, it’s a little tough after having lived where it was INVENTED! Some pizza here has been disappointing. Generally you will find it to be large in diameter with a very thin crust, but not crispy. (Rome does the thin, crispy pizza!) Many places have a wide, if not huge, variety of pizzas, all with specific names (not always the same across restaurants though) for the mix of toppings that come on it. We have a few places that we really love and are happy to go back to again and again. One even delivers to our house!! (Delivery was not big here pre-pandemic.) There are also a good range of pizza styles that can be found here. Some with thicker crust, some more on the gourmet side (which is really where it gets hit or miss in my opinion), some true Neapolitan style. It’s best to just get out and try them! But know, some may have you questioning what the definition of pizza actually is! LOL
Various pizzas!! Yum!!
Probably my favorite thing to drink!! I love it so! And I’m happy to report that I’ve learned a lot about it since we’ve been here. (Look for a post coming soon about our trip to Prosecco Road!) This bubbly deliciousness is a white wine made from the Glera grape and is only produced in certain provinces in northern Italy. (So close to us!!) Even within those provinces there are smaller areas that allow the wine to have DOCG classification (you’ll see an extra label with those letters at the top of the bottles), which means that there have been the strictest quality controls applied to the production of that wine. You’ll also see DOC classification, which mean that the wine is produced at a certain, defined standard, but not as strict as DOCG. (Those classifications can be applied to many, many Italian wines, not just Prosecco.) Prosecco comes in 3 sugar levels – Brut (the least sugary), Extra Dry (mid-range sugar), Dry (most sugary). Which is confusing because usually you think of “dry” meaning “not sweet”. Well, not in this case. I usually prefer Brut, myself. (Some wineries are even making an Extra Brut that has less sugar than Brut, but I don't see it very often.) I could go on, but I’ll stop and just say, you can find it literally everywhere and you should have some. Whether as an “aperitivo” (a pre-meal drink) or honestly, just whenever you want!
This red wine region in western Veneto, near Verona, produces some very popular wines. They are generally considered bright, tangy, and easy to drink, and are big with locals and tourists alike. Usually made with a blend of grapes, it can be made in a range of styles. Maybe you’ve never heard of Valpolicella (I hadn’t), but you probably HAVE heard of Amarone, or it’s full official name - Amarone della Valpolicella. It’s a prestigious wine from this region and it’s said to be more intense and complex in its flavor. I am absolutely NOT any kind of wine connoisseur, so all I really know is that in general red wines are not my favorite, but the Amarone(s) I’ve had were pretty darn tasty! You should definitely try one while you’re here because it’ll be cheaper than trying it in the states where they usually retail starting around $40 but go up quickly from there! I wouldn’t say they are cheap here, but you can find them for less than that at local shops or grocers.
An Amarone that we are saving to enjoy! Notice the DOCG label at the top of the bottle (upside down, and sometimes it runs vertically down the side). This means this was produced in a specific region and adhering to the highest levels of regulations for that wine.
This dry, white wine is also produced near Verona. Another one I’d never heard of, but I have really been enjoying it. The Garganega is the main grape used in making Soave, but it can be blended with a couple of others in small percentages. It’s usually found as a still wine, but there is sparkling version as well. Soave was very popular in the US in the ‘70s and actually exceeded Chianti as the highest selling DOC wine there. That really surprised me to find out since I had NEVER even heard of it. But Pinot grigio came in and Soave fell out of fashion. I would say that it’s light, fresh, maybe a little citrus-y, and easy to drink, especially with the ever-present seafood dishes here. It has quickly become my favorite local, non-bubbly, wine!
I couldn't find any photos I've taken of the wine itself, but these are from a day trip we to to the village of Soave. Rolling hills of vineyards, and ancient castle, great restaurants... what more could you want?!
You may be familiar with the popular Aperol or Campari Spritzes. Bright orange, bitter, but bubbly. That bitterness isn’t for everyone though, so if you don’t love those, well have I found another Spritz for you! Like the others it’s base is prosecco (yay!), but it’s mixed with a sweeter elderflower syrup, garnished with mint and/or cucumber or lime, and served over ice. It’s light, refreshing, and a nice departure from those other more intense spritz flavors! It was created, only in 2005, in Northern Italy (the South Tyrol region) but it can be found in southern Austria and Germany too. The alcohol content is less than the spritzes mentioned above, but that just makes it all the more drinkable! Also please note, it is pronounced “oooogo” because “h”s are silent in Italian. If you ask for a Hhhhhugo, many folks won’t know what the heck you are talking about. Trust me on this one! ;-)
The Hugo Spritz! These were with mint and lime!
Well, those are some of the most ubiquitous foods and drink I’ve found in the past 8 months or so of living in Vicenza/the Veneto region. It can be a little overwhelming at first, to not really be familiar with the foods and flavors here. I used to be SUCH a picky eater and really only ate the same few things over and over again. I’ve come a loooooong way from those days, but I’m still not NOT picky. So if I can come here and enjoy the food, so can pretty much anyone!
I’ve heard some other Americans say that the food in Veneto is not as flavorful as they were expecting. To that I will concede that, so far in my experience, they are certainly not using a lot of spicy peppers or seasoning that you’ll find more of as you move further south down the boot! I have had some meals that were on the bland side, and even in a cooking class I took (on the military base, but with an Italian chef) I felt the food was not super well-seasoned and lacked a little flavor. But I’ve also had a couple of different lasagnas that KNOCKED my dang SOCKS OFF (which are NOT filled with ricotta and are all the better for it!!!)! Some delicious duck ragù, beef ragù and gnocchi. Some really interesting cicchetti. Ham and carpaccio that have melted in my mouth. And the cheeeeeses! So I’d say your best bet, especially if you are living here, is to keep giving it a try at new places! There IS good, flavorful food here but it may just be DIFFERENT than what you were expecting!
I hope this helps prepare anyone moving or visiting here understand more of what to expect. And for GOODNESS' SAKE just please don’t ask for chicken alfredo!!! That ain’t Italian, y’all! LOL
I'd love to hear about any experiences you've had with food that wasn't what you expected! You can comment below to share! Until next time, ciao for now friends!
*Note* As I went back through my food photos to post here I realized that I need to significantly improve my food photography skills, so just know, that I know! :-)
First Row: Polenta and steak, schnitzel and fries (we are pretty close to Germany and Austria), bacon and tomato pasta
Second Row: Bruschetta with burrata and tomatoes, bruschetta with tomatoes and basil, a fancy caprese salad
Third Row: Papardelle (pasta) with duck ragù, fettucine with beef ragù, penne with bolognese sauce
Fourth Row: Two gnocchi dishes with beef ragù
We're enjoying exploring Vicenza, Veneto, and Italy so much!!