Visit Venice’s famous Rialto Market and eat like a local by tasting these top seven traditional fish dishes.
Experiencing a place as its inhabitants live it: that’s the main goal of a true traveler that goes beyond “tourist.” This means discovering the traditions, habits, and ways of thinking of a different culture, and respecting them. In Italy, one of the best ways to understand the country and its people is by trying the local food. It might sound cliché, but perhaps in no other country is that so close to the truth. And the Venice fish market is one of the best ways to taste the fresh Venetian cuisine the locals love.
Venice is not just about its wondrous architectural monuments, museums, bridges, and canals; it is a city with an ancient gastronomic culture. With its water-locked position, the lagoon hosts an incredible biodiversity of fish species. And there is only one place to visit in Venice if you want to know more about it: The Mercato di Rialto, a market as ancient as the lagoon’s fishing traditions.
In 1173, the Republic of Venice issued an edict for the fish trade at the Rialto Market, outlining strict rules that have remained almost unchanged in the Venice market. Today, local Venetians still go to Rialto Market for their daily shopping.
Perhaps the most famous rule is the minimum length of fish that may be sold. An old sign at the entrance specifies 12 cm for the seabass (today 25 cm) and 3 cm for the mussels, called peoci in Venetian dialect. Respecting the fishes’ sizes also helps protect the different species, as it allows them to grow large enough to reproduce at least once in their lifetime. This also ensures the fishermen a future in their ancient profession.
Market activities start at 8 am, though its workers begin many hours earlier in the waters of the lagoon. In spite of new technologies and improved fishing methods, being a fisherman is still one of the most difficult professions in the modern world. And many types of lagoon fishermen exist, specializing in the numerous different species. The diversity of life in the Venetian lagoon is not surprising, considering its complex ecosystem: a deep, sandy sea bottom, waters fed from the mouths of rivers, islands, artificial canals, and small ports all around.
So what does a local Venetian eat to enjoy this bounty of their waters? Here are seven of the most traditional dishes in Venice; see if you can try them all when you visit the “Bride of the Sea!” And wherever you enjoy them—in a trattoria, on the steps along the quay, or at the Rialto Market itself – you cannot go wrong pairing each of them with a golden, sparkling glass of Prosecco from the Veneto.
Bigoli in Salsa
Bigoli is a long, rather thick pasta made with mixed white and barley or rye flours. Bigoli in Salsa is a traditional Italian recipe; its sauce is simple, made from anchovies, onion, and white wine that is emulsified into a creamy texture, covering every strand of the bigoli.
Deep Fried Moeche
Moeche (from Italian molle, which means “soft”) are soft-shelled crabs that fishermen can find only for about a week in autumn and spring. During these small windows of time, the crabs shed their shells and are fished before getting their new carapace. The best way to taste fresh moeche? Deep fried, of course.
Risotto with Go
A gudgeon, or go in Venetian dialect, is a small fish typical of the lagoon. The most traditional way of eating it is stirred into a dense risotto all’onda (very creamy texture). It’s not so easy to find a restaurant that serves this dish nowadays; but you might have the most luck in autumn, when the tides are low and fishermen can catch the gudgeons more easily.
The Guild of Baccalà Mantecato (yes, you read correctly, there’s an official Guild for creamy, whipped cod) writes: “It wasn’t the cooking intuition of an expert chef that brought the elegant flavors of pureed cod fish to our tables, but a huge and terrible storm in the Norwegian sea in 1432. Off the Lofoten islands, beyond the Arctic Circle, the Venetian merchant ship of Piero Querini sunk with 68 sailors aboard. He was rescued in the Rost island and, there, he noticed the inhabitants ate a strange fish, prepared fresh, salted, or dried under the pale Arctic sun. He decided to bring a huge quantity of that special fish stocked on a cane (hence the name “stock fish”) to Venice. It took more than a century before stock fish found success. When it finally did, it was thanks to the Trento Council of 1563, which forbade eating meat for almost 200 days and suggested, instead, eating stock fish every Wednesday and Friday during Lent.”
When the stock fish rose to popularity at the feasts of nobles, helped in large part with the recipe book of Bartolomeo Scappi, the personal chef of Pope Pio V, it officially become part of the Italian cuisine.
But why is it called “baccalà”? The word comes from the Latin baculus, which means “cane.” Baccalà mantecato derives from Spanish to indicate the creamy consistency of this traditional preparation of cod: “velvety mascarpone, a soft and airy fluff, a pillow that makes you forget the harsh taste of dried cod in the icy wind of the North.”
Sarde in Saor
Together with baccalà mantecato and polenta with Schie, the sardines in saor are part of the Venetian cicchetti, or small bites you’ll find in the bacari, bars of the lagoon. Again, it’s a simple dish made of fried sardines and white onion in a sweet and sour sauce. The recipe is centuries old, hearkening back to the time when it was common to use vinegar to preserve food, including fish. The onions helped kill any bacteria and the food was safe to eat. Even now, with modern food safety and refrigerators, Venetians can’t give up the tasty sarde in saor.
Polenta e Schie
Often found topping off a bed of white polenta (traditional in the Veneto region), schie are the miniature, grey shrimps of the lagoon. Tiny, tasty, and tender, schie are seasoned simply with oil, parsley, and a pinch of garlic. Because of their tenderness, they are also delicious when deep-fried (and eaten by the handful, if you can’t resist).
Needless to say, fish in Venice is some of the freshest around, and there’s no doubt that one of the best ways to eat it is in the Rialto market—raw. It’s not uncommon to meet a kind fisherman who delights his customers with clean and ready-to-eat fish like oysters, prawns, scallops, and more.