Last week, I sat down with Sergio Fragiacomo, the owner of Le Bistrot de Venise, to see if we could up with a "Venetian Cat" menu for my readers (if you haven't already read the first blog about Le Bistrot, please have a look at that first: http://venetiancat.blogspot.com/2008/03/le-bistrot-de-venise.html
First, I want to stress what a wonderful human being Sergio is. I have met many, many people in Venice, and Sergio's qualities stand out -- he has genuine passion and compassion. Several people came by during our meeting, and he graciously balanced everyone's needs.
Sergio is as enthusiastic about the ancient Venetian dishes as he was when I first met him six years ago. Let's go through the current (it changes by the season) Historic Venetian Cuisine Sampling Menu together, which is a fixed price of 68 euro, plus 12% tax. (Sergio said he would wave the 12% to anyone who mentioned they read about it on my blog, which will save you about 8 euro:) That price does not include wine, and it might sound a tad pricey, but by the end of our meeting, I understood better the great amount of effort involved.
One thing to remember about Venice is that it was an oligarchy, ruled by a group of very wealthy aristocrats who were in constant competition with each other. If one built a palace, another had to build an even bigger and more elaborate palace. The same with food. Venice was the spice capital of the world, importing exotic discoveries brought back from sea voyages. If you were wealthy, well, you just had to get your hands on some cinnamon and cloves and have a bunch of people over to show off what you had scored.
It is not possible to exactly duplicate all the recipes because not all the ingredients exist today. For example, one ingredient, agresto, which would be comparable to a type of vinegar, was made from a particular grape that was wiped out. Ingredients like agresto, lemon, orange, etc., were used to give the food a longer life and prevent bacteria.
Now, let's take a trip back into time, about 700 years ago...
The menu starts with a 14th century dish called, Torta de Gambari, which has been translated to Lukewarm pie with prawns and raisins. It is not really a pie, it is more like a little bird's nest made from crunchy pasta, so maybe a better English name would be Nest of Prawns & Raisins. This particular recipe was found in a cookbook, Libro per Cuoco ("Book for Cooking"), that dates back to the 1300s by Anonimo Veneziano, or "Anonymous Venetian," which is in the Casanatense library in Rome. Thanks goes to Marcello Brusegan, author of La Cucina Venezia, who was the historic and culinary consultant for Le Bistrot.
Next is Scampi in Saor, also from Anonimo Veneziano, which is scampi with sweet and sour stewed onions, almonds, Turkish grapes and spices. Perhaps more well known is Sarde in Saor, or sardines in saor. I would describe the Scampi in Saor as an elegant form of that typical Venetian sardine dish that can be found today throughout the city. In the Old Days, Venetians marinated the fish in vinegar (probably agresto:), salt and onions because fishermen and sailors could keep the food on board for long periods of time. The onions are rich in Vitamin C, which kept everybody healthy. (When Marcello Brusegan was researching the ancient recipes, he discovered that sarde in soar originated from an even earlier dish called cisame de pesse, which translates to "cut pieces of fish" -- a little piece of trivia that even most Venetians are not aware of.)
The menu then offers a choice of Bramager, an old-fashioned white soup with rice flour, chicken and almond stew flavored with cloves and pomegranate, which was eaten to soothe the stomach, OR Maccaroni de cascio e sucha (deti gnochi) in Tredura de Agnelo, which are pumpkin and fresh cheese dumplings with mixed lamb and leeks.
The next offering is from Maestro Martino, who was the personal chef to the “Most Reverend Monsignor Camorlengo and Patriarch of Aquileia” back in the 1400s. That means he was cooking for the Patriarch, and then the Patriarch was not in Venice, where he is today (I just saw the current Patriarch, Cardinal Angelo Scola, on Good Friday when they brought out the ancient icons from Constantinople over at the Basilica for the first time in 40 years -- icons such as a thorn from the Crown of Thorns, and the Relic of the Holy Nail. And I saw the Pala D'oro on Easter Sunday! Let's have a look at the splendor of this precious Byzantine icon because I love it so much; it illustrates what kind of people were so concerned about the elegance of their food -- the same people who cherished this icon.)
Maestro Martino was also the author of the Libro de Arte Coquinaria ("Book of Culinary Art"), and you can taste his Storione in Sapor de Uva e Agliata Gialla, or marinated sturgeon in a black grape sauce, with yellow garlic and almond pudding. So, you can actually sample the same food that the Patriarch was eating 600 years ago! (Updated, of course, to the 21st century.)
OR you can choose Manzare de Pomo bono et perfecto, another 14th century dish from Anonimo Venziano -- veal cheeks stewed with wild apples and sweet spices.
Okay, after all that, we have dessert. Right now, the choices are both from the 14th century: Tortin de Risi a la Turchesca, old-fashioned rice and candied fruit, sweet spices and aromatic fire. I am reading that off the menu. Doesn't that sound wonderful? "Aromatic fire?" OR you can choose Mandolata cocta e perfecta, almond pudding with candied orange, crunchy macaroon sauce.
Now, onto the wine. Le Bistrot's wine list goes on forever, and has won many prestigious awards, such as La Carta delle Carte Ambasciatore del Vino given by the Enoteca Italiana -- that means they consider it one of the 30 best Italian wine lists -- and is in the 2008 Michelin Red Guide. When you flip through the list, you can see just how obsessed Sergio is with uncovering offerings that no one else has found. I will copy the introduction, which is their own translation, but is so charming, I will leave it as it is:
"The Bistrot de Venise Wine List is a true Guide to minor and rare varieties of Veneto and Friuli wine plants. Our deep and accurate research discovered some very unique gems of the past wine tradition. For the other Italian regions it has been realized by consulting some of the most prestigious wine guide books and reviews, both Italian and international (such as Gambero Rosso, Luca Maroni, Slow Food, Veronelli, Wine Spectator, Grand Gourmet), and, with a commission of three professional wine tasters, in order to provide a wide selection of small Italian wine producers, which includes top wines together with high quality price-range wines."
For example, Sergio told me about a rare wine he had discovered called "Turchetta." He found one family making it down by Rovigo and drove there and brought it back himself. The labels didn't even list the alcohol content, so Sergio wrote out another label and stuck it on the bottle, together with the original label. Do you see what I mean about his passion? He absolutely loves his restaurant and his work, and is determined that others understand the history behind the food, and will go to the ends of the earth to find a rare wine. That is priceless, to have such a human touch, and the human touch is what you are paying for.
In addition, there are poetry readings, book launches, artist exhibitions, etc. in the back room. Here is what is coming up on April 8th:
"GIVE ME TIME (AND POETRY)
'If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I had to explain it to someone who asked me, I wouldn't know.' --- Saint Augustine on the concept of time
Time is the dimension in which the passing of events is conceived and measured. All events can be described in a time that can be past, present and future. The complexity of the concept has always been the subject of philosophic and scientific reflection on the part of man... The poets invited will give voice to their thoughts."
Hopefully, you will understand Le Bistrot a little better now. On a separate blog, I will post the Venetian Cat Lunch Menu that Sergio and I came up with after someone on the Italy Magazine Forum asked me about where to eat for two for about 75 euro, including wine.
Ciao from Venice,