Celia Sack, owner of Omnivore Books on Food—San Francisco's only food book store, specializing in both new and antiquarian cookbooks—knows what's cooking. Find the best of the latest food writing and cookbooks on Bits + Bites every other Monday.
When my girlfriend Paula and I went to Venice in 2000, we checked into our hotel, grabbed a New York Times article by Maureen Fant about seafood joints in town, and started walking. And walking. By pure luck we ran into one of the restaurants mentioned, Antica Trattoria Furatola, on tiny Calle Lunga San Barnaba. Terrified we'd get lost and never find it again, we strolled to the nearest canal, lay down on the quay, and fell into a deep, jet-lag fueled nap until dinner time. The cement impressions on our cheeks were worth it; the sea bream pulled from the lagoon that morning and accented with just a bit of olive oil, lemon, and salt was a Venetian dream. The front window was filled with fresh whole fish, scallops, clams—all fruits of the lagoon surrounding Venice—and the waiters would pull your order out of the window, present it to you, and then take it back to the kitchen to be cooked.
As we soon came to discover, most of Venice is like this. We were charmed by all but the most touristy aspects of the city, and found meal after meal of fresh local seafood, pastas, breads, and roasts to be incredibly good. Now Tessa Kiros (Falling Cloudberries, Apples for Jam) has published a cookbook worthy of the best aspects of that glorious city. Venezia: Food & Dreams is a book that looks like a jewelry box waiting to be opened. All edges are gilt, and the cover photo depicts broiled scallops in their shells, their tray draped in pink pearl strands and surrounded by roses, all lit by a Murano glass candle. It sounds a little cheesy, but like Venice, it's not; instead, it is rich and glorious, like Venice herself.
I was thrilled to see that Kiros focuses on seafood recipes, really Venice's strong suit, though she certainly gives risotto, pastas, and meats their due. The recipes' simplicity belies their complex results: "Luisa's anchovies" calls for just anchovies, a small red onion, a bit of red wine vinegar, parsley, and polenta for frying in olive oil. The dish, however, is so satisfying you will want to eat it all night long—little fried polenta-encrusted fish. I ask you, what could be better? There are three octopus recipes (tiny baby octopus, octopus & potatoes, and baby octopus in tomato). Several for clams, squid, snails, eel. Spaghetti in every guise. There is even a recipe for "Mostarda di frutta" (quince mustard), a condiment akin to a thick, sweet/tart chutney that can be put on just about everything.
Accompanying the recipes are semi-gloss photos in color and black and white of food and scenery, as well as Kiros' prose, which evoke the splendor of Venice. Of sunrise, Kiros writes, "The prize goes to who is out at the break of dawn. To watch the sun lighting up some pale colors & just start to brighten up the hyperbole. Follow the low crying of the seagulls. Early morning water & early-bird Venetians chatting, looking out for each other as they do." The beauty of this cookbook makes it a perfect gift as well as a book you will keep on your shelf for a long time.
Venezia: Food & Dreams by Tessa Kiros.
Andrews McMeel, Oct. 2009
(No author tour, sadly)