There’s a place in Venice, a tiny restaurant, where it’s impossible not to fall in love. Just a few steps away from the Rialto bridge, Il Vecio Fritolin is a centuries-old osteria that has conserved, even in it’s name, the memory of the “fritolin”, the small little fried fish that are traditionally served in a rolled up piece of yellow paper. And their version of this dish remains famous today. The owner, Irina Freguia, who re-opened the restaurant twelve years ago, talks us through the ancient and secret tastes of Venice.
“This morning, like every day, I went to the Rialto market to find le moeche. I bought them for a special dish, that Daniele likes to make: Fried moeche and castraure (read the recipe).” Daniele Zennaro is the young chef who runs the kitchen. “It’s a dish that manages to be both modern and traditional, popular and precious at the same time. And it’s made with ingredients that are unique to Venice.” Moeche are the regional crabs that come from the Venetian lagoon, and are fished for in the early spring, when they change their shells. The crabs are therefore soft, and easy to cook whole. Once you’ve tasted them, it’s unlikely you’ll ever forget them.
“Only the best fishermen are able to find the crabs that will become moeche. They know which ones to throw back and which ones to keep,” Irina explains. Their talent lies in knowing exactly when to look for them, in that special moment when the crabs are changing their shells. It’s a profession and know-how that is becoming increasingly rare, among the local fishing community. A keen sense of timing is necessary for obtaining another typical ingredient from the Venetian Lagoon.
“Have you ever tried castraure? They’re rather a rare specialty – a kind of artichoke that is grown on the Island of Sant’Erasmo,” says Irinia. “Here at the Vecio Fritolin we serve them fried or else in a raw salad.” In the 16th Century, the island of Sant’Erasmo was known as Venice’s “vegetable garden”, bursting with produce. It’s now a Slow Food Presidium, which is helping to preserve these small, purple artichokes – tender and flavorful – that are so prized by food lovers, available only during 10 to 15 days a year. The Castraure are apical artichoke buds that get cut to let about 18-20 new artichokes develop on the side. These are also tender and tasty, but never as much as the castraure.
SCHIE & BACCALA’
“Fish from the lagoon is rather costly,” Irina says, “but baccalà (codfish), is an affordable variant that everyone can enjoy.” Discovered by Captain Querini in the 16th Century, one of the best versions of the local codfish is the Ragno, which is large and lean and is often the primary ingredient in the dish Baccalà alla vicentina. "We serve Baccalà with white polenta,” says Irina.
Another typical Venetian dish is made from schie: the small, gray shrimp from the lagoon, mostly found in the winter. Because they are rather laborious to steam and shell, many restaurants serve shrimp from the North Atlantic, which come already shelled. But according to Irina, it’s not the same thing at all. Daniele has created a special dish of schie and peas cream that he gave to FDL.
Chef Daniele Zennaro is a deft and balanced cook, who manages to translate the heart of Venice into innovative flavors, with a careful attention on the presentation. “We’re a traditional restaurant,” says Irina, “and we purposely kept our décor old-fashioned, while looking towards the avant-garde when it comes to the menu.” It’s no wonder, then, that chefs like Nigella Lawson and Alice Waters make a point to visit whenever they’re in Venice. And that the best-informed tourists crowd the place daily.