Exploring Venice from the cultural and culinary heritage point of view opens up new perspectives for frequent travelers. Venice, between the fall of the Roman Empire in the year 476 AD and the demise of the Republic in 1797, significantly influenced European cuisine, pharmacies, culture, business, finance, and more walks of life. Iris Loredan from La Venessiana is the perfect person to introduce us to this interesting topic.
In her opinion, the heritage concept, consisting of eight components, helps connect visitors with Venice and her past, shows the Venice of our times from the Venetian perspective, and encourages all of us, residents and visitors, to deduct and construct ideas for a meaningful future. Venice is very colorful. You will have noticed that each sestiere is a little town, with a culture, food, history, and even a language variant of its own! For this guest post, she invites us to take a stroll around the sestiere Castello, exploring the culture, cuisine and history of the Greek and Dalmatian residents of Venice.
Introducing Venetian Greek and Levantine heritage
The sestiere I grew up in, Castello, has always been the home of thriving Greek and Dalmatian communities. They were living on the twin island group called Le Gemine, comprising the area between Riva degli Schiavoni and Campo San Giovanni e Paolo. My home is located around the corner of the former monastery and church of San Zaccaria.
Levantine and Greek Heritage is prevalent in the western part of Castello, one of the oldest areas in Venice. It was urbanized by the nuns of San Zaccaria in the 5th century AD, and developed into a major port and merchant hub in the following centuries. After the fall of Constantinople, 30,000 Greek settlers moved to Venice. Even earlier, Byzantine officials had been living in the Castello, east of the Doge’s Palace. In the late 14th century, Castello became the new home of the Byzantine residents of Torcello and Ammiana, who were forced to leave their archipelago in the wake of seaquakes and the inevitable extension of swamps infringing upon the Lagoon.
We start exploring Greek and Dalmatian heritage in Venice on Fondamenta dell’Osmarin, two corners away from the church of San Zaccaria. Fondamenta dell’Osmarin was the name of the northern banks of Ombriola, an island on which the ancient port and merchant hub was located. Not a proper market like the Rialto was, but rather a port area, where smaller cogs from Dalmatia (called Schiavonia), Greece, and Byzantium were moored, and pilgrims and merchants were living in guest houses run by monasteries.
And yes, the trabaccoli boats arrived here from Dalmatia too, unloading smoked meat and spruce twigs during one of the most difficult times in Venetian history. The trabaccoli delivered the essentials for 150,000 Venetians to survive a devastating outbreak of the bubonic plague which hit the city in 1630-31. Smoked meat was needed to cook food, castradina, still eaten today in Venice during the week before and after La Festa della Madonna della Salute on 21 November. Spruce twigs were used as ‘collective aromatherapy’ to cleanse the city, and heaps of twigs were burnt on the campi in an attempt to fight the deadly disease.
San Giorgio dei Greci and a Greek-Venetian breakfast
Our walk now leads us to Ponte dei Greci, beyond which the Greek and Dalmatian quarters are located. To this day, the church of San Giorgio dei Greci, opened in 1573 and designed by architects Lombardo and Chiona, is the most important religious and cultural community of the Greek diaspora. You can also visit the Istituto Ellenico, located next to the church, hosting one of the finest collections of Greek and Byzantine icons outside Greece. Walking further along Calle della Madonna, we arrive in Salizzada dei Greci, at the end of which you can you make out the facade of the church of Sant’Antonin, and the Scuola Dalmata. The lush and sprawling gardens of the adjacent hotel Sant’Antonin was originally created by a merchant family from Byzantium.
The ancient Greek quarter is also home to a specialty I love to eat for breakfast, recalling the culinary traditions of Greek Venice. Torta Greca – the Greek cake, comes in several varieties in Venice. Looking at recipes dating back to the 12th century, we found that the Torta Greca offered by Pasticceria Chiusso on Salizzada dei Greci is probably the cake closest to the original: It consists of sweet and bitter almonds, worked into a creamy dough and decorated with pinoli (pine nuts).
The apple frittelles of San Zaccaria
Let’s return to Fondamenta dell’Osmarin and continue our culinary heritage walk around Levantine Venice. This time, it’s all about wine, baccalà and castradina, specialties from Greece and Dalmatia, or with a connection to these countries (such as Piero Querini, who first brought baccalà to Venice), which became an integral part of Venetian culinary heritage. We’ll now show you where you can still taste these specialties in Venice.
Fondamenta dell’Osmarin also recalls another forgotten culinary treat: Along Rio dell’Osmarin, rosemary was growing in profusion, and the nuns of San Zaccaria used to collect it and produce ointments and syrups. The nuns also burnt rosemary twigs during la quaresima, until well into the 1820s, that is, even after the fall of the Republic in 1797. So during Lent, this area must have smelled deliciously of fragrant herbs and apple frittelles flavored with rosemary, eaten during the forty days following Ash Wednesday, to use up the apples of the previous year and make way in the pantry for the spring harvest.
The Venetian winter specialty, baccalà, and the Querini family
Start on Ponte del Diavolo, where you can enjoy one of the favorite views of Venice lately seen on social media, cross Corte della Rota and turn right into Ruga Giuffa. This is a long and partly narrow calle (ruga means fold in Venetian, like a fold cutting through a myriad of narrow-standing buildings), leading onto a best-loved square in town, the sprawling Campo Santa Maria Formosa.
Here, we can find another connection to Venetian culinary heritage, Pietro Querini’s former family home, Ca’ Querini, now the seat of Fondazione Querini Stampalia. In 1431, Senator Querini left Candia (Crete) for Flanders on board of his ship Querina, carrying 800 barrels of Malvasia wine, spices, cotton and more luxury goods. He didn’t make it to his destination, though. Shipwrecked after a storm, Querini was saved off the Lofoten islands and returned home to Venice crossing Europe, carrying with him the recipe and the first badges of stockfish – baccalà. It’s the stockfish cream you can still eat in most wine bars and restaurants in Venice and the Veneto. This creamy white dish is a favorite of ours, in particular during Carnival.
A Venetian heritage menu: malvasia, castradina, torta Greca
On Campo Santa Maria Formosa, turn right and enter Calle Lunga. Not only does this bring you to a favorite bookstore in town, Libreria Acqua Alta by Luigi Frizzo, selling books in gondolas in a bottega opening up onto a book-studded terrace overlooking the pictoresque Rio de la Tetta, but you’ll also arrive at Enoteca Al Mascaron, an osteria – wine bar offering the largest selection of Malvasia in town.
Malvasia is the name of vines recalling the ancient city of Monemvasia (‘port with only one entrance’) located on the southeastern coast of the Peloponnes peninsula. The Venetians used to cultivate Malvasia vines on Crete and Rhodes, on estates often owned by Venetian patrician families, such as the Querini family we just mentioned above. From the Greek islands, the Malvasia wine barrels were delivered to Venice during more than 800 years. In Venice, the enoteche selling Malvasia from Greece were also called malvasie.
In our times, Malvasia wines are still produced in the Mediterranean, in particular in Sicily, and there’s also Malvasia nera (ruby-red, dark Malvasia wine) produced by Sardinian wine makers. Today, most of the Malvasia wines you can taste in Venice come from Istria, from the city of Breg, called Malvasia istriana. For a little more than a decade, the Association Laguna nel Bicchiere, currently running six vineyards in town and the Lagoon, has been cultivating Malvasia vines in two vineyards, one is located on the island of San Michele. Al Mascaron is one of the few remaining malvasie in Venice, where you can taste family food and cicheti alongside the people living in the neighborhood. And then, during La Festa della Madonna della Salute on 21 November, at Al Mascaron, you can try castradina, the smoked meat dish Venetians ate during the outbreak of the bubonic plage in the 1630s. La castradina, the dish that saved many Venetian lives, consists of cabbage leaves, smoked mutton, lots of pepper, juniper, and cinnamon in the original recipe.
For dessert on this Venetian heritage walk, you might want to taste another delicious variant of Torta Greca. Return to Campo Santa Maria Formosa, walk past Hotel Vitturini and cross two bridges taking you to Campo Santa Marina. This campo still recalls the ancient church of Santa Marina, closed during Napoleonic times. In its place, the four-star hotel Santa Marina is located, and across from the hotel, you can find one of our favorite pastry stores of the neighborhood, Pasticceria Didovich. Of course, they sell their own version of torta greca, which comes as little tartlets covered with almond syrup, rose-flavored frosting and pine nuts.
I want to thank Iris for this very interesting guest post. I certainly learned a lot from it. If you want to know more the culinary heritage of Venice, I strongly recommend to take a look at her blog. La Venessiana – The Fragrant World of Venice, founded in June 2015 by Iris and Lina Teresa Loredan (her grandmother), is a blog dedicated to Venetian culture, Lagoon gardens, ancestral food and the historical cuisine of Venice. From January 2019, their Atelier La Spezeria offers culinary online courses, seasonal e-books, a culinary magazine, and the flagship online class for responsible travelers: Venetia – Venice Heritage Course.