Lots of people will tell you it's impossible to have a bad meal in Italy. They're wrong.
The first time I went to Venice, I was a college junior about to start a semester studying thirty minutes away in Padova. My friend and I stepped off the train with no plans, high hopes, and a copy of Let's Go Italy.
If you've been to Venice in August, you know where this is headed. Countless sweltering lines, two terrifically mediocre and expensive meals and one sad gelato later, we trudged back to the station, pledging never to return.
We managed to hold off until November; by then, we’d seen all there was to see of Padova, Bologna, Parma, Verona, Vicenza, and every other town within a two-hour radius.
It was a different Venice that greeted us this time. Half the streets were underwater (this happens every winter during the acqua alta, when the tides rise and the canals overflow), and a maze of elevated wooden walkways had sprung up in their place.
Without the hordes of tourists we were free to roam, targeting some of the more out-of-the-way galleries and villas we'd learned about over the past few months. The city was shrouded in chill, damp mystery. It was as if we’d stepped into a gothic fairytale.
And just as our stomachs were beginning to grumble, out of nowhere appeared a trattoria like a mirage in the mist. A peek in the window revealed what seemed to be a roomful of locals, and there was a placard by the open door touting seafood specialties. We felt our hopes rising like the acqua alta.
Rather than identifying us as stranieri and immediately reverting to English, the maître d’ greeted us warmly in Italian and ushered us to a table in the window. He carefully enunciated the daily specials, also in Italian, and smiled patiently as we ordered, diligently rolling our r’s and staccatoing our t’s in order to make ourselves understood.
Smiling all the while, he brought us everything we’d ordered, and then some: an assortment of antipasti including a pristine salad of pearl-white beans and tentacles of tiny octopus grilled and marinated in a tangy dressing, fried calamari with a paper-thin coating that shattered under our teeth, and whole roasted branzino with fennel and charred slices of lemon.
The humblest dish, which arrived unsolicited, was one I'd never heard of before: risi e bisi (rice and peas in Venetian dialect). It was served as a middle course, between all the seafood, and it looked like risotto but wasn't really. It was equal parts peas and rice, a bowl of comfort on a drizzly day.
The peas had to have come from the freezer but someone must have shelled and frozen them straight from the market the previous spring, since they were taut and bursting with sweet, grassy pea flavor.
When we asked our jolly new friend to tell us about what we were eating, he scrawled a recipe (in Italian) on the back of a gallery brochure, explaining that risi e bisi should only be ordered in the Veneto, that you must add the peas at the same time as the rice (which must be vialone nano), and that butter is key.
As with most local dishes, there are as many versions of risi e bisi as there are cooks who make it. Pancetta is a frequent addition, and chicken stock is typically the only cooking liquid (no wine needed). Some say you shouldn’t stir the rice at all, while others favor the traditional risotto method. Purists insist on using only peas from Chioggia, gathered later in the season when they have more flavor.
Elizabeth David and Waverly Root both describe a consistency that is more soup than risotto, although David specifies that if it requires a spoon instead of a fork, it has become too soupy. Marcella Hazan is pro-spoon.
Use fresh peas if you have them, but don't let it stop you if you don't. The recipe below, which I translated from the maitre d's chicken scratch, calls for fresh, but here is a simpler version which calls explicitly for frozen peas.
The only question left: To spoon or not to spoon?
- 64 ounces chicken stock
- 2 teaspoons olive oil
- 1 yellow onion, diced
- 100 grams pancetta, diced
- 1 teaspoon fennel seed
- 400 grams risotto rice (preferable vialone nano)
- 120 grams shelled fresh peas
- Salt and pepper
- 50 grams soft butter
- 50 grams grated Parmesan, plus more for serving
What simple meals have you discovered (and loved) when traveling? Let us know in the comments!