La Serenissima – as the Republic of Venice is often known – is synonymous with Old World glamour, carnivals and romance. Indeed, as Wilde observed in The Picture of Dorian Gray, “Venice, like Oxford, has kept the background for romance” and from the masquerade balls of the carnivale, to the epitomic image of the gondolier, the romance of Venice is enough to set the head of even the most hardened cynic in a whirl.
During my first Italian adventure, as I walked amongst the labyrinthine maze of streets and alleyways, on whose ancient stone the likes of Giacomo Casanova, Lord Byron, Oscar Wilde, Ernest Hemingway and Truman Capote had walked before me, it was the heady aroma of freshly baked breads, cakes and pastries, melding with the dark, nutty scent of espresso, which sent my senses reeling with hedonistic delight.
The phrase “Oh! You simply have to try…” whatever it is we’re supposed to be missing out on, is often bandied about with such regularity that it has all but lost any sense of meaning. However, my voice is laden with the utmost sincerity and gravitas when I say that if you ever find yourself in Venice during La Carnivale, you simply have to try Fritelle, or Fritole to give it its singular form. This dessert dates back to the Renaissance and, in 1700, it became the national dessert of the Venetian state. Similar to pancakes, fritelle can be enjoyed in the simple Venetian style, which is filled with raisins, or in the truly decadent style when they come filled with either cream or zabaglione (I chose the latter!) Then there are Zaleti, which are biscuits made with raisins and polenta flour. Whilst I may have mentioned Venetian pastries in conjunction with espresso, zaleti are best enjoyed with a sweet wine such as Moscato or Torcolato. In fact, dine at one of the taverns in the historical center and you will often find the delicious delicacies offered with an accompanying wine at the end of a meal. Something which definitely goes hand in hand with an espresso or cappuccino is the baicoli. These are dry biscuits, cut into very thin layers and which were once eaten on long sea voyages. Made with flour, yeast, eggs, butter and sugar, these biscuits are simply delicious when dipped in coffee, not to mention hot chocolate, or what I found to be insanely moorish egg nog!
Pictured above you will see some circular pastries. These are the bussolai buranelli. Although in this bakery they are circular, they also come in “S” shapes. These pastries, made from butter and eggs, are a speciality of the neighbouring island of Burano, though they can easily be found in the best Venetian pastry shops or any bakery worth its zuccherro. Like the zaleti, these are best enjoyed with a chilled glass of Moscato. Yet of all the sweet delights to cross my lips during my travels in Venice, none were more angelically heavenly, or capable of such a devilish sugar rush, as the Spumiglias. These ridiculously sweet Venetian meringues dominate most pastry shops windows. To eat one is to be lifted on angel wings into a cloud of sugar, which, once consumed, has you galloping with the devil through an intense sugar rush, before angel wings ease you back down to earth, leaving you heady, satisfied, and a pound or two heavier!
Upon my return, a friend asked me for my honest opinion of Venice. “There aren’t enough superlatives in the English language to describe the effect it had on me,” I replied, “but one thing I can say: it’s not the place to go if you’re on a diet!”