A Cultural Eating Experience in Venice

On a recent trip to Venice, my grandmother and I decided to take an evening stroll along the edge of the Grand Canal. Our aimless, wandering feet carried us down one of the many stone causeways; our appetites landed us in front of a giant window, gawking over an assortment of displayed fresh fish and baked breads.

Inside the restaurant a booth ran along the entire perimeter and small tables littered every open space. The walls were decorated with elaborate floral wallpaper and adorned with ornate antique light fixtures. We were the only ones there.

Since my first taste of sea bass some seven or eight years ago and more so my discovery that crab legs were not the only edible delicacy of the sea, it has been my personal mission to try every fish, mollusk and creature of the ocean until I’m considered a world seafood expert. So when the man came from the back to take our order, I told him I’d like the Cuttlefish Venetian Style. He chuckled and asked if I knew what “Venetian Style” meant.

Con cipolle, no?”  With onions?

“No, no. Cuttlefish is like squid. Venetian Style is with ink.”

“With ink? How?”

“When we clean the fish, we save the ink sacks. After the fish has been cooked, we break the ink sacks overtop.” He smiled, flashing his white teeth. “Turns your entire mouth black.”

I was interested enough to give it a try, for as I said, when it comes to seafood, I’ll try anything once. In due time he brought out a plate, the bottom of which I saw was white as he lowered it to the table. The top of the plate, however, shown no white, except for an inch wide circumference that had not yet been touched by the black ink. The fish was cut into rings, similar to calamari and sautéed. The O’s swam in a bath of dirty motor oil. Don’t think rubber bands lying in Coca-Cola, think exterior latex paint. Viscous and vibrant, it stained the plate black, along with the fork, my lips and eventually my napkin. After every two or three bites, I’d put my napkin to my mouth and wipe away a smudge of black dye.

The cuttlefish, when prepared, is difficult to distinguish from squid with its similar size and texture. (In Italian, the word calamari means squid, but does not denote whether it is fried or sautéed.) The novelty of the black sauce was exciting, but it provided little more than a slightly salty flavor to the fish. Other recipes for cuttlefish spice it up with garlic, onion, parsley, white wine and tomato paste, but according to our server, they simply broke the ink sacks over the fish.

If you find “Seppie Nere Alla Veneziana” on the menu while on your next visit to Venice, give it a try.  The experience is not appaling and the meal not detestable.  You’ll enjoy sharing this peculiar, yet enthralling experience with someone.

A fancier version of Cuttlefish Venetian Style with polenta.  Courtesy Academia Barilla.

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