The Veneto region of northeastern Italy is a portion of what was once the 1,000-year Venetian Republic, birthplace of some of the West’s greatest art, music, and architecture. It also offers extraordinary culinary treasures, such as risotto, polenta, sumptuous cheeses like Taleggio and Asiago, and perhaps Italy’s most sublime olive oil.
Every city in the Veneto has a square called Piazza delle Erbe, which literally means “the square of greens,” where each morning fruit and vegetable vendors set up their stands and locals shop for whatever is in season. This time of year it’s broccoli, cauliflower, artichokes (which are usually available from October to May), cardoons (also in the artichoke family, though they look more like a head of celery), Savoy cabbage, fennel, leeks, and several varieties of radicchio. After a good rain that encourages mushrooms to thrive, you will also see stands dedicated entirely to wild mushrooms, such as porcini, chanterelles, and many others. The fertile soil of the Veneto sets its produce apart from other Italian regions. Locally grown produce is always most prized, and vendors will highlight it with signs that proclaim nostrani, meaning “ours.”
Although most Italians are not strictly vegetarians, vegetables play an important role in the cuisine, both as main and side dishes. Vegetables can easily be the highlight of a meal. For example, a grilled succulent porcini cap, braised vegetables paired with creamy polenta, or a hearty risotto offer substance. With a little bread and a tasty cheese on the table, you have a healthful meal. Here are some of the dishes you might find if you were to visit this rich, bountiful region.[pagebreak]
Ingredients from the Veneto
Here's a roundup of produce and pantry staples to look for in your grocery store.
Radicchio: The Veneto produces many varieties of the vegetable. Chioggia, the round radicchio, is the best known in the United States. The long, romaine-shaped Treviso radicchio is distinguished by its curled-in tops, and the variegated radicchio of Castelfranco is used raw in salads.
Olive oil: The Veneto is one of the northernmost olive tree growing regions in Europe and produces a delicate, versatile olive oil that is suitable for a variety of dishes. Extravirgin olive oil is commonly used in all manner of cooking in Italy, from salad dressings to baked goods to sautéing.
Cranberry beans: The borlotti (cranberry beans) of Lamon are rich and creamy, and used in the classic pasta e fagioli, as well as on their own in side dishes. From late summer to December they are available fresh, but canned and dried beans are available year-round.
Asiago: Named for the town at the foot of the Dolomites, this cheese is available both young, when it is tender and almost creamy, and as a firm aged cheese with a pronounced flavor.
Dried porcini mushrooms: These mushrooms offer comforting earthy flavor and meaty textures.
Taleggio: From Treviso, the eastern part of Veneto, this creamy, rich Brie-like cheese is often used in pastas and risottos.
Pumpkin: A pumpkin known by the name zucca barucca is used in risottos and as a filling for ravioli. Its flavor is quite different from that of American pumpkin, so substitute butternut squash, which more closely resembles this variety.
Celery root: The celery of Verona is not actually the head of celery but celery root, which is used raw in salads, cooked in soups, and as a filling for ravioli.
Peas: In May and June, the sweet fresh peas of Peseggia, north of Venice, are in season, and the locals make risi e bisi (rice and peas) and freeze whatever is left to use in other dishes they prepare throughout the year.
Monte Veronese: This rich, full-flavored cow’s milk cheese is prized as a table cheese and used in pasta and risotto dishes.