In Venice, you’ll find no better host than Enrica Rocca.
An aristocratic Venetian born and raised, Enrica runs one of the best cookery schools in the world from her grandiose loft apartment in the heart of the Dorsoduro district. We met on the market side of the Rialto bridge, and hurried off through the crowds towards the fish market – her King Charles spaniel Soya happily trotting alongside.
All of the stallholders know Enrica and Soya by name, though she stresses how important it is to remain loyal to one seller. “If you swap to save fifty cents, that’s not fair. Once you know your seller, you’ll always get the best produce. If it’s not the best, you take it back and tell them to try eating that shit and believe me, they will never give you bad vegetables again. It’s about building a rapport without compromising your standards,” she said. I already like Enrica. She is feisty and passionate, and really quite infectious to be around. Soya weaves behind her as she darts from stall to stall, exchanging market gossip and skillfully navigating around the hoards of tourists with their cameras full of vegetable photos.
Enrica mourns the loss of Venice’s best fishmonger, who couldn’t survive on tourists taking pictures. As tens of thousands of Venetians leave the island, making a living has become more difficult for the stallholders – many swapping their fresh stock for dried produce to sell as suitcase-suitable souvenirs. I ask what makes her stay in Venice: “I put a lot of effort in trying to maintain what little is left of the authentic Venice but it seems that I’m not really getting very far. But hey, at least I try!” Many stallholders now just service restaurants, for which a stall isn’t necessary. “It’s the same mistake Broadway Market made,” sighed Enrica, “who decided to promote a fresh produce market to tourists?”
We stop for a drink at All’ Arco – Enrica’s favourite of Venice’s beloved bacari (small, local bars) which are scattered across the city. The best are cheap, crowded with locals and standing room only. It’s not yet 11AM but Enrica emerges from the bar with two glasses of prosecco and a plate of cichetti (Venetian tapas).
Which dish represents Venice and the best of its produce?
The Seafood Risotto has been the pillar of Venetian culinary culture for hundreds of years. Try it at Antiche Carampane, Ostaria da Rioba or Trattoria da Bepi Già 54. Fried fish or Fritto Misto is a Venetian speciality found on most restaurant menus and as street food.
Where would you splash out on a meal?
In my opinion the only Michelin star restaurant worth the money is Dopolavoro at the JW Marriot. Antiche Carampane, Osteria Santa Marina and Osteria da Rioba are also excellent.
What advice would you give someone wanting to eat cheaply in Venice?
If you want to eat cheaply in Venice, go to bacari and stay out of the really touristy areas. Avoid expensive products offered at cheap prices – for example, choose sardines rather then sea bass. Sardines are cheap but fabulous. Sea bass is expensive – be weary of cheap sea bass. It’s about being smart with your choices.
Best place for a drink?
Marino at the Londra Palace Hotel is my favourite barman in Venice. He makes the best drinks in the city.
Best spots for coffee?
My favourite cafes are Caffe del Doge in Rialto, Bar da Gino in Dorsoduro and Caffe Paolin in Santo Stefano, but only in good weather.
Best views of your city?
My favourite views are from the Campanile of San Giorgio Maggiore and from the roof bar of the Hilton Hotel. There are also great views from the JW Marriot and the roof terrace of the Danieli, but the service is awful.
Favourite thing to do in Venice?
Hire a private boat taxi. Leave Venice at 6pm, passing Murano (don’t stop and don’t let your driver talk you into visiting the glass factory) and stop in Burano to explore. Then go for a Bellini at Cipriani in Torcello before heading back to Venice via San Francesco del Deserto (you don’t need to stop there). Bring a bottle of prosecco and two glasses onboard and enjoy. It’s fabulous.
Elsewhere in Italy – where is your favourite region for eating?
Puglia and Sicily for the amazing quality of ingredients at really affordable prices. There’s less mass-produced food so the cuisine is much healthier. La cucina povera, or poor cuisine, in these regions is rich in fresh vegetables and basic ingredients prepared in such a way that you feel satisfied, but also healthy and energised.
When you travel, do you ever eat in Italian restaurants?
I never eat in Italian restaurants outside of Italy as I enjoy discovering the local specialties. I also know how difficult it is to replicate any cuisine outside of its original country. A cuisine is built around the local ingredients so exporting a culinary culture is really difficult. You can’t access the same ingredients, not everything can be exported and compromises are not always successful. It’s difficult to replicate Neapolitan dishes in Venice, never mind replicating those dishes across the world.
Symbols of Italian culture are mostly gastronomic, and they’re all so kitsch. Spaghetti, tiramisu, mozzarella, pizza, parmesan, espresso, cappuccino… the globalisation of Italianità is in our mouths and our ears every day. As far as Enrica is concerned, Italian cooking is a myth. She stands by the fact that it’s just local produce, cooked well. She said: “It is all about the quality of the ingredients which is why it is so important to eat local. Good ingredients are expensive in today’s world, so eating well represents a big sacrifice but it’s well worth it for our health and happiness.”
Her school is centred around this philosophy. Classes start with a tour of the Rialto Market, where the group selects ingredients together before heading back to Enrica’s loft apartment above the beautiful 19th-century Rocca family palazzo, prosecco and cichetti en route. Unwrapping the paper parcels of the just-caught shellfish and laying out the illustrious vegetables ready to prepare – plump cherry tomatoes (on the vine), the season’s last peas (unshelled), a fistful of basil (still flailing soily roots) and baby aubergine (melanzane), Enrica shares her unfussy approach to simple Venetian cuisine. The ingredients are of course intrinsic to her loose style; she doesn’t use recipes, but simply combines the best Venetian ingredients with her distinctively Italian flair.