Francesco's gentle, velvety carrot soup is given a touch of festive Venetian froth with a last minute splash of prosecco, the dry sparkling wine of the Veneto. "The minute you taste prosecco, you have Venice in your mouth," Francesco likes to say.
Fennel, with its tantalizing anise flavor, is the basis for this smooth, elegant vegetable puree. So intrigued was Henry Wotten, England's ambassador to Venice in the 17th century, that he sent seeds to King Jame's gardener, with the instructions on how they should be planted and the vegetable prepared. This soup is given a luxurious touch with the addition of lobster. "In Venice we would probably use scampi, but those are very difficult to find in America," Francesco says. "Besides, the lobsters here are wonderful, so this adaptation makes sense." At Remi, Francesco might replace the lobster with a dollop of creme fraiche topped with good sturgeon caviar, a special occasion touch that would not be out of place for a gala dinner at home.
"In Venice we have big soups, simple soups," Francesco says. "This is a good example." But he adds that when it's served at Remi, it is sometimes garnished with creme fraiche and caviar, for a lavish touch befitting the Venetian taste for luxury. At one time there were sturgeon in the Venetian lagoon, providing the city with its own supply of caviar. For a more humble Venetian garnish, some rounds of bread fried in butter or olive oil will do nicely.
"Fish and seafood are so important in Venice," says Francesco, "that when making fish stews and risottos with fish, we prefer a fish stock. For shrimp, lobster, and crabs a shellfish stocks is better." None are complicated to prepare.
This is the richest of the basic stocks in Francesco's repertory. Built on a base of fish stock, it makes a delicious risotto and a wonderful seafood stew. "The aroma makes me think of Venice and the Rialto market, where so much comes from the sea," he says. Obtaining the lobster heads and shells may require giving your fish market some advance notice. Otherwise buy whole lobsters with the intention of using the meat in another recipe.
At Remi this vegetable stock is used as a base for many of the risottos, especially the ones made without meat or fish. "we have many people coming into the restaurant who are vegetarians," Francesco explains, "and we want to be able to accommodate them. When it's well made, a vegetable stock is full of flavor."
The pairing of creamy polenta with a ragout of earthy wild mushrooms has to be one of the glories of northern Italian cooking. Mid-autumn when a profusion of wild mushrooms begin to appear in the Rialto market, is the best time to prepare this dish in Venice. "Now you have all these mushrooms all the time in America," Francesco says. So he's happy to be able to prepare polenta with wild (or exotic) mushrooms any time.
Americans think of squid and its ink as the essential ingredients to make the black sauce that is served in Venice with polenta, risotto, or pasta. But Francesco points out that the sea creature with the most ink is the cuttlefish, which is a little larger than squid. Many fish markets sell cleaned squid; some sell cuttlefish. If cuttlefish is not available squid can be substituted. Lately, some specialty food stores have started carrying little packets of cuttlefish ink to use for making these recipes. "I don't entirely trust them," Francesco says. "I'm not sure what they have put in those packets."
"In different regions of the North, we have different kinds of polenta," Francesco explains. "In Bergamo they make it very firm. In Venice it's often white, madewith white cornmeal, whichi s more refined but takes longer to cook. Polenta is really food for the poor. In poor families with lots of children you would be served a big polenta for dinner with one sausage sitting in the middle." Francesco also says that most people make polenta starting with boiling water. You can also start it in cold water, which is easier,"but you have to bring it to a boil very fast." he says. Use a little less water if the polenta is meant to be firmer so it can be spread ina pan, allowed to cool, then cut in rectangles to grill or saute.
It is essential to peel and mash the potatoes while they are very hot because you want them to be light and floury, not gluey," Francesco points out. He prefers Idaho potatoes for these lovely cloudlike gnocchi because they have a very dry texture. To retain the starch he does not peel them before boiling them.