Perhaps it is the particular light in Venice but the vegetables on display in the Rialto market have uncommonly intense color. From the snowy heads of cauliflower and fennel, to the rich gold of pumpkins and the brilliant green of chard and broccoli rabe, to the scarlet of the tomatoes and intense burgundy of the ubiquitous radicchio, this is a painterly array.
The vegetables grown in the rich loamy soil bordering the lagoon inform the menu today as they have since the early 14th century, when the farmlands of the Veneto, around Padua and Treviso, came under Venetian control. Today vegetables enliven the antipasto course, dress the risotto and pasta, and enhance all manner of seafood and meats.
Seasonal considerations prevail. The Venetians celebrate the first peas in April, a time when early asparagus and artichokes also vie for attention. Throughout the summer and into fall, when baskets of freshly dug mushrooms and shiny majogany chestnuts appear, a dazzling abundance is on hand. And even in the damp, bone-chilling cold of winter, the shopper finds baroque squashes and pumpkins, cabbages and potatoes, and even the white-fleshed sweet potatoes Venetians call “American potatoes.”
Like most of the foods in Venice, vegetables are treated with simple respect in cooking. They may be grilled stewed in butter, pureed for soup, or mixed with rice. A handful of herbs and perhaps a shower of freshly grated Parmesan cheese are usually the only adornment they receive.
Most of Venice’s vegetable varieties can be obtained in America and elsewhere. What poses a greater challenge is finding comparable flavor and quality. Whenever possible, buy vegetables from a farm stand or a farmer’s market. Look for those that have been grown organically because they usually taste better. And if you go to market seeking asparagus, for example, and those that are available are not first-rate, choose a different vegetable to bake or use in the risotto. There are dozens of options.