Every episode is stuffed with regional specialties prepared in family kitchens, local hangouts or Michelin-starred restaurants.
In the premiere episode of the second season of “Searching for Italy,” Tucci traveled to Venice, a region known for its bridges, gondolas and canals. Below is a guide to where you can find some of the dishes Tucci eagerly samples on screen while he’s there.
Just like the Spanish have tapas, the Venetians have cicchetti. These dishes include cod (codfish), fegate (liver), moeche (local crabs), sardines and radicchio, as well as hams and cheeses, laid on a piece of bread or fried polenta.
Breakfast at All’ Arco is served standing up with a glass of wine.
Baccala mantecato is “a snack that is to Venice as pizza is to Naples” and “it’s available everywhere in the city,” Tucci said.
SEPPIA BLACK RISOTTO
The pair took a gondola across the Grand Canal to the nearly 1,000-year-old Rialto fish market to pick up cuttlefish (cuttlefish in Italian), a cousin of the squid and the octopus.
Making the dish requires three stages. First, you remove the ink sacks from the cuttlefish and use the ink to stain the dish black. The squid is braised with garlic, onion, white wine and tomatoes. Second, the rice is toasted and cooked in fish stock. Finally, the fish and ink are added to the risotto rice. It’s topped with Parmesan cheese.
“Perfect!” Tucci said after his first bite of him. “Not chewy, not mushy.”
Risotto nero di seppia is so great that it’s claimed by some neighboring countries as their own invention. There’s no way to really know for sure, but in the Venetian cookbook, the ink’s been dry for a very long time.
Seafood clearly dominates menus in Venice. But there’s another protein that’s become a favorite for Venetians.
Duck is a local delicacy often served in the fall. It’s eaten with pasta.
“It was a great tradition of the Doge, the ruling authority here in Venice, to donate five ducks to every member of the main legislative body in Venice, but there were about a thousand of them, so it meant 5,000 ducks,” said Robilac . “So, imagine the rush!”
And of course, their conversation led to a duck hunting adventure.
Tucci traveled to Valle Pierimpie, a vast wetland about 20 miles from Venice, to go duck hunting. Tucci’s hunting partner, Oliver Martini, shot down 15 ducks.
“It has a sweetness to it,” Tucci said while trying the duck ragu. “It has a rich taste, so you don’t need a lot of it.”
SQUID TO GO
The feasting continued when Tucci joined journalist Maurizio Denez for a Venetian street snack of calamari sprinkled with sea salt. It was served in a portable paper cone called scartosso in Italian.
The fried treat can be a mix of fried fish and shellfish — or just calamari, like Tucci’s version.
Denez said this street snack was originally the go-to for fishermen. “You’d only need to get out of your house and catch some small crabs and small fish and then you fry it up,” Denez said.
And you can’t forget the wine. Matteo Bisol gave Tucci a tour of perhaps the most unique vineyard in Italy, located on the island of Mazzorbo, about 5 miles northeast of Venice.
Wine played a leading role in the very early history of Venice. Piazza San Marco, Venice’s most famous square, was actually a vineyard until 1100 AD.
The ancient white-skinned grapes, called Dorona di Venezia, have adapted to survive in the salty conditions of the frequently flooded vineyards. They can only grow in the Venetian lagoons, said Matteo.
For centuries, Venetians drank this local wine, but then it went extinct — or so they thought — after the 1966 high water, or high tide. In 2001, Matteo’s father, Gianluca Bisol, discovered a few surviving plants and brought them to Mazzorbo.
Tucci sampled a bottle from the vineyard. “That’s amazing. It’s really fresh. It’s dry and it’s soft, it’s so soft,” said Tucci.
Chef Chiara Pavan runs the Michelin-starred restaurant and uses ingredients from the salty soil, like asparagus and velvet artichokes.
Pavan showed Tucci how to make a nontraditional golden spaghetti, topped with an actual leaf covered in edible gold.
“Balancing them with sweet and sour tastes, Chiara transforms salty ingredients into gold,” Tucci said. “It’s culinary alchemy.”
Tucci went to Cannaregio, one of the six oldest parts of Venice, which is home to something new — and spicy.
Tucci tried kabuli pulao (a spiced lamb pilaf) and Afghan-style ravioli with vegetables.
“There’s a multiplicity of flavors here. There’s turmeric in the kabuli and cardamom in the rice. Taste bought home to Venice from Hamed’s team,” Tucci said.
“Some Italian politicians see the arrival of foreign food, and the people who bring it, as a bad thing. I say adding new ingredients just makes the stew richer. That’s the Venetian way,” he added.
Now it’s time to explore one of the most under-explored regions of Italy. In the far northeast of Italy is Friuli-Venezia Giulia, which touches both Austria and Slovenia.
This area was once the entry point for spices from Asia entering Italy, making it a culinary gold mine.
With Polish, Jewish and Italian roots, Chef Antonia Klugmann is fusion personified.
Klugmann buys her meat from Slovenia and her fish from Italy; her vegetables de ella eat from her garden or local markets. Her ever-changing her menu includes bold dishes like braised snail and mayonnaise, as well as red beetroot gnocchi, tomato and elderberry.
For Tucci, she whipped up a dish inspired by her grandmother called pork goulash, which includes fresh grapes, dried apricots and herbs.
“I love it! It’s the perfect mix of so many different cultures right in a bowl,” Tucci said while trying it.
The rich fusion of tastes in Friuli comes in part from a history of openness to outside influences that permeates Venice. It’s the secret of their culinary success.