16 June 2010


Venice, Rialto Bridge

VENICE, Italy - With dawn’s first light breaking over the Venetian lagoon, the fish merchants of the Rialto market are already at work on their displays of fresh fish and seafood culled that morning from just beyond the Venetian lagoon. The fish market, called La Pescaria, is not very big, about thirty or so fishmongers and their helpers. They stand under canvas canopies supported by age-old colonnades. What you see today may not be that old, but seafood has been sold in this spot for more than 500 years.

The Rialto market has always been much more than just a fish and food market. In the past it was the major trading point between the Byzantine Empire and the Venetian Empire. Its location, near the Rialto Bridge is particularly important as the bridge, which connects the district of San Polo with the district of San Marco across the Grand Canal, was the only way to cross the Canal on foot for hundreds of years.

And for hundreds of years, the fishmongers have stacked, iced and priced the prawns, scampi, squid, baby octopus and fish of every size and color. Today they head for the closest bar before the chefs of Osteria Da Fiore, Hotel Albergo Cipriani and other posh restaurants and hotels start making the rounds in search of their piatto del giorno. And right on their heels are the local housewives, who are just as critical about freshness and taste as the chefs.

If they are lucky they will find granseole today. Granseole are small crabs, about as big as a man’s hand, that are found in the rich vast tidal basins of the marshes around the island of Murano. While crabs are good to eat at any time, during the spring and autumn something happens to them that makes them even more delicious: the young male crabs shed their shells in order to grow larger ones. During this change, the muta, fishermen catch the crabs and put them in a special tank called vieri. They are held there for about a day, just long enough for them to be soft enough to eat, shell and all. At that point they are no longer called granseole but moleche, soft shell crabs, and they are quickly carried off to the Rialto fish market to be sold.

There are two good ways to eat them: the first is fried. My first encounter with fried soft shelled crabs was in Bookbinder’s in Philadelphia. A friend of mine, Ken Klein, convinced me to try them. I confess I was a little squeamish at the beginning, but by the end of the meal I was licking my fingers just like everyone else around the table.

The easiest way to cook them is to coat them with flour and fry them in oil. I think Bookbinders coated them with breadcrumbs, but it was a long time ago and I may be wrong. Mostly I remember how delicious they were.

Another way to cook soft shell crabs is to stuff them, or rather, let them stuff themselves. Put the live crabs in a bowl of beaten eggs, salt and grated parmesan cheese and let them sit and take in this mix for a few hours. When they have eaten their fill, take them out, coat them with flour and fry them in hot oil. They may not look particularly appetizing, but they truly are. The texture is soft and creamy, the taste a cross between crab, oyster and lobster and all good things from the sea.

1 comment:

  1. When I was in Venice last week, I saw colombo fish for sale in the Rialto market but cannot find a translation - any idea what it is?