Of course Marika Seguso, pictured here in her Venetian kitchen, is not my Italian cook (I wish!) but my Italian neighbour. She is, however, the Italian cook who has taught me and so many others something about basic Italian cooking. Marika is a chef who now teaches the lucky few in her Venetian cookery school Aquolina.
It was at Marika’s exceptional B & B, Villa Ines, that I used to stay before buying my own flat on the Venetian Lido and she is indeed the real deal, Venetian herself and married into one of the oldest Venetian families, Seguso, who have their own factory on Murano still making extraordinary glass.
The Italian Meal
A word here about the Italian meal which is so defeating to visitors. If you’re not in a pizzeria then you see four courses offered on the menu – likely more than you want to eat or pay for. Over some years I have observed how Italians allow the menu to serve them and how they are feeling, never the other way around. Most commonly they close the menu straight away and ask ‘What’s good tonight?’ The ‘special’ is usually just that – what was best in the market that morning. In my suspicious, English way I used to think it would be something they had made too much of! I was completely wrong.
In Venice at least, the cold fish antipasto is a must. The next course is the pasta/risotto/soup i.e. it is the carbohydrate course. Don’t be afraid to share this or to miss it out altogether if you’re not so hungry. You can move straight from the antipasto to the main course if you are so minded, but equally you can have an antipasto and a pasta and stop there with honour satisfied. One of the best tips I can give you is to order the first two courses, sharing if you will, and then to ask the waiter to come back and see how you are feeling. Unlike many English kitchens, Italian chefs are happy to take orders as you go. See what you feel like once you’ve had some food. You can then share a main course, have your own or do without. No-one will think ill of you for this and it means you can go to a smart restaurant without feeling you have to eat a good deal more than you enjoy. The horrible dynamic that many of us grew up with is completely absent in Italy. You don’t need to impress the waiters!
Typically a couple will order like this. Two antipasti. One pasta (largely eaten by the man). One or two main courses (meat or fish). One pudding. Not too overwhelming on the purse or the digestion.
Spend a day with Marika in her kitchen and you will learn to make gnocchi, risotto and an authentic tomato sauce. If you have longer she will take you to Rialto, to the fish market and you can learn something about food shopping the Venetian way. She is a very busy, professional person and a mother, but she always makes time to be kind to her visitors and to share her enthusiasm for Venice and for food. Last summer I saw the catering she provided for summer weddings in her garden and if you need a place to get married you could not do better. Let me leave you this morning with her recipe for gnocchi, a typically cheap, Italian dish, a labour of love for the ingredients and the guests.
Gnocchetti di Patate al Pomodoro e Basilico
1 kg potatoes boiled and finely mashed – a ricer is good for this but if not available be thorough with a fork.
1 egg yolk
up to 300g flour
parmesan cheese to taste
s and p
For the Sauce :
a good bottled tomato pasta such as Biona
s and p
- saute the garlic clove whole in the oil for a minute and then add the passata, more salt and sugar than you would think necessary and some of the basil.
- Allow to cook uncovered and very slowly, the sauce barely bubbling for an hour or more and it will thicken. Remove the garlic and basil.
- Meanwhile make a dough with the mashed potato, some of the flour, the egg yolk and the parmesan. (Start with 100g and then taste as you go.)
- Roll the dough in long thin sausages and cut into half inch gnocchi.
- Toss with flour and keep dry and cool until cooking
- Lower into boiling salted water and strain as soon as they come to the top
- Toss with olive oil and either keep to reheat later or serve immediately with the sauce and Parmesan. Strow more torn fresh basil.
Butter and sage sauce can be used instead of the tomato. For this saute garlic, sage leaves and butter until slightly brown. Remove the garlic and sage and serve the butter with the gnocchi.