Il Gobbo di Rialto, the Hunchback of Rialto, is a granite statue found in the Campo San Giacomo, just steps away from one of Venice’s most recognizable landmarks, the Rialto Bridge. The statue takes the form of a naked man, crouching to support a stone staircase across his shoulders. At the time of the Republic of Venice, the Hunchback filled two important functions. First, it served as a podium where the Doge’s official would stand and deliver the news of the day, and second, it was the designated end point for a punishment meted out to petty criminals. The offenders were stripped naked and forced to run through a gauntlet of citizens lining the streets from Piazza San Marco to the Rialto. When they finally reached the finish line, they would fall to their knees in relief and kiss the statue.
I felt a similar sense of relief when I reached Il Gobbo di Rialto, the meeting point for one of the most popular food tours in Venice, Walks of Italy’s Food Tour, although I managed to control my urge to kiss either the statue or our charming tour guide, Mosè (pronounced Mo-zay). I had arrived in Venice by train the previous night and hadn’t oriented to my new surroundings. Meeting up with the tour group was my first foray into the city in daylight, and my first attempt to navigate its maze of crowded streets, narrow alleyways, bridges, and canals. I arrived just a few minutes late, slightly frazzled but eager to spend the next few hours sightseeing with all my senses, exploring the Rialto markets and Cicchetti bars with a local insider leading the way.
Rialto is the geographic heart of Venice and the oldest settled area of the city, and Venetians have depended on its markets for their food supplies since the year 1097. As the markets grew so did the neighborhood bars and restaurants catering to the shopkeepers, vendors, and laborers working in the area.
It should come as no surprise that, in a city shaped like a fish, a seafood-centric cuisine evolved; a cuisine characterized by the exotic specimens that make their home in the surrounding lagoon.
THE FIRST STOP
After a quick round of introductions, our small group walked a few hundred yards to the first stop on our tour, a bàcaro best known for its panini. Standing is the custom in most bàcari and many have no tables or interiors to speak of. We gathered around a conveniently placed table in the square to wait while Mosè went inside, returning a few minutes later with our refreshments – glasses of sparkling Prosecco and some deceptively simple little sandwiches. I had a hard time deciding which I liked more; the mild Sopressa Vicentina with a fat-to-lean ratio bordering on obscene, or the silky Prosciutto di Parma, its salty-sweet flavor enhanced by a thick slather of black truffle-infused Robiola cheese.
When we left our make-shift dining room to cut a zig-zag path over to the Rialto markets I felt a little light-headed. (I’m not used to drinking before 10:00 am.) Fortunately, the feeling passed quickly as we entered the produce market, or Erbaria, an open-air arcade filled with stalls displaying a remarkable variety of vibrant fruit and vegetables, many of which, like the tiny purple Sant’Erasmo artichokes, Bassano white asparagus, and radicchio from Treviso, are unique to the Veneto region.
Where the Ebaria is bright and cheerful, the vibe at the Pescaria is more shock and awe. If you’re used to buying seafood on a shrink-wrapped styrofoam tray in your local grocery store then be ready to have your mind blown.
I had never seen such a fascinating variety of sea creatures – some alive like the hordes of silver-dollar sized crabs clawing at each other’s backs, or the snake-like eels writhing angrily in shallow buckets, while others, like the gray mullet, were just beginning to stiffen with the first signs of rigor mortis. In some stalls, monkfish were displayed belly up to hide their notoriously ugly faces, while in others, glistening mounds of baby octopus lay cozied up to piles of inky-black squid. I saw plenty of fat pink scampi with eyes like beluga lentils sharing the ice with canocce, a type of crustacean who seem to have their eyes on the back of their tails.
At one point I fell a little behind the rest of the group when I stopped to stare into the enormous blue eyeball of a disembodied swordfish. I tried to imagine myself toting it home in my shopping bag (the fish head – not the eyeball), but it was easier for me to picture it in Hemingway’s trophy case.
THE PUB CRAWL
Once we had seen enough of the Pescaria, our guide led us to another bàcaro, one where Venetians have eaten for over 600 years. Mosè selected an interesting assortment of bar snacks for our tasting pleasure, along with small glasses of ombra rosso to wash them down.
While we ate – fried calamari, meatballs with white polenta, and mozzarella in carrozza (greasy little deep-fried sandwiches filled with mozzarella and anchovies) – Mosè entertained us with tales of one of the bàcaro’s most famous customers, Casanova, who reportedly used the dark secluded tavern to rendezvous with his many married conquests.
We continued our pub crawl (giro d’ombra) with a stroll to our next stop where we tried two of the most popular Venetian-style crostini. The first, baccalà mantecato is Venice’s version of a tuna salad sandwich. Made from dried salt cod that’s been soaked, poached, and whipped with cream and garlic then smeared on toast, it tastes mild, light, and surprisingly, not the least bit fishy. I can’t say the same for the sarde en saor (sweet and sour sardines pickled with vinegar, onion, raisins and pine nuts.)
Talk turned from local cuisine to local politics as we made our way to the last stop on our tour, a coffee bar, and that conversation continued as we sipped strong espresso and even stronger grappa. Venice is a paradox; its economy entirely dependent on an industry that threatens to overwhelm it. Advocacy groups, UNESCO, and residents alike fear that tourists are loving their city to death, but without them (us), Venice couldn’t survive. The guilt-ridden Catholic in me felt like I was contributing to the problem just by being there doing touristy things, but the business analyst side of me wasn’t so sure. Does responsible tourism start with the tourist or with the destination that caters to them? There are no easy answers, and certainly none to be found during our brief discussion.
More disoriented than I was at the beginning of the tour (blame it on the grappa!) I was grateful for the help when Mosè gave us directions back to our starting point, the Hunchback of Rialto. Then with an arrivederci and a smile, we parted ways.
Looking for the best places to stay on the Grand Canal, or better yet, the perfect place to stay to explore Rialto? The Ca’Sagredo Hotel is located just across the street from the Rialto Market and has an interior that perfectly compliments its exquisite location. From its views overlooking the Grand Canal to the beautiful open-air restaurant serving up traditional Venetian cuisine, a stay at the Ca’Sagredo will top your trip to Venice off nicely.
Grazie mille to Loredana, Mosè, and Walks of Italy for hosting me on the Venice Food Tour, and special thanks to The Wanderfull Traveler, Murissa Shalapata, for introducing us. Although I took part in the tour as a guest, the views, and opinions expressed here are my own.