A crunchy exterior holds the soft, pull-apart artichoke heart & spinach interior of these easy-to-make, vegan and gluten-free polpettes. Although delicious on their own as a snack or appetizer, these Italian-inspired faux meatballs are perfect with my easy marinara sauce over your favourite pasta. Treat yourself and make extra of everything! A family- and guest-friendly recipe.
A film set with fabulous food. This is how I would describe Venice.
TheNobel Prize-winning poet Joseph Brodsky is, however, more eloquent on this lagoon-bound, languorous city that is “part damp oxygen, part coffee and prayers”. Palazzo facades – and there appear to be scores of these impressive edifications – are like “upright lace”, with interiors that tangibly mark time: “every surface craves dust, for dust is the flesh of time”.
But Venice is about water. Its 11 centuries of chequered success owes its very existence to the salty, turquoise blue water that laps its many islands, islands now connected by seemingly infinite shallow bridges and ancient churches that capture our imagination still.
We arrived by waterbus to a city that did in fact look like it was sinking. As dusk elided into darkness we (okay, me; Andrew was fine.) uneasily wended our way through rain-spackled, Sunday-deserted ribbons of streets, fearing we would never find our apartment. But by morning – and after a belly full of seafood and Prosecco – the impossibly narrow passages that double as streets were filled with more people than I ever encounter in a typical day.
Venice is alive and very, very well.
We didn’t make it to the famous Rialto Market – despite it being a tiddly five minutes away – until the Wednesday. Normally I am not a huge fan of markets: all the tourist tat, dubious “designer” bags and watches, the air of desperation/weariness from both seller and potential buyer. But this is actually where Venetians – housewives, nuns, chefs, kids with pocket money, and of course curious tourists – shop. Although there are a few small supermarkets, they aren’t filled with locals. The locals, the chefs, the nuns are filling their faded granny trolleys from the daily fish and produce stalls. Because we were so near and, as usual, up quite early we were able to see the markets being set up.
If you haven’t been to Venice then you may not realise that literally everything arrives by boat. We saw little motor boats putter under bridges to unload in the neat, wooden dockways around the market – boxes of obscenely lush strawberries, crates of wriggling langoustines, piles of locally-grown young spinach (about the only crop that is grown in earnest here – no room; no naturally fertile soil.). We were also amused and fascinated by the early morning rubbish collections: bridge-battered boats with little reaching cranes and neat metal containers being fed with the city’s detritus. And of course the absence of cars means taking snaps in the middle of street won’t see you hooted at, although you do have to be wary of taking a tumble into the canals. I’m sure in the age of the selfie stick and Instagram this happens with alarming/hilarious frequency.
The first thing that really took my eye at the market were the little artful pyramids of dusky purple artichokes. Softly curved with near-lethal spikes, these edible thistles are a particular weakness of mine. Kindred spirits, perhaps (my pointy elbows and knees could be registered as weapons).
The kind we grow in the UK tend to be the more bulbous sage green variety, but these elongated examples look more like robust tulips. These ones were young – pre-season almost – and could be eaten raw, their tender astringent leaves smeared with a little salted butter. But most were destined to be flayed open to get at the delectable, highly-prized heart.
Andrew’s favourite dish of the trip was in fact a pasta dish studded with sauteed artichokes and doused with cream. Resolutely humble, this throw-together style dish was eaten in near-silence. We usually share our dishes, but I didn’t really get much of a look in that evening.
This recipe, that also gives a nod to one of the other food wonders of this city – ciccetti/tapas-style meatballs – is my way of extending my stay and eating one of my favourite vegetables. They are not yet in season in our cooler clime, so I used artichoke hearts tinned in water. I gently squeezed them before chopping finely and flinging in to saute with shallot and garlic. If you cook the artichokes from fresh, all the better.
This isn’t a patch on the finest thing I ate, a beer-battered and fried artichoke stuffed with cheese from a three-table osteria near the Market, washed down with house Prosecco. However, I bet that if I sneaked this behind Ana’s ciccetti-lined wooden counter she might just serve it up if I promised to stop staring at her chef. Swoon! My quick guide to eating Venice is below the recipe.
Artichoke & Spinach Polpette with Easy Marinara Sauce
A crunchy exterior holds the soft, pull-apart artichoke heart & spinach interior of these easy-to-make, vegan and gluten-free polpettes. Although delicious on their own as a snack or appetizer, these Italian-inspired faux meatballs are perfect with my easy marinara sauce over your favourite pasta. Treat yourself and make extra of everything! A family- and guest-friendly recipe. Gustare! xx
2 tbsp olive oil
3 cloves of garlic, peeled and lightly mashed/cracked
3 good sprigs of oregano
800g best chopped or whole tomatoes – I like Cirio brand Tetra packs, 390g each, but if I could get US-brand Glen Muir fire-roasted tomatoes I would go for those.
Salt and sugar, to taste
Method: Heat the oil then add the garlic and oregano, sauteing until the garlic is golden; tip in the tomatoes, crushing them if whole. Simmer for about 20 minutes. Taste for seasoning, perhaps adding a little sugar or salt as needed. The flavour will intensify as it cools. When a little cool, press the sauce as best you can through a wide-meshed sieve. Add two good spoons of the leftover tomato into the pan (discarding garlic and herbs) and reheat before serving. This sauce makes one jam jar’s worth, and will keep in the fridge for about a week. May be frozen.
1 tbsp ground chia seeds + 3 tbsp water OR 1 organic egg, beaten (I used chia)
400g spinach leaves, washed
3 tbsp olive oil, divided use
2 garlic cloves, finely minced
2 shallots or 1 small onion, finely chopped
200g cooked artichoke hearts, squeezed of liquid and finely chopped
1/4 tsp grated nutmeg
Zest of 1/2 large lemon
1 tbsp fresh oregano leaves, chopped OR 1 tsp dried oregano
1 tbsp finely chopped semi-dried (mi-cuit) tomatoes
100g ground almonds, divided use (use fresh breadcrumbs if you have an allergy to almonds)
3 tbsp yeast flakes + good pinch of salt OR 25g freshly grated vegetarian hard Italian cheese (I used yeast flakes) and small pinch of salt
1. Combine the chia seeds and water; set aside to gel.
2. Place the spinach leaves in a large pan with a good splash of water, pop on a lid and wilt the spinach. Drain the spinach in a sieve, pressing to remove as much water as possible. I usually also fling it into a clean tea towel, roll it up and squeeze over a thirsty houseplant. Chop finely and add to a large mixing bowl.
3. Heat 1 tbsp of the oil, add the garlic and shallots, and saute until starting to become golden; add the finely chopped artichokes and saute until these are taking on colour too. Scrape the pan mixture into the large bowl and add the remaining ingredients (leave back 25g of ground almonds), including the chia “egg” or the hen’s egg. Mix it very well – I think a large fork is best for this as it breaks up and distributes the spinach better. Allow the mixture to cool.
4. Clean the saute pan (I use my excellent Staub cast iron skillet), add the remaining oil and heat on a low-medium flame.
5. Roll the spinach and artichoke mixture into small balls – you should get between 16 and 18. Place the remaining ground almonds on a plate and roll each ball in the ground almonds to coat, placing each coated ball on another plate.
6. Test the oil by flicking a little extra almond into it; if it sizzles immediately but doesn’t burn then it is ready. Adjust the flame if too hot or not hot enough. Add about half of the polpettes to the hot oil and fry on all sides, gently lifting them with two spoons to turn. This requires a bit of patience to get it evenly browned but it is so worth it. Place cooked polpette on a kitchen paper-lined tray and place in a 100C oven while you finish the rest. You may want to wipe out the pan and use fresh oil.
Serve the polpettes over sauce-laden cooked pasta and a crisp, simple green salad. Zest over the remaining lemon if you like.
Here is my short but sweet guide to eating in Venice. We stayed in the glorious Cannaregio district so it is biased towards this area.
Osteria alla Ciurma, near Rialto Market. Only three tables, plus bar seating in this tiny but perfectly formed restaurant. We ate there on our last full day but would have had a ciccetti (tapas) lunch there every day if we had found it earlier. It is guidebook recommended too. Outstanding hot ciccetti selection, especially the stuffed, fried artichokes and the tuna polpette. The chef pulls one of the beer taps to make up his beer batter for all of the fried tidbits. Tip: Drink the house Prosecco, white or red wine. Expect to mix with fishermen. A cheap and very cheerful drop-in place. San Polo 406, near Rialto Market, Cannaregio district
Ca’ D’Oro alla Vedova – in a tiny calle across from the beautiful Ca’ d’Oro Museum (worth the entry fee just to see the ancient “gold” walled space off of the garden), this place is always jumping with locals and tourists. Simple, short menu, excellent house wine and the best polpette in Venice. Fact. The chap next to us, despite being too full for pudding, ordered a single fantastically crispy meatball to eat on his way back home. Reservations recommended. Calle Zoti, Cannaregio district (it faces you as you look down the street)
Osteria Al Milion – quite old-fashioned in looks but lovely food and service. This is where Andrew had his sublime artichoke pasta. Tables outside. It is in a tiny street through a random archway in another street so it may take a little finding but the house wine and unhurried ambience will make you glad you did. It was mainly filled with locals when we were there, including a table that seemed to have some international art bigwigs at it. Reservations recommended. Good prices. Corte de Milion, Cannaregio district
Hosteria Al Vecio Braggoso – recommended by our AirBnB hostess, Giovanna this was our first meal in Venice and was absolutely beautiful, both the room and the food. Espeical standouts were sea bass carpaccio and the frito misto. We drank named Prosecco but quickly learned that asking for the house wine or Prosecco is the thing to do. All tables were filled mainly with well-dressed locals with a smattering of tourists. Reservations recommended. Strada Nuova (the main street), Cannaregio district
A place that I wanted to try but that was at the opposite side of Venice to us was Le Spighe. Offering vegetarian and vegan food (the latter remarkably hard to come by in this city), apparently you load up and the plate gets weighed before paying. Located near the verdant gardens of the Biennale – we saw it from the ferrybus.
Cafeteria at Palazzo Franchetti (Gallery) – we saw this in this Guardian guide to cheap Venice eats, and although it didn’t work out that cheaply compared to many of the menus we saw posted outside of cafes it was quirky and enjoyable. The deal is that you go to the front reception and tell them you want to eat in the cafeteria and they point to an unmarked open doorway and there you are (you can look in through the decorative metal grillwork from the outside as you approach the ivy-covered courtyard entrance). You serve yourself from a cloth covered table filled with salads, roasted and grilled vegetables, meatballs, pasta dishes and a really delicious vegetarian lasagne. You can go up as many times as you wish, heating the food in the tiny microwave provided (we didn’t but gallery staff did). The price was 15 euros but didn’t include a drink or sweet. The current exhibition is free and well worth seeing. Interestingly the head guard was enjoying a glass of wine or two with his lunch. Those eating in the cafe were mainly staff as the cafeteria is remarkably well-hidden. Campo Santo Stefano (on the Grand Canal), at the Accademia ferrybus stop.
Looking for the best beer in Venice? Try il Santo Bevitore in Cannaregio. We stumbled upon it by accident, saw the sunny benches overlooking a small canal and had to stop. Andrew loved the range of beers, while we both enjoyed the cheap and veggie ciccetti. Looking it up later it seems to be the most recommended place for good and interesting beers in the city. Great old school rock playing too. Sitting on that sunny bench just minutes from the crowds was pure bliss. Here are the Trip Advisor reviews for il Santo Bevitore.
**For other inexpensive recommendations, see the Guardian newspaper guide to the best budget restaurants in Venice. **
For those with something special to celebrate or with cash to splash…Posh Eats in Venice include Harry’s Bar (home to the Bellini cocktail), Restaurant of Hotel Monaco and Grand Canal, Ristorante Linea D’Ombra, Harry’s Dolci on Guidecca Island, and Trip Advisor favourite, Bistrot de Venise.
Note: Sorry for the lack of food images from our trip. I am a bit shy of taking pictures in restaurants, especially busy ones with close tables!
**See below the following image for links to similar recipes from other food bloggers. **
Vegetarian No-Meatballs from Others:
Aubergine, Mushroom and Truffle No-Meat Balls via Emily’s Recipes and Reviews
Kabocha Squash and Nut Balls via Rough Measures
Vegan Aubergine “Meatballs” via Supergolden Bakes
Mediterranean Meatless Balls via Fussfree Flavours
Lentil “Meatballs” in Lemon Pesto via Sprouted Kitchen
Cannellini Bean Vegetarian “Meatballs” via Cookin’ Canuck
10 Vegetarian Meatball Recipes That Prove That You Don’t Need Meat via Huffington Post