Fegato alla Veneziana – rediscovering a Venetian classic

It sounds funny now but when I first came to Venice, twenty-five years ago, the place was not known for good food. I had a Roman friend who had to live here for work and she complained constantly about how poor the restaurants were. That Venice of old had lots of places to eat and drink in the tourist spots, many of them of middling quality. But go into the local areas and there wasn’t much at all.

Back then Campo Santa Margherita had a couple of restaurants and a bar or two. The place was asleep by eight thirty of an evening. Now, in normal times at least, it’s one of the city’s nightlife areas, and lots of ordinary shops have been converted into bars.

Food back then was cicchetti, sandwiches, fish and… liver. You expect fish in a place surrounded by the sea, of course. How liver came to be a staple speciality of the place I’ve no idea. Fegato alla Veneziana is a simple enough dish: liver, preferably calves, with slow-braised onions in a wine sauce and served with polenta. It’s quite special when it’s good and when it’s bad horribly reminiscent of the shoe leather liver and bacon you sometimes get back in England.

The other night I was wandering the quietest bit of Dorsoduro, the area close to the old ferry terminal beyond San Basilio and, on a whim, fancying meat for the first time since I came here, took a table outside a local-looking restaurant, the Trattoria Anzolo Raffaele. It’s on the quiet campo of the same name and used to go by the name Pane Vino e San Daniele.

It was an odd welcome I have to say. First I was asked for my telephone number even though I was sitting outside. Then I was told I had to find the menu myself by pointing my phone at a barcode on the table. How people without phones fare I’ve no idea.

Only then did I discover there wasn’t much meat around in the main courses except the fegato. It was €20 which sounds about right; go for anything much cheaper than that and I doubt you’re going to get quality. Here’s what turned up.

Two sorts of onions, one with the meat, the other separate, liver, a bay leaf and soft white polenta (the polenta in the Veneto is often white, not yellow). Interesting bread including the crispy Sardinian carasau. The liver was perfect, just cooked, tender enough to eat with a fork alone, and with a slight spiciness — maybe cinnamon — which probably wasn’t authentic but worked very well.

It was a real delight that frankly I wouldn’t normally have chosen given how disappointing this Venetian classic can often be. Definitely a place to remember.