In Venetian history, Venetian traditions

Pastries in Venice are not missing. “You will find a pastry shop at every single corner!” commented a friend of mine, not really complaining as Venice with all its bridges keeps you in shape no matter how much sugar you eat.

Traditional cookies in Venice can be found in the best bakeries and pastry shops. They are indeed quite simple, such as the “bussolai” or “esse” combining (plenty of) butter, egg yolk and sugar: a mix you cannot be disappointed with, right? I love dipping them in my morning coffee or in some sweet wine for dessert.

A variation on the subject is the “zaeto”, a cookie with a yellow color (“zaeo” means yellow in Venetian dialect) just like the above cookies with the tasty addition of some dried raisins.

How about cookies with almonds and caramel, or “pincia”, a sort of pudding based on bread left overs, and the seasonal pastries, connected to special festivities, such as St Martin’s, All Souls’ Day, Christmas, Carnival or Mardi Gras, Easter…? 

Among the several excellent pastry shops and bakeries in town, which I will be happy to direct you to, don’t miss a visit to our kosher bakery founded by Giovanni Volpe in 1953 in calle Ghetto Vecchio and the pastry shop founded by Franco Colussi in 1956 located in calle lunga San Barnaba.

Jewish bakery in Venice: Giovanni Volpe in calle Ghetto Vecchio

Giovanni Volpe was 18 years old when he acquired the bakery. The oven had been there for much longer.

Pastries in the Jewish ghetto in Venice reveal its multi-ethnic historical nature. You will find different kinds of pastries, connected to both the Sephardic and Ashkenazi traditions. 

I was personally struck by the not too sweet taste of the almond “impada” versus the “zuccherini” which literally means “sugar”, not to mention the “orecchie d’Aman”, also called Hamantashen, filled in with jam or chocolate.

The window of Giuseppe Volpe's kosher bakery in the Jewish ghetto, Venice

The window of Giuseppe Volpe’s kosher bakery in the Jewish ghetto, Venice

The Kosher Bakery Giuseppe Volpe in Venice and its "zuccherini"

The Kosher Bakery Giuseppe Volpe in Venice and its “zuccherini”

By the way, you will find the same cookies I mentioned above, the “esse” or the “zaeto”, where butter is of course replaced by olive oil, together with meringues, bread pudding with raisins and pine nuts, and lovely fennel seed flavored cookies baked using no yeast (sweet unleavened bread or azim). 

The Kosher Bakery Giuseppe Volpe in Venice and its pastries

The Kosher Bakery Giuseppe Volpe in Venice and its pastries

Although connected to specific Jewish festivities, you can find these sweet treats all year round, even during Shabbat as the owners of the bakery are Christian! Everything is however all made following strict kasherut rules and under the supervision of the Rabbi.

The Colussi family and their best known pastries, the “baicoli”

The name of the Colussi bakery is known all over Italy, in particular for the famous “baicoli”. A branch of this company founded the Colussi SpA and located their headquarters in Milan. In the supermarkets these biscuits come in a beautiful metal box with a picture of a nobleman seducing a lady offering her a “baicolo”. They are dressed as in the 18th century. In the background you see St. Mark’s square or the island of San Giorgio Maggiore or some canal with a wooden post to dock your gondola at. 

The Baicoli biscuits tin box cover by Colussi, Venice Italy

The Baicoli biscuits tin box cover by Colussi, Venice Italy (ph. from the internet)

Migration from the Dolomites

The company was originally Venetian, or rather the founder Giacomo Colussi came from Pianaz, a village in the Dolomites. Migrants from the Alpine Zoldana valley came to Venice in the 1800s to become excellent bakers as well as well-known gondola builders and, back to sweet, gelato makers. The portrait of Sante Colussi, son of Giacomo, dated 1876, normally hangs on the wall of the Mayor of Fusine di Zoldo’s office. Look at the wonderful frame, reproducing all the professional tools of a good baker made by the famous wood carver Valentino Besariel, also known to have carved reliefs on gondolas, too.

Sante Colussi, Portrait in a frame by Besariel, 1976

Sante Colussi, Portrait, 1876

Sante Colussi, Portrait in a frame by Besariel, 1976, Detail

Detail of the frame showing an Alpine village of the portrait of Sante Colussi, 1876

Sante Colussi, Portrait in a frame by Besariel, 1976, Detail

Sante Colussi, Portrait in a frame by Besariel, 1876, Detail

In Venice, apart from Emilio Colussi’s bakery in calle San Luca, the oldest still active bread oven in Venice since 1840, you will also enjoy visiting the pastry shop Dal Nono Colussi in calle lunga San Barnaba. Here, as her grandfather (the “Nono”) used to, Marina still works in an artisanal way, preparing her “baicoli” carefully with a lot of patience. Thin and light, the baicolo is the quintessential of a “golosesso” (pastries in Venetian dialect) as it does not look the right cookie for the pleasure loving, but it’s a perfect temptation to dip in the hot chocolate, coffee, zabaione cream, in some wine or covered in mascarpone cheese and Venetian mostarda (a sort of spicy fruit chutney). Aha.

The Baicoli biscuits by Colussi, Venice Italy (ph. from the Dal Nono Colussi website)

The Baicoli biscuits by Colussi, Venice Italy (ph. from the Dal Nono Colussi website)

Sugar beyond being sweet

Pastries then, is that all? You would however miss a lot, if you considered the whole issue about pastries as a tasting matter, whether you connect it to traditions, children’s memories or to the fortunate hashtag #foodporn, referring to the habit of posting photos of the food you eat on social networks.

Sugar in Venice in the past was an incredibly serious matter. The Doge’s Venetian Republic held the monopoly of sugar till the discovery of America. Even afterwards, when sugar was imported in larger quantities to Europe and the price went down, Venice was strongly competitive. As a matter of fact, Venetians knew how to refine sugar at a very high quality.

Origins of sugar

Sugar cane originally came from India and Southern areas in China. It was cut in pieces and the juice that was extracted was later boiled to get rid of the excess of the sap. Thanks to Arabs, sugar cane juice was then refined with an albuminous emulsion and crystallised with some kind of ash. In other words, Arabs invented sugar. But it was Venice that in the 12th century would already commercialise it in Europe, importing it mainly from Cyprus.

In the 1700s there used to be five sugar refineries in Venice. Pastry chefs had their guild already in 1493. They met by the church of St. Fantinus the Old, near the Fenice Theatre.  Near the Scuola dei Picai, now the seat of Ateneo Veneto. The main festivity was on August 30th.

Pietro Longhi, The Morning Chocolate 1775-1780, Ca' Rezzonico, Venice

Pietro Longhi, The Morning Chocolate 1775-1780, Ca’ Rezzonico, Venice. In this painting, you can see the gentleman in red quite “protective towards his “bussolai” cookies

The Temptation, 1746 by Pietro Longhi (Pietro Falca), MET New York

The Temptation, 1746 by Pietro Longhi (Pietro Falca), MET New York: while having his dessert, the gentleman is interrupted by the arrival of a lady, likely a prostitute

An expensive spice

Difficult to get, difficult to refine, highly demanded. Sugar was not honey, which everybody had, but it was something extremely expensive. When used in cooking, it was often with roasted meat or fried food. It was also employed in pharmacology and cosmetics, as syrup. And it was also present to prepare prestigious fruit jams, jellies, marmalades and preserves, i.e., gifts which royals and nobility visiting Venice were homaged with. Not to mention the wonderful ”triumphs”, sugar based banquet decorations, which, according to Domenica Viola Carini Venturini, were

the sweetest form to show off power and wealth

Looking forward to introducing you to a city that knows how to seduce…!

by Luisella Romeo
registered tourist guide in Venice, Italy

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