- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 2, 2005

VENICE, Italy — It is hot and humid, so we settle in for a late-afternoon glass of wine overlooking the Grand Canal. We six Americans have been complaining about the high cost of Europe and the difficulty of those costs to travelers (we are not getting much sympathy from our Venetian companion, who copes daily with the costs) when the cicheti — Venetian tapas — begin arriving.

“This is one way Venetians cope with the prices,” says our friend Laura, who lives in Venice. “Instead of going to dinner, after work we just meet our friends for a glass of wine and some cicheti. Going out to dinner is too expensive.”

I look around Bancogiro, the quiet cicheti (chi-KET-ee) bar just steps from the screaming-with-tourists Rialto Bridge.

A dozen or so people are at the outdoor tables around us. Italian conversation drifts by, along with an occasional “O Sole Mio” and the splash of oars from the $100-an-hour gondolas floating a few feet away.

The young and the chic stand at the bar inside, where no surcharge is attached, as it is for the tables we are occupying. We are tourists with only a limited amount of time, and the few dollars saved by standing rather than sitting seem of little consequence, at least for the moment. Nearly everyone appears to be sipping glasses of still wine or prosecco, the light sparkling wine that is made in the Venice area. We relax into the scene.

The next day, we head north to sample Grana Padano cheese and San Daniele prosciutto, two traditional foods of this area that are made pretty much the same way they have been for the past 2,000 years.

To call them artisanal is certainly accurate because they continue to be made by hand using the original techniques. However, more Grana Padano was sold than Parmigiano-Reggiano in Italy last year; internationally, both are large industries that don’t exactly fit the boutique image associated with artisanal.

This is Italy, though, where tradition and food are handled respectfully. So when you tour the factories, you see the usual sterile instruments, crisp caps, gloves and clothing covers. The methods are slow and patient and by hand, as if the Celts were still in charge. They are the people who first made the famous salted and air-dried hams of the region, and their process, which involves only pork, salt and air, is still used today.

Italy produces hundreds of types of cured meats. Among the best known are the air-cured hams called prosciutto. All Italian air-cured hams are similar, but, like cheeses, they vary wildly in style and flavor. San Daniele prosciutto, from the northeastern region around the pretty little hill town of San Daniele del Friuli, is known for its pinkness, sweet flavor and tenderness.

It is air-dried, patted by hand with sea salt from Sicily and aged for a minimum of 12 or 13 months. The result is a lean and light ham. Although prosciutto di Parma is more exported and better known in the United States, San Daniele is beginning its international push as a boutique product available through such U.S. outlets as Whole Foods Market and other specialty groceries. Eaten side by side, the San Daniele is a little less salty and is sweeter than prosciutto di Parma, with much of the fat on the outside of the ham rather than threaded throughout.

Like San Daniele prosciutto, Grana Padano cheese is less known in the United States than another similar food, Parmigiano-Reggiano. Also like San Daniele, Grana Padano would love to be best known.

At Ambrosi Creamery, on the edge of the mountains skirting Lake Garda in Italy’s beautiful north near Austria, the cheese maker is checking the texture of the soft fresh cheese as it is lifted in cloth from the huge copper vat. This ball of cheese has come together as a result of only five things: partially skim milk, rennet, salt, a cheese starter similar to what is used for yogurt and a little heat.

The cheese ball will be placed in forms, washed, aged for 16 to 18 months, tested and tasted, branded with the Grana Padano logo, and generally babied before being sold all over the world. Compared with the making of San Daniele prosciutto, the process seems newborn: It is a mere 1,000 years old. It was first made at the Chiaravalle Abbey by monks wanting to preserve the treasured milk, which spoiled easily without refrigeration. They created the hard, grainy cheese (grana), which was eventually named for the Padana plain (Padano) in northern Italy, where it was developed.

Like Parmigiano-Reggiano, Grana Padano is fine for grating or shredding over pasta or salads, but it is a slightly younger (and less expensive) cheese than Parmesan. It works well in sauces and other cooked dishes because of its distinctive nutty flavor. Unlike some other hard cheeses, it is also good eaten in chunks, as on the cicheti cheese platter we are about to nibble in the shade of the Bancogiro in Venice.

The wine is poured, a still white from Sardinia that the waiter thinks will work well with the cheese, and the plates start appearing. A full platter of paper-thin prosciutto arrives unaccompanied by fruit, although fruit is often served with it.

There are bowls of olives and nuts and asparagus with wedges of hard-cooked egg. There are a basket of crispy cheese crackers that look like lace and a plate of rich and robust sun-dried tomatoes. Untoasted bread supports a fish salad sprinkled with orange zest and minced parsley. The selection of cheeses surrounds a drizzle of chestnut honey. We feast and toast the day, the hour and our luck at being here with all this food and at being guests of Grana Padano and San Daniele.

It is an excellent and convenient way to dine — there are many cicheti bars in Venice — and it would be a charming and easy way to entertain. The only trick, then, is to figure out the recipes. The olives and nuts and prosciutto di San Daniele would be easy. A quick trip to a specialty-foods store would handle them.

The tomatoes could be purchased sun-dried or picked and oven-dried. The sandwiches on dense white bread could be made with just about any white fish, such as cod or tuna, and processed with a bit of mayonnaise or olive oil, plus salt and pepper.

The cheese plate contains a few slices each of an English Stilton, although an Italian gorgonzola would certainly be appropriate; montasio, a semisoft cow’s-milk cheese; a smooth asiago; and little chunks of wheat-colored Grana Padano, which can be found at Whole Foods Market, Trader Joe’s and other stores.

The crackers are made by grating the Grana Padano with a mouli grater, patting it into rounds and baking. No flour or seasonings are added. Especially when eaten the day they are made, the crackers are light, nutty and crunchy, and very good with a light white wine.

Although the foods at Bancogiro are generally uncooked, cicheti offerings vary by location. At other such bars around Venice (Osteria Sora al Ponte at Ponte delle Beccarie is another near the Rialto Bridge), it is possible to order deep-fried seafood or vegetables, grilled artichokes, prosciutto and figs or melon, fried meatballs, dried salt cod, grilled radicchio, bruschetta, grilled red and yellow peppers, and tiny pickled onions. So any of those combinations works for a cicheti party.

It is nearly time to pay the bill. During the course of our feast, Laura tells us to be careful where we sit to avoid extra charges, for some restaurants, such as those in St. Mark’s Square, the main tourist meeting place in Venice, charge extra when musicians play. She says that she was there recently when a small combo began tuning up, and each person in her group was charged extra for the music, despite their protests in Italian.

We ponder this while gathering our energy to leave, when a small group begins setting up music stands on the edge of the patio. We look at each other in mock horror. “Musicians are getting ready to play,” Laura says, laughing. We each throw some euros on the table, gather up our belongings and set a direct course for the door. We do not tarry.

Grana Padano cheese crisps

2 cups grated Grana Padano cheese (see note)

Have ready a baking sheet covered with parchment or a nonstick silicone pad.

Using about 2 tablespoons per cracker, pat cheese into thin rounds, 3 inches in diameter, on baking sheet. Bake in preheated 400-degree oven for 6 to 7 minutes, or until just turning golden around the edges. Cool on baking sheet for 10 minutes and carefully remove to a plate lined with paper towel.

Crisps are best if eaten the same day but may be stored, unrefrigerated, in an airtight container for 1 or 2 days. Makes about 18 cheese crisps. Recipe can easily be doubled or tripled.

Note: Cheese must be grated on a mouli grater or box grater. Do not use pre-grated cheese or grate the cheese in a food processor. The cheese shreds will be dusty, rather than moist enough to hold together.

Fish salad cicheti

8 slices thinly sliced dense white bread

1 cup tuna or other fish salad (see note)

Orange zest

Minced parsley

Remove crusts from bread. Quarter each piece in triangles, a traditional cicheti sandwich shape. Top each with 2 teaspoons tuna or other fish salad. Place on serving plate and sprinkle lightly with orange zest and parsley. Makes 8 to 10 servings.

Note: A 6-ounce can of fish makes about 1 cup fish salad, or enough for about 24 sandwich triangles.

Asparagus, olive oil and eggs

Coarse salt

1 pound asparagus

1½ teaspoons olive oil

Freshly ground black pepper

2 hard-cooked eggs, quartered

Bring a saucepan filled with water and 1 teaspoon of salt to a boil.

Snap off tough ends of stems and, if asparagus is thick, peel bottom half or three-quarters with vegetable peeler. Place in boiling salted water and simmer for about 3 minutes, or until asparagus is just tender. Or steam until tender.

Remove asparagus from water and immediately place under cold running water to cool quickly. Drain and pile on serving dish. Drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste, and serve with egg quarters on the side. Makes 8 to 10 servings.

Tomato-and-cheese bruschetta

Grill the bread, slice the tomatoes, and add salt and pepper an hour in advance, then assemble these little sandwich bites in minutes after guests arrive.

1 cup (about 8 ounces) very ripe cherry tomatoes (see note)

Salt and pepper

4 5-by-3-inch slices of peasant bread, cut ½-inch thick

Olive oil

2/3 cup mixed grated cheese, including something flavorful and something that will melt well (see note)

Cut each tomato in half or thirds and place in small bowl. Sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste. Set aside.

Brush bread slices lightly with olive oil, and grill or broil until just starting to turn color, about 30 seconds. Using a slotted spoon, top each slice with about 1/4 cup (or whatever fits) tomatoes and then sprinkle each slice with about 2 heaping tablespoons cheese. Return to broiler or grill; cook until cheese melts. Cut each slice into eight pieces and serve. Makes 8 to 10 servings.

Note: If ripe tomatoes are not available, use sun-dried tomatoes, patted dry and cut into bite-sized pieces. Or use commercially made tomato tapenade. Fresh tomatoes are best, though. For the cheeses, a commercial package of Parmesan, Asiago, fontina and provolone works well.

Prosciutto and figs cicheti

Prosciutto

Fresh figs

Olive oil, optional

Balsamic vinegar, optional

Sprouts for garnish, optional

Slice figs. Layer with folded slices of prosciutto on serving plates or platter. Drizzle a little olive oil around, and sprinkle lightly with balsamic and then sprouts, if desired.

Kim Upton is editor of Tribune Media Services FoodStyles feature service.

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