Blogger Recognition Award!

I am absolutely delighted to be nominated by the very talented food blogger, Pooja Tameshwar of Smart Veg Recipes, for a Blogger Recognition Award! Thank you!

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As someone who tries to cook a mostly plant-based diet for my own good health, I enjoy perusing recipes that focus on the good things of the earth…

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I’m also ever fascinated by different cultures and cuisines from around the globe. That’s how I got hooked on reading Pooja’s posts! Not only are her veggie-based dishes from around India unique, pleasing to the eye, and mouthwatering, but she also writes insightful descriptions about what makes each dish culturally special. Be sure to visit her site!

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Blogger Recognition Rules:

  1. Write a post to show your award.
  2. Thank the blogger(s) who nominated you and share the link to their blog.
  3. Give a brief story of how your blog got started.
  4. Give two pieces of advice to new bloggers.
  5. Nominate 15 bloggers of your choice for the award.
  6. Comment on each blog to let them know that you’ve nominated them and provide a link to your post.

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How did Inspired By Venice come about? With the publication of my book Venice, a choose your own adventure that takes the reader on a journey through that enchanting Italian city! At the end of each chapter, you decide where you will go next! Enjoy the adventure!

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But books aside, I also wanted to share my passion for good food, culture, travel, history, nature and costuming…

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And of course…

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Tiddo the cat…

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What I share is meant to be eclectic, uplifting, inspirational, silly, informative. Most importantly, it’s written to brighten your day! Thank you for reading!

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My advice for new bloggers? If you have a passion you want to share and you start a blog, don’t give up if readers don’t show up overnight! Yes, writing posts is a time investment, and you may sometimes wonder if it’s worth it if there aren’t a lot of visitors to your site. Just remember that blogging shouldn’t focus on how many likes, comments, and followers you have. It’s about your sharing something unique with the world, just because it’s a joy to do so. Just keep writing, and you’re bound to inspire others, and gain readers, in time…

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My second bit of advice to new bloggers comes from me as a reader of blogs. I find it hard to stay focused when reading super long posts that look like one eternal paragraph without any pictures. I prefer posts that share a story that flows, keeps on track, and has a little eye candy! One of the hardest things for a writer, is to keep words succinct while still fully communicating your story. Those who do this best, are artists with the pen!

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And my nominations for the Blogger Recognition Award are (in no particular order)…

  1. The Third Planet
  2. La Venessiana
  3. Agreeable Things
  4. Fashion Through History
  5. A Cupcake For Love
  6. JessDidWhat
  7. SawaWorld
  8. Meandering With Misha
  9. Michael Philip Atkins Travels
  10. Japan etc.
  11. Melinda Little Blogs
  12. Lisa’s Project: Vegan
  13. The Wifey’s Corner
  14. Fed’s Life
  15. Getting The Picture

Thank you bloggers, for inspiring me!

A Winter’s Night By The Fire At Roka

I love inhaling the scent of a wood fire when I’m walking outside on a winter’s day. That smell is amazing! And on a snowy winter’s night, there is nothing more alluring than the scent and sizzle of a Japanese robata grill. As the white flakes fell outside, date night last week was never so cozy, or delicious! Roka Akor isn’t just a restaurant, it’s an experience…

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Accompanying two rosy glasses of champagne to celebrate Christmas, was the Prime Beef Tataki with Truffle Onion Vinaigrette and Rock Chive. These amuse-bouches were smooth and light, with a hint of fresh herb. With the clink of our glasses and a cheery toast, the meal began…

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My tolerance for heat in any dish is limited, so a plate of Japanese Shishito Peppers with Ponzu and Bonito Flakes seemed risky. Ooohhh! Take the risk! TAKE THE RISK! How fresh and flavorful these peppers were right from the grill. Brian (our knowledgeable culinary guide for the evening) explained that only one bite in the bunch might hold that blazing seed of heat.

My date got the infernal seed in his last bite, while I was pleasantly spared. I didn’t chuckle at all when his eyes got watery and he grappled for his glass of water. Well, maybe there was a little chuckle…

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My absolute favorite dish of the evening was the Grilled Cauliflower with Wafu Butter. What is wafu butter? It’s the nectar of the gods, that’s what. Actually, it’s a Japanese vinaigrette dressing married with butter, but I’m pretty sure magic is involved in its making. How else could plain and tasteless cauliflower turn into one of the most flavorful things I’ve ever eaten?

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For our main dish, we both ordered the chef’s featured catch. The Sea Bass with Peppercorn Broth, Cauliflower and Roasted Beets was absolutely divine. I’m a great fan of a serving of fish that is fresh, soft and flakey on the inside with a flavorful crunch from the grill on the outside. Roka gets it right every time. And, I’m pretty sure some of that wafu butter made it into the broth with the cauliflower because I was mourning not having a baguette handy to sop up every last drop. I was even tempted to slurp the broth right out of the bowl. Who cares about keeping things classy when there’s wafu butter?!

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Of course dinner wouldn’t end quite right at Roka without the Ube Pot de Creme with Toasted Rice Tuile, which my date ordered. I however, opted for scoops of house-made ice cream…

One scoop of molasses, one scoop of coffee…wow! Following blissful bites, I was scraping my spoon around in the little bowls looking for more. With such rich dessert and a pour of the exceptional Yamazaki 18 yr Single Malt (nuts, spice, vanilla, cinnamon), along with the beauty of the snow falling outside and my companion sitting across the table, I was truly enjoying a respite of peace and warmth during this holiday season!

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Once again, Roka Akor was outstanding. With such excellent fare, top-notch hospitality, thoughtful and attentive staff, and warm ambiance, this restaurant on Chicago’s North Shore keeps luring us back to their grill side!

Rainy Night Dining in The Cellar

A few weeks ago while traipsing through wet and cold on over to a restaurant we had considered dining at one evening, we passed the door of The Cellar. We paused to peek at the menu posted outside and handsome proposed that we try it out! How glad I am that we did, and how surprising and pleasant an impromptu change of plans can be…

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We started with an appetizer called Cauliflower Popcorn (curried rice-flour battered cauliflower served with blue cheese dipping sauce) and let us just say I have never been more willing to eat my vegetables! It was devoured before the thought of a photo could even enter my mind…

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My date ordered the Grilled Lamb Chops with roasted fingerling potatoes, apple mustard and lamb jus. I took a nibble and must say that the rich red sauce was out of a culinary dream! A winter dish to warm the bones and fortify the spirit…

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I indulged in the New England Lobster Roll served with lobster meat, mayo, green onions and truffled fries. Oh heavens, oh heavens! Amen! Hallelujah! The lobster appears to have more mayo than necessary, but it was actually perfect, balancing out the crispy bun and large, fresh chunks of lobster. This sort of dish isn’t common in these parts, so I was very happy!

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Our bellies full, we ambled back out into the chilly drizzle and on to the movies, arm in arm. It was the perfect date night. Especially thanks to The Cellar, which is absolutely one of the best kept secrets in town. The peaceful yet stylish atmosphere, the excellent service and delectable menu has just made it our new favorite!

Three Squares: The Invention of the American Meal by Abigail Carroll

I’ve just finished reading Three Squares: The Invention of the American Meal by Abigail Carroll and found it to be a fantastic text filled with historic food facts!

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Three Squares treats us to a food timeline in US history. Carroll begins with what mealtime likely usually looked like for settlers in the 17th century (when European colonists began planting roots and observing the foods Native Americans consumed)…

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I was absolutely fascinated to learn what and why settlers were eating/growing/harvesting what they were and how they prepared these items. It was also interesting to learn how settlers viewed their native neighbors (rampant with cultural clashing and ugly stereotyping when it came to the meal)…

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In the 18th century, patterns began to change. Where many crops, food items and ways of preparation had been originally rejected in the 17th century, new generations of Americans began to do the opposite, rejecting their European food pasts and clinging to what made their crops and tables uniquely American…

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As Carroll’s timeline progresses, we learn how the hours at which meals were taken, what was being consumed, and how food was being prepared and presented, changed and why. I found it really awesome to learn how consumption has changed so dramatically over the years, due to changes in American culture, wartime, industrialization and technology…

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Three Squares spans a great many topics…

  • What foods were uniquely native to North America vs. crops that were introduced.
  • The strong cultural bonds we make with our food.
  • How food associates with our notion of social status.
  • The way structured family meals affects our social skills and intelligence.
  • Nutrition, school lunches, government reforms.
  • The powers of packaging, advertising, and the impact of television.
  • Snacking and American leisure time.
  • And much, much more…

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Though folks who love food will find interest in this book, I think it is especially for anyone who enjoys history, and particularly American history. It is a highly digestible (tee-hee) historic timeline that will have you learning something new and interesting at the turn of every page! I cannot recommend it enough, it was truly a gastronomic pleasure!

Dining with Grace

A week ago today, handsome and I had a special occasion to celebrate and wanted to make it remarkable. For some time, we’d been wanting to visit Grace, a restaurant in downtown Chicago with an exceptional reputation!

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I can hardly describe, how otherworldly and magical this dining experience was. There are really no words for the glorious eight course meal we had, along with remarkable wine parings, impeccable service and truly exquisite ambiance.

This restaurant isn’t flashy from the street (we weren’t even initially sure we were at the right address), and when you enter, what peace and elegance; dim lighting, soft colors, minimal decor, gentle music…we immediately melted into our seats and relaxed (after a rather heroic city drive under some intense city winds that closed off streets due to high-rise debris falling on cars, during rush hour. Not terribly uncommon in the Windy City.)

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When you first begin, you select from one of two menus and the courses begin. Flora (for the plant lovers) or Fauna (for those who want seafood & meat). I tried Flora, and my companion, Fauna (though we shared, of course).

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Above was the amuse-bouche, “mouth amuser” in French, which isn’t ordered, but served prior to the meal gratis of the restaurant. I was fascinated with the forest plate set before us… we were told to use our fingers (no cutlery).

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To start: Parsnip with malt, pink grapefruit, lemon balm…(mine). So beautiful!

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Osetra Caviar with brandade, lemon, scallion…(his). Oh heavens!

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This one was served with a lid, and when you remove it, you’re instructed to lick the delicious lemon creme on it (like a yogurt cap). From within, smoke pours out, the wood smoke scent was amazing!

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Butternut Squash with ginger, mint, coriander blooms…(mine). I cannot express how divine the taste of coriander blooms are. I’d tasted coriander seeds before, but these little blooms were packed with a burst of spicy, flowery, herby flavor that I’d never tried…it’s a wild little plant!

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Alaskan King Crab with sudachi, cucumber, lemon and mint…(his). On this one, delectable bites were nested at the bottom, and layered over the top. You crack the shell up top with a spoon and then mix it all together. So, so pretty and the crab was so fresh.

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With the main dishes, small house-made breads were served to the side of each course (each piece unique), presented with a very special herbed butter. I could eat that butter with a spoon and I’m not ashamed to say it!

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Pumpkin with coconut, finger lime and sorrel…(mine).

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Hamachi with black cardamom, yuzu and chard…(his). The fish was so tender!

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Beets with goat cheese, cider, red amaranth…(mine). Do you see the goat cheese? It has been crafted into that edible white bowl right there!

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It melts, releasing the incredible liquid onto the plate to meet with the vegetables. I am a huge fan of beets…I was so delighted with this dish!

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Trumpet Royale with oat, cara cara and sea cress…(mine). Mushroom bliss!

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Pig Tail with endive, cauliflower, oxalis…(his). The meat (tender and juicy inside that ball up top) was utterly incredible.

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Chestnut with perigord truffle, buddha’s hand and white kale…(mine). A rare dish using  buddha’s hands, which are a tart, citrusy fruit. Paired with savory truffle, and nutty chestnut, truly unique!

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Short Ribs with watercress, lime and Vietnamese herbs…(his). I didn’t try the meat, but my date loved it. I did snatch another nibble of those coriander blooms however…I think I need to grow some of this plant this summer!

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Paused between the main dishes and dessert to have some Meyer lemon sorbet in a cone to ‘cleanse the palate’. It was like we were on a summer stroll. We could have stopped there and been content, but then…

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Banana with blueberry, cashew and African blue basil…(mine). Oh blueberry!

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Hazelnut with apple, brown butter and sorrel…(his). Hands up! Give me that donut!

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Chocolate with heart of palm, tangerine and citrus begonia…(his). I could have licked the plate.

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Firm, jello-like balls filled with chilled lemonade that burst in your mouth…so, so cool! Some pretty neat food chemistry was going on with this one…

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Peanut with passion fruit, murray river salt, banana and mint…(mine), in the glass to the left, along with a row of our wine pairings. It was a shame to let any of those delightful sips of wine go to waste (some of the most amazing tastes), but we were so delightfully fed and blissed out that we just couldn’t finish them. This three hour meal left us speechless.

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We love a decadent meal, but this one went far beyond that. For us, this was not just a meal, but an experience that we will never forget, marking a special occasion. If you’re planning something special and are local to Chicago, Grace will ensure your night will always be remembered!

Valentine’s Day Delights

My honey and I enjoyed another delicious meal at Evanston’s Boltwood to celebrate the holiday of love, and it was amazing! (You can also review another one of our visits here.)

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Holding hands with my Valentine…awww!…Now let’s get to the food!

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Ok, I understand some folks are squeamish about shellfish. But I had to get a picture of these oysters up close because I am mesmerized by nature. I never really thought about an oyster’s anatomy but they’ve got a heart, gills, a stomach, etc. You can read about them here. I hadn’t noticed these things before, but this particular variety had a very visible mantle on the shell and green gills!

After reading a little more about these little dudes, this vegetarian’s heartstrings tug for eating them. However, they were delicious pared with Boltwood‘s citrus mignonette. And it was Valentine’s Day, and oyster’s are said to inspire passion…

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Next we each had a slice of black bean toast, topped with avocado, cilantro, radish and cabbage. Oh my! They used a thick slice (reminding me of Texas toast), toasted perfectly with that crisp on the outside and comforting chew on the inside. The toppings were so cool and fresh, a dream dish for veggie lovers!

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Then we went to carrot heaven! Yellow, orange and plum color carrots prepared al dente, accompanied by burrata (soft cheese), mint and pesto…really, really, really delicious.IMG_3096.JPG

For our main dish, handsome had the grilled spiced octopus with almond tarator and lime relish. He enjoys octopus, having eaten it often in the south of France where he grew up, where it was abundantly pulled fresh from the sea and grilled. The hard part about ordering it locally (in the U.S.’s Midwest) is whether it will be fresh, but also grilled to a point where it isn’t overcooked, yet isn’t rubbery. This isn’t octopus snobbery, mind you. No one wants to eat a smelly, fishy tasting, rubbery octopus tentacle!

As there is an entire menu of delectable dishes at Boltwood, my date was on the fence. But our server assured him that he wouldn’t regret choosing it, and he didn’t! Cooked just right with a splendid spice and citrusy relish.

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Meanwhile, I couldn’t get enough of my grilled Indiana shrimp with miso squash, red cabbage, peanuts and cilantro. There was a taste of summer in these delicately charred shrimp and fresh slaw, wonderful! The squash was sweet and the peanuts crunchy, what a combination!

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We couldn’t go without a side of Boltwood‘s infamous crispy potatoes with garlic schmaltz. Glorious, crispy buds with fresh green onions and one addictive cool dip for them. We could eat these everyday!

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To finish, the apple tart with almonds, peanuts and vanilla ice cream. This traditional American dessert was out of this world. It tasted like a chilly autumn night, with trick-or-treaters, jack-o-lanterns and fiery rustling leaves. Oh, my, goodness good! Tart little cubes of green apple, sticky carmelized sauce, nutty crunch, cinnamon spice and cold ice cream. Loved it!

We highly recommend making a reservation at Evanston’s Boltwood if you find yourself on Chicago’s North Shore. For us, it was yet another lovely evening filled with warm ambiance, excellent food and great service; quite a charming Valentine’s dinner!

La Joie de Vivre!

We had a fabulous meal at Evanston’s Bistro Bordeaux once more on New Year’s Eve!

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Though it is always lovely to bring in the new year by toasting at midnight (which we’ve had the pleasure of doing at this very restaurant before), we decided to take an early meal and kept it simple; no oysters, no dessert, no heady digestifs…but of course there was champagne!

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Handsome started with the quiche du jour, which is always filled with savory ingredients and the perfect buttery crust that melts in your mouth. Served with a mixed greens salad, this lovely plate could make the perfect meal all by itself (and often does in our house).

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I chose the soupe du jour to warm up from the cold. A creamy tomato and their perfectly crisp and chewy French baguette to dip. Heavenly!

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My companion selected the Cassoulet Toulousain for his plat principal: French white bean stew, duck leg confit, braised pork shoulder, boudin blanc, bacon lardons, chapelure. When I asked him toward the end of the dish if he’d like to reheat the other half of it on the following day, he said no and took another bite, and then another. Some dishes must be finished, not a bean left behind!

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I selected the Gnocchis Parisian aux Truffes which you can also have served with the braised pork shoulder. Truffle gnocchi, button mushroom, arugula, butternut squash, beurre noisette. I normally don’t order gnocchi in restaurants, or pasta either. It tends to be overpriced, processed, the sauce overly rich or too bland. But at Bistro Bordeaux, I order it all of the time because it is fresh, handmade, perfectly cooked and always served with delicious al dente vegetables. Over the years, they’ve made it out of different veggies (not just potatoes), which is a vegetarian’s dream. The truffle flavor made it completely special this night!

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The restaurant was aglow with hanging candled glass orbs, the chatter was buoyant, the service excellent and the atmosphere cozy. Tres charmant!

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The decor was so pretty, and I especially appreciated the heaters in the foyer that kept us toasty while we waited for the valet (who was appropriately wearing a French beret).

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It was a frigid night, but here in Evanston on Chicago’s North Shore at one of our favorites, we approached our new year warm, well fed and cheerful. We couldn’t want for more!

Venice’s Fish Market

I don’t need any excuses to reminisce about Venice. However, we had a terrible snow storm yesterday that for me, led to one of those white knuckle driving experiences. There were cars stranded on the roads in what was a pure ice storm. At one point, I wasn’t sure if I was shaking from cold, or the stress of being out at a dangerous time.

This morning, safe and sound as the world outside recovers, I fancy that I live in Venice where I don’t ever have to drive in dangerous conditions, because there are no cars. Where would I go, car-free this morning? The pescheria!

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Living in the middle of the U.S., I crave fresh seafood. So whenever I travel close to the sea, all I want to eat is fish and shellfish.

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With its place on the sea, Venice draws in fresh seafood every day for its restaurants and citizens to pick from. The variety of creatures for sale are amazing, leading to endless dishes!

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Always clean beds of ice; assured that your seafood is kept cool and fresh.

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I’m attracted to food displays where colorful fare is laid by type in heaps. The bounty and organized clutter looks like art to me! I always have to pull out my camera, whether tables of cheese or piles of shrimp.

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Those long crustaceans to the right are canocce, a kind of shrimp. They look like they have big black eyes, but those spots are actually at the end of their tails…maybe to frighten predators with?

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These are seppie (cuttlefish), which produce black ink to ward off predators when they are disturbed. In Venice, you can order spaghetti nero di seppie, which is pasta mixed with the ink of the cuttlefish. The pasta turns black, and though I haven’t tried it, it is said to make pasta whisper fresh flavors of the sea. Cuttlefish dishes are abundant in Venice; the animal is often stewed in its ink and served with pasta or risotto.

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Seafood heaven, what more can I say? I’d learn how to cook it all if I lived near a market like this.

What I especially love about seafood is how simple it is. When it is fresh, it doesn’t need a lot of fancy cooking and sauces. A little roast or steam, a drizzle of olive oil, a pinch of green garnish; let me sit to that table for a while!

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Ah well, I’ve enjoyed this momentary respite from the weather by thinking of Venice’s fish market. But alas, I must now bundle up and see how much ice remains on my car.

A chapter of Venice is dedicated to this fascinating place, where the boats pull up from the Grand Canal to deliver such bounty. If you want to take a stroll through the market, but can’t get to Venice just now, I hope you’ll enjoy my storytelling as you amble through the market in my book.

And as for those of you in Venice just now, please share something special about the market in the comments! We’d all like to know your favorite part about this spectacular, cultural, Venetian jewel!