The world has many magnificent markets, of which I have seen a good number, but it has none like Rialto. Its stalls are lined up behind an embankment along a curve of the Grand Canal, displaying their contents in the open air. The air, of course, is Venetian, saturated with watery light. If the produce and the seafood seem to sparkle with uncommon brilliance, you may confidently attribute it to their freshness, while making a small allowance for the cosmetic enhancement that comes to them air-borne. The seasonal produce that growers bring to their stalls is harvested in the outlying islands of the lagoon, sometimes just hours before it comes by the farmer’s boat to the market’s dock. It is not only farm-fresh in the literal meaning of that abused term, it benefits from another of Venice’s unique environments, the salt-bearing breezes of the lagoon. When you have had those green beans, or zucchini, or asparagus, or tiny artichokes, or fist-size cauliflowers, or blushing pink beets, or miniature salad greens you may find yourself speculating whether you have ever before known how vegetables really taste.
Rialto’s greatest glory, however, is its fish market.Venetians are canny and passionate consumers of seafood and, even though there are only a few more than 60,000 residents left at last count, they support a fish market that in quality and variety has few rivals among metropolitan areas of any size. Of the scores of varieties of seafood that the market offers the most sought after – and consequently the most expensive – are the local ones, native to the northern Adriatic or, even closer to home, to the lagoon itself: turbot, sole, bream, sea bass, and indigenous crustaceans such as – to name only a few – canoce, a flat, sweet-fleshed, grey-shelled creature vaguely resembling a very tiny lobster; a nutty grey shrimp called schie; seppie, the cuttlefish that contributes its ink to risotto and pasta, and moleche, the silver dollar-size soft-shell crabs whose cultivation Venetians invented. You may not want to cook fish in your apartment, you may even be staying in a hotel, but you ought not to miss this dazzling spectacle, one of the liveliest that Venice can offer. Bear in mind, moreover, that seafood is the foundation of the city’s cuisine, and a visit to Rialto’s fish market in the morning is an instructive prelude to what you will find on the menus of the city’s restaurants.