Venetian Shrimp with Polenta
Years ago, while appearing with the Royal Shakespeare Co. in London, I had a week off and decided a treat was in order. Charlie, my other half, met me in London, and we took a ridiculously cheap flight to Italy. Of course Venice was on the agenda, and especially a restaurant recommended by all of my friends at Food & Wine—Osteria Alle Testiere. Upon arrival, we tried to book a reservation, but no luck. I was crushed, but I was in Venice, so I couldn’t really feel that bad.
We took the advice of friends who were seasoned Venice visitors and let ourselves get lost. I believe that’s the only way to see Venice. It was magical. And then, late in the afternoon, we somehow found ourselves outside the shuttered doors of Alle Testiere. I started to feel sorry for myself again, and when I turned to share my sorrow with Charlie, he was nowhere to be found. And then I saw him, on his hands and knees, crawling underneath the metal security gate! As I watched in horror ... nothing happened. I waited, sure that he was about to be arrested. Then he appeared, slithering out from under the gate, looking both a mess and immensely pleased with himself. If we agreed to eat very, very early, and to not linger endlessly after our meal, they graciously agreed to let us be the first customers that night. We raced back to our hotel, showered, changed, and raced back. We then proceeded to have one of the best meals we’ve ever had. I had Schie con Polenta: tiny Venetian brine shrimp with white wine and garlic served over soft polenta. It was a meal and an evening I will never forget, thanks both to Charlie and a wonderful restaurant crew.
Since flying to Venice for dinner isn’t possible for most of us, this magical meal is easy to, if not replicate, at least approximate. I say that because I’m pretty sure you won’t be able to find the famous Venetian gray brine shrimp stateside. These shrimp are seriously tiny and sweet. But we all have access to great shrimp at our fishmongers. All you need to do is make a batch of polenta, which isn’t hard at all; it just requires some stirring. And while the polenta simmers away, all you’ll need to do is cook some garlic and white wine and stock, add butter, and, literally two minutes (at most) before you want to serve, toss in the shrimp. The cardinal sin when preparing shrimp is overcooking them, so cook until they’re mostly pink, then toss in the butter, the lemon zest, and about half of the parsley. The remaining moments of heat while you plate is enough to finish the cooking. Complete the picture with the rest of the parsley, and let yourself dream of canals, and San Marco, and the Rialto, and … ah, La Serenissima!