The holidays are a time where everyone clings to traditions—some a bit more firmly than others, but arguably none as laissez-faire as Italians.
“They're still special, but the dishes are still those that you’d have for a family gathering, for somebody's birthday or it could be for another holiday throughout the year,” says cookbook author and food writer Emiko Davies. “They're special, but you have them any time of the year.”
Davies traces that balance of tradition and sprezzatura in her latest book, Cinnamon and Salt: Cicchetti in Venice, Small Bites from the Lagoon City (Hardie Grant Books), released April 2022. In it, Davies tours the city through the history of its small plates, called cicchetti (pronounced chi-keh-tee). Not necessarily hors d'oeuvres or appetizers, cicchetti are typically served in the bàcari or osterias of Venice, and may include anything from fried mozzarella sandwiches to sweet-and-sour radicchio to rose-petal jam fritters. Typically eaten with your fingers or toothpicks while standing up, cicchetti can easily translate to the setting of a New Year’s soiree.
In her previous cookbooks about the food of Florence and the Tuscan coast, Davies found it essential to explain the history and traditions that are so ingrained in Italian food and regionality. As she looked beyond her beloved Tuscany (where she moved more than 16 years ago from her homeland of Australia), developing a cookbook about Venetian food was a natural next step. Davies was urged to write it by her friend and historian Rosa Salzberg, who studies migration in Venice; during her research, Salzberg realized how connected her academic interests were to cicchetti.
To generate ideas for the book, Davies and Salzberg traveled to Venice in summer 2020, when the cities of Italy were slowly reawakening after the initial pandemic lockdowns. “I think it was a singular moment in Venetian history to be there when there were only Italians, or just people who lived in Italy,” says Davies. “It was really amazing—we went to Venice to do research and basically what we did was eat cicchetti for 48 hours.”
The origins of cicchetti, according to Davies, can be traced back to the Renaissance, when Venetian nobility served large feasts of finger foods. Davies' research and writing is informed by her background in art history; she moved to Florence to study art restoration (and even interned at a monastery on a Venetian island years ago) and enjoys finding the origins of modern Italian dishes in historic works. “I like to look at artwork and old frescoes and paintings and see what was on their tables, what was in the baskets of fruit and vegetables, and bring that into today,” she explains. “In Italy, every dish, every ingredient has such an incredible history. There's always a story behind it.”
Branzino al cumino encapsulates an important period in Venetian history. It is inspired by a recipe from Ristorante Al Vecchio Marina on the Lido di Jesolo (a beach northeast of the city of Venice), in which local sea bass is coated in cumin, which arrived from Western Asia via the spice trade that flowed through Venice and enriched its merchants. Branzino has a special place in Venetian cuisine and is typically served for occasions like Christmas Eve’s Feast of Seven Fishes or, in this case, New Year’s Eve or Day.
Cured for 48 hours, the fish melts on the tongue, accented by the delicate fragrance of cumin; it is served atop softened butter spread on slices of fresh baguette. This preparation makes it simple to put together well before serving.
For a wine pairing, Davies consulted her husband Marco Lami, a sommelier from Tuscany who has worked at top restaurants across the world, including Il Pellicano in Porto Ercole. “My husband suggests pairing these cicchetti with a Soave,” says Davies. “Especially one that has spent a bit of time on lees for added complexity—for example, Filippi’s Vigne della Brà, made with old vines of 100 percent Garganega grapes.”
To pair alongside this light yet buttery snack, Wine Spectator selected 11 recently rated wines ranging from a subtle Soave to energetic bubbly, great for welcoming party guests.
Branzino al Cumino
Excerpted from Cinnamon and Salt: Cicchetti in Venice: Small Bites from the Lagoon City Copyright (c) 2022. Used with permission of the publisher, Hardie Grant Books. All rights reserved.
- 1 whole sea bass about 1 kilogram (2 pounds, 3 ounces), or 2 sea bass fillets, skin on, about 800 grams (1.75 pounds)
- 120 grams (4.2 ounces or slightly more than 1/2 cup) of coarse salt
- 120 grams (4.2 ounces or slightly more than 1/2 cup) of raw or granulated sugar
- Juice of 1 lemon
- 1 teaspoon of honey
- 1 teaspoon of cumin seeds, crushed, plus a pinch for garnish
- 2 to 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- Freshly ground black or pink pepper
- 20 rounds of baguette
- 1 garlic clove
- Butter, softened
1. Gently run the fillets under water then pat them dry. Combine the salt and sugar and sprinkle about half of the mixture in a glass or ceramic dish, placing the fillets on top, skin side up; then cover completely with the rest of the sugar and salt mixture. Place in the fridge to cure for 24 hours. The next day, remove the fish from the curing mixture, gently rinse and pat dry. Place it in a clean glass or ceramic dish. Then combine the lemon juice with honey and cumin, and pour this over the fish, letting it marinate another 24 hours.
2. Remove the fish from the marinade and gently pat dry. Slice the fish on a slight diagonal (you want to do this as thinly as possible and then discard the skin). Dress the cured fish with a generous drizzle of very good extra-virgin olive oil and some crushed pink or black pepper, as well as another pinch of cumin. Cover and let rest until ready for serving. It can be kept like this for at least three days in the fridge before serving.
3. When ready to serve, toast the baguette rounds and, while still warm, rub each once with a fresh garlic clove before buttering them. Place a slice of cured sea bass on top of each and serve immediately. Makes 20.
11 Wine Pairings to Get the Party Started
Note: The following list is a selection of outstanding- and very good–rated wines from recent tastings. More options can be found using our Wine Ratings Search.
Riesling Finger Lakes Dry Argetsinger Vineyard 2019
Score: 93 | $33
WS Review: Bright, with crunchy acidity that's nicely buried under lively Meyer lemon, mirabelle plum and meringue notes. Features flashes of verbena and acacia, with a long, piercing finish. This should be fun to watch develop in the cellar. Drink now through 2028. 842 cases made. From New York.–James Molesworth
Pessac-Léognan White 2020
Score: 92 | $45
WS Review: Fresh and breezy, with a fleur de sel edge that adds nice energy to the core of gooseberry, white peach and lemon gelée. Presents a pretty quinine echo through the finish. Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon. Drink now through 2026. 15,000 cases made, 3,500 cases imported. From France.—J.M.
Soave Classico Calvarino 2020
Score: 92 | $40
WS Review: A racy white, with a mouthwatering mix of Honeycrisp apple, ripe yellow plum, grated ginger and blanched almond. Delivers hints of orange blossom honey and salty mineral, which add complexity to the creamy finish. Garganega and Trebbiano. Drink now through 2027. 5,400 cases made, 700 cases imported. From Italy.—Alison Napjus
Brut Champagne Tradition NV
Score: 91 | $47
WS Review: A harmonious Champagne, well-knit and chalky in texture, with flavors of white cherry, salted almond, cassis and blood orange peel. Creamy finish. Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. Drink now. 2,916 cases made, 750 cases imported. From France.—A.N.
Brut Franciacorta '61 NV
Score: 91 | $36
WS Review: The creamy mousse cushions firm acidity in this elegant sparkler, carrying notes of poached quince, guava, ground ginger and elderflower, plus a touch of briny oyster shell. Chardonnay and Pinot Nero. Drink now. 40,000 cases made, 1,500 cases imported. From Italy.—A.N.
Les Vins de Vienne
Viognier Collines Rhodaniennes 2021
Score: 91 | $30
WS Review: Shows lots of floral lift, with honeysuckle and elderflower notes leading the way for white peach and pineapple flavors. Offers fun, bouncy energy and a fresh, pure finish. Drink now. 1,740 cases made, 600 cases imported.—J.M.
Riesling Qualitätswein Trocken Kremstal Steinterrassen 2020
Score: 91 | $18
WS Review: A crisp, stony white, displaying somewhat austere flavors of apple, pine, rosemary and white pepper. Lean, leaving a mouthwatering impression. Drink now through 2027. 500 cases imported. From Germany. —Bruce Sanderson
Greco di Tufo L'Ariella 2020
Score: 91 | $20
WS Review: An elegant, mouthwatering white, with lovely almond blossom and spice notes on the nose winding through flavors of baked white peach, blood orange sorbet, biscuit and fresh basil. Drink now through 2025. 4,000 cases made, 500 cases imported. From Italy.—A.N.
Godello Valdeorras Cuvée de O 2020
Score: 90 | $22
WS Review: A vibrant, appealing white, offering macerated apricot and white raspberry fruit laced with snappy, orange-infused acidity and accents of elderflower, pickled ginger and creamed almonds. Salty finish. Drink now. 3,000 cases made, 2,000 cases imported. From Italy.—A.N.
Les Vignerons de Tavel
Tavel Les Lauzeraies 2021
Score: 90 | $19
WS Review: A structured rosé, packed with pomegranate and blood orange fruit flavors, which are carried by crunchy acidity and framed by tobacco and hot stone on the finish. Built for food—salmon or even roasted chicken. Delicious. Grenache, Syrah, Cinsault and Mourvèdre. Drink now through 2023. 8,000 cases made, 1,200 cases imported. From France.—J.M.