While rustic food has gone upscale these days, you can still find it in its simplest (and I think best) form in hole-in-the wall osteria and trattorias in Venice's back alleys or just about anywhere in the Dalmatian region of Croatia. Often it's a big plate of spicy shrimp spaghetti with crusty bread on the side, a carafe of no-name house wine, with a simple custard dressed in honey for dessert. This type of food was often seen on the tables (and out on the boats) of Point Cadet.
What makes Venice's (and Dalmatia's) rustic food different are the exotic spices they use in their tomato gravy. Yes, oregano and basil grow in profusion in kitchen gardens and window boxes here as they do all over Italy, but that je ne sais quois piquancy in their shrimp spaghetti may well come from shreds of lemon peel, hot peppers, strands of saffron, freshly ground nutmeg or even a pinch or two of cinnamon.
After all that spice you want something cool for dessert to cleanse the palate and temper the heat. Gelato is my dessert of choice, followed closely by panna cotta, a simple custard often dressed simply with berries in season or, as in this case, a drizzle of honey. If you want to make it extra-special, toast a few hazelnuts, chop them and sprinkle on top.
Spaghetti With Shrimp and Tomato Sauce*
1 lb of diced bacon or pancetta
3-4 large onions chopped
1/2 head of garlic chopped
1 cup minced flat-leaf parsley
1 cup chopped celery
1 cup chopped green onions
2 cans tomato paste
1 can Ro-Tel tomatoes
2 strips of lemon peel, chopped fine
3-4 lbs of shrimp, peeled
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 T sugar
salt and pepper to taste.
1. Fry the bacon or pancetta in a skillet until crisp. Drain on paper towels.
2. Saute onions in the bacon drippings over medium heat until golden.
3. Add in tomato paste and stir until mixture is brown, but not burnt.
4. Add tomatoes, cinnamon and salt. Stir well, scraping the sides and bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon. Simmer for 45 minutes.
5. Add parsley, celery, green onions and lemon rind. stir well.
6. Add the bacon and garlic. Stir and simmer for 30 more minutes.
7. Add 1 cup of water, stirring constantly.
8. Cook shrimp separately in boiling water just until pink (about 3 minutes). Drain shrimp and add to the tomato mixture and continue simmering for another hour. Stir occasionally to keep the mixture from sticking.
9. Remove from heat and let cool and refrigerate. After grease has congealed, spoon off. Reheat before serving over cooked drained pasta of your choice. This may also be served over rice.
* There are several variations on this dish:
1.) Add sliced smoked sausage and/or diced ham to the recipe at Step 2. Saute in the bacon drippings and remove before adding the onions, then add back to the pot with the bacon and garlic in Step 6.
2.) Substitute 3 pints of shucked oysters for the shrimp. Parboil the oysters separately until the edges curl and drain before adding to the gravy.