Friday, October 31, 2014

The Best Place to Buy Vegetables in Venice--and A Fad for Some of the Stuffed Variety

Water parking at the farm and vegetable stand of I Sapori di Sant' Erasmo (Tastes of Sant' Erasmo)
Vegetables are all the rage among the youngest Venetians these days.

You'll see a toddler clutching piselli (peas) while seated in his stroller, a first grader walking around with a peperone giallo (yellow bell pepper) in her arms, another with a head of broccolo (broccoli).

Less surprisingly, fruits are also popular with the kids. You'll see a large fragola (strawberry) being cuddled, an over-sized banana poking out of a half-zipped backpack.

Sandro, however, goes around with fungus. A fungo, or mushroom.

All of these veggies, fruits and fungi are stuffed, all of them plushy dolls available for a limited time (until 16 November) from a chain of supermarkets here. Called, all together, "I Super Vitamini", they're lures in the kind of insidious promotion I remember well from my own childhood in the 1970s, in which a business stokes the desires of children as a means of influencing the buying patterns of their parents. In this case parents receive one stamp for every 10 euro they spend in the supermarket chain, and after 10 stamps have been collected a kid can choose one stuffed fruit or vegetable from an array of 10 at a cost of 3 euro.

I don't think such promotions are now anywhere near as popular in the US as they were when I was a kid--pining for a toy available only after collecting 10 boxtops from a breakfast cereal (all artificial colors and sugar) that my mother refused to allow into our house--but they're still common here. This, however, is the first one that Sandro has really taken an interest in. And, unlike the typical teases of Smurfs or Pixar or Disney figurines, the supermarket has presented these large stuffed fruits and veggies as a means of encouraging good nutrition. The proceeds are supposed to go toward the construction of four childrens' hospitals.

Each plushy doll has a face and a name. Sandro's mushroom is Pier Fungo. There's also Tony Peperone, Bob Broccolo, Miki Mela, Clara Carota, Francy Fragola, Max Banana, and Leo Pisello. I'm particularly interested however in two rather distinctly Mediterranean characters: Rudy Aglio (garlic) and Frankie Fico (fig), which I suspect a good number of American kids wouldn't even recognize.

But then again, a recent NY Times Magazine article on the long-running conflict over school lunches in American schools ( makes me wonder how many American kids have seen any of the 10 fruits, veggies or fungi in anything resembling the unprocessed un-packaged forms the stuffed dolls take. And I wonder, too, if (1) the diets of Italian kids are still much better than those of the average American child* and (2), given calls for austerity, privatization, and the ever-present push of and for Anglo-American-style corporate hegemony here, how much longer any such dietary superiority can be maintained.

Not wishing to contribute to any such corporate ubiquity we generally do our best to avoid buying anything at one of Venice's chain supermarkets that we can buy elsewhere. We have the good fortune to have a husband-and-wife butcher shop basically around the corner from us in which the two owners behind the counter can suggest not only ways to prepare the meat but describe in great detail where it comes from. (Sandro likes them so much he wants to invite them to his birthday party.) We frequent two fruttivendoli (fruit and vegetable stalls), also tirelessly staffed by their owners.

But recently we've started getting most of our vegetables from another, even more local source. All of the produce for sale at I Sapori di Sant' Erasmo is grown on the farm surrounding the stand. And how fresh is it? When Jen asked for lettuce recently they went and picked her some.

We've been taking our boat there, as a good many people seem to do, to buy directly from the farm stand. But they also make weekly deliveries to six locations around Venice, including Lido and Giudecca. You can register on their website, compose an online order from the list of available produce (updated weekly), and then pick up your vegetables at one of the six designated drop-off locations at the designated time. You can visit their very informative Italian-language website,, which includes recipes, along with information on the farm, its exact location on the large island of Sant' Erasmo, and how to place an order.

And if everything else about the farm and its locally-grown products weren't enough of a recommendation, their prices are a fraction of what you'll pay for the tomatoes shipped in from Basilicata, for example, you'll find at other fruttivendoli around town.

So, while a chain supermarket may be the only place to get the plush stuffed vegetables presently so popular with local kids, when it comes to the real things there are much better options. The best of which we've found is I Sapori di Sant' Erasmo.

*Note: In sharp contrast to what the historian Martin Clark has called "the myth of Italy as the [kitchen] garden of Europe", the diet of large numbers of Italians (both north and south) has traditionally been quite limited: in 1881 more than 1 in 4 Italian conscripts were rejected due to poor health caused by malnutrition; another 12% were turned away because they were not tall enough (Chapter 2 of Clark's Modern Italy) Similarly (as stated in the Times article linked to above), the US military's concerns about the poor nutrition and health of their own recruits in 1945 led to the creation of the first national school lunch programs. Nowadays, as the same article points out, the most common reason would-be American soldiers are rejected is obesity. 

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