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Ethnobotany on the Table: Revolutionary Reimagination at Venice’s Tocia

“Such a thoughtful, innovative perspective on Venice can be difficult to find–the spirit of the lagoon and its people can often get lost amidst the tourist-oriented nature of Italy’s most romanticized city.”

The project of Tocia is hard to pin down conceptually. Restaurant doesn’t quite cover it, nor does pop-up, for their work extends far beyond every-so-often dinners. Founder and chef Marco Bravetti named Tocia after the Venetian “tociare”, the act of taking a piece of bread, polenta or even your fingers and dipping it into a sauce. As it’s conjugated, “tocia” is like an invitation–do it, try and see for yourself. Accordingly, Tocia is a constantly active project: as Marco puts it, “a casual, informal collective of people that are working on a convivial research around food as a tool to investigate the human and non-human landscape of the lagoon.” 

Tocia is also the name of the project’s “living” sauce, which begins each meal at Tocia. Inspired by sauces around the world, from Japanese miso to Mexican mole to Italian pesto, Marco has collected ingredients from the many people collaborating with Tocia and created a thick, Koji-fermented, continuously-evolving sauce. In every moment of conviviality, new friends, producers and collaborators contribute ideas or ingredients to this mother sauce. “With the cycle of seasonality, we always get new ingredients–after two and a half years, there’s more or less four hundred ingredients in the Tocia,” says Marco. He considers the Tocia sauce itself to be a kind of micro-organismic landscape that embodies the community of Tocia both in a symbolic and concrete way.

Such a thoughtful, innovative perspective on Venice can be difficult to find–the spirit of the lagoon and its people can often get lost amidst the tourist-oriented nature of Italy’s most romanticized city. We, as well, nearly found ourselves lost on the evening we’d arranged to eat at Tocia: with Google Maps as our only hope, we headed further and further away from the mainstream Venetian drags, winding down obscure alleyways that seemed almost deserted. Finally, after rounding another corner, we caught sight of a glowing beacon of light emanating from a single cracked doorway—this had to be it. No sooner had we entered than we received a hearty welcome from Marco himself, who navigated the space with the ease and joviality that is the lifeblood of Tocia. The space itself is unassuming, four minimalist white walls containing little more than an exposed kitchen counter and one long wooden table, beautifully set for our coming meal with bits of Venice’s landscape–dried flowers, gnarled wooden centerpieces and ceramics made by local potters. On the far wall hung one poster proudly proclaiming in Portuguese, “Cozinhar é um ato revolucionário” (“Cooking is a revolutionary act”). 

My friend Vivian had brought along a jar of lacto-fermented leeks she’d made to contribute to Tocia’s ever-evolving community pantry, on display opposite the dinner table, and she placed her offering on the shelf along with many months’, meals’ and relationships’ worth of fermented goods. We took our spots at the long table among a group of perfect strangers. Before long, though, conversation was flowing amicably, and our plates were filled with the nurturing, complex Tocia mother sauce that embodies the rich history of the Tocia project—the very sauce that Vivian’s leeks might soon nourish in turn.

Rachel Kent: Walk me through the story that led to you opening Tocia.

Marco Bravetti: I started to cook when I was 34, which is quite late compared to the norm. Before that I was more into visual arts and humanities, but I ultimately jumped into the restaurant business because of family. What interested me most about cooking was not that it was a way to transform food, but that I found in cooking a way to investigate different questions I needed answers to. More specifically, I discovered the potential to use cooking as a kind of language with which to connect to the place where I’d been living all my life–Venice. This was a turning point not so much for my career but for living as a human being in this particular time and place. What I’m talking about isn’t just about seasonality: it’s a more radical approach to understanding food. 

RK: And how did this personal evolution give birth to the project?

MB: I had a crisis, because I realized a restaurant was not the perfect environment to develop this approach, so I started to consider the possibilities of a different kind of culinary platform. I was cooking because I wanted to connect with and investigate the Venetian landscape, but I simultaneously recognized a gap between culinary research and what’s shared with the people around us. I wanted to make this research process more real, open, casual and shared than the very curated end product you normally find in a restaurant. So we created an open platform to delve into foraging, preserving and fermentation in Venice.

RK: Can you talk more about how the ecology of the lagoon figures into your work? I’m especially curious about how pollution currently affects your ability to access food and your hopes for ecosystem rehabilitation around Venice.

MB: In Venice, historically the landscape has been shaped around human needs. Looking at it now, it’s hard to tell exactly what is nature and what is a human, urban landscape, so the city is quite peculiar and unique to study. There’s a very powerful imagined image of the laguna and the consumption of food here. Venice is a city that really works more like a stage because of the imbalance between people actually living in the city and tourists. So the fact is that the production of food is not so much shaped around the needs of the people that are living there, yet still we have this misled, constructed idea of what is traditional food in the lagoon—which, as it turns out, isn’t always sustainable. 

The idea here at Tocia is to work on both displaying these contradictions and to recreate different kinds of imaginaries that are not stifled by traditions, but are about visualizing a different lagoon. So it’s not necessarily about the actual state of local food, but rather we’re asking what happens if we imagine a different cycle of production?

RK: What’s an example of a dish you cook at Tocia that shows the contradictions embedded in Venice’s food systems?

MB: This idea really comes out in the panna cotta with seaweed, which has become one of our signature desserts. The fact is that seaweeds are part of the lagoon landscape in an immediate way—you can see them on the side of the canals, and you can smell them especially during the summer. Their presence is a tangible display of the human interaction with the lagoon, as many kinds of seaweeds we have now are non-native species that came here because of the cargo and cruise ships. 

For example, there are species from Asia that are similar to the seaweeds you can use in Wakame. However, it’s not actually traditional to eat seaweed here—you won’t find any recipe where our ancestors used seaweed in Venetian cooking. Yet, it’s very much part of our landscape and is a symbol of the pollution of the laguna. The greatest irony, though, is that we can’t forage and farm seaweeds in the lagoon because of the pollution. So the contradiction we’re faced with is the need to buy seaweeds from Asian shops that, since they come from far away, aren’t sustainable. We still use them in our cooking as a display of contradiction, but also of potential: that if we were to have an intervention in the laguna that could combat the pollution, maybe in the future we could imagine Venice as an ideal place for farming seaweeds. 

RK: I imagine that this culinary crossover is something pretty common in a city like Venice, which for centuries has been at such a cultural crossroads.

MB: It’s true—this sort of intermixing was always going on in the past too. The idea of having native species and invasive species is actually flawed, because throughout the history of agriculture these groups have been constantly changing. Most of the produce that is iconic in Mediterranean cuisine is not native to the Mediterranean area, like tomatoes, for example. The landscape is always changing, whether or not we’re aware of it. 

Tocia focuses on the fact that our idea of what is food, what is delicious is made by our cultural evolution. We try to imagine the changing landscape as an opportunity rather than naively assuming the traditional products we’ve had in the past will be around forever. Things are changing, and some parts of these “problematic” changes could even be given a positive spin. 

A really good example–of this duality of problem and opportunity–is the blue crab, which is another species that was not native until the last decade (it also arrived by cargo and cruise ships). This new variety of crab is threatening the presence of the lagoon crab. We understood the need to preserve the lagoon crab and treat the blue crab as the enemy, but also blue crab is conveniently a really delicious enemy. So the more we fish the blue crab and consider it a good food, the less it will threaten the lagoon crab. We can actually protect regional traditions through the least traditional of foods.

RK: Tell me a bit more about your relationship with other community organizations across Venice. 

MB: We collaborate a lot with Spiazzi, an organization established about 20 years ago that has a long history of people involved in craft and activism, people trying to develop a network to live the city in a creative and ethical way. As the current home of Tocia, Spiazzi’s cultural center has been the physical meeting space between wild plants of the lagoon and the work of partner artisans and artists. On top of that, we’ve been able to develop a network of people like academics studying anthropology and geography, the ethnobotanical group here at l’Universitá Ca’ Foscari and other environmental organizations like Ocean Space.

RK: How does this academic research intertwine with the work you’ve done to make Tocia a gathering space?

MB: The idea is still always simple: first, to develop research, both in gastronomy and other subjects, that consider the very fragile relationship in the lagoon between humans and non-human actors, and secondly, to bring to the table dishes that pose questions rather than provide answers. And crucially, this needs to be enjoyable. Especially because of the pandemic, we’re in need of new rituals of conviviality and of being together as human beings. Food and the table give us a very powerful opportunity to do that. Here at Tocia, we are focused on the long work of rebuilding our community rather than the fleeting construction of an ephemeral experience (like the story-telling of mainstream restaurants).

Our spirit continues to be very nomadic and constantly evolving as we find more people to connect and collaborate with. Our organizational structure is an unstable, variable geometry: we want to layer knowledge, actions and energies toward a common vision. This kind of layering is both symbolized and literally manifested in the Tocia sauce itself, where the bacteria and enzymes ferment all the ingredients and ideas together into a living food. We’ve come to believe, then, that nourishing the mother sauce is a revolutionary act that takes care of a small part of the landscape in which we live.

And so it was around the long table of our newest friends–at least for the evening–we feasted on: the Tocia sauce, for starters, a beautiful fusion of the year-round fruits of the Venetian landscape; ceviche with pumpkin and mullet from the laguna (though mullet is often regarded as a rubbish fish, this dish reverses that narrative by spotlighting it in its purest form); Venetian-style risi e fasoli (rice and beans) fused with jota stew (sauerkraut, pork, and beans) from nearby Slovenia, all served in mullet broth; roasted radicchio and caponata with sauce of charred onion skin; and seaweed-infused panna cotta with caramelized seaweed, salted caramel with Barena honey from the laguna and bay leaf oil. Divine falls short of describing it. Not a single plate was left intociato that night.