Venetian papa who?


Even if you were to speak Venetian, you may have occasionally overheard an expression being used that expressed almost nothing to you:

No ti xe gnanca sangue da papalina.” (No tee zeh NYANG-ka sang-way da papa-EE-na.)

It literally means “You (or he, or they) don’t have even as much blood as a papalina.”  It figuratively means, “There’s essentially no connection between us” — referring to relatives who are along the line of being a second cousin twice removed of the aunt of your stepsister.  The underlying concept is that a papalina is so small that it contains perhaps two drops of blood, if that much.

So what, I hear you cry, is a papalina?

It’s a fish.  It’s a member of the sardine family, and in English it’s called a sprat. If you like sardines (fresh, I mean, not canned), you will almost certainly love its modest but abundant little relative, if you can find it.

Because now that so many people have switched from the finny food of their childhoods to the fancy fins of today, it’s not easy to find papaline (the plural) in the fish market.  They might occasionally be lying there on some intrepid vendor’s long icy counter, between their more glamorous cousins, the bigger sardines and the smaller sardoni, or anchovies.  And besides being good, and good for you, they’re delightfully inexpensive.  Mainly because hardly anybody wants them.

I’m writing this today because Lino’s quest was rewarded yesterday and he came home with a pound of the little critters. Lunch that day was an unprogrammed gorgefest.

These are papaline. Each is about three inches long and provides two enthusiastic mouthfuls. In our case, very enthusiastic.

There is only one truly correct way to eat them, and that is grilled.  (You can do whatever you want, obviously — I’m just telling you.) And not merely grilled — you must eat them when they come right off the grill.  Or, as the Venetians say, “a scotadeo” (ah scotta-DAY-oh).  Literally “burning your fingers.”

Funny, they don’t say “scorching your tongue” or “searing your lips.” Venetians obviously reject the Japanese concept that if it’s too hot to hold (they’re referring to a cup of tea), it’s too hot to eat.

Unfortunately, the only place you’re ever likely to have the chance to incinerate your fingerprints will be at somebody’s house, or a picnic/party of some kind.  You might find a few thrown anonymously into a mixed fishfry or even platter of mixed grilled fish at a restaurant.  But it’s Not the Same.

There’s another comment which invokes this member of the Clupeidae family. It’s something only Lino says, and it comes from his heart: “You grew up eating papaline.”

He will utter this in an accusing way to the air as we pass the guilty individual. Sometimes he goes on, “You’ve forgotten when your nose ran all the time and you wiped it on your sleeve because you didn’t have a handkerchief.” Lino still sees some of this category of person around the neighborhood. “We were kids together,” Lino will tell me. “Now they’re eating LOBSTER and SOLE. But what can you say? They grew up eating papaline.”

He says this with a delicate blend of disdain and regret, because whoever he may be referring to has progressed far — too far — beyond his or her hardscrabble childhood, a life in which cheap fish and several tons of polenta were about all there was to keep you going till tomorrow.

Forgetting when you ate papaline means you’ve abandoned your roots, gotten above yourself, become mutton dressed as lamb. Rejecting papaline is the tertiary stage of voluntarily transforming yourself into something that may be real, but it’s phony.  Kind of like Formica that looks like wood. It doesn’t have anything to do with how you dress, because there are plenty of people even in this neighborhood who have banished as many tokens of their past as they can.  Their wives even have coats of some kind of fur. So it’s not about appearances, essentially, but attitude.

You get a pass because you never ate them in the first place, so you’re okay  But if you should ever have the chance, I advise you to take it.  Because in their own little way, the papaline are another Disappearing Venetian, like the itinerant knife-and-scissors grinder.

But tasting better.

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Categories : Food, Venetian-ness


  1. Andrew says:

    Can you eat the whole thing like whitebait or do you have to pick ou the bones?

    • Erla Zwingle says:

      It’s up to you. There are those who also eat sardines whole. Myself, I’d stop short of eating the head, but that’s just me. Anyway, the bones don’t create any problems; many people (including me) pick up the papalina (hence the burning-fingers risk) and the meat comes off very easily in your teeth while the bones remain politely attached to the head and tail.