I’d been meaning and meaning and meaning to blog about the food in Italy, but I simply hadn’t gotten around to it yet. It’s as though fate (or something) intended for me to wait for Ailsa’s travel food theme and now that it’s here, I am more than happy to oblige.
Let me preface my paean to the Florentine menu by saying: I don’t think I had a bad meal in Italy. I did have a few meals that were kind of sort of vaguely meh but for the most part? The food was a big win. There’s an approach in Italy we need to adopt in the US; if you’re going to take the time to eat food it should be the best food it can be. Even the fast food-esque, perfunctory pasta we got at the little cafe across from our hotel in Rome was delicious. It was basic, no frills food, but way better than what we’d expect here from a tiny corner store with a small kitchen. Rome, mainly, was touristy, we only had three days there, I’d never been there before and didn’t know my way around and it is such a giant city that I found it difficult to find really good local food, save for a few places. I got my best meal in Rome on the less-crowded main drag of the Jewish ghetto (if you’re there in season, get the carciofi alla giudia–Jewish-style artichokes–and revel in your very good fortune).
Though I do confess that I was close to tears when I walked into a Roman farmer’s market. I could move there for the produce.
And Venice…ahh, Venice…though I love you love you love you, much of the Venetian cuisine is seafood oriented (not a surprise, as it is one big lagoon on the Adriatic), and I have a shellfish allergy. While I could have gotten risotto ai frutti di mare just about anywhere, and it looked lovely, to order it would be to order a plate of death. What can I say? I stuck with the chicken. I do remember having a particularly tasty, fresh tiramisu soaked in Frangelico, which I should go about trying to re-create here for my own benefit and edification. Mostly benefit.
When we got to Florence it was probably 1:30 or so in the afternoon and by the time we brought our stuff up to our hotel room and had a moment to relax, it was almost 2:00. We needed to get some food before the restaurants closed after lunch, as they so often do. The desk clerk at our hotel directed us to a small pizza place right down the street, which he assured us was still open though he cautioned us, almost apologetically, that the food was, “Ummm…eh…is OK.” So, not great but not poisony, and it’s sure to be open? That’s fine, we’ll deal with it, we thought.
For the record, it was awesome.
Pizza with white beans, pine nuts and potatoes may sound like a carb-laden nightmare but it was one of the best things I’ve ever eaten. And that square bowl sitting behind it? Held a fresh fava bean soup with plenty of garlic that neither of us could resist tearing into, as much as one can “tear into” soup. We topped it off with a local wine and thought, if this restaurant gets a “is OK” from the locals, then what other sort of delights were there in store?
There were plenty of delights, to be sure. Sometimes, I didn’t take pictures because it’s just as important to me to engage in the experience at hand rather than look at it from behind a camera. The food would still be there when the camera was gone, sure, but the moment to sit down, hold hands, look over a wine list and have an intimate dinner that doesn’t include your camera as a third party would be lost. Trust me on a few things you can learn without the benefit of photographs: when you’re in Florence, go to the Trattoria dei 13 Gobbi (the Trattoria of the 13 Hunchbacks) and hope to God you can get the fried zucchini flowers. Try the baked cannelloni or the rigatoni. It’s all good. When you’re done and looking for dessert, find a gelateria that advertises its gelato as “produzione artiginale” or “produzione propria“, as that means it is made on-site and not shipped in from a factory.
With that being said…back to the picture show.
Where to begin?
Florence is jam-packed with restaurants, and from the few I’ve sampled, they’re all good. Seriously. They want to provide quality food that’s traditionally prepared and if it’s not good, people won’t go, because there are so many other quality places nearby. The thing about Florentine food is, they tend to make the most of whatever ingredients they can get their hands on. So we went to Francesco Vini and enjoyed the crazy-rich dish they concocted with the wild boar roaming the Tuscan hills…
…and how fat they made their raviolis, which they sauteed in sage and butter.
One night we stopped at Giannino in S. Lorenzo, a lovely little trattoria with a super-cozy atmosphere. I sort of bullied George into going, I admit, and it was simply because they advertised ravioli di ricotta e spinaci al tartufo nero–spinach and ricotta ravioli in black truffle sauce.
I don’t even remember what George got here; I think it was the savory crepes, but I can’t be positive. I was too busy digging this…
…to concern myself with much of anything else. Truffles? The answer is yes; what’s your question?
One of our most memorable lunches, though, was when we went to the Tavernetta Della Signoria and feasted on local dishes. The meal started out oddly; we were walking past what we realized later was their back door, that a cook left open when he took out some garbage (no, we didn’t walk into a kitchen, just a back dining room…I think we would have figured out the kitchen was a wrong turn, much earlier). It smelled so good, though, we couldn’t resist, followed our noses, and got a beautiful table right on the street so we could eat and people watch at the same time. We started with world’s biggest salad and some Tuscan white beans (which are a delight–simple food that they cook to godliness)
George had the gnocchi with gorgonzola, arugula and walnuts
…while I had the peposo, a traditional regional beef stew that consists of braising an incredibly tough cut of meat for hours in red wine, garlic and a ton of pepper, until it is tender and toe-curlingly delicious.
While all of Italy was tremendous, each part holds something special for me. In Rome, I got to–literally–walk the same stones that Cleopatra walked in the Roman Forum. In Venice, I had a cocktail with the ghosts of literary giants at Harry’s. In Florence, I was given a chance to understand the beauty of good food cooked simply but with pride. Sure, you can go to Florence for the shopping, but make sure you stay for the food.