Saturday, March 08, 2008

Italy Part 5: Eating Italian

Whenever our little family unit travels, our first and foremost priority is always food-centered. And we always approach our food experiences the same: eat what and where the locals eat. The way a city or country eats speaks a lot about them; their location, their passions, and the way that they socialize.

As a family of intense foodies, we were thrilled to discover this book before we left for our journey: The Food Lover's Guide To Florence (with culinary excursions in Tuscany), written by Emily Wise Miller. Her insight into the heart of Florentine food culture, mixed with informative and sometimes humorous reviews of restaurants, pastry shops, bakeries and gelaterias proved to be invaluable to us as we navigated the city.

It's far too easy to fall into the typical tourist rut of stopping at the most well lit place on a main street right next to some landmark. While pretty much all of the food that we ate in Florence was delicious, the truly wonderful meals were found just a bit off the beaten path, and with Emily's book guiding our steps, we were able to actually eat as the locals eat.

Our one complaint of this book is that the maps are a little less than detailed, and so we wandered a bit in the first few days of our visit, but all in all, I would highly recommend this book to any traveler visiting Florence.

One interesting insight into Italian eating is their near religious dedication to the dinner hours. Breakfast is generally eaten between 7 and 9 am and includes the usual European spread; small helpings of sliced meats and cheeses, fresh bread, quark (basically yogurt), whole-grain cereal, dried fruit, and coffee. We always ate breakfast at our hotel, Hotel Belitini, since it was included with our stay.

Lunch in Italy is usually the biggest meal of the day and is such an event that most businesses, including gas stations are closed from 12 to 2 pm, an observance that can be slightly frustrating when you're on the road and really need to get gas during those hours. When planning to eat out, you definitely want to arrive early, as the seats fill up fast. The lunch menu could include anything from soup to sandwiches, to full-dinner meals, depending on where you stop. Also, there are several common denominators when eating either lunch or dinner. Meals are divided into five courses: antipasti (appetizer), primi (first course, usually pasta, and sometimes filling enough to just stop there), secondi (usually meat, and only meat, so you have to order contorni - "side dish" separately), insalate (salad unlike anything in the US; very creative and very good), and your choice of either formaggi (cheese), or dolci (dessert; usually gelato, panna cotta - "cooked cream", or tiramisu).

Our favorite lunch trattoria (loosely translated to, a-more-casual-place-to-eat) was, hands down, Trattoria Mario, which we regrettably only frequented once during our stay. Mario's was so popular that we had to put our names on a list just to get in the door. Once in, we were seated, elbow-to-elbow with other diners on floor-level stools at a crowded, nondescript table. I had a wonderful pasta and beef-based soup that I, very unfortunately can't remember the name of. It may have been ribollita, but I'm not really sure. Faith had linguini with meat sauce, and the kids shared an order of plain spaghetti with pomodoro (tomato) sauce, plus a large plate of bruschetta with fresh tomatoes and mozzarella.

Another popular stop for lunch are the countless portable lunch trailers set up around the city. One afternoon, at the Sunday flea market, we ate lampredotto, which is boiled, sliced cow's stomach in a sandwich. Definitely a Tuscan specialty and definitely a unique flavor. I wouldn't make it a routine, but it actually wasn't too bad.

Lampredotto (boiled cow's stomach).

Stopping for a quick, curb-side snack.

Lunch-time entertainment at the Nerbone, in Mercato Centrale.

Dinner hours are generally between 8 and 10 pm and most restaurants don't even open their doors before 7:30 pm. Our three definite favorites were Quattro Leoni, Sabatino, and Il Latini.

We liked Quattro Leoni so much that we ate there twice. The restaurant is located in a quiet little quarter on the north side of the Arno River, about a 20 minute walk (at the speed of little legs) from our hotel. The staff were always extremely genial and the overall atmosphere was very up-beat with just the right volume level for a family of three little kids to fit right in. Our favorite meal there was fiocchetti - "little purses" of pasta, filled with pear, finely cut asparagus, and taleggio cheese. These wonderful little pasta purses were one of the best things I've ever put in my mouth. Truly a leaping-through-fields-of-alpine-flowers, experience, if you know what I mean. We also ordered bistecca alla fiorentina (very rare-cooked, t-bone steak), a Florentine specialty, grilled over charcoal with salt, olive oil and rosemary. We also had a superb dessert wine, which has now become one of our favorites, moscato di pantelleria.

Fiocchetti "little purses" - best meal in Florence!

Upon our first steps into Sabatino, we realized that this was definitely a place frequented only by local Florentines. I would almost compare it to an American diner, but with much better food. The food there was all very good and the atmosphere quite...well interesting. Because Florence is such a market-focused city, there are always hawkers around nearly every corner, trying to sell their wares, to include selling items inside some local restaurants like Sabatino's. I'm sure it gets old very fast with the locals, but we just thought it was rather humorous. Throughout our entire meal we were approached by a man selling roses, another selling pirated CDs, and another selling literal flashing sunglasses. I'll have to admit, the vivid, Christmas-tree-light, flashing sun glasses were tempting, and they would have gone so well with wide-collared leather, but I couldn't talk the guy down to my asking price of 5 Euro cents. So anyway, to top off the entire experience, as we were leaving the restaurant, Faith snapped this picture of the three of us. Just as she was about to take the picture, this random guy walked out the door and, without skipping a beat, made himself welcome as a part of the frame. He then jovially took the camera and snapped one of the few shots of us all together as a family in Florence. We laughed about it all the way home.

Our final favorite restaurant, Il Latini, is so popular that you can't even make over-the-phone reservations. They open for dinner at 7:30 pm and if you're not waiting in line on the side walk by 7, you most likely will not get in the door. Because they're so popular, the kitchen generally has a few specialties that they they suggest you order; more like eating over at a friend's house for dinner. Menus are available, but it's best if you just order what the waiter suggests, it's just easier that way. Every table was supplied with a large, traditionally straw-wrapped, bottle of house Chianti and a bottle of house olive oil, which was so good, we decided to buy a few to take home. One interesting anecdote is that dinner wine is served in, what we would consider, small juice glasses as opposed to the normal, wide-mouthed red-wine goblets. Dessert wine, however, is served in narrow, slightly more elegant, white wine glasses. And speaking of wine, we had the best moscato of our entire trip, at Il Latini. I would go so far to say that it was the best wine I've ever had, world-wide; which is saying a lot, since I'm not really much of a wine lover. The wine was Romano Dogliotti La Caudrina Moscato D'Asti, and was the smoothest, sweetest white wine the both of us have ever had. It was almost like drinking sparkling grape juice. Anyway, we started with a plate of crostini liver pate and fresh bruschetta. For the main course I ordered a superb roast rabbit, Faith had an outstanding pork chop, and the kids devoured heaping plates of linguini and fagioli (white beans).

Waiting in line, in front of Il Latini.

Traditional, straw-wrapped Chianti.

Liver pate on crostini.


Roast rabbit.

Moscato with biscotti.

We would definitely go back to Florence, for no other reason than to eat the food; it was that good. For these and (many) more photos of the food (as well as descriptions of it all), check our our set on flickr: Eating Italian

Click here for Emily Wise Miller's blog: A Food Lover In Florence

Tomorrow: we go to the monthly flea market at Piazza Santo Spirito.


Anonymous said...

OK. I'll take one order of fiocchetti (little purses), a plate of ravioli, bread in a basket, the chocolate torte and the raspberry pie. Wow! What an amazing foodfest vacation.

I thought Faith was writing this until you mentioned her name. You both write so well--always so descriptive, bringing your experiences to life. It sounded like a gourmet food magazine or a segment in a travel mag. You should think about that as a sideline, in your sparetime, of course. You definitely should submit this piece.

Your writing skills are phenomenal. What schools did you two you go to?

I wish you had bought those Christmas light glasses. They would have matched your wide-collared leather just fine! A look that only you could pull off.


Mom2Zoey said...

I'm no so sure about the pig but everything else sounded wonderful! ~A