YogaRose.net travel journal for Florence, Italy
Part 2: ‘A tavola non si invecchia.’(‘At the table, one does not age.’) On eating our way to culinary innocence
–>‘A tavola non si invecchia‘
–>Top 5 Tuscan specialties I’m already missing
–>Top 5 Tuscan specialties I wish I had tried
–>It’s the end of the meal as we know it, and I feel fine(!)
–>Catch up with Florence travel journal (part 1): Firenze as home base
>>’A tavola non si invecchia‘<<
I was born in New Orleans, where it’s said that locals are already thinking about the next meal before finishing the current one. So I love that there’s an Italian saying that goes, “A tavola non si invecchia,” which translates to, “At the table, one does not age.” When done right, food fuels the soul. Food brings us familiarity and comfort when we need it, surprise and inspiration when we’re ready for it. When done wrong, food can be soul-sucking — reminders of what’s lacking not just in our personal lives, but what’s wrong with the society in which we live.
What was so wonderful about eating these long, leisurely meals in Florence was that we got to experience how food is community. How strangers who don’t speak the same language can laugh together over something happening in the restaurant. How tourists can get a glimpse, however uninformed, about a region’s history through a simple meal.
A McDonald's billboard near the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Needless to say, we didn't eat there.
In one short week in Italy, Scott and I enjoyed so many memorable meals. I think about our gastronomic journey as one that returned us to culinary innocence. As two people born and raised in America — a country that can, for the middle and upper classes at least, too easily be a land of excess and waste — we were reminded that abundance does not equal gluttony. Simple can be refined. Eating meat, when the animal in question was not as a matter of course raised and killed as part of an ugly and despicable industry, can feel joyful.
While we couldn’t take those meals back with us, we did take back with us the inspiration we felt while dining in Italy. Between the two of us, Scott is the only one who can actually put together a good meal. He’s an excellent griller, for instance. But left to his own devices, he too easily resorts to college-era habits of eating greasy, cardboard pizza. Most 11-year-olds probably have a better sense of how to work a kitchen than I do, and while I have good tendencies toward healthier foods, I also eat way too much in any given setting.
In any case, we’ve decided we are going to try to get ourselves into better dietary patterns. We’re excited to start trying to prepare meals together not as a chore, but as something to look forward to each week, much like our salsa dancing lessons. We’ll start with very, very simple dishes, such as cooking pasta and adding a couple dashes of white truffle oil, and going from there.
>>Top 5 Tuscan specialties I’m already missing<<
In restaurants around Florence, you have an antipasti (appetizer), followed by a primi piatti (first course, usually a pasta) and the secondi piatti, a second, usually meatier course (or fishier, depending on the region you’re in). Some places offer a vegetable with the main dish, and at others, you have to order a separate contorni (side). I always loved it when fried artichokes was on the menu as a side — Italians do beautiful, beautiful things with artichokes (carciofi). Then, of course, there’s dessert, such as cantucci with Vin Santo, followed by — if desired — espresso and perhaps a digestive liqueur (digestivo) such as limoncello, if you want sweet and refreshing, or grappa, if you want quite the opposite.
Here are five dishes I’m already missing.
Pappardelle di cinghiale
I. Love. Pappardelle.
I. Love. Pappardelle.
I. Love. Pappardelle.
It’s my favorite pasta of all time — topping even gnocchi, which is saying quite a lot. The first time I had pappardelle was, funny enough, in Miami, at an absolutely fantastic Italian restaurant (Hosteria Romana, if you are ever in the area). I loved pappardelle on first bite. (No matter what the cuisine, I like my noodles flat and wide. In Chinese cooking, I’ve preferred dishes with the big flat rice noodles for as long as I can remember.)
Unless I’m going to all the wrong joints, it’s rare to find pappardelle in the U.S. I bought some pappardelle back with me from Florence, though I know we won’t be having it di cinghiale, the traditional preparation with wild boar sauce.
>>Where I had my favorite pappardelle di cinghiale: Where didn’t I love pappardelle di cinghiale? But if I had to choose, I’d have to split it as a tie between: Buca Mario in Florence and Trattaoria del Pennello in Florence. And, although not made with wild boar meat and sauce, a special shout-out goes to Peperoncino in Florence, which didn’t have pappardelle di cinghiale on the menu but made a custom order of pappardelle for me.
Bistecca alla fiorentina, or a steak for a giant?
So there’s a special breed of cattle found in Tuscany called Chianina. They have distinctive long, white hair. Chianina make incredible bistecca alla fiorentina, which looks like a T-bone steak cut for a giant. I didn’t order it myself, but I tried it when Scott ordered it. It was simple and perfectly cooked — amazing.
>>Where I had my favorite: Buca Mario in Florence
Fagioli all’Uccelleto — only Tuscans can do beans like this
It sounds kind of unsexy, but the bean dishes offered by Tuscan restaurants are excellent. One of our guidebooks said Tuscans are nicknamed mangiafagioli, bean-eaters, because of their fondness for these beans. The SmarterFitter blog has an interesting take on — along with a good recipe for — Fagioli all Uccelletto with cavolo nero.
>>Where I had my favorite: Pangie’s in Florence. I wish I could remember the name of the actual antipasti, but Pangie’s lathered olive oil on a large piece of bread, topped the bread with a green that tasted like a cousin of spinach, and put the beans on top of all that. It probably doesn’t sound very good, but somehow all the ingredients come together to leave your taste buds with an unexpected and very welcome pop.
Crostini with porcini mushrooms (or really, anything al funghi)
I had a piece of out-of-this-world crostini (small rounds of toasted bread brushed with olive oil) topped with a delicate but intense spread I couldn’t even begin to describe. It was made from porcini mushrooms and if I could bottle that stuff and ship it to Michigan, I would in a heartbeat. Incredibly, I also had crostini with chicken liver pate that didn’t make me want to throw up. (I have a visceral reaction to how liver smells, and after having it once as a young child, I’ve never been willing to try anything with liver again — until now. Whatever these restaurants did to the liver pate to make it tolerable crostini — and perhaps even slightly enjoyable — I’ll never know.) People say Tuscan cuisine manages to make tripe — which is also found in Chinese cuisine, which is how I know I don’t like it — tolerable as well, by stewing it with tomatoes, sage and parmigiano cheese. Despite the reviews of Tuscan preparations of tripe, I still had zero interest in trying it.
>>Where I had my favorite crostini: Ciro & Sons in Florence
And so ends the search for the perfect tiramisu
About 10 years ago, I decided that I loved tiramisu enough that I would start a worldwide quest to find the best tiramisu. Since tiramisu is the most classic of Tuscan desserts — made of ladyfingers, mascarpone and coffee — it’s not surprising that in Tuscany, you don’t have to search too long for a gorgeous execution of tiramisu. I had two of the best expressions of this dessert that I’ve ever had, two nights in a row. One seemed to be a more traditional, homemade preparation. It had the perfect consistency and taste. The other seemed to put a modern twist on the dessert. I loved them both, and I’ll always think of those bites I enjoyed whenever I have my OK tiramisu in American restaurants.
>>Where I had my favorite tiramisu: Tie. Buca Mario in Florence and Ciro & Sons in Florence
I’m also missing pecorino, a sheep’s milk cheese that’s aged for two months and has, to me, a sharp edge. And then there’s cantucci, a small, hard, almond cookie that’s the Tuscan version of biscotti. In Florence, many restaurants offer a dessert of cantucci and Vin Santo, a sweet wine you dip the cantucci into to soften it up so it’s perfect for consumption.
Are you wondering if I forgot about the gelato? Many people think Italy has the world’s best ice cream, and that within Italy, gelaterias in Florence do it better than anyone. I have to admit that I don’t love gelato! I really like it, but don’t go gaga over it.I know this is hard to believe, but I prefer high quality, creamy small-label ice cream choices in America, such as lavender ice cream from Jeni’s in Columbus, Ohio. My single favorite flavor of ice cream might be green tea cream.
We did stop by one shop near the Arno River for some gelato. I got hazelnut (Italians know their hazelnuts!), and it was delicious to be sure. But I didn’t really seek out the best gelato, so sorry, no recommendations. You’ll have to visit and find out for yourself.
Like some other European countries, dinner starts later in Italy — around 9 p.m. One of the many ways to out yourself as an American tourist is to head over to a restaurant at 7 p.m. for dinner. I also like to eat dinner pretty late, which runs counter to eating well in the United States unless you’re in New York or L.A. It’s always a treat to be in a place where late dining is the norm, so while not a specialty, I will also miss this aspect of Tuscan dining.
>>Top 5 Tuscan specialties I wish I had tried<<
In a shop near Ponte Vecchio, we picked up Tuscany at the Table, a great little book that talks about the history of dishes from Tuscan province and offers recipes from each locale. (I’d link it for you, but I looked the book up on Amazon, and don’t see it.) Of the many interesting tidbits I’ve learned from this book is that Tuscan bread is traditionally made without salt. That would explain why, if there was one thing we didn’t love in Tuscany, it was the bread. It seemed to lack some flavor. I had assumed this was because Tuscans viewed bread as a vehicle to sop up sauces. But this book explains that:
Olive oil reigns supreme in the dishes often accompanied by Tuscan home-style bread, strictly salt-free. The origin of this usage dates from the 12th-century, when Florence and Pisa struggled for supremacy. The Pisans closed their ports to the Florentines for the salt trade, and they responded merely by breaking bread that is ‘sciocco,’ without a grain of salt.
Not surprisingly, the book has a whole chapter on wine and talks about how, beginning in the 15th century, the production of Chianti was governed by precise procedures dictated by the “Chianti League.” Panoramic wine tours are now offered along 14 routes of the “Strade el Vino.” There are the well-known reds of Chianti Classico, Morellino di Scansano, Bolgheri Sassicaia, Solaia, Tignanello and Brunello di Montalcino. Did you know this region produces white wines and roses? They include Vernaccia di San Gimignano, Bianco di Pitigliano, Val di Cornia and Rosado di Toscana Igt.
So, here are five Tuscan specialties mentioned in this book that I would have loved to have tried:
- Marzolino — another type of sheep’s milk cheese
- Budino di riso — sweets with a rice-pudding center and sugar on top
- Baccaialata — Salted cod cut in strips, dressed with tomatoes, chopped onions, carrots, garlic, celery, pepper, olive oil and parsley, and baked
- Topini (“little mice”) — A smaller variation of potato gnocchi
- Gnochi mes’ci di castagne — Rectangular-shaped gnocchi made of chestnut flour, excellent dressed with olive oil and grated pecorino
>>It’s the end of the meal as we know it, and I feel fine(!)<<
A major theme for me in 2011 was struggling with how to close the gap between wanting to consume healthier food and actually changing the way I eat. I have frequent discomfort most days of the week from acid reflux and a feeling of bloatedness.
In Florence, even when keeping with the local tradition of two- to four-hour meals and even while eating a ton of carbohydrates in the form of pasta, my acid reflux barely bothered me and my digestive complaints stayed mostly under control.
My theories include:
- We ate better food, period. Our very first dinner in Florence was at Buca Mario (which I highly recommend, if you ever go), a nice restaurant, where everything was homemade and the ingredients were fresh. It was then that I realized how odd it was, after a large meal, to feel clean as a whistle, digestively speaking.
- The bigger the meal, the slower we ate, allowing for ample time to digest.
- When we ate, we focused on the experience of eating. We weren’t at our desks working. We weren’t watching TV.
- We were on vacation. No deadlines! No emails. I wasn’t stressed. I think this is huge. Even though food is my main concern right now, I feel as if stress contributes significantly to my acid reflux.)
- I didn’t eat any processed foods. When we did eat cheaply and on the go, it was still something like a panini — something that, while the ingredients were hardly great, had been made earlier that day. (By the way, in Italy, if a restaurant offers something on the menu that’s been frozen before, this item has to be marked with an asterisk. How amazing is that? Can you imagine how many crappy restaurants here would have to star their entire menu?)
- We were usually doing something — walking somewhere, on a train headed somewhere, looking at something, etc. The point being that we were usually engaged and therefore not in a position to snack. My biggest problem when I’m at the office all day is grazing. At home, I’m trying to do better, but there is definitely snacking going on.
- I didn’t have eggs in the morning. Our hotel offered a lovely and free breakfast buffet. The mornings I stuck to croissants, meat, cheese and fruit, I felt fine. The one morning I had eggs, I did not feel so fine. I will have to continue to experiment with this one to see if cutting out eggs does indeed help me.
There are two that I consider truly inspirational when it comes to cooking. One is my ancestral home of Thailand, which I have been to and hope to return to some day. The other is Italy. I’m so grateful that I had the chance to visit Italia for the first time and bring back all these lessons from the dining tables there.
>>In this series:
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