It would appear that over a weeks time went by without me even realizing! I have to stop using “the holidays” as a an excuse to justify not doing a little writing because what seems to be happening is that my once-brilliant thoughts just kind of disintegrate into the ether. (Perhaps I should start carrying a notebook with me.) Do you ever get a thought so good that you think “I should write this down” and then you start eating a sandwich and it’s gone forever? We should probably be saving those, huh?
Florence is not to be missed if you are traveling to Italy. Every meal I had was outrageously good, and you know what? The sense of hospitality, across the board, blew everything from Rome out of the water. That is really important to me! I don’t need a whole bunch of ass-kissing, and I can detect when someone is being nice for tips and not because they genuinely care about your experience. But, if I am spending my money on a meal out I at least expect my existence to be acknowledged, good etiquette, and a smile is just a bonus. I had a wonderful experience at Trattoria La Casalinga, and had the best meal of my trip there. This trattoria specializes in what Italians refer to as the “fifth quarter”, which after researching I learned that back in the day the meat of an animal was divided into quarters, each with quality slightly better than the other. Royalty and very wealthy citizens went for the first and second quarter, the third and fourth quarters went to the markets and restaurants, and what was left were organs and, well, all the interestingly-textured bits you find in cheap sausage. The “fifth quarter” was so cheap it was practically free- so naturally it became peasant food. But let’s face it- peasants always came up with the best food. At Trattoria La Casalinga you will find a slow-cooked stew of Trippa (yes, tripe- which is really delicious if you GIVE IT A CHANCE!) served with some crusty bread and simple braised-then-seared Lingua (cow tongue, also absolutely delicious if you just don’t think about it too much…and hey it is a muscle so, maybe stop being a little crybaby.) These two plates plus a lovely 10 Euro carafe of drinkable house red wine had me stopping every waiter to thank him for the wonderful food…as if they had anything to do with cooking it. Maybe I should have skipped that last glass of wine.
We were very fortunate to have stayed very close to the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore, or (“il Duomo” for short) and walked past it every night. This cathedral is breathtaking in both size and detail (especially the façade), and the view from the top of the dome is worth the climb up 467 steps. One entrance fee lets you visit all 4 parts of the cathedral, and the climb to the dome allows for a great up-close view of the ceiling mural which is both parts impressive and eerie. (refer to section of mural where Satan is depicted eating a guy with his legs sticking out of his mouth…yikes.)
A stone’s throw from our rented apartment was the Mercato Centrale, a sprawling indoor food heaven. Here multiple butchers, fishmongers, farmers, and gourmands gather and showcase their best products. There are eateries tucked away between piles of giant fish and dizzying displays of pastas, oils, and smoked things. What I would give to have one of these in my hometown…I would probably go broke rather quickly. The first visit to the market inspired us to cook at home a few times, especially because a big fat whole Orata (similiar to a Sea Bream or Porgy) was only 4 Euros a piece! A kilo of fresh octopus was 9 Euro! What?? We pan-fried that fish really simply with butter and ate in on a big bed of Lacinato (Tuscan) kale and the octopus we ate on Halloween, which for some reason seemed appropriate. Sidenote: can you believe The Nightmare Before Christmas is TWENTY YEARS OLD? Oh also, before you leave the market make sure to get a plate of fried seafood from the shellfish guy- you can’t miss the line of Italians yelling out their orders and the tattooed guy manning 8 fry baskets while listening to the Smiths (not sure if on purpose, but I’d like to think so.)
We took a day trip to Siena which was only a little over an hour by bus. Siena is stunning, and you don’t really have to do much to enjoy it. Perfect. Cruise through the main square, and meander around the narrow (steep!) streets marked with medieval-style “town-spirit” flags. Grabbing a pizza or some bread, and plopping down on some grass with some wine is actually the ideal way to enjoy this small town. Visit the church and try your best to resist buying one of those cool flags, and end the day with some properly made chai at the quirky and cavernous Tea Room. Who knows? Some random guys might start doing a table reading of an Italian screenplay, which you will not understand a word of but for some reason you will still enjoy it. Siena is the most beautiful place to do absolutely nothing.
A few trips to the Mercato Centrale for provisions led us to da Nerbone, the biggest eatery in the market which specializes in a big pots of slowly-stewed meats served on paper plates with a big slice of bread. Take your plate of cheap but mouth-watering food to the communal tables and squeeze in between farmers, customers, and maybe a disgruntled tourist poking at their mystery meat. The delicious stewed trippa (I developped an insatiable addiction) and a great chicken stew put us in a serious food coma, and I think we might have taken a 3 hour nap after that. Not to be missed, for the adventurous eater.
Next time, a recipe for the infamous Trippa and a little bit about Italian wines…which continue to confuse me quite a bit.
Beatrice’s sandwich stand (in front of Mercato Centrale) open late!
Zoe bar – excellent aperitivo hour (buy a drink, eat ALL of the snacks)
Dim Sum – hand pulled noodles & dumplings
ALSO! I last posted about Rome and forgot to mention the wonderful park off the beaten path that we visited on our last day, the Colle del Gianicolo. The sprawling views of the city are amazing- and there were maybe a dozen people there so great if you’re looking for a place to get away from the crowds. Pack a lunch, but if you forget to there is some so-so pizza and beer for sale at a few food carts.