Tag Archives: Florence

Magic Beans

9 Apr

Between Florence and Rome, we stayed in the Maremma, Tuscan cowboy country.

Big Sky Country, Italy

It’s a wild and woolly part of Italy, verdant, fecund and stunning, squished between the mountains and the sea. We arrived at the inn just in time to interrupt our host, Alessandro’s, Easter dinner. Impeccable timing, as always, compounded by the inn’s location. We were smack dab, exactly in the middle of the heart of the heart of Nowhere.

Mortified, we gingerly asked Alessandro if the restaurant would be open for dinner. Our hearts sank when he said no. It was 5pm and our bellies were already rumbling with hunger, having eaten nothing but a pastry hours ago and worlds away in Florence.

Piombino, Italy

We glumly looked around. There wasn’t another building in sight, except for miles away, crowning a few hills hunkering darkly against the horizon. It took us nearly two hours to find the inn once, would we ever be able to find it again in the dark? We cursed our stupidity for not staying in Florence on Easter Sunday.

Alessandro must have sensed this in the way our faces fell, because he looked at us in a kindly way and said, “No, no, no, I’ll cook something for you… Something small. Around 8pm. Okay?”

We were expecting a loaf of bread, maybe a few olives, a plate of pasta with bottled sugo, a few cookies and a liter of vino rosso di casa at most. And we would have been perfectly contented with the bread and wine alone, but what we got was one of the biggest and best dinners we ate in Italy.

My feet like to prove they've been places, too.

Alessandro started us off, naturally, with antipasti: perfect brushcetta, the most wonderful pickled peppers, preserved artichokes, cheese with honey and freshly baked focaccia with prosciutto, capocollo and pancetta. The hot bread gently warmed the uncooked pancetta, coaxing out all of its porcine fatty goodness. It was a revelation. I never would think to eat uncooked bacon, but there I was, oinking my way through my two slices.

The Sea, Maremma

Our primi was petite squares of homemade lasagna. Alessandro swore he made everything himself, from the noodles to the ragu and that he’d eaten it for breakfast that very morning. I believe him. The noodles only hinted at being noodles, they were so thin. And there were a least eight perfectly constructed strata in each square, but there was no slippage and no knife necessary. Each layer blithely gave way to a fork’s pressure. It was lasagna nirvana.

Blossoms

But it didn’t stop there. We were happily stuffed and couldn’t imagine eating another thing, when the kitchen door swung open on the most glorious steak I have ever seen. Cooked to a perfect medium/medium-rare, it was at least 4 inches thick and the size of a dinner plate. Seasoned simply with salt, pepper and olive oil, Alessandro had cut “fingers” into its depths to allow it to cook through. It was the most delicious, tender and perfectly prepared steak I’ve ever had, especially in light of the previous night’s meal.

Does anyone know what this is? I thought it was lavendar, or rosemary, but it smelled like curry when I rubbed it.

We had gone out for “Florentine” steaks at a “trattoria” in Florence.  We had wanted to dine at the Osteria del Cinghiale Bianco, a delicious looking neighborhood joint in the Oltrarno, but alas, our plans were thwarted by zillions of other people who wanted to eat there, too. So we ended up “somewhere else.” “Somewhere else” was a smelly, expensive, yet serviceable tourist trap of a restaurant. But we were there, and we were hungry, so we gamely ordered on. Honestly, the food wasn’t bad, but when cast in the light of our meal in the Maremma, it was a sad ghost of truly great Italian cooking, which is a shame.

Populaonia

So… I’ve told you about the antipasti, the primi, and the secondi… But, you know what? I haven’t even told you about my favorite part of dinner yet! It wasn’t the perfect steak. Nope. Nor the beautiful bacon, peppers or lasagna just like Nonna makes. Nope, nope , nope. And it wasn’t dessert either. (We didn’t have any. There wasn’t anywhere to put it!) Nope, to me, the most perfect, delicious and wonderful part of our meal was the beans.

Populonia

When we ate at Trattoria del Carmine in Florence, I ordered a plate of garbanzo beans from the daily specials menu. I figured, if a chef puts a dish called simply Ceci as one of his daily specials, it’s probably pretty special. And it was. Startling in its simplicity, just olive oil, garlic and salt, it was the best thing I ate that night.

Populonia

The same was true at Alessandro’s. His beans, presented as the third dish in our troika of antipasti, were the local, generic Tuscan white beans, probably from a can, heated through and dressed simply in olive oil and a dusting of dried herbs. Simple enough. But it was the final seasoning that made them revelatory: finely minced raw onion. The onion’s bite, its delicious tang, brought out every nuance of those beans; their creaminess, their vegetal savoriness, the very essence of their beaniness.

Cyclamen grow wild all over Italy.  I think that's really cool.

The Tuscans, it seems, have magic beans (or at least a magic touch with them).

We had them again the next night, at a pizza place perched atop one of those hills lurking at the rim of the vast Maremman plain. We had gone off exploring along the coast and returned to the inn sunburnt and windblown. When we arrived “home,” Alessandro and the noble Nero were waiting for us. We were the only people staying at the inn, he said, and rather than cooking us dinner again, Alessandro wanted to know if we’d like to go with him and his wife to his friend’s pizzeria for dinner.

Populonia

At first we said no, it felt awkward. But he insisted and, well, let’s be honest, it sounded really great, so we went. And it was. I know you’re never going to believe me when I tell you this, but I can’t remember the name of the place. In fact, I’m not sure I ever even knew it. But it’s in Sassofortino, outside the walls, overlooking the plain. It can’t be that hard to find, now, can it? The pizzas were delicious, as was the dessert of frutti di bosco over mascarpone cream, but once again, it was the beans on the antipasti plate that stole the show.

Castiglione Della Pescaia

The owner of the restaurant, who bore an odd resemblance to Frank Fontana from Murphy Brown, used borlotti beans for his fagioli, but the treatment was the same. Simple, simple, simple. Oil, salt, a few slivers of fresh tomato and the beans.

Rainbow, Maremma

A quick internet search for “Tuscan beans” turns up all kinds of recipes using carrots and cheese and special pots and sausages, but I think they’re missing the point. While there is obviously room for variation in making these beans; they can be chickpeas or borlotti beans or canellini beans; they can be dried or fresh, bottled or canned; you can add herbs or leave them out, there is one constant. Simplicity.

Ceci alla Toscana

And so, I don’t feel right telling you the name of the inn we stayed at, because it may no longer be there. Alessandro and his wife had already bought a new place on the coast and were cashing out of the inn on the plain while we were there. But, I can offer you my recipe for Tuscan beans.

And that’s obviously the next best thing, right?

Head below the jump for the recipe for Ceci o Fagioli alla Toscana.

Continue reading

Sotto Voce

1 Apr

What is there to say about Italy that hasn’t been said before?

Roma

Let’s be honest. Not much. Italy is a beautiful cliché. But, since saying, “I have nothing to say because it’s all been said before,” makes me a lazy writer, I’m going to give it a go.

The Forum

Italy is gorgeous. No, really it is. It takes your breath away. The sky. The earth. The trees. The buildings. The rocks and stones. The vegetables. The flowers. The puddles. The birds. The rain. The sun. The doorknobs. The ceilings. All of them. Breathtaking.

Assisi

The Italians sure know how to celebrate Easter. We were in Florence, where they detonated an oxen cart packed full of fireworks in front of the Duomo. The detonations went off for 15 minutes, ricocheting and echoing off all the stone, until we felt like we were in a WWII battle. By the end our faces were covered in ash. It was very cool.

The Duomo, Florence

That said, never fly into Rome on Palm Sunday. You have been warned.

Absurd

Italian cars are gorgeous and Italian drivers are insane. We rented a Smart ForFour. I loved it. It’s teeny tiny on the outside, but feels like a normal-sized car when you’re in it. Isaac said it handled well, it got great gas mileage and had pretty good giddyup. Regardless, it was no contest for nearly everything else on the Autostrade. Some of the cars that passed us were going so fast they produced doppler effects. They were usually Audis for some reason.

Roma

Archaeological sites are more interesting to the archaeologists. I studied Etruscan archeology in college. Unfortunately, it’s been a long time since my sophomore year; I’ve forgotten almost everything I once knew. This makes walking around an old Etruscan city little more than walking around and looking at a pile of rocks. But, stalking wild asparagus while glancing at those old rocks is really fun! So is stumbling on gaudy green lizards and breathtaking views of the sea while worrying about being charged by a wild boar and peeking into old graves cut into solid rock. I’m sure you will agree that it was all very Indiana Jones.

Run Away!

Pizza. The pizza I remember from my trip to Italy 15 or so years ago doesn’t seem to exist anymore. It was thick and doughy with a schmear of intense tomato sauce and a sprinkling of crispy cheese. I loved it. I could buy it on every street corner and I was happy. Alas, it has been supplanted by wurstel carts and paper thin, hyper-crispy pies.

Central Market, Florence

The absolute best I had was in San Gemini, the speck of a hill town in Umbria where we spent our first week. I can’t tell you the name of the place (I don’t think it had one), but I can tell you it wasn’t Happy Pizza and that it’s on the main drag. Seriously, it’s worth stopping if you have to drive past the town. It was extraordinary. The plain slice was covered in the thinnest whisper of milky fresh mozzarella and delicious sauce. Remembering the mushroom slice, with specks of sausage and a flurry of pecorino is enough to bring tears to my eyes.

Assisi

Also worth mentioning: a slice Isaac got at the Antico Forno dei Serpenti, a bread and pastry shop near the intersection of the Via dei Serpenti and the Via Panisperna. The slice, a sliver of focaccia topped with olive oil, fresh basil and prefect, oozing, hopefully dioxin-free fresh buffalo mozzarella, was perfection. The one bite I got made me sing and hum with happiness. All pizza should do that.

Art, Florence

I found eating in Italy more difficult than I would have imagined; there are so many rules and different classes of restaurants, and it’s so easy to be duped by a nasty, tourist-trap trattoria masquerading as an honest, delicious, seasonally-driven neighborhood osteria, and it soon became obvious that I’m not quite as familiar with Italian food terms as I had thought I was. But, don’t cry for me just yet. Because despite all these roadblocks, we managed to eat very well.

Flower

In Umbria, my step-dad decided to hire the cook offered with the house so there would be no arguing about where to go for dinner or who should cook each night. This was a very wise choice. Daniella’s cooking is extraordinary. I’ve never eaten so well, so consistently, in my entire life (sorry Mom!). On fresh cheese crostini arugula leaves were pushed into the cheese like the design on a filigree brooch. It was beautiful and tasty, as was the lamb stew with olives, gnocchi con salvia e burro, fresh local catfish in puttanesca sauce, fried squash blossoms, local cheese with truffle honey and oh, the homemade tiramisu. All of them, delicious.

The Pantheon

One night she also made me artichokes in the Roman-Jewish style, because, yes, that’s right, March is carciofi season in Italy. I ate as many of them as I could everywhere we went. I had them raw, sliced paper-thin over a salad of arugula and parmigiano cheese at a wonderful neighborhood trattoria in the Oltrarno in Florence, where I also had them tossed with a delicious, flaky white fish and farfalle. I had them poached and served with a tangy, zippy salsa verde with tarragon at Florence’s central market from the trippa stand. I had them on pizza and as an antipasti more time than I can count. In short, I ate so many carciofi in 12 days that I think I may be turning a little bit green. It was heaven.

Vegetale

I didn’t have any in Rome though. Rome was the toughest city to eat in. We couldn’t find any restaurants with daily specials (this is my new rule of thumb to ensure that the restaurant is buying produce based on the season), but we did stumble upon a Sardinian ristorante who’s menu had a notation that I wish every restaurant in the world should be forced to adopt. They used an asterisk to let you know which proteins were being cooked from the freezer. For example: Scampi* ai Ferri o a Piacare? *Frozen. Scallopine al Vino o al Limone? Not frozen (and in case you were wondering, crazy delicious).

The Coliseum

The restaurant also happened to be next door to the only place in Italy where we got good bread, Panella. Wait, what? Bad bread? In Italy? Oh yes my friends. I always thought that Italian bread would be amazing, but at least in the parts of Umbria and Tuscany that we travelled through, the bread is not so bene. Apparently some folk way back in the 15th century got into a fight with a Pope about salt taxes, and ever since, no salt goes into the bread.

Central Market, Florence

Can you imagine? 600 years of unsalted bread? One of our guidebooks tried to make the claim that the lack of salt makes the bread bland and unassuming, the perfect foil to all of the regions’ spectacular culinary specialties; the cured meats, the cheeses, the truffles, the olive oils! Good try guys, but no salt in bread just makes it boring with bad crust. I’m all for traditions, but people, you’re only hurting yourselves!

Tuckered, Orvieto

And finally, walking. We did a lot of this. Going to the hilltowns of Italy with a man obsessed with climbing hills is an amazing way to lose five pounds while eating every ort of each multi-course dinner for 12 nights. We climbed every damn hill we could set foot on. We climbed to the top of Assisi, and Perugia, and Orte, and Narni (yes, it used to be named Narnia), and Orvieto, and San Gemini, and Montelpuciano, and Piombino, and Populonia, and Florence, and Rome.

Rainbow, Tuscany

Assisi and Narni were the most difficult, and therefore most rewarding, but it was our first day in Rome that nearly broke me. I’m pretty good at getting a bead on a city, but Rome still eludes me. Rome felt very much to me like New York must feel to thousands of people; dazzling, dizzying, confusing, loud, dirty, grey, cold, exhilarating, spectacular and heavenly all at once. Two days were not enough. We saw all the greatest hits, but kept getting lost (in a bad way) which made it difficult to really get a feel for the town. I must go back.

Angel

Since I’ve been back, everyone I know has asked, rather logically, “So, how was Italy?” It seems like a simple question with a predictable answer, but I can tell from the way their faces fall that there’s something amiss when I answer, “Not bad.”

Me

I’m torn about our trip to Italy. Obviously, I loved it, I mean, I’ve already prattled on for over 1,400 words about it, but at the same time, I didn’t come back as relaxed and annoyingly enthusiastic as I did from our trip to Croatia. I’d go back in a heartbeat, of course, but like so many others before me, I didn’t leave my heart there.

My heart’s still on Hvar.