Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Florence...è bella

I am on top of things. Or else I am wishing I was still in Florence and am finding the only way to cope is to write about it, reminiscing about all the food that I ate there. One word of warning before I get anybody’s (including mine) hopes up with loads of pictures of piles of pasta—my camera died after a day there and I forgot my converter. Sad face here. But I did get some of my food captured, and the rest, I’ll have to describe, but I also managed to swipe a menu from our last dinner.

Oh Florence, one weekend is not near enough. At least everything was open this time, as opposed to August. Advice: if you plan on going to Italy or Spain, do not do it in August, as everything will be closed because they will all be on vacation. Maybe January’s not the best because it was pretty dang cold, but at least my favorites were open. So I guess I’ll just go in order.

When I dragged my suitcase up to the Piazza Santa Croce where we were staying nearby, there was a giant Feria di Cioccolato. I’m guessing yall can figure out what that means. I was like a kid in a...chocolate fair. But I was good and actually made myself wait until the third day I was there before I went through it (unfortunately for yall because there are no pictures). I’ll get to the chocolate fair later, but first I had a more important place to be: Vestri. This is the best gelato you’ll ever taste in your life, if you're lucky.
And this is the best chocolate you’ll ever taste in your life, again, if you’re that lucky. Especially that one at the bottom, what I like to call ‘layers’ because that’s what it is; layers of perfection composed of chocolate and hazelnut. Vestri is a chocolate shop, it’s covered in every inch of its tiny shop in chocolates, all flavors and shapes, cocoa powder, chocolate pastes, chocolate chocolate chocolate. But the best part of the Vestri is the gelato. I really have never tasted better stuff in my life. It is the smoothest, creamiest, and most-bursting-with-flavorist of all gelatos. And the thing is, they’re not at all showy about it. The gelato’s not even on display. It’s under the counter, they lift up these silver lids and beneath are buckets of different gelatos stored on top of each other. You go around the city to other gelaterias, and not only in Florence, and there are mountains of colorful gelatos with half a pineapple on it, or Baci candy sticking out of it, but Vestri is exactly the opposite. They don’t need to reel you in with that stuff, but thank God I discovered the gelato, I might not have even known it was there, but once you do, you never forget it. But it gets even better. Affogato. They have this golden vat on the edge of the counter and if you ask for gelato affogato, they pull the tap and drown your gelato in thick hot chocolate. No words can describe the ecstasy. Now I’m a huge sucker for hazelnut, and hazelnut and chocolate even more. At Vestri they have Nocciola di Piemonte (so Piemonte hazelnuts), and I get that affogato and the amazing thing is the hazelnut still comes through very strong, it’s not overpowered by the chocolate. It’s really is a thing of beauty.

The chocolate there is nothing to scoff at either. I’d put it up there with the best chocolate ever because it mixes my two loves of chocolate and hazelnut and meets my standards of creamy and rich. It’s like a bar of chocolate but is somehow not hard and crunchy, but melts right on your tongue.

Now to the chocolate fair, where I learned that these ‘layers’ are called cremoni, and they had a few different kinds, not just with hazelnut, but also with pistachio, as seen here.

These cubes of heaven were purchased at the fair, but I couldn’t get any pictures of the producers due to my dud camera or my stupidity. I even resorted to asking a group of Americans if they had a converter, but no such luck. Mainly there was just good chocolate to be seen, but some stands had molded chocolate, pieces arranged to make pigs, or white chocolate appearing as Swiss cheese, and one stand had a fish and a little boy walked up and said, “pesce?” Si. “E bello…” It was a beautiful thing, so many people coming together for chocolate, if only every weekend could be as blessed.

Alright, now onto some pasta. On my old street, Via del Moro that is, there was a great place called Trattoria Garga, it was extremely colorful inside, walls painted teal and murals and paintings all over the place, and the dishes had names like ‘tagliatelle della magnifica’ which is what I get. It’s a big serving of noodles in a creamy, orange sauce with bits of radicchio sprinkled on top. It’s addictive. The first time I had it I tried to recreate it, making what I thought would be a simple cream sauce with some orange zest, but it just didn’t turn out like Garga’s. I don’t know what they do, but I would go back for this pasta everyday if I could, but I can’t: it’s 18 euros. That’s the one down side of Garga. It’s a bit expensive, or more accurately, over-priced. But at least it’s got lively and great food, even if you are paying a little bit much. They have a salad there of greens, avocado, tomato, pine nuts, parmesan, and hearts of palm which is also right on the dot. And the cheesecake. We didn’t have any this time, but it definitely looked like the most popular dessert in the house. My sister tried it and loved it, and she doesn’t eat cheesecake. She was so impressed she asked them what kind of cheese they use, thinking it must be something special and he said “Philadelphia” in an Italian accent, of course.

The next meal was Saturday lunch which had been planned for some time at a place in the Oltrarno, or on the other side of the river from the center. It’s called Alla Vecchia Bettola, or as Dan calls it, just Bettola. When we walked in, the guy recognized us, which is saying something for not having been in about three years. This is your family-style kind of place, meaning they seat you at a table sitting next to someone else you don’t know, but by the end of the meal you’ll probably get to know them. At least we did. It’s got little wooden tables and wooden stools, and if you get the house wine it comes in one those cask things that’s very bulbous with the straw at the bottom, and get as much as you can drink. You have to get the penne alla bettola, their namesake dish, which is penne in a spicy tomato sauce, but not a chunky one, a very smooth, thick tomato sauce. We also got pappardelle con cinghiale, or papparedelle with wild boar ragu, very Tuscan, very good. The thing about a lot of the food in Florence is it seems so simple, but it’s all done so right. And I can’t go to Italy without getting myself some carpaccio. I’m squirmish about lots of things, but beef is my friend. And good beef is an even better friend. Tender carpaccio, salty Parmesan, green arugula, and a nice drizzle of olive oil is all you need. Simple and delicious. Dan had some sort of pork in a puff pastry, which I surprisingly really liked. And this is where my camera stopped. I even got a nice top-off at the end of the meal, some Vin Santo and cantucci, or biscotti to dip in my sweet wine and my battery was just too exhausted to do anything for me. But the biscotti were good, and they also threw in some other cookies, something with hazelnuts and lots of egg whites in them because they were crunchy and shiny. I left Bettola feeling very good, but a little full. I had to walk around a bit before I could get another affogato down me, but I did because I knew Sunday it would be closed.

So the rest of the meals are going to be photo-less, but I’ll try my best to elaborate with words the goodness of Florence. For dinner that night it was off to a restaurant called Fuori Porta, which is not only right outside the old city gates, as the name suggests, but on the Oltrarno as well. Simply put, it could be called a wine bar/toast restaurant. What the Italians call crostini (small) or crostoni (large) is like very very good toast with an array of toppings. They also have quite a large wine list by region, so we got a few quartos of different wines to taste, and some crostini: goat cheese with arugula, taleggio (a cheese) and radicchio, and finally taleggio and porcini. Cheese, bread, wine, what’s not to like. We took our time there eating and drinking wine for the night, it took us some time after going to aperitivo before-hand. I think this should becoming a mandatory institution everywhere, or at least in the United States. You go somewhere before dinner, order a cocktail and suddenly you get dinner with it too, in the form of pasta, polenta and ragu, bruschetta, cous-cous, salads, pizza/foccacia. There are plates and silverware and it’s all yours for the taking, and it’s good food too. Not just bar peanuts or something, this could be my dinner. And everyone’s happy and chatting, and why wouldn’t they be? They have a cocktail in one hand and basically a free, warm meal in the other. We went to a place called Negroni on Saturday night, and on Sunday a place in the Piazza Santo Spirito. If only I had had my camera to document this stuff.

Our last meal was at another one of Dan’s favorites, Il Santo Bevitore, once again in the Oltrarno, but just off the river. I had been in there to get some wine occasionally, but never eat. This place is also all wood, but not so much elbows-on-the-table, it’s more refined with low lights mirrors angled off the walls. We got a bottle of Sicilian red, which I love (although it wasn’t Nero D’avola), and set to our food. This is the place whose menu I took, so I can tell you exactly what I got: Garganelli con pachino, zucchini e cipolla rossa di Tropea and Bue marinato con balsamico e pecorino. This translates to penne-like pasta (but with stripes around the tube instead of the long way) with cherry tomatoes and caramelized red onion and zucchini, and marinated beef with balsamic and pecorino. I was surprised at how much substance came with the pasta, sometimes you get lots of pasta and a bit of sauce, or a few veggies, but this one had a good amount and it was tasty. I plan on making this soon. And the beef was very similar to carpaccio except it was a little bit thicker, I’ve never had raw beef that was not paper-thin, but the flavors were all still there, and the portion was huge, for nine euros, they served me a plate full of good beef that I couldn’t even finish. So unfortunately no room for dessert, but the list looked good. And the next morning, I left Florence, not without stopping off to get a panino from my old corner shop, and of course a tub of pesto to take home with me. So, in an effort to say ciao, or at least a doppo I shall leave you with some pictures of the market in Florence so perhaps your mouth will water a bit and I’ll feel like I’ve done my job.

And just because it's so good...
Borgo degli Albizi, 11 R

Trattoria Garga
Via del Moro, 48 R

Alle Vecchia Bettola
Via Luigi Ariosto 34 R (or Viale Ariosto 32 R...I'm finding two different addresses)

Fuori Porta
Via Monte alle Croci 10 R

Il Santo Bevitore
Via Santo Spirito 64/66 R


Anonymous said...

Well everywhere was great, especially Il Santo, which has got to be one of the best places to go in town, with great wines and excellent modern food. But how can you write about Florence and not mention my lampredotto panino? Slices of slow-cooked abomasum, with salsa verde, chilli oil, plenty of salt and pepper, bathed in the stock... magnificent stuff. The first thing we ate in town, and you can even tell people where the best stall is.

Courtney said...

there's no 'we' about eating tripe. you you you. i'll stick to my nocciola affogato, thank you