Italy: The Culinary Bounty of Florence
- Josh Tuck
- Danielle Tuck
I felt it in Venice, but ignored it. By the time our train pulled into Florence, it was undeniable. Dull headache. Scratchy throat. Stuffy nose. I don’t know if the pace of our trip brought it on, or if it was the pervasive odor of boat fuel and polluted seawater in Venice, but I had a cold.
There was no way I was going to even attempt buying cough medicine with my poor Italian. “Avete medicina orecchie per i cani?” I’d have to muscle through it with a steady diet of espresso, pasta, and very little sleep. I wasn’t about to let the sniffles ruin my time in Florence; a city where art abounds and a wide array of epicurean splendors wait.
The Artistic Center
In this ancient city that straddles the Arno River, the wealth and power of the Medici family are on display everywhere you look. Florence was the epicenter of the Renaissance, and you can see the effects of that revolution everywhere. So much money was pouring in during the 1400’s, that nearly every edifice was adorned with frescos or inlaid tile, and every piazza was decorated with two or more noteworthy sculptures or fountains.
We were in awe of David and the half-carved Prisoners by Michelangelo. Climbing Brunelleschi’s dome, atop the Duomo, was breathtaking in every sense. Seeing the brush strokes of centuries-old frescos brought my art history classes to life and the inventions of Leonardo DaVinci where in every museum. However, for this traveler, the greatest treasures in Florence were the restaurants, cafes and food vendors tucked away on its streets and piazzas.
Streets of Waffles and Tripe
Just a few yards from the train station, our journey into Florentine cuisine began when we picked up the chocolaty sweet scent of… Belgian waffles? They are a simple, yet hedonistic indulgence that shops make fresh when ordered. Unlike regular waffles, these are riddled with small clumps of sugar and then two are sandwiched together with a layer of warm chocolate. We practically fell into diabetic shock with our first bite. Why these weren’t on every menu, in every restaurant back home was beyond us.
The tripe sandwich is another staple of the Florence food scene. Throughout the city you can find tripe carts, which are a favorite lunch stop for locals, and a new experience for adventurous tourists. I heard about them on a travel show and was dying to taste the four chambers of a cow stomach, stewed in broth, and layered onto a crusty bun.
Ravenous workmen crowded around the cart to devour the hearty sandwiches, often with a beer, before heading back to the job site. As sandwiches go, it may not sound, or look that appetizing, but they were terrific. The layers of stomach were light and fluffy in texture and had a gentle beef flavor underneath the spices. I thought it was fantastic. Danielle was less enthusiastic, but bravely filled her stomach with more stomach.
Lunch with the Locals
In our experience, it became clear that the best places to grab a good lunch were the spots where the locals ate. Case in point, La Mescita, a tiny, cafeteria-style place with a selection of pre-made hot dishes. It’s not fancy, but you eat local favorites with real Florentines.
We sat elbow-to-elbow with office workers and college students as we devoured nutty pesto lasagna, layered with ricotta, and hearty Macaroni Alla Cacciatora seasoned with fresh rosemary and oregano. We had just enough room left to share a delicious Polpette; a fried meatball made of ground pork, onion, egg, breadcrumbs, and spices.
One of the Nicest Meals I Never Tasted
Because of our tight budget, we never ate at high-end restaurants while in Itlay. In Florence though, we made an exception and indulged in a fancy meal. The refreshingly hip and modern, Rose’s Enoteca, was our destination and I was eager to savor every bite of their enticing menu.
Unfortunately, my sinuses had other plans. The cold I mentioned earlier was now in full effect and I couldn’t taste a single bite. We started with a ricotta and cod fish mousse cannoli over a tomato-berry sauce. After that, we split spaghetinni with squid, tomato, arugula, and drizzled with olive oil. Finally, we swirled our forks in fettucini with porcini mushrooms and rosemary. Danielle did her best to describe how it all tasted and how good it was, but her constant “Ooing” and “Aahing” only helped so much. The pictures will have to speak for themselves.
Dinner at the Abattoir
On our final evening in Florence, we ate more simply. Antico Noé’s description in our guidebook began with, “Don’t be put off by the dank, rough-and-ready alley.” How could we ignore such a colorfully depicted destination?
Antico did not disappoint. Located under a bridge in an old butcher shop (abattoir) we sipped Chianti and waited for our meal surrounded by dimly lit red stucco and white marble walls decorated with meat hooks and assorted butchering implements. We continued to wait, and wait, and wait. They were short staffed that night, but eventually some help arrived and so did our food. I was never happier to have my sense of taste back.
The porcini’s for my Porcini Tartaglia had been harvested that day and they lent an earthy freshness to this dish you cannot duplicate with re-hydrated mushrooms. Danielle enjoyed a savory Rigatoni with roasted eggplant and we sopped up any traces of sauce with crusty homemade bread. Once again we had been floored by the honest simplicity of everyday food from a humble restaurant.
Dessert… Not So Noir
If there was a central theme for our time in Italy, it was gelato. We had it almost every single night, and there was never a bad scoop. In Venice, we were introduced to Grom, an Italian brand specializing in all-natural, handcrafted gelato. It was there I had the transcendent experience of tasting their Chiocolatto Extra Noir. It was so smooth, creamy, dense, and intensely flavorful - I completely forgot to snap a picture of it.
When we found a Grom in Florence, I had to have another fix. At the risk of developing a serious addiction to the Chiocolatto, we backed it down a little and tried their Nicolla (Hazelnut) and Crema Alla Grom (Ricotta). They were, I’m-going-to-need-a-cigarette-after-this, good.
Apartment Shopping v. Real Life
Florence was an unforgettable experience, and in a perfect world, it was the first Italian city we could honestly see ourselves relocating to. The art, architecture, and food were knitted together with a college-town vibe, which made Florence feel much smaller then it is. It is to Rome what Chicago is to New York; big city and small town in one. It’s more manageable, accessible, and less frantic while still being vibrant and exciting.
We snacked on olives, bread, and cheese at the train station on a warm afternoon before bidding a reluctant goodbye to Florence. As much as we would have liked to stay and start apartment hunting, Sicily beckoned.