July 04, 2010

La Bella Italia - Eating Toscana Style

What is it about Italian restaurants? There doesn’t seem to be a need for trends or fashion or the “latest”. Instead, Italians just want the very best food experiences, and for that they are both loyal and adventurous. Loyal in that they will go back to the same places over and over again; adventurous in that they will travel far – hours if need be – to experience a meal, but only if (and this is key) they know it will not disappoint.

The trattorie, osterie and ristorantes reflect that sensibility. As we walked the streets of Florence, we saw the same places we had been to 17 years before, serving the same variations on pasta and meats that are simply prepared, and simply delicious. Their enduring popularity is a testament to great food.

This time around we wanted to try new places that were old favourites.  Our first night's dinner also happened to coincide with the Azzurri playing Paraguay in World Cup action, so naturally we wanted to both eat and watch the game.  Trattoria dei 13 Gobbi, at Via Del Porcellana, seemed like the right mix of local flavour and flavours.  "Tredici Gobbi" translates into 13 hunchbacks, and is typical of the off-beat names that one finds in Florence, especially at establishments that have been around for a long time (for example, Coco Lezzone means "smelly cook" but the food is anything but smelly!)

Note the TV screen with the game inside!

Our meal started with the absolutely perfect early summer dish: fiori di zucca: zucchini flowers stuffed with cheese and anchovies, lightly battered, fried. and sprinkled with lots of salt.

Better than french fries...

Although every menu offers a full array of dishes, from antipasti, to primi, secondi, contorni (side dishes) and dessert, watch the way the Italians eat.  It's an antipasto (appetiser) and main (secondo), or perhaps a plate of pasta (primo), with a main.  Often no dessert.  Always wine.  While we tourists just can't understand why we've gained wieght in Italy and the locals all seem slender, it's because they pick and choose carefully.  No snacking.  A leisurely lunch.  Eating s-l-o-o-o-w-l-y.  The Slow Food movement, which began in Torino, is aptly named.

But back to dinner.  In one of the rare times we ate like Italians, we too, only ordered pasta.  The winning dish of the evening was Richard's pasta.  The trattoria is famous for its rigatoni, and rightfully so: it's simply dressed with a tomato sauce that's got plenty of cheese, a touch of basil, and not much else.  Like most of the best Italian dishes, three or four ingredients are enough to make the dish memorable.

 House wine, always well priced and good

My kind of dessert: in-season strawberries, a sprinkle of sugar and a squeeze of lemon.

The next day was going to be a mix of culture and shopping: a stop at the famous Farmacia Santa Maria Novella and next on to the Pitti Palace.

The Farmacia is as beautiful as a musuem but smells better

Instead of a full-blown lunch, we thought we'd grab a quick bite at one of the many bars that dot the city.  We stopped in at Enoteca le Volpi e l'uva Enoteca le Volpi e l'uva, a small wine bar tucked next to a trattoria that was filled with bratty American students changing ingredients on every dish they were ordering. 
We were very happy with what Le Volpi had to offer.  Small bites, perfectly paired with boutique wines.  The first "bite" was Peperoncino piccante, a spicy pepper stuffed with anchovies and capers, alongside a single tomato bruschetta, drizzled ever so lovingly with the best olive oil.  The Porcini e tartufo bianco (a small finger sandwich filled with a porcini mushroom and white truffle spread), was equally delicious, and gave me that first longed-for taste of porcini mushrooms.

The next "bite" was even better.  Le Volpi serves a wide variety of crostone, thick slices of toasted Tuscan bread with delicious toppings.  The Crostone con salsiccia al tartufo (melted Asiago cheese and black truffle-infused sausage), was amazingly good. 

Big enough to share, small enough to savor

Yes, it was good!

It was the ultimate Italian lunch - small bites, each distinctly delicious, eaten slowly and with no fuss.  On to the Palazzo Pitti and art for dessert...

The view from the Palazzo Pitti

If you are lucky enough to get fresh zucchini flowers, try this simple recipe.  perfect as an appetiser, it is both easy and impressive - and truly a seasonal dish, a la Toscana.

Fiori di Zucca Fritti (Fried Zucchini Flowers)

1 egg, separated
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp lemon juice
1 c. all purpose flour
pinch saffron
12 zucchini flowers, gently washed and dried, pistils removed
12 anchovies preserved in oil, separated and rinsed
12 small slices fresh mozzarella, about 2 inches long and no more than an inch thick
½ c canola oil
1 lemon, cut into wedges for squeezing

1.  Beat the egg yolk until creamy, and slowly add the oil, water and lemon juice. 

2.  Slowly whisk in the flour, beating to form a light batter with a consistency like heavy cream.  Add the salt and saffron, and set aside for at least one hour.  Beat the egg white and fold into the batter gently.

3.  Heat the oil in a skillet over medium-heat high.  Fold back the petals and stuff each flower with a piece of anchovy and cheese.  Tuck the petals back together so that they enclose the filling.  Holding the flowers by the stem, dip into the batter, letting any excess batter drip off.  Deep fry until golden on all sides, removing as done with a slotted spoon and draining on paper towels. 

4.  Serve the hot flowers on a platter, sprinkled with salt, with lemon on the side for squeezing.