Saturday, October 11, 2014

Memorable Meals in Florence

Staying in apartments while traveling makes it possible to shop where the locals shop and cook your own food. This is so important to me as it helps me stay healthy and feel well while also making traveling a bit more affordable. Not to mention, it is really fun for me to shop and cook in another country, especially one so full of love for food and quality ingredients.

Our first night in Florence, we had a very simple but delicious meal made with ingredients from the market down the street.  I was really proud of that pesto and buffalo mozzarella cheese because I had to navigate the market's deli to get them and did so in Italian.  I was super tired and not yet acclimated to the language, so I felt pretty victorious leaving the store with my dinner ingredients. (Let's just forget about the part where I didn't bag and weigh the bananas prior to going to the register and made a small scene trying to swap them out with a pre-weighed option.  That was not my best moment.)  

Michele, the gentleman from whom we rented the apartment was out of town when we arrived, but he left us a detailed welcome letter which included a few restaurant recommendations for places he likes to go himself.

We were so glad that we took him up on his recommendations!  Thanks to Michele, we ended up at Il Santino, a small enoteca (wine bar) that also serves food.  When we got there, we browsed the menu outside and nearly didn't go in.  The menu didn't list many options for a vegetarian.  Since we were hungry and had walked to that neighborhood specifically to eat here, I figured I might as well go in and ask about the vegetarian options.  As it turns out, this enoteca is essentially a one man operation and customizing something for me was a quickly offered option.  The choice was cemented when a couple sitting behind us at 1 of the 4 tables in the restaurant piped up telling us what they were eating was so good and we should certainly stay.

vegetarian salad with fresh pulled mozzarella, some sort of hard cheese, shaved fennel and so much more!
What happened to us at this lunch was truly one of those magical travel moments when everything falls into place and you have an experience you couldn't have planned.  We sat next to the couple that had endorsed the food and as it turns out they were from Chicago, travel to Italy frequently and have a passion for the food of Italy.  We chatted throughout the rest of their meal and then kept chatting with the Brazilian couple that took their spot at the table when they were done.  To the other side, a woman from Australia sat down.  She was traveling alone and was happy to join in the conversation.

From our table we had a great view of the man running the show.  He was behind the counter (poor picture of that above) making everything from scratch including mincing up fresh herbs for the salad dressing, slicing individual servings of meat and prepping the vegetables right as they were going in to the dish.  All the while, he is simultaneously greeting people, delivering the food he is creating, pouring wine and managing the checks for the tables. Amidst all of that, he even had time to chat with us a bit and second another restaurant recommendation Michele had given us.

Zucchini Flan
And, of course, when one goes to Italy one must consume gelato regularly.  Our first gelato of the trip was from Gelateria dei Neri.

The smallest cups were still quite generous in their portions.  It seems part of the art of being a gelato consumer is choosing the right combination of flavors.  It is generally assumed that when you place your order, you will be combining at least 2 flavors.  My mom chose raspberry and mango and I went with salted caramel and ricotta fig.  I think it goes without saying that they were all delicious.

Back at the apartment, we cooked a few more meals with supermarket and central market ingredients.  Everything was prepared in a teeny, tiny kitchen on a 2 burner stove.  It felt reminiscent of cooking while camping.  You have to be resourceful with your tools and your space.

comfort food!  granola, fruit and yogurt for breakfast.
The second restaurant that we ate at was also recommended by Michele and seconded by the proprietor of Il Santino.  Paul had generously sent me to Italy with funding to treat both my mom and I to a memorable dinner out.  We chose Brac as Paul's treat. The photo below is of the exterior of the restaurant.  Hard to spot! Upon stepping in the door, we were in a hybrid gift store, book store, coffee shop.  When we let them know we had a reservation, we were taken through a magical courtyard into another part of the store/restaurant in which tables were set up in the middle of a bookstore.

The menu was pasted into the pages of art magazines.

We had been advised to order the plate where you get to pick smaller portions of multiple dishes. The photos are not that spectacular but here is what we ate:

We very much enjoyed the food, but sadly right as we were finishing our entrees, an e-cigarette smoker sat at the table next to us and began puffing away.  We made a crazy fast exit, paying the bill at the door to a surprisingly unperturbed waitress.  I guess it was a good thing we were too full to want dessert! (For those who might not know, I react strongly to the chemical in e-cigarettes and avoid the vapor at all costs.)

And, last, but most certainly not least, while in Florence we were invited to have dinner with my host parents at their flat in the city center.  I was delighted to be invited back to their home where I lived during my semester in Florence and even more delighted to be able to catch up with them a bit.  A lot has happened in the last 15 years but it felt comfortable and wonderful to be back in their company.

Luciano, my host dad, had kept an amusing card my fellow American roommate and I had sent to him after leaving Italy.  I was touched he still had it and the photos we had sent him in the card were a fun jog down memory lane.

Another great aspect of this dinner was that my mom and Italian host parents got a chance to meet.  My mom kindly thanked them for looking out for me while I was there, so far from her care, those 15 years ago.

Maibritt, my host mom, prepared a feast for us that included a fennel and egg "torta salata" (savory cake), pasta with broccoli sauce and homemade tiramisu.  Remember that private courtyard meal I mentioned earlier?  This was it!  We ate our dinner together on their courtyard patio that was covered with a grape vine arbor, bordered by potted herbs.  The patio comes out from their bedroom, which is in the 3rd or 4th floor of a late-medieval tower. It was a magical setting!

I discovered that Maibritt and I have a lot of interests in common.  She is a knitter!  I wasn't a knitter when I lived with them, so if she knit back then, I didn't take notice.  I told her about Ravelry. She also shared her red wine vinegar mother recipe with me and showed me her personal and perpetual jar of vinegar.

Luciano and I also have interests in common.  He shares his photography on a blog, too!  You should check it out.  His images are stunningly beautiful and frequently feature scenes from both Italy and Denmark (Maibritt's home country).

Thanks for the picture, Mom!
Thank you again to Luciano and Maibritt for hosting me 15 years ago and once again during our visit.  You are warm, witty, generous people and I am fortunate to know you!

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