Sunday, March 27, 2016

Foods of Firenze and Tuscan Legends

If I'm actually going to get through Florence this month, I definitely need to combine some of my food posts :) As I mentioned earlier, we found that we did not enjoy the food scene in Florence quite as much as in Rome and southern Italy--whether that's because it was at the end of our trip, or simply because of the specific regional specialties, I don't know. Still, there were fabulous highlights (like the pasta and grilled meats in Rignana) and memorable experiences (like our dinner at Il Latini on the last night of our trip, which will get its own post next week).

Perhaps the most notable thing about Florentine food is the bread: They do not put salt in it. Have you ever tasted bread without salt? I have. Repeatedly. Every single time bread was set before us in a restaurant, we kept tasting it, thinking--"maybe this place doesn't hold to the tradition." Nope. Salt-less bread. SO WRONG.

Thankfully our guide on the wine tour explained this phenomenon to us before we experienced it firsthand, so we were prepared for it instead of surprised and horrified by that first bite. Apparently it goes back centuries, to the time when Italy was a non-unified collection of city-states. Florence and Pisa were big rivals--to the point that they have an old Tuscan proverb which roughly translates, "Better a death in the family than someone from Pisa on your doorstep."

I can't remember the details--either Pisa was the producer of salt, or maybe Pisa had control over the port where salt would come in--but however it went, Pisa was able to block Florence from getting salt. And whatever Florence did to make Pisa mad, the result was that Pisa refused to allow the salt, the Florentines began to make bread without salt. And they stubbornly stuck to it even when they were later able to get salt. Thus, pane toscano (Tuscan bread) was born.

Foodies may argue that it is uniquely delicious, especially appropriate for use in certain Tuscan soups or as a contrast to the super-salty cured meats. I say, bread needs salt. Amen.

One of the other fascinating stories our guide told us was about the Arno River. Pisa is downstream from Florence, and once upon a time, Ponte Vecchio (the oldest bridge) was the home of the meat markets. What did the butchers do with their rotten meat and scraps? Toss them in the river and send them along to Pisa. So you can just imagine how much Pisa loved Florence, receiving their smelly, spoiled meat all the time.

Not only did Pisa hate the butchers of Ponte Vecchio; one of the Medici grand dukes wasn't a fan either. In the 16th century, Cosimo I had built an elevated corridor from his offices (the Uffizi) to his home (Palazzo Pitti, which we did not get to visit) on the other side of the river. This way he did not have to mix with the commoners below as he traveled back and forth. Great guy, right? Reid's Italy explains the story
Not long after his corridor was complete, however, Cosimo found something else to complain about: The stench rising to his private skywalk from the butchers and skin tanners beneath, whose workshops had traditionally lined the Ponte Vecchio since at least the 12th century.
Cosimo summarily booted out the butchers, moved in the far classier goldsmiths—and, naturally, raised the rent.

Ponte Vecchio has been lined with of jewelry shops ever since--and in the end, Pisa got the last laugh. Supposedly, as the story goes, the river flooded in a really epic way and, well...Pisa just had no idea what happened to all the gold when the Florentines came looking for what had washed downstream :)

But I digress. Tuscan food! On the evening of our Chianti wine tour, we wandered down toward the Arno and ate a late dinner at Antica Osteria 1 Rosso, where we got an outdoor table...

...and a charming hand-written menu. Always a good sign!

Steve wanted a salad again after all the heavy food at lunch:

I, on the other hand, do not feel physically bad from lack of vegetables, and I did not go to Italy to eat salad. :P For me, it was tortelli mugellani al ragu di cinghiale: tortellini with meat sauce made from wild boar sausage. We'd already discovered earlier in the day that we really liked cinghiale, so this seemed like a good bet.

Buuuut...truthfully, it was too heavy after all the food we'd eaten earlier in the day. It was OK, but I didn't enjoy it as much as I might have if I'd eaten it a different time. Fine, maybe Steve wins this round. Don't tell him I conceded.

On Tuesday night, after our full day of sightseeing at the Duomo, San Lorenzo, Mercato Centrale, Santa Maria Novella and the Accademia, we headed to Trattoria Nella. 

This place had come highly recommended by an acquaintance who spent a semester of college in Florence and insisted we MUST try Nella.

It was full and we didn't have reservations, so we weren't sure we'd be able to get a table (it was a tiny restaurant, and we were actually eating on Italian time for once--after 8PM), but we didn't have to wait long to be seated. I thought this little note in the menu was charming:

For our antipasti, bruschetta (of course!), every bit as good as it looks:

...and Steve wanted to finally try something we'd seen in almost every single restaurant: prosciutto e melone. I hate cantaloupe, but the prosciutto was delicious. Steve thought the sweet-salty combination was quite satisfying.

Our friend had recommended a dish with walnut pesto, but it just didn't sound good to me at the time. I figured ordering a dish named for the restaurant was probably a good choice, and I enjoyed my penne Nella (pasta in a tomato and cream sauce with herbs). 

Our secondo was arista con patate--roast pork with potatoes. It was fairly unremarkable as I recall.

Our final experience with Tuscan food came on our last night of the trip, when we tried three different kinds of traditional soups. More on our dinner at Il Latini next week.

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