Mozzarella

Unexpected Florence preview

My summer adventure was planned to coincide with my daughter’s dance performance…in Florence.  But things don’t always go as planned, and so, when I got a call from her teacher that she was really sick, I dropped everything and hopped a plane to take care of her.  Fast forward – 1 hospital visit, 2 more doctor’s visits, and she is…ok.  I am in Florence for a few more days, and so thought I would let you in on my impressions.

I “get” this city, finally. My first trip years ago to Florence was admittedly (and in retrospect) not that great. I’m not sure what happened. Either I missed the good stuff or this city has changed.  I’m going to split the difference here. Of course I loved the obvious places and sights last time – the Uffuzi is worth at least a week, the Duomo is a “must see”, David is another… But this time, THAT stuff isn’t what defines this city. It is imperfect and thus “perfect”. There are too many tourists (pot calling the kettle black, I know, but hey…). Too many vendors hawking crap none of us need. The designation of the car-reduced historical centre is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it makes the streets walkable. On the other, if you actually need to come and go, city buses are less than convenient… But back to my love affair. I think one of my gaffes last time was visiting the Duomo and then retreating from the tourist-packed streets in the area. This time, I am staying right in the thick of things at the Roomate Isabella, a very decent boutique hotel, fittingly above a boutique (that just happens to be Gucci). Nice rooms, decent (new but kinda ugly) bathrooms, very good breakfast and friendly (yes folks, I said that) staff. It is Italy, so I wasn’t really surprised that one of the guys working the front desk sent me off in the wrong direction, but I digress. As I lie in bed this morning writing, there is a street busker playing violin outside my window. So far, I’m impressed with both his ability and repertoire. Last night I listened to a trio playing the standard hits- Ave Maria, Vivaldi’s top 10….But it all worked! The Duomo has always been the heart of the city. I just figured out that in some ways, it still IS.

The Mercato Centrale deserves it’s own post. It might be reason  enough to want to pick up and move here.  The main floor is everything one would expect. Open until 2 pm, it is chock full of …

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Everything you want to buy at a market, plus a bar or two, some tripe stands…

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panini di lampredotto. Ignore the texture and fact that it is tripe. It is delicious, especially with pesto and hot sauce

… But wait, there’s more! I wandered upstairs to another world. Sleek stands line the periphery. Wine store? Check. Organic vendor who prepares fabulous plates? Yup. Want fresh pasta with whatever ? 6 minutes. Pizza that even I get excited about? Uh huh. Need a cookbook? Gotcha. Pull up a stool and join the rest of the city at a long table. This is the place to be. And yes, they show World Cup soccer matches when Italy plays.

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So far my dining choices have been limited by a kid who can barely eat anything (torture!). We managed to eat at the well-reviewed Trattoria Mariani, which was an enigma. Crowd is 50/50 local/tourist, which seems likely as good as it gets mid June. The menu isn’t particularly appealing. Specials seem to be standards, but are listed in Italian only. So bone up on your menu vocab. The locals order riboletta, so we followed and did the same. A bowl of brown mush appeared. Not pleasant to look at, but man it smells good. Tastes better. You can’t really call their version “soup”. The bread has soaked up the liquid. Who cares? Why not eat soup with a fork? Tagliatelle with porcini was delicious. The huge chunks of mushrooms were silky and just plain yummy. Needing some protein, Ms. Stomach-flu opted for the roast beef. It was… Covered in beige gravy, but cooked perfectly and very tasty. Would I return? Not likely, but it was a good meal. Just not re-do worthy.

I find it incredible that Italians simply DO NOT DO takeout. Again, because my patient sidelined dinner plans, I had to figure something out. There is one restaurant in the Duomo area that does let you take food home. When I finally found Restaurant La Strada (people know it existed, but weren’t sure of the name… Turns out to be the name of the street it is on!) I asked somewhat meekly if I could take something to go. The guy told me to go out, hang a right at the corner, and the door would be there for “that”. Really, I felt like I was doing something illegal. Door found, there was a small counter selling roast chickens and salads. There was a small menu on the wall. My request of “pasta bianca” (pasta with olive oil) was met with a scowl until I explained that my daughter wasn’t feeling well. That changed everything. Typical Italian style, the order was sent home with wishes for her speedy recovery.

It looks like my patient is improving. She has headed back to her fellow dancers.  And now for the yummy stuff….

I don’t eat alone in restaurants often. On some level I think it is both necessary to prove something to myself AND almost, weirdly fun ONCE in a blue moon. It is also the only option this week!   I am not talking about grabbing a bite on the go. I’m talking about walking into a great looking restaurant and requesting a table for one.

It is rare that a busy restaurant seems totally nonplussed. Such is the case at Obika, on the very swanky Via de’ Tornabuoni.

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Overhearing the conversation next to me, just don’t pull a “Can I have that without the blank but with blank?”  The poor waiter looks like he is ready to burst… Really, unless you are going to die from an anaphalactic allergic reaction, my advice to you in this country is to perhaps just order something else.

I am seated at a round community table with a view of of the other diners and a lovely terrace. Cool. Good selection of wines by the glass. Great. Serious mozzarella selection.

The pizzas (not “my thing”)  look SO good. I will have to bring more bodies next visit and sample them. In the meantime, my plate of fresh mozzarella and grilled artichokes beckon.

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Mmm. That is exactly what it should be!  Absolutely simple. And perfect. I even figured out Italian bread, Which has always seemed… kinda sad. The good stuff is just basic no-knead bread. No bells or whistles. Just flour and water and yeast and a pinch of salt. When done well, it works. Especially doused in good olive oil. I am a satisfied loner tonight. I really miss my usual company but am pleased that I not only had a delicious dinner, but got through it entirely in Italiano!

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Therapy

What IS it about going to your favourite restaurant?  It is more than the food or wine list which, in my case, is epic.  No, it is the ability of the experience to assure you that everything is right in the world.  It is a feeling I cherish, and only recently have begun to question. Somehow it presses a “reset” button on my emotional outlook.  The next morning I wake up (maybe a little hungover, but) with a smile. These dinners are not just meals. They are truly about “dining”. And delight in the senses. My eyes are busy between plates and faces. My ears pick up bits of conversations and music.  The iPod’s playlist always says something about the mood in the kitchen. Is tonight an indie night or are we really listening to rap- the words blurred by the general din of guests? My nose is often in a glass, discovering a new wine find. And of course, as far as touch and taste- textures and flavours never disappoint.

I am an oyster snob. I only like them if they are exceptionally good. Otherwise, I’m happy to let my dining company enjoy them. It isn’t that I’m worried about getting sick – I just don’t like them enough to eat oysters that are “ok”.  I have to admit I almost ordered more, for the first time, ever. We ate wild Beausoleils hand-picked by divers. They were too good to dress with anything. Mmmm. Sorry the photo is so fuzzy –  I refused to use a flash.

Wild Beausoeils

I have a love/ hate relationship with “inventive” cuisine, often finding it contrived without being particularly good. But when it is done well, it makes me giggle (ok, not always obviously). Last night “Buffalo Mozzarella di Bufala” had me grinning like a fool. Deep fried balls of good mozzarella that were breaded in cornflake crumbs in a pool of buffalo-wing sauce with blue cheese and garnished with thin slices of celery. I heard that stupid “angel” music in my head! My mouth is watering as I write.

Buffalo mozzarella di Buffalo

Pumpkin Pie soft serve…Before

…and AFTER

The final word goes to what we drank with our soft serve. Dessert wines and I don’t often go in the same sentence. But maybe I’m turning a corner. We tasted, for the very first time, a Mistelle. A what?  Imagine Port, less sweet, and less hot.  in fact, I read after that mistelles are fresh grape juice which the fermentation process has been stopped by the addition of alcohol. Mistelle is a fortified wine, and the most well known examples are Pineau des Charentes and Floc de Gascogne. Learn something new every day.

To all my friends who are part of my favourite restaurant, who always look happy to see me and take a few minutes when they are in a service rush to say “hi”, thank you for reminding me what it is all about.  Life is good.