ITALY – Florence
I don’t always plan on being in Florence (I took the wrong bus once and ended up here, got waylaid at the train station from 2-6am waiting for my connection, and last night, missed the last bus to Colle by a minute when my train arrived late). But Florence is a great city to get “stuck” in.
If I had to pick a favorite cuisine it’d be Italian. And if I had to pick a food to eat every day for the rest of my life, it’d be pasta. I’ve been in Tuscany for 47 days and I’ve had some sort of pasta all 47. I’m being put to the test.
In Colle, the only non-Italian food you can find is kebab. I won’t say I’m sick of pasta, but living in Phoenix, where you can have Thai for lunch and Mediterranean for dinner, I’m craving something other than pasta or pizza.
When I spot a red Chinese lantern down the street, I don’t hesitate a second to go ask for a table. The restaurant’s called Chinatown. I’m the only non-Chinese person in the place, so I guess it must be pretty authentic. They make the menu “Italian friendly” by describing dumplings as raviolis, noodles as Chinese spaghetti, and formatting it with “Primi,” “Secondi,” and “Dolce” titles. It’s not the best Chinese food in the world, but the steamed shrimp dumplings, moo shu pork with ginger and jasmine tea go perfectly with the rainy day, and act like an elixir for my something-other-than-pasta craving.
king of meat
The reason I’m cooking in Colle is because my parents went on a wine tour in April where they serendipitously met Ilaria and Rebecca, two of the three owners of the restaurant I work at. The wine tour stops at Cecchini, a famous butcher shop/restaurant where Dario, the king of meat resides (you can buy an ornament of Dario adorned in a king’s robe, crown, and scepter for a couple euros). Our new intern, Liam, finished a two month stage there and highly recommends the place, too, so I figure it’s time for me to head over.
Dario is eccentric and a bit of a cult hero. He became really famous when he hosted a funeral for a steak in 2001, pulling it in a hearse and the whole deal because the Fiorentine (t-bone) was outlawed due to a mad cow scare. But the man behind the curtain is a 73 year old butcher, Orlando (aka Maestro), who’s been working at the shop since he was 13 and is responsible for teaching Dario. Maestro breaks down a side of beef effortlessly with barely any movement, Liam tells me. If he sees an extern hacking up a side of beef, he’ll take his knife and tell him, “You’re done for the day.”
At MacDario’s, a name Dario coined for the place, I go with the burger served with housemade Chianti ketchup, mustard, and pepper jam. You sit family style and Dario and his wife greet every guest like you came over to their house for lunch. One of the coolest parts about the place, though, might be the entrance to the bathroom, which is a floor to ceiling painting that opens like a door. It’s good, maybe not the best burger I’ve ever tasted, but worth the trip if not for the drive alone. The bus from Florence-Panzano takes you through the Chianti countryside, which is full of golden and burnt orange vines now.
I’ve never seen the leaves change colors and I’ve never had to change my clock when it falls back an hour. I’m experiencing my first fall here in Tuscany.
Fall means it’s olive picking season. New olive oil is being pressed and bottled. The fresh stuff almost looks like kryptonite it’s so green. Unlike wine, olive oil gets worse with age, so drink up!
pancakes & cows intestines
Tuscan breakfast consists of at most a cappuccino and a cornetto (croissant). When Ilaria, brings in some maple syrup for our Canadian extern, Liam, we decide to turn our Sunday lunch into a North American brunch. Matteo thinks the idea of a big breakfast is disgusting, so we take one of the large antipastone platters and fix him a huge plateful of French toast, pancakes, scrambled eggs, sausage, maple baked beans, hash browns, and orange juice, drizzling the whole thing with pure maple syrup. He about faints when we set it in front of him. He’s a good sport, though, and about an hour and a half later, the plate is mostly clean. In exchange, he tells us he’s taking us to Florence for a traditional Tuscan lunch, i.e. cow’s intestines, tongue…
And so comes Wednesday. We bring along Alessandro, the mini mart owner and Florentine native, who closes up shop for the afternoon like it’s no biggie. He plays the part of our tour guide, telling us about the flood of ‘66 and where to go for good lampredotto (intestine sandwich). Every street has a story.
After an espresso atop Piazzale Michelangelo, a lapredotto sandwich from Nerbone, and another sandwich and glass of wine from Casa del Vino, Matteo and Alessandro decide it’s finally time to have lunch… We arrive at il Magazzino and I nervously take my seat. The bizarre fare is actually prepared really nicely. The lampredotto ravioli are among the best stuffed pasta I’ve had here and the antipasto platter with tongue, udder cake, and intestine balls is good, too. Ironically, it’s dessert that’s gross, a pasty chestnut crème caramel.