So. Much. Food.
About 500 years ago.
That was our joke by this point in the trip…that just about every story starts, “About 500 years ago…” if not a thousand years ago. Italy’s history is immense, complicated and…well…overwhelming. I like to have a mastery of the history of a place I visit. And on my second time through Italy, I still feel like I’m scratching the surface.
And through the day my comprehension would come into sharper focus…because of food.
I had booked a food tour through Florence as a surprise for Lauren with an outfit called Florence for Foodies.
I was a little apprehensive about devoting half a day to food…but this is Italy, no, this is Tuscany. Let me say this quickly: before attending a food tour…don’t eat. We had a quick breakfast at a cafe around the corner from our B&B, it was good but not as good as what were about to spend the next four hours consuming.
On the steps of San Lorenzo we met our guide Nat. That’s when she told us there would only be two other people joining us…awesome news. I hate being among big gaggles of tourists jockeying for the best spots to take a picture or get a bite or hear. After a few minutes the other two showed up, a couple from Hong Kong Chris and Sandy. They were about our age, and very excited to be on the tour.
Nat started us out at a cafe, she sat us down and explained the rules of coffee in Italy. I don’t know if it was quite a “Paul-on-the-road-to-Damascus” moment…but it was pretty close (remember what I said about coffee being a religious experience in Italy). She explained why coffee to-go is a horrible thing, how the barista takes great care in the creation of the experience, from warming the cup atop the machines to taking the time to properly grind the beans and measure the ingredients to creating little pieces of art atop the finished product. Obviously every coffee house in Italy isn’t going to take this great care, but I can tell you more do than don’t.
We continued onto the market up the street. We grabbed these sandwiches called bollito: they were ridiculous. Veal and cheese and secret sauce and more secret sauce, both of which were spicy served on “Roman” bread. The market reminded me of Reading Terminal in Philly. And I suppose at the very surface level that can be attributed to Philly’s very Italian heritage. But I digress, the sandwich was great. I ate two. I would’ve eaten five were it not for our ill-thought out pre-breakfast breakfast.
We moved through the marketplace sampling cheeses and meats as we went. I believe I had my first taste of pecorino (it’s sheep cheese) and now I’m addicted. Except it’s expensive in the States…we need more sheep. To be honest there were a lot of things along the way I’d never tasted, and probably wouldn’t have had I not been on this tour.
Eating is a necessary component to travel. I’ve never understood how people get on a plane, fly a dozen hours and then eat exactly what they would at home…or complain when they can’t eat like they do at home. And before you say that doesn’t happen I can bring up hundreds of examples during my time with Contiki.
And Nat did a fabulous job of explaining the historical context of what we were eating…like why Tuscan bread was so bland: blame Pisa. The need for prosciutto: blame Pisa. The same goes for Ribollita: blame Pisa. Or why olive oil tastes different in Italy: it’s not pasteurized…probably Pisa’s fault. Clearly Florentines hate on Pisa like Washingtonians and Philadelphians hate on Dallas.
Oh…and by the way we were washing everything down with wine. We sat down at one of the counters in the market and tried nearly a dozen different varieties of balsamic so we could taste the evolution in aging. We did the same thing with olive oil, although they are better in reverse: balsamic is better with age, olive oil is better with youth. Before this experience I shunned balsamic, but I walked away enjoying it. And to taste a fresh olive oil endowed upon me an appreciation for why this ingredient is the centerpiece of so many Italian dishes. The freshest bottle we sampled tasted like the Tuscan hills on a fresh summer afternoon, if I close my eyes I can see that taste.
And it seemed like everything had a bit of truffle in it. I don’t like truffles, call my palate unrefined if you will, but I’ve never been able to appreciate the taste of a sweaty sock found on the floor of a Metro train. Nonetheless, I sampled and sampled and sampled. Truffle infused honey…bruschetta with truffle…truffle infused spice mix…balsamic and truffle. On the other end of the spectrum Chris was rapturously consuming every bit of truffle he could get his hands on. With every bite he closed his eyes and slowly shook his head, probably trying to wash the flavor over every taste bud in his mouth. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone enjoy food that much.
Moving on from the market things got serious. We went to a wine bar called Zanobini, which looks a lot like a bottle shop…except: there is one counter about four feet long as soon as you walk in. The floor is worn showing where patrons stand throughout the day. It’s the sort of place that you nip into between breakfast and lunch or lunch and dinner to have a glass of wine and socialize…or in the case of the guy sitting in the only chair, to stay from breakfast to dinner and drink several glasses of wine: such is the Italian way, such is the Tuscan way.
The owner of the place welcomed us in, and explained the history while offering up a toast of prosecco…I love prosecco. That’s probably why I can’t remember the history of the place, the prosecco or probably the grappa spray…yeah…it was probably the grappa spray. From what I remember the wine bar was a prison cell some 500 years ago (roundabout) and a guy who opposed the Medici family was imprisoned here for plotting to kill them, or maybe tickle them…I can’t be sure…grappa. At some point a black rooster fought another black rooster from Siena to set the border between the two regions…grappa. In the basement of this wine bar was the wine cellar, amazing I know. The room smelled musty and old and haunted. We drank before heading back into the proper wine bar, and then it was grappa time.
Wait, what it this grappa you speak of?? Well I’m so glad you asked…it’s like killer death spray. It’s the alcohol of grapes taken past the point of wine, way past. It’s like 60 percent alcohol and it’s used as a “pick-me-up” for Tuscans in the afternoon or morning. But you don’t drink it, and you don’t inhale it…you do something in between. Grappa is sprayed from what looks like a perfume bottle onto your tongue, and let’s just say there’s a bit of a shock to the system.
Everyone took their sprays, and we were all happier having done it. We went from there to wrap up with some gelato. And yet another mystery was resolved: how can you tell good gelato from bad. Nat walked us by the Duomo and outside one of the gelatories (?), there she gave us a lesson. If the gelato is on display it is no good, they want to bring you in with the colors not the taste. Those who make superb gelato do so fresh every day, and to keep it fresh they don’t display it to the open air. They are confident enough in the taste to keep it out of view. I wish I could remember the name of the place she took us to, but…grappa.
The tour ended at the gelato place, but Nat took the time to give us a list of restaurants to check out through the remainder of our time in Florence. One of those recommendations ended up being the best meal we had in Italy…but more on that later.
We made our way back to the Duomo…the weather again was superb: mid-50′s and sunny. Great for February. My last swing through Florence took me into the Duomo, but not on the Duomo. So we bought our ticket and walked the 463 steps to the cupola. Little windows brought fresh air into the ancient stairway and breathtaking peaks at the Florentine skyline. Atop the view is truly astounding. Present-me was momentarily angry with four-years-ago-me for not taking this climb last time. Spread before us was a sea of rust-colored roof tiles soaking in the soft rays of the waning afternoon sun. Streets appeared as capillaries instead of the broad veins of North American cities. The Tuscan hills hugging this enclave that would produce the next evolutionary leap in human thought to catapult us from the dark ages into discovery. If you are not moved by such a site I implore you to burn your passport and never leave home again.
We lingered letting the afternoon continue its course as we took photos, and then eventually descended the steps back to ground level. After a quick stop at our hotel to make a reservation for dinner we walked towards the Piazziale Michelangelo for the sunset. This involved more steps and a lot more walking. I stopped feeling guilty for not running while on vacation.
The vista was terrific with the whole of Florence sprawled out before us as the encroaching night gave the skyline new character and depth. The winds whipped up the Arno and the temperature dropped, but again I was lost in the view. A bit of advice here: even on this chilly evening there were a lot of people at the park…if it’s nice and you want a good spot show up well before sunset. There are vendors selling snacks and drinks up there.
We walked down from the hill along the now dark Arno, it just seemed that every corner of the city was beautiful. My love of Florence was again justified and overflowing.
Getting to the restaurant proved to be a challenge as navigator Lauren led us to Pizza San Spirito instead of Via Santo Spirito. In her defense Spirito was in both. This is where I turn into a whiny bitch…no more grappa. I had been carrying my camera gear around through the day and wearing bad shoes for all the walking. I was tired and sore and lost. We found our way back to the river and then honed in on the street (which by the way is only named Santo Spirito for like a block).
We got to the restaurant, Il Santo Bevitore, before it even opened…many restaurants in Italy open for dinner at 7:30pm. Another reason I love the place, eating late into the evening is very much my style. The restaurant’s atmosphere was romantic and traditional with hundreds of bottles of wine adorning the walls…and the place was busy, make reservations. The meal was another show-stopper with a course of a traditional bean soup, followed by a pasta course of ravioli stuffed with basil and pecorino and finally more steak. I could be more specific, but Lauren’s the food writer…I just eat the stuff. And stuffed I was, after yet another long meal at the end of a long day of eating and walking and eating and walking and eating and walking.
We made our way home we wandered through the arch of Piazza della Republica and onward back towards the Duomo before calling it a day. A full, full day.