Thursday, October 20, 2011

eating italy part 2: firenze

After some truly exceptional meals in Rome, the question on our minds was: Could we possibly top that in Florence? We certainly intended to try. But before we get to the food, we should really do some more chatting about coffee.

J-Cat and I really love our coffee. It is serious business for us. We are picky about beans, we grind it fresh in our burr grinder every morning, we're all about the french press. But now we were in espresso country, which admittedly we're less knowledgeable about. Would this satisfy? The answer is that since we got home, J-Cat has been talking about espresso makers. So yes, it definitely satisfied. First stop in Florence: Chiarascuro for their Nocciolino, a delicious, lightly sweetened hazlenut-infused espresso drink. I HATE flavored coffee, but this is the exception I would be willing to make on a daily basis if I had the choice. Chiarascuro also features a nice spread of point-and-choose plates like pastas, salads, and antipasti for a light lunch or midday snack.

So back to the food. Steak. Florence is known for steak, specifically their giant T-bone steaks, which they serve quite rare and simply seasoned with just salt and pepper. Our first dinner was at Centro Poveri, a modern little osteria/pizzeria in Santa Maria Novella. I'd heard some solid things about their Bistecca Fiorentina, which was not only tasty, but a very fair price for a giant hunk of steak. It wasn't drop dead fantastic, in fact, we would have a far better steak a couple nights later (I'll get to that), but as a whole meal it more than satisfied. The Bistecca Menu was almost outrageously affordable for three courses plus wine, starting with a great salumi and cheese plate.

Followed by the enormous, well seasoned, but somewhat gristly steak. It was cooked perfectly, but the strip side of the bone was not as tender as it could be. The ribeye side was heavenly. It was served with a little side of sliced, roasted potatoes.

The meal rounded out with a perfect little coffee-flavored budino, which was actually one of the only proper desserts we ate in Italy. This is purely because we ate gelato every single day.

The next day, after climbing all the way up the Duomo, we rewarded ourselves with a visit to my favorite place in Florence, the Mercato Centrale. This is my wonderland of food. Next time I go to Florence I have to stay in an apartment with a kitchen, because the market is chock full of great ingredients. The stunning dried kiwi slices above, or the "polli nostrali" ("our own chickens") below, everything I saw made me itch to cook.

Cases of tripe and lampredotto.

Dozens of different nuts and dried fruits.

The highlight - not only of the market, or even Florence, but possibly of the whole trip - was this:

The bollito sandwich at Nerbone, a food stand at the back of the market where you have to aggressively fight your way onto the line to first pay, then order from the no-nonsense guy with the cleaver chopping up meat that he fishes out of a magical vat of broth. You're not going to successfully beat out the working guys who sidle up to the side of the meat man's counter and surreptitiously grab sandwiches, but if you go on the early side of the lunch rush there are enough lulls to shout out your order. Juicey boiled beef is sliced thin and piled onto a rosette roll, which you must order "bagnato", or bathed, so that he dunks the roll into the vat of meaty broth. Ask for "tutte le salse" and he'll slap on the fresh green chimichurri-like sauce, plus the spicy red pepper sauce. This is a sandwich that you continue to dream about for days and weeks after you eat it. This is the sandwich that we've tried to replicate twice since we've been home. We've actually come pretty close but there is still some untouchable magic about that meat man at Nerbone.

It could have been all downhill from there. I could have eaten the frozen lasagna out of this automat that we found in the Oltrarno.

But there was actually a lot more tastiness to be found, including a cool enoteca in Santa Croce called Baldovino.

Baldovino is a trattoria on one side of the alley and an enoteca on the other. Pretty good pizzas and pastas, I was happy to find this pappardelle with vegetables because as strong as my stomach is, eating meat at every meal for a week doesn't feel fantastic. I loved that the celery, carrot, and onion were sauteed just enough to lose their raw bite, but still maintain their refreshing crispness.

We sat on the enoteca side, where they have a very cool wine dispensing system that gives you the opportunity to sample a variety of wines instead of having to order a full bottle. You can put however much money you like on a wine card, then help yourself to half or full glasses of over 40 different varieties. We slept well that night.

The next day we found ourselves back at the Mercato Centrale. J-Cat plead his case to just go back in and get more bollito sandwiches, but I had to try Trattoria Mario. A cramped little hole in the wall behind the market, Mario is only open for lunch, and by 12:01 every seat in the place was full. The no-nonsense hostess/waitress points you to one of the long communal tables and gives you about 10 seconds to decide on what you want off of the handwritten menu on the wall. The pastas and soups change daily, the meats - such as bistecca fiorentina, vitello arrosto, and bollito misto - are pretty much always available. To the sounds of the grinning chefs in the long and skinny kitchen chop chop chopping up the meat, we chowed down on a maccheroni al ragu, the bollito misto, outrageously good french fries, and a magical green salad that consisted only of lettuce with a sprinkle of olive oil and vinegar, yet tasted like a work of art. The pasta was freaking amazing.

The bollito misto was quite good; although the brisket was a little drier than our bollito sandwiches from Nerbone, the tongue was incredibly tender and juicy. The salsa verde had a nice fresh bite. Mario is a must-eat for lunch in Florence.

Later that day, we allowed ourselves a very indulgent touristy moment and took a table outside at Rivoire, a beautiful and historical caffe and artisanal chocolatier on the Piazza della Signoria. It is one of those classic Italian caffes where you would be wise to stand at the bar to drink your coffee and save a ton of money, but perhaps it's worth the table fee to sit across from the Palazzo Vecchio and the copy of the David and relax for a while. We went for the sweets - J-Cat opted for a coffee granita with whipped cream, while I went with what Rivoire is really known for, the chocolate. The hot chocolate is only lightly sweet so you can really taste the cocoa, although of course you get sugar packets if you want to go crazy. I think we paid more for two drinks and some water than we did for the entire enormous lunch at Mario, but it really is some lovely atmosphere.

Okay back to the meat again, this time at all' Antico Ristoro Di' Cambi in the Oltrarno, where the only thing any diner is eating is the Bistecca Fiorentina, because it's THAT GOOD. But let's not get ahead of ourselves, let's first talk about how I managed to have a brain fart and think I was ordering fennel (finocchia) and artichokes for an appetizer, but I had misread the menu and it actually said fennel sausage (finocchiona). And not that I don't love fennel sausage, but we were about to eat a giant steak and I didn't really need a meat appetizer to warm up for it. We ate the whole thing, though.

But the steak was really the star of the show, and this was truly a star. This steak was perfection - cooked perfectly rare, but not raw-tasting, seasoned just the right amount, butter tender from beginning to end, and a profoundly beefy flavor - it is everything you want when you commit to a giant steak at a restaurant. This, to me, was Florence, and the perfect way to wrap up our stay.

Next up, if you thought Rome and Florence were food destinations, you've never been to Emilia-Romagna.


Tony said...

Hi. You tried many different foods and places to eat in Firenze.

Glad you enjoyed it.


Boodle said...

I love how you said it's everything you want "when you commit to a giant steak."

It puts it into perspective!

The trip looks wonderful.

articles on food said...

Your blog post are really appetizing! Continue to bombard us with your food travels. :)