Adventurous foodies and travelers explore Italian cities
Everywhere we turned in Florence's Piazza Santa Croce, tourists, vendors hawking selfie sticks, and ghost-faced gypsies swarmed us. I grabbed my husband, Kevin, by the hand and led him past Dante's somber statue and down a quiet cobblestone street. A food cart emitting an enticing aroma stopped us.
Curious, we joined the long line of blue-collar workers and peered at the menu handwritten in Italian. I looked over to see men with snowy-white hair and walking canes sitting at the counter, heartily digging into some kind of meat sandwich. When it was our turn to order, I squeaked in unconvincing Italian, “Due [two].” A lanky, older gentleman said something in Italian, and I automatically responded, “Okay.” I wasn't sure what I'd agreed to, but we watched as he sliced a bread roll in half, piled one side with thin slices of gray meat, and dipped the other half into hot broth. “Chile?” he asked. I nodded and handed him about 8 euros. We sat down on the stone steps of a nearby church and bit into the soft roll. It tasted pungent and gamey—delizioso.
When we met back up with our tour group that evening, Kevin showed our travel director, Lisa Bottazzo, an iPhone photo of the menu. “Can you tell me what this menu says?” he asked.
“Oh, did you eat that for lunch?” Lisa replied gravely, her eyebrows furrowed.
“Yes! What is it?” Kevin pressed.
“You had lampredotto,” said Lisa. “It's very popular in Florence, but it's cow's stomach or tripe. Did you like it?” Much to her relief, we each gave her a thumbs-up.
Kevin and I love the thrill of this kind of gustatory discovery. We'd signed up for a 10-day Flavors of Italy guided vacation offered by Trafalgar, and, through this tour of Rome, Tuscany, Parma, Bologna, and Venice last May, we'd hoped to experience Italy's culinary essence. On the bus, our diverse group of folks from California, Canada, New Zealand, Nebraska, Louisiana, and Michigan bonded over a shared love for food. None of us anticipated, however, the diversity of tastes, sights, and scents that awaited us.
In the village of Quercegrossa, in Chianti, for example, we joined chef and winemaker Diana Lenzi at Fattoria di Petroio Winery.
“This winery has been in my father's family for over two centuries,” she said. While Diana cooked, her parents—Gian Luigi, a retired neurologist, and Pamela—entertained us with lively stories of weddings, harvests, and even a close call with an undetonated bomb in Gian's childhood bedroom during World War II. We listened attentively as we dined on gnocchi made with semolina, hot milk, egg yolk, and Parmesan cheese.
We also went to Parma, in the Emilia-Romagna region, famous for prosciutto di Parma and Parmigiano-Reggiano. Arms linked, Kevin and I strolled through the historic town center, stopping at La Prosciutteria Noi da Parma on Via Farini. Through wide bay windows, we saw salami, wheels of veiny Gorgonzola, caciotta (semisoft cheese), and Marzolino (sheep's-milk cheese). Via gesturing and finger pointing, we caught the attention of the salumist and ordered 100 grams of prosciutto and a block of Parmigiano-Reggiano. Outside, we unwrapped the foil and waxed paper to reveal rosy ribbons of marbled ham that tasted sweet, nutty, and slightly fruity.
In Bologna, under arched porticoes and along narrow pathways, we passed tantalizing displays of stuffed pasta—tortellini, slightly larger tortelloni, and ravioli—at the Quadrilatero, a bustling marketplace that's been around since the Middle Ages. At Da Cesari, a family-run restaurant in operation since 1955 near Piazza Maggiore, Kevin and I shared an unforgettable plate of rabbit ravioli with smoked Gouda and tagliatelle (long, flat ribbons of pasta) topped with porcini.
In Rome, a walking tour took us to Piazza Campo de' Fiori, host of one of Italy's oldest open-air markets; and in Venice, Kevin indulged my quest to drink a Bellini—a cocktail of pureed peaches and sparkling Prosecco—at Harry's Bar, just as Ernest Hemingway is said to have done in the late '40s.
The trip's highlight, however, was our Italian cooking class.
To Market, to Market
We joined chef Libero Saraceni at his Ristorante I Tre Pini in Impruneta, a small town near Florence. Sporting wavy salt-and-pepper hair, the charismatic chef bore an uncanny resemblance to actor Edward Herrmann.
Our first task was to purchase ingredients at a local public market. At a piazza near Mercato di Sant'Ambrogio, Saraceni grouped us into small teams and handed us a shopping list and 10 euros. Kevin and I joined up with Nebraska mom-and-daughter pair Geri Tjaden and Lacey Lutjens. We looked over our list: 1 kilo of cipolle rosse di Tropea. We were stumped.
“You need to find one that's very fresh,” Bottazzo said with a wink.
“But what is it?” we implored.
“You'll have to find out,” she replied.
So we proceeded bravely, armed with the only Italian phrase we could recall from the impromptu language primer on the bus: “Scusa, uno kilo. Grazie.” (Excuse me, 1 kilo. Thank you.) We just had to figure out 1 kilo of what. Fellow traveler Alma Nushaj was fluent in Italian and helpfully told us to look for red onions.
Around the exterior of Mercato di Sant'Ambrogio, one of Florence's oldest markets, food vendors showcase their daily harvest in baskets and wooden boxes. We walked by heaps of plump tomatoes, zucchini flowers, porcini, wild strawberries, and eggplants. Lacey picked up a bunch of oval-shaped, ruby-hued cipolle rosse di Tropea (red onions of Tropea) for a little less than 4 euros. After we completed our mission, we ventured into the marketplace, navigating through the aisles of stalls that sold various cuts of meats, fresh pasta, seafood, and dairy products. Glass cases were loaded with cheese wedges, breadcrumb-crusted seafood, dove, rabbit, pigeon, and even a couple of stuffed rooster heads.
Cooking With the Master
Ristorante I Tre Pini, set in a 15th-century farmhouse, oozes Tuscan charm with its well-manicured garden, trickling fountain, and patio. Saraceni changed into his chef's jacket, and his mood shifted slightly from jovial grandfather to serious chef. “Pasta needs to be very thin,” he said. “And you need to work it very hard.”
We gathered at our assigned stations to make ravioli. The setup was minimal: a mound of flour, eggs, salt, and a dish of water. Chiara Piccinni, a youngchef with a peaches-and-cream complexion, patiently guided us through the steps. Seventy-eight-year-old Al Barlow from Baton Rouge, La., needed little prompting. He was the first to finish kneading and he stood quietly with a confident grin as Piccinni inspected the dough. “Are you my grandma?” Piccinni teased, clearly impressed with Barlow's skills.
Unlike Barlow, I struggled. Sticky dough clung to my fingers.
“Use your palm. It's hotter there,” Piccinni advised. Rolling the dough into flat sheets took even more effort. By now, I'd snapped out of my fantasy of weekly homemade pasta suppers.
“Keep going,” Piccinni said in encouragement. Once the dough was uniformly thin, we pressed a circular metal mold onto it to cut out rounds. We then scooped a teaspoonful of a mixture of mashed potatoes, parsley, Parmesan, egg yolk, garlic, and salt into the middle of the pasta. We folded the rounds into semicircles and pressed the edges together with a fork. The process was similar to wrapping Asian pot stickers, a skill my mom had taught me.
Meanwhile, some of the men helped make la ribollita, recooked minestrone soup enhanced with days-old crusty bread and a tremendous amount of olive oil.
“The soup was fun,” said Keith Stover, from Novi, Mich. “You can see it change before your eyes as you put more ingredients in.”
Soon it was time to eat. Servers brought out platters of fried polenta, crostini with braised cabbage topped with lardo, pasta with a meaty ragù, and the ravioli. Munching on tempura zucchini flowers and sipping strawberry wine, the group exchanged recipe and gardening tips, and pondered the worthy investment of a pasta machine.
After the meal, we sat quietly, faces flushed, and listened to the restaurant's songstress croon Etta James's “At Last.”
As we headed to the Venice airport for the trip home, I recalled an exchange from early in our trip. Someone had asked our travel director what prego meant. She explained that it depended on the context, but it could mean “you're welcome,” “come in,” or “please, after you.” After we told her that in America, Prego was a brand of pasta sauce, she noted, “I don't know anyone here who would open a jar of sauce.”
After my brief time in Italy, I'm not sure I'd ever want to again, either.
Rachel Ng is managing editor of Westways magazine's. She is based in southern California.
May/June 2016 Issue
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