Lessons from Italy

Matt and I were fortunate enough to be able to steal away to Italy with Graysen in January.  We rented a flat in a great little neighborhood close to the center of Florence and spent our days wandering the streets, in and out of amazing museums, stunning cathedrals, and delicious restaurants.  I have to admit I was a little preoccupied by the food.  Having eaten all Alaskan for over 6 months, I was fascinated by Italy’s local food and the culture that supported it.

On the taxi ride from the airport, we noticed restaurants galore, and butchers, bakers, and green-grocers in welcoming little shops.  We couldn’t wait to get out there and try some food, so we dumped off our stuff and ran to the nearest pizzeria, only to learn they didn’t open until 7:30pm.  It was only 5!  Apparently, Florentines don’t go out to eat until late at night.  Probably because for much of the year it is too hot to eat early, or maybe because they don’t go to work until 10am.  We wandered around until we found a panini shop.  The ubiquitous snack, you could always find a panini at any time of the day.  The deli case had huge chunks of cured meats and various cheeses that they shaved off to order.  Meat, cheese, and bread.  So simple, and yet so amazing when the ingredients are just right.

Matt really got into the artisanal meats.  Each region makes unique products, so in the market there were tons of different kinds of salami, prosciutto, and other cured meats.  Matt’s head was spinning.  It would take years to try them all.  We ate it for breakfast, lunch, snack, and sometimes dinner.  We even tried to bring some home for our friends, but the customs agents didn’t like that so much.  😦

I have a weak spot for the sweets… biscotti, cannoli, gelato, and the grand-daddy of Italian desserts, tiramisu.  I mean, I am breast-feeding after all, I need my calories.  Unfortunately, these are the types of sweets that don’t transfer too well to whole wheat and honey.  Except a tasty honey-apple cake I had and maybe, just maybe I can make some Alaskan biscotti.  It’s just as well, my waistline didn’t fare too well with all those sweets!

Each region of Italy has its own specialties, and many of the restaurants still serve a very traditional menu with the local dishes.  Appetizers would be crostini, bruschetta, and a meat and/or cheese plate.  First course would be tomato bread soup, cabbage soup, or some kind of pasta with a simple, seasonal sauce.   Pasta with artichokes, pasta with broccoli, pasta with a ragu (meat sauce).  It wasn’t trying to be a whole meal, although oftentimes for us it was.  Seriously, who could eat more after that?

The second course consisted of some sort of meat, and you ordered your vegetables separately, if you wanted any.  So if you ordered beef stew, you got stewed meat on a plate, that’s it.  Only it was finished with a little olive oil and the best stew you’ve ever had in your life.  They took things you wouldn’t normally find in restaurants here, like wild boar or rabbit, and turned it into something extraordinary.  Matt’s favorite local specialty was Bistecca al Florentine… a huge t-bone steak served medium-rare.  Somehow we polished it off in no time!

We found a little Osteria down the street from our flat that served up amazing food at decent prices and became our regular spot.  An osteria is the Italian version of the bistro, not the hoity-toity American version, but the traditional version of a small, neighborhood place that serves up rustic, seasonal, home-made food.   They take every-day ingredients and turn them into something extraordinary.   There was an elderly gentleman that ate dinner at our osteria every night we did, and you could tell that this was his kitchen.  And for good reason… the staff was friendly and the food was amazing, especially the beef stew.

We cooked a lot at our flat, as well, taking advantage of the fresh, local ingredients and trying out local recipes that we tasted.  Like carbonara, a pasta flavored with lightly cured pork and finished with egg and cheese.  So simple and so good!  We tried different cuts of meat, fresh ravioli, and squid-ink linguini.

We returned home full of inspiration and ideas for our Alaskan food.  Matt pulled down his ham he was curing and found he had indeed made prosciutto!  We whipped up a batch of fresh pasta and made carbonara.  Darn good!!  So, when are we going to open up our own little osteria?

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