- Robin Dana
- Overlooking the Piazza Signorelli in Cortona, Italy.
Perhaps we didn’t eat enough pasta. Most days, we had it twice daily as the primo, our first course: fettuccine or cavatelli for lunch, bucatini or strozzapretti—literally, choke the priest—for dinner. How do Italians create pasta—I mean the noodles themselves, sauce excluded—that tastes so much better than what we make here? (I bet they hold back on their exports to stimulate tourism.)
We planned on trying more bottles of Brunello di Montalcino, that noble—and pricy— epitome of the Sangiovese grape, than we did. (We drank the vino della casa on the cheap, instead; the house wine served in Italy rarely disappoints.) And Lee Anne had gelato only two or three times. (There was little room for dessert after multi-course carb-and-protein loads worthy of a prize fighter trying to jump weight classes.) We never did find a trippaio—a mobile stand, like a hot dog vendor, serving tripe on a bun, billed in our guidebook as the ultimate Florentine street food. And we kept meaning to order more dishes with truffles. (Tuscany is known for its tartufi, yet we sampled only bland shavings that left us wondering what the fuss was about.)
Even though we ate in almost two dozen restaurants during our 10-day trip, we hardly scratched the surface of Tuscan cuisine. There is a Tuscan proverb: “To cook like your mother is good, to cook like your grandmother is better.” As consistently good as the food was, at times transportive—a simple panini with mozzarella, tomato, and artichoke hearts slathered with pesto that, by its very existence, offered a stinging indictment of the American sandwich—we were eating mom’s cooking most of the time, not grandma’s. This was mostly due to the fact that our intel was spotty and we never quite synched with the rhythm of Italian life. (Whaddya mean I can’t get lunch in this town at 3pm because all the restaurants are closed?) We’ll know better next time. Some field notes.
Dazed from our transcontinental overnight flight, we exited the autostrada at Orvieto, two hours north of Rome. At Trattoria Da Dina, we were seated and handed English-language menus before we could utter one word of faltering Italian. (This happened in every restaurant we ate in—even after I bought a herringbone coat in Siena and learned how to request a table. Mi scusi signore. Un tavola per due, per favore? Or, perhaps, as Lee Anne suggested, my little speech could have been the reason why we were continually handed the English menus.)
I ordered the specialty of the house, cinghiale (wild boar) over gnocchi, and Lee Anne chose tagliatelle with braised artichokes. To start, we asked for some pecorino, the sheep’s milk cheese being a regional specialty. Served in two fist-sized wedges, the sharp, tangy hunks contrasted well with the white wine we were drinking, a light, Grechetto-based Orvieto. The cinghiale, lozenge-shaped bits of boar in a simple tomato sauce, was a touch greasy and lacking the potent gaminess I was expecting. The gnocchi were frankly a bit too soft. The tagliatelle was better, a simpler preparation that allowed the pasta to speak for itself, the artichokes and wine-butter sauce adding minimal commentary.
Our host, Robin, an American, is spending the semester teaching photography to exchange students in Cortona, the quaint walled town made famous by the expatriate wet dream Under the Tuscan Sun. Robin’s apartment is on a cobblestone side street (every street in Cortona is paved with cobblestones) just off the main square, Piazza Garibaldi. We had three of our finest meals within 100 yards of her door.
At Pane e Vino, a kind of Italian tapas bar on Piazza Signorelli, we ordered the best cured meats of the trip, the piatto del fattore, (“farmer’s dish”), featuring prosciutto, fennel-flavored salami, and the thankfully ubiquitous pecorino cheese. At Preludio, down the steep sloping street from Piazza Garibaldi, the primo was best: cheese soufflé with fennel, black truffles, and a grapefruit reduction; chestnut ravioli stuffed with artichoke hearts, radicchio, and pecorino. (If you go, watch out for the garrulous waiter who won’t let you leave until you’ve sampled the complementary vin santo and the grappa.)
At Osteria del Teatro, just up the street from Piazza Signorelli, Lee Anne and I split the bistecca alla fiorentina, a massive T-Bone from the prized cream-colored Chianina cattle raised throughout the region. We ordered the steak medium rare; it was served rare and topped with olive oil, salt, pepper, and lemon tableside. Our mistake. Tender, with a hint of exterior char; beefy, with a grassy, earthy complexity, bistecca alla fiorentina is a cut that can stand up to the best Manhattan steakhouse fare.
We spent eight hours in Florence. Here’s what we saw: the Duomo, Michelangelo’s David, the Medici chapels, the Basilica di San Lorenzo, the Ponte Vecchio, the Museo di San Marco, and, at a—literal—trot through the Uffizi, four Caravaggios, three Botticellis, two Rembrandts, and in what passed for early 17th-century feminism, a Judith Slaying Holofernes, by Artemesia Gentileschi. We also saw the CHIUSO (“closed”) sign on a highly recommended eatery in our guidebook, Trattoria Coco Lezzone, located at the end of a piss-smelling alleyway a block off from the Arno River. Luckily, we found the one place that was serving food in the middle of the afternoon in Florence, a railroad-car thin lounge called Noir, just off the Ponte Vecchio. It was painted red and staffed by a waiter/bartender/chef who couldn’t care less about us. He threw our pre-made, pre-portioned lasagna in the oven and proceeded to chat loudly on his cell phone. He didn’t notice us in rapture, scraping the dishes clean of any last caramelized bits of phenomenally good pasta and cheese.
Stopping for a midmorning snack in Pizzaland, we spy two types of specialty pizza. One had cut up hot dogs and French fries atop a bed of cheese; the other is the same, only crosshatched with ketchup.
Leonardo da Vinci Airport, Rome
With some time to kill before our flight, we grab a bite in the airport food court. A passable spaghetti puttanesca, cooked to order in front of you, plus a bottle of Chianti, all for less than $25.
At a cuisine tipica shop in Castiglione del Lago, we dropped $150 on boar sausage, salami, soprassata, extra virgin olive oil, and a kilogram of pecorino aged in a cave (a trick the Tuscans picked up when they took to hiding their formaggio from the Nazis). My plan was to smuggle the loot in my garment bag, wrapped in dirty laundry, and whistle my way through Customs in New York.
At dinner with some other Americans later that day, we were advised not to risk confiscation of our valuable Italian foodstuffs at Customs. Best to ship home our Tuscan smorgasbord, we were told. Satisfied that we were doing the smart thing, we left our gear behind for Robin to ship.
At JFK, our bags went unsearched and we strolled past the Customs agents. Two days later, however, I received an e-mail from Robin explaining that importing meat—raw, cured, freeze-dried, pickled, etc.—to the US is illegal. (Learn a lesson from my misfortune: Smuggling is the only way.)
What I hadn’t mentioned to anyone was the lone salami I stuffed in our luggage; technically, in Lee Anne’s backpack, but as we weren’t searched, what does it matter? This $8 salami, marooned on our counter, now seems too precious to give away or to eat, the very embodiment of our trip. (The bottles of Sagrantino di Montefalco we brought back I had no qualms about popping open our first week home.) No matter how voluptuous its taste, once it’s gone, our trip is consigned wholly to memory. I wonder how long it’ll take that salami to go bad?