Pizza Napoli and zuppa di polpo. The first two dishes Domenic and I ate together once he arrived in Firenze for his Spring break. I wanted him to be fully immersed in my favorite aspect of Italy, so I took him straight to the Mercato Centrale. The central market of Florence is basically a huge indoor farmers market. Although it’s inside, it’s organized by streets with almost any kind of animal protein, fruit, vegetable, or spice you could imagine. Plus, a few vendors sel
ing fresh pasta or panini. The upstairs though is what really blows my skirt up. To call it a food court would be the biggest understatement ever made. But, that’s essentially the idea. Only I could eat every meal there for the entire semester and never have the same meal twice. The best part, every ingredient comes from right down stairs, so you know you’re getting some high quality food.
Anyway’s, Dom needed to see it for himself.
That night, we went out with my roommates and a few other friends to the Jazz Club. Dom and I had never actually been to a bar together, so why not start in Italy?
The next morning, Dom and I woke up bright and early after a less than desirable amount of sleep and hopped on a bus to Bologna. Neither of us had done any research about the city, and I only had vague food knowledge of it, but I guess that how we travel best. We get lost, look up random sites, wander towards them, and eat whatever looks good along the way. We found Bologna’s central market (it has nothing on Firenze’s. I’m just sayin) and got some pumpkin filled Tortellini and some gnocchi, both smothered in the traditional ragu. The pumpkin tortellini was subtly sweet and lusciously creamy, creating a good contrast between the two same-sauced dishes.
I know that to some people going to a city you know nothing about with little to no plan is a scary thought. For Dom and I, that is the way we prefer it. We talked a bit about this and came to the conclusion that most plans don’t end up perfectly anyway, so why make them? Go into things with open expectations and the mentality that you will be able to make the best of whatever comes your way, and you’ll be just fine. Plus, you won’t have to added stress of trying to stick to schedule (that’a a plus for me anyway). We found ourselves in an 11th century monastery. Cute little courtyards scattered around, stone sanctuaries, and a whole ton of religious paintings. The entire thing was like a labyrinth, I’m not usually very interested in touring chapels or ancient places of worship, but this was pretty freaking cool. We also went to an art museum, the two woman at the front desk spoke absolutely no English and Dom and I weren’t entirely sure where we were. There was a ton of old religious paintings upstairs and some modern art downstairs. If you couldn’t tell, I really don’t know much about art and know how to write about it even less.
Monday, we went to Pisa. I have a morning class and another at night, so a perfect eight hour break for a quick day trip. We took our obligatory leaning tower pics, of course. And admired the souvenirs, which I think are absurdly clever, almost everything is leaning. I see what you did there, Pisa.
Tuesday, things took a sick turn. And on wednesday, a doctor told me that was most likely strep throat. Wonderful timing.
Thankfully, like I mentioned before, us Fraboni boy’s like to make the best out of whatever we’ve got. Dom made a run to the central market to pick up ingredients and it’s a good thing that even when it hurts to swallow my own spit, I still love to cook.
The night before in one of my cooking classes, we made our own pasta. So I wanted to recreate that as best as I could.
I used a mixture of white flour, semola flour and cracked three eggs into the well. I didn’t use any exact measurements, but the beauty of pasta is that it will only take the flour that it needs. Once I had a slightly sticky ball of something that seemed too full to eat much more flour, I began kneading. As a baker, I usually follow the rule of never wanting to overwork any dough, so the amount of muscle behind making pasta dough made me a bit uncomfortable at first. My chef professor said this helps to develop the gluten and some protein. Not entirely sure, I’m not a scientist. I kneaded it until it was the texture of the flesh right underneath my cheekbone when I have a big smile. Then let it rest for about an hour.
Dom got to chopping some onions and garlic for the base of the clams and mussels. He sauteed them with a little olive oil. Before adding the mollusks, he scrubbed them with a brush under running water to get any remaining grit out of there. Hey, this is some of the freshest produce we can get, so a bit of earth should still be there. He poured white wine and lemon juice,plus some chopped sage and rosemary, into the pot of onions and garlic and let them all get acquainted. When the liquid had started to boil he threw in the clams and mussels. And steamed them until all the little cuties opened up to say hello.
We don’t have a rolling pin in our apartment, so I rolled out my pasta using an empty wine bottle. When I had long, translucent sheets, I rolled them up and cut them into about 3/4 inch strips.
After all of the clams and muscles had opened, we strained the sauce into a large saucepan and added a nice chunk’o’butter. When the pasta only had a few minutes left to cook, I picked them out of the boiling water and straight into the sauce to finish them off.
The fresh pappardelle had absorbed so much of that acidic seafood sauce and the hints of fresh herbs, and clams and mussels offered nice little meaty bites. “Caramella di mare” or candy of the sea – they don’t actually call mollusks this in Italian, but I think they should. Needless to say, this dish was a pretty big hit, and even though every bite pained me, I finished my whole bowl and then some.
Side story: How to spot a bad Italian Restaurant in Italy
So the next day, Dom and I went to the Accademia (where Michelangelo’s David is) and went out looking for a place to eat after. I had finished telling him about some things to look out for when searching for a place to eat and we ran into a restaurant that hit almost anything on my list of red flags. But, being the curious travelers we are, we decided to test out the theory. So, here are just a few things that should make you turn around and not look back when picking a place to eat in Italy
- Things are broadly advertised in English. If the main group of people they are trying to get into their restaurant require an English translation, they are most likely not into serving repeat customers.
- In close proximity to any sort of tourist destination. Convenience usually means that the esablishment is willing to charge you more for subpar food. This kind of goes along with the first red flag.
- A lack of people speaking in Italian. If the locals don’t want to eat there, you don’t either.
- People out front trying to lure you in. The really good places, in my experience, have been the most unassuming. Someplace you could easily overlook. The best eats don’t seem to try to hard.
Long story short, I was right. The food wasn’t horrible… but that’s about all I have to say.
For Dom’s last two days we ventured to Venice. Of course the first place I took him was the little cicchetti place I wrote about in my last post. Partly, because I wanted him to be able to try some of those little nuggets of goodness, but also, because I knew that I would be able to try a lot more different types with our combined plates.
We spent most of our time getting lost and wondering in awe of the city. For dinner our first night treated ourselves to my new favorite resturant i’ve been to in italy. There I had polenta that made my knees weak, topped with tiny grey shrimp. He got a bowl of linguini with mini scallops and I got something I’d been searching for since coming to Italy, pasta with a squid ink sauce. This one used cuttle fish ink and had cuttle fish in it as well. But more importantly, this was just a damn good meal to be able to talk with Dom over. It’s been a little over a month since I’ve been home, and being able to see him just gave me a good kick of energy to keep me trucking.
Domenic had to leave my apartment at around 4:15 am on Sunday, so we got back from Venice mid day on Saturday and had a fairly chill, and early night. I know this has been a long post, but this has been a long (and incredible) week. -Thank you Domenic for using your Spring break to come and see me. I know you had your ticket to Firenze before I even knew if I was coming here for sure or not. So, I’m glad I was able to make it into the program to see you? Or something like that. Anyway, thanks for a week so good not even strep throat could put that big of a damper on it. – And as always, if you made it to the end of this post (or even if you just skimmed through the pictures and are currently reading the final paragraph) thank you for reading and keeping up a little with my adventures.