You didn’t think I would leave Italy without writing a drool covered memoir about food, did you? I actually had to wait a few days to type this to avoid coating my touchpad in guanciale fat and gorgonzola cheese. The second I stepped onto the pebble beaches of Civitavecchio and smelled the aromas of frying prawns and curing salami, I decided, “Eat now, work out later.”
I’m only human, okay… and hey, when in Rome, right? (Give or take a few hundred kilometers.) And one thing you must accept when traveling, is your muscles will turn to the same consistency as the chicken liver pate you’ve been inhaling, and it’s worth it. Deal with it when you get home.
I do consider myself somewhat of a foodie, and not just because I spent my entire seventeenth year of life watching Alton Brown with a notepad and a pompom pencil in hand. (I moved in with my aunt and uncle who had Food Network and Travel Channel, so I felt like an eight-year-old in 1946 experiencing black and white TV for the first time.) I owe my general food knowledge to sir Alton, Julia Child, and my anti-recipe chef of a mother. But the ability to work my way through a complex menu, I credit to my experience in fine dining service. Besides obtaining a sweet pair of fallen arches and the ability to balance four plates in five fingers, I also left the restaurant industry with a unique education in gastronomy. I know menus can be fairly overwhelming, even in America, so I’ll give you my amateur foodie guide to ordering Italian food.
It’s actually not all pasta and pizza. Italians certainly love their bread, but it is generally meant to be a companion to your meal. Specifically in Tuscany, bread is unsalted, meant to serve as a sponge for sauces and meat drippings that dare not be altered by a flavorful bite of ciabatta.
So after my first magical meal of pasta, I tried to steer clear of the carb-loaded pizzas and went for the true Italian gems.
But first things first: the cocktail.
In true Italian tradition, I started my first Florentine meal with an apertif. There are numerous pre-dinner cocktails common in Italy, but the classiest of these, the real Paul Newman of Italian apertifs, is the Negroni. It is certainly an acquired taste, but quite lovely in my opinion. It’s made of classic gin, sweet vermouth, Campari and Angostura bitters. Sweet, but with a distinct Vermouth aftertaste. This is one of the few flavors I find impossible to describe, so my best advice would be to stroll into a fairly nice Italian restaurant, (nice enough to provide more than one fork to the left of your plate), and order one Negroni before dinner. You may want to share the ruby cocktail with your date, as it usually provokes a wrinkled nose and puckered upper lip with the first taste. But fear not, it will grow on you.
Antipasti: Platters of decadence.
This magical plate of Italian bites was composed of four varietals of cured meats, five crostini, pickled carrots and fig jam. As an extremely indecisive eater, this is a platter of happiness for me. The meats were prosciutto (salt and air cured ham), lomo (salt and air cured pork loin), cinghiale salami (smoke cured wild boar sausage), and guanciale (smoke cured pig jawl, similar to bacon). Phenomenal. Spread a bit of fig jam on the lomo, and a small bite of cantaloupe wrapped in the prosciutto and you will forget the world that surrounds you. The crostini were small toasts topped with truffle cream, chicken liver pate, sundried tomato jam, and olives in pesto. Have a plate of crostini in Italy and you will likely curse your white bread toaster and dump that jar of Smuckers in the recycling.
First plate: Beef Carpaccio
Plain and simple, beef carpaccio is shaved rump, drizzled in lemon infused olive oil, topped with arugula and fresh pecorino romano. It’s perfectly light and melts in your mouth. In comparison to my Parisian Tartare la Boef, the Italians focus on the delicate meat and avoid masking the flavors of the beautiful raw beef.
*Note: I did not consume all of these courses in one seating because I’m not a conditioned hotdog eating champion with a 2 gallon stretched stomach. But I had each course in several different settings, so I could share with you each level of a traditional Italian feast. You’re welcome.
Second plate: Pasta, Gnocchi, or Risotto
In most small Italian towns, you can find “Pasta To Go” shops around every cobblestone corner. You choose your pasta based on shape, (ie. Tagliatelle, Pappardelle, Gnocchi, Ravioli, etc.) then you choose pasta type, (spinach, wheat, herb). Finally, you select a sauce with numerous options varying from cream base, tomato or pesto, each with meat additions like beef, pork or prawns. I tried to avoid pasta in general, but this was absolutely wonderful and well worth the carb load before my huge hike in Cinque Terre.
The Main Course: Ribeye with mushroom truffle butter
I don’t even know where to begin. The meat was seared crisp around the edges, making the fat molten and nearly carmelized. The browned butter surrounding the mushrooms smelled akin to the makings of pralines infused with truffle. It was pure sin in the form of beef and golden, coveted fungus. Nothing less, but perhaps a bit more.
Italy is by far the food capitol of Europe (in my eyes), and the picturesque settings add an element of romance that couldn’t be captured elsewhere. My advice on ordering Italian food is this: Definitely start with the prosciutto, never skip the cheese, splurge on the beef, and always finish with limoncello.
And maybe some more gelato…