Eating in Tuscany (Siena, Florence, Prato, Lucca)

June 8, 2011

Markets

One of my favorite things to do when I travel is check out the local food markets.  My partner doesn’t understand why since I go to these markets even when I don’t need any produce and the markets in the same city tend to be similar.  I don’t have a logical response, but in the way that other people feel the need to check out museums and churches to get to know a city, I feel compelled to check out food markets.  Chalk it up to FOMA I guess!  So, here are my reviews for three Tuscan markets.

Siena Wednesday Market

The Siena Wednesday market (there are other ones throughout the week all over the city) proved to be special and memorable, in part due to the difficulty we had in finding any food there!  The market is located on Viale Cesare Maceari and XXV Aprile between Fortezza and Piazza Gramsci and it is MASSIVE.  I’m talking on par with the Sunday market in Bangkok!  We got there and saw a sea of stands selling junk – tshirts, shoes, belts, and other miscellaneous items.  We walked through rows and rows of this having a conversation that went like this “I don’t think there’s any food here.  Are you sure it’s a food market?”  “Yes – I only put food markets on our itinerary.” “But there is no food anywhere.  Look, it’s all stuff.”  “But I have been researching our trip for months.  How could I have gotten this wrong?” “There are lots of people selling vegetable seedlings.  Is that the food you read about?” “No!  Seedlings are not food.  This is supposed to be a food market.”  This went on for about twenty minutes at which point we retreated to a bench.

Picture this – I am sitting there despondently when I see a woman with a banana in her bag.  Since the one stand we saw selling fruit did not have bananas, this was a sure sign that we had missed something, which I excitedly explained to my partner.  He, however, is not impressed by my Sherlock Holmes discovery since my credibility vanished with my insistence that this was a food market despite abundant evidence to the contrary.  Ten minutes pass by silently as I contemplate how I could have gotten this wrong.  Then, I see a man and exclaim that I see a steak in his bag.  Upon closer inspection, the “steak” turns out to be a pair of sneakers.  At this point, my partner begins looking for the nearest psych institution, but then, I see a woman with apples and bananas and I become determined to find the source of this fruit that at this point, seems to be mocking me.  So off we go to find the mysterious source of the sporadic fruit sightings.

Lo and behold, we find that there is a ramp that leads to under a bridge where there are ROWS AND ROWS of produce and prepared foods – gorgeous purple artichokes, blocks of cheese, salami, fried polenta.  Hurray!  It was here that I ate the most delicious tomato-y tomato in a country where genetically modified produce is still uncommon.  This market was definitely worth the search and the sleuthing.

San Lorenzo Market

The San Lorenzo market in Florence is very well known, very touristy, and very crowded.  There are tons of vendors outside trying to sell you leather goods, which is annoying and claustrophobia-inducing.  The market itself has a pretty impressive selection of produce and food products, but has become overpriced over the years and now caters to tourists.

Mercato di Sant’ambrogio

The Mercato di Sant’ambrogio in Florence was the complete opposite of the San Lorenzo market.  We were the only tourists there and it was obvious that people thought it was odd that we were there.  The produce didn’t look as good as the Siena Wednesday market, other than some gorgeous radishes, but we found a great little stand that sold pizza by the weight.  We had some pizza with tomatoes and again impressed by how tomato-y the tomatoes in Italy were.

Siena

Our favorite food-related place in Siena was Consorzio Agrario Siena.  It’s a local co-operative that sells lots of great local stuff.  I even did a wine tasting in the store one day.  We ended up coming here many, many times to get different kinds of cheese, bread, tartufo salsa, rosemary crackers, and produce.

They even sold prosciutto baby food!

Antica Pizzicheria al Palazzo della Chigiana (Via di Citta 93) is a deli that is touristy for foodies.  You probably won’t find it mentioned in Lonely Planet or Rick Steve’s, but any book about food in Italy will mention this deli and their paninis.  The man working was very nice and gave me some samples of different spreads on a piece of cheese.  Yes, that’s right, not on bread or a cracker, but on cheese!  I really love Italy 🙂

Caffe Nannini (Via Banchi di Sopra 24) is a very famous bakery near the main square.  I tried a few things there and think it’s overrated.  Staff was rude and pastries were overpriced.  It feels like a place that was once a great, local favorite that now caters to tourists.  What a shame.

Forno dei Galli (Via dei Termini 45) is a simple bakery with pretty good pizza and the famous ricciardelli cookie (made with marzipan).  These cookies are a little too sweet for me, but if you like them, Forno dei Galli has very good ones.  Skip the madness at Nannini and come here.

Florence

Focacceria Pugi is NOT TO BE MISSED.  They have the BEST BEST BEST focaccia pizza with tomatoes and arugula.  Their focaccia and other savory treats are also very good.  So good, in fact, that on our way from Bologna to Rome at the end of our trip, we had a 40 minute layover in the Rome train station, during which time I sprinted to Pugi (a 20 minute walk from the train station!) to get focaccia for our train ride back to Rome.

Gelaterie Carabe is an adorable, small shop that sells extremely fresh gelato and is also known for its granita.  I was fortunate enough to meet the owner, Antonio, after I saw him sniffing strawberries to determine whether they would make the gelato cut!  What a ham!

Vivoli (Via Isola delle Stinche, 7r) also has excellent gelato.  We were more impressed with the fruit flavors that were bursting with fresh fruit flavor (pear ginger, grapefruit, strawberry, white chocolate) than the creamy ones, but those were good too.

La Mangiatoia (Piazza San Felice 8r) had perfect gnocchi with pretty good sauce.  The consistency of the gnocchi was excellent and I have had lots of homemade gnocchi made by people with Italian grandmas!  They also had a terrifically moist apple cake with a crunchy, sugary topping that you must try.

I Tarocchi (Via dei Renai 12r) had yummy pici pasta and nice outdoor seating, but the food wasn’t that remarkable.

Prato

We took a short train ride from Florence to Prato to visit a friend of mine from high school who has been living there with his family for a few years.  The town is beautiful, but what was most impressive was that they had their very own brick pizza oven!  It was such a nice change of pace to hang out and have a delicious home cooked meal accompanied by a variety of local wines (my friend is getting his Italian sommelier certification!).

And yes, stay tuned for a post about DIY pizza ovens or Berkeley permitting requirements dash my dreams of my own pizza oven 🙂

Lucca

I had an incredible cod dish at Da Giulio (Via delle Conce 45, Piazza San Donato).  It’s called Baccala (cod) con I Porri (leeks).  It didn’t look particularly appetizing as the braised leeks took on a muted green color, but it was delicious.  It also came with a deep fried piece of polenta, which was crunchy on the outside, softy and creamy on the inside.  Yum!  Da Giulio is also supposed to have good matuffi (cornmeal gnocchi), but I couldn’t convince my partner to get that, so you’ll just have to go try that on your own and let me know how it is.

Pasticceria Marino Taddeucci (Piazza San Michel 34) had a pastry made of rice that tasted kind of like a rice pudding cake.  It was unique and very good.  They also sell the well known Lucchesi buccellato, a circular loaf made with flour, sultanas, aniseed seeds and sugar, but I didn’t try it because it was only sold in a humongous size.

Besides the food, I highly recommend visiting Lucca for at least a day.  It’s a charming city surrounded by an intact wall that is fun to explore by bike.

Stay tuned for food news from Bologna.


Eating in Umbria (Orvieto, Spoleto, Norcia)

May 22, 2011

Orvieto

My partner and I were totally taken by this small, relatively untouristy town and I discovered my most favorite cookie of all time at I Dolci di Moscatelli  (Corso Cavour, 11).  I love these delightful, bite-sized anise ciambellette cookies and at several points in our trip contemplated derailing our plans to head back to Orvieto to buy a giant bag of them to bring home.  They are not very sweet, almost like a slightly sweetened anise-flavored cracker.  I will definitely have to try to recreate these at home because the alternative is flying back to Orvieto and that isn’t really in our budget!  (UPDATE: I used this recipe from Italian Food Forever with some minor tweaks and it turned out great!)  I Dolci di Moscatelli had other pastries, but none came anywhere close to their unassuming, but intoxicating anise ciambellette cookies.

While walking through the streets of Orvieto, we saw a sign that said olive oil tasting, followed the arrows, and ended up at Bartolomei.  There was a little bit of a timeshare feel when we walked in as the woman working there put in a movie about how Bartolomei makes olive oil, but she was so nice and the movie was actually really interesting, so our concerns vanished, especially when she brought out the incredible olive oil to taste!  Not only did the tasting include two types of delicious olive oil poured over freshly toasted bread, but also two types of olive spread and wine. 

Gelateria Giuseppe Pasqualetti (Piazza Duomo, 14) had the most incredible pear gelato I have ever had.  It was like a pear exploded in my mouth every time I took a bite.  Even my partner who isn’t particularly fond of pear gelato loved it and referenced it several times in our future gelato tasting.  (We really took our gelato tasting and comparison very seriously.)

Honorable mention goes to Bar Pasticceria Montanucci for their outstanding cream puff.

Spoleto

Our stop in Spoleto was somewhat accidental.  We rented a car the day after we arrived in Italy and we were still pretty jetlagged.  Since I can’t drive stick, my partner was responsible for all the driving and we stopped in Spoleto mostly because he was falling asleep while driving.  Also, I had read about Spoleto and was happy to explore some places I had written down while he took a nap in the car.  Fortuitously, there was some kind of food festival going on.  There were stands set up on the main street selling and giving samples of different types of meat, cheese, olive oil, and TARTUFO SALSA!!!  Don’t know what that is?  I didn’t either, but it is DELICIOUS!!!  It’s a mix of chopped porcini mushrooms, some small percentage of truffles, and olive oil.  It is sublime spread on bread or a cracker (or I’ll admit, eaten straight out of the jar).

Norcia

Norcia is a weird place.  It has a touristy (though almost exclusively Italian tourists), carnival feel, but also a rustic, local feel at the same time – very hard to explain.  Norcia is known for its many, many pork products, mainly made from cinghiale (wild boar), and most butcher shops in Italy are called Norcinerias after this town.   There are wild boar heads and walls of prosciutto everywhere you look in this town.

This region is also known for its truffles, which I unfortunately didn’t have the opportunity to try.  They’re so plentiful that stores just leave them outside in baskets for customers to sell.  Have you ever seen such enormous truffles?!

If you want to taste some local specialties, visit Norcineria Fratelli Ansuini, an established and respected store with friendly staff.

Food report from Tuscany coming up …


Eating in Lazio (Rome)

May 22, 2011

We got back from our eating tour of Italy almost two weeks ago, but I’ve been having a hard time figuring out how to share all the amazing things we ate in an organized way that isn’t overwhelming to readers – chronological, type of food, order of deliciousness?  So many options!  I finally decided that region by region will be easiest, so here goes starting with Rome in the Lazio region.

Volpetti = Cheeseboard in Roma

You all know that I heart the Cheeseboard in Berkeley, so when Steve from the Cheeseboard told me to visit Volpetti on my trip to Rome, I knew I had to go.  It did not disappoint.  Mmmmmmm.  We went to a LOT of cheese shops during our trip and Volpetti was by far the best.  Just like at the Cheeseboard, they are happy to let you try lots of different types of cheeses and give you recommendations.

My favorites were the gorgonzola and the hard goat cheese.

Volpetti also has bread, meat products (salami, prosciutto, etc), and prepared food.  The arancini were really delicious and the roman artichokes looked great, though regrettably (and a great source of FOMA later that day) I did not try the artichokes at Volpetti.

Gelato, gelato, gelato

We certainly didn’t lack options for trying gelato since there are more gelato shops in Italy than there are Starbucks in the US.  Our favorite in Rome was Il Gelato di San Crispino.  Their ingredients were super fresh and their strawberry gelato was delicious.  To put that in context, I don’t really like strawberry ice cream, but my partner is partial to both strawberry ice cream and gelato and fortunately, this led to my discovery that strawberry gelato is far superior to strawberry ice cream.  The meringue-based hazelnut at San Crispino was also delicious, but if I had to pick one flavor (thankfully, I did not have to pick just one!), I’d go with the strawberry.  Mmmmmm.

While we were waiting for Volpetti to open, we tried the gelato place just a few doors down.  I can’t remember the name, but the banana gelato was amazing.  It tasted just like … well … bananas!  My friend who is not usually into banana flavored treats was so impressed that at our second of three gelato stops that day, got her own banana gelato 🙂

Gelateria del Teatro (Via di San Simone, 70) has a really weird vibe.  They play techno music and have a constantly looping video of people making gelato that is more sterile than drool inducing.  There is one young guy who is super nice and an older, grumpy guy that doesn’t seem to notice that he works around a delicious food product all day!  The gelato, though, is pretty tasty!  This is the place to go if you’re interested in trying interesting flavors like white chocolate basil, ricotta fig with almond, and  sage and raspberry.  We also tried their pear, kiwi, almond, and pistachio (there were four of us!) and were less impressed.  I’d say try this place out if you are into unusual combinations, but if you’re looking for the more common flavors, San Crispino is the place to go.

Giolitti is famous for its gelato, super touristy, and in my opinion overrated.  I was unimpressed with the service and most importantly, their gelato tasted like gelato you could get in the US.

Though not gelato, if you like coffee, you must go to Caffe Tazza D’oro and have an espresso granita.  Service isn’t great, an unfortunate and common ramification of being a popular cafe in a touristy location, but the granita is delicious.  There is just a small scoop of granita sandwiched between two huge globs of fresh, unsweetened whipped cream.  I could have used a higher granita/whipped cream ratio, but you do need the creaminess of the whipped cream to counter the super strong, delicious espresso granita.  This is no joke, try it!

Bakeries

Even though I don’t frequent many bakeries in the US, FOMA required me to visit two or three bakeries in every city we went to in Italy.  One of my favorites was Biscottificio Innocenti, a small, unpretentious, untouristy shop in Trastevere (Via della Lucce, 21a).

Their brutti ma buoni (literally translated “ugly, but good”) cookie was so good that we bought a few, gobbled them up as we stepped outside, looked at each other, and wordlessly went back inside to buy more!  They were so fresh and magical.  These cookies are definitely worth a trip to Biscottificio Innocenti when you’re in Rome.

My partner was partial to the marzipan cookies that were dipped in chocolate.

Miscellaneous Food

Since we were lucky enough to be in Rome during artichoke season, we tried the two most famous preparations in the Jewish quarter: carciofo romanesco alla giudia (“Jewish style”) and carciofi alla romana (“Roman style”).  The carciofo romanesco alla giudia is deep fried whole until the outer leaves become so crispy that they taste like artichoke potato chips.

The carciofi alla romana is trimmed and then braised with olive oil, garlic, and herbs.  Both were very delicious.

I’ll give an honorable mention to Enoteca Vini e Buffet (Vicolo della Torretta, 60) near the Spanish Steps.  This simple spot is an oasis in a very touristy location.  My friend’s partner is a wine connoisseur and he seemed pleased with the options.  The mushroom pate was delicious and everything else was tasty, but nothing all that memorable.

So that’s it for Rome.  Stay tuned for food reports from Umbria, Tuscany, and Emilia Romagna.