|Beauties and the beast.|
Our first jaunt through the country shaped like a boot was to begin with a short stay in Florence and then a weekend in the minuscule mountaintop village of San Miniato, home to Pepenero, where Julia had worked, and host to the (be still, my beating heart) San Miniato Truffle Festival. Though lesser known than the famous Alba Truffles, San Miniato Truffles are no less delicious, and no less prized among those who know them. The festival draws upwards of 80,000 visitors to the tiny town over its three weekends, and though Julia’s nostalgia was a big part of the pull for our return, I'd be lying if I said that truffles weren't the main draw.
We flew into Florence, landing after dark and hailing a cab to our hotel, which sat outside the city on the banks of the Arno. Tired from a long day of travel, we took advantage of the hotel's spa facilities and decided to stay in for dinner. Despite (or perhaps due to) a minimally populated dining room, we were welcomed warmly and escorted to a table. It didn't take long to scout the menu, our hunger (both literal and metaphorical) for feel-good Italian food dictating our choices. The wine list was another brief perusal as we quickly encountered a reasonably priced bottle of Montepulciano, our favorite Tuscan varietal. Clinking glasses of voluptuous, violet elixir, we toasted our arrival to Italy and settled in.
|Perfect for snuggling!|
|Take a ride on the chew-chew train...|
The Branzino we enjoyed next was superb, bearing an Italian soul: oregano flecked its delicate filets and the plate was sprinkled with a handful of capers and gently roasted cherry tomatoes. Though Italy tends to serve a fish like Branzino whole, in all its glory, the filets were a welcome surprise for me (I'm admittedly not so good with pin-bones), and their clean flavor and simple accents nourished our souls along with our bellies. Who knew a piece of fish, uncomplicated and minimally embellished, could make a person so happy? Tiramisu closed the meal, its cookies and mascarpone cream prepared traditionally and served in a bar glass. Everything about the dessert was delightful, from its intoxicating amaretto flavor, to the attractive cross-section of lady-fingers and custard carved out by our spoons.
A shuttle took us into the city the next morning. We were in Florence for but a day, with much to accomplish: Julia was on a mission for a pair of boots and a purse for her sister, I needed a new wallet, and we had plans to meet friends for lunch. Not to mention the most important mission of all: finding the sandwich that first introduced Julia to the wondrous, magnificent, more-perfect-than-heaven creation known as porchetta (see my first post on this glorious food if you're unfamiliar). Though breakfast at the hotel had been ample, this infamous porchetta sandwich was the absolute highlight of Florence as far as we were concerned, and it would make a perfect second breakfast (to borrow a hobbit's term), nestled between (first) breakfast and lunch.
Julia remembered that the sandwich lay within a large indoor market beside Florence's leather district, a perfect location in light of our aforementioned errands. Thanks to her ever-impressive sense of memory-based direction (it had been over five years since her last visit), my wife lead us through the city, instinctively weaving her way through its tangle of streets, until we found ourselves facing a long, tapered path between innumerable stalls stocking all things leather. Doing our best to play it cool among the vendors that thrust their goods in our faces, we walked among the stalls until I spotted a wallet that suited my tastes; a few moments and some minor haggling, and it was mine. After a quick transfer of credit cards and other assorted contents, I tossed its predecessor in a nearby trash bin. It was time for porchetta.
The market was right where Julia had remembered it, and we climbed its steps excitedly. Upon entering, it became clear that we'd need to take at least one lap to survey and admire its myriad booths, stalls, and counters, a veritable foodie heaven. There was nothing one might want to cook or eat that couldn't be found in this market: staples like bread, meat, and produce were displayed from corner to corner in all their fresh, vibrant glory, baskets and bins comprised of every variety and varietal Italy could offer. But beyond the standard market items the average shopper might hope to procure were harder-to-come-by specialties that got me as giddy as a kid on Christmas morning. Most unexpected and awesome was the "Triperia," a booth selling nothing but offals and only the oddest animal parts. I stood in front of the captivating landscape of creature features for several minutes, taking it all in: pig and chicken feet, liver and kidneys from all walks of life, stomachs, ears, testicles, and other items unidentifiable. It was a chef's playground, and I only wished we had a few days and a kitchen at our disposal: the fun we would have had!
|Snap, crackle, pork!|
We walked around Florence a bit more, scouring storefronts and window displays for the remaining items on Julia's purchase agenda, without success as of yet. Eventually it became time to head toward our lunch destination, an out of the way trattoria on the other side of the river that Julia had scouted. It was there we were meeting up with Lindsey, another friend of Julia's from her Torino days, and Lindsey's husband, Albert, plus their new baby. Having gone weeks without conversing in English with anyone but each other, we looked forward to the change of pace, and to the social prospect of a communal meal. When all were present and accounted for and warm salutations had been exchanged, we gathered around a cozy table in the corner and Julia went to work, ordering for us all. Having personally lead the charge through Spain, I was happy to sit shotgun in Italy, letting my better half speak the language and take the lead.
As conversation and house wine flowed around the table, the food began to arrive. Plates and spoons clinked and clattered as they worked their way from hand to hand, orchestrating a noisy, delightfully messy ballet. There was pici (an eggless Tuscan pasta like spaghetti, but thicker) in tomato sauce, piled high and generously punctuated by sizable chunks of garlic. The sensation of slurping the fat, chewy noodles was wholly satisfying, in spite of the unavoidable spatter of tomato sauce that ended up around your nose and lips. Half a chicken, seasoned simply, was pulled apart in true family style, reducing its plate to a sparse pile of bones. Roasted potatoes accompanied the bird, uncomplicated, hearty, and tasty, while separate plates of artichokes, fennel, and arugula with shaved Parmigiano Reggiano were combined into a salad and doused liberally with vibrant, piquant olive oil and balsamic vinegar.
|Sharing the love.|
For a little extra comfort, a bowl Tuscan Ribolita with its pleasantly thick, bready texture and dark, leafy greens, that tasted as homemade as anything I've ever eaten in a restaurant. But for me, the true star of the table was the Trippa alla Fiorentina (tripe, Florence style), another shining example of transcendence achieved through otherwise common ingredients. One would not expect much from cow stomach, a handful of herbs, some chicken broth, and a few vegetables; yet when put together by the right hands, and with the right technique, the result can taste like a bowl full of love. With a texture all its own (think succulent, cooked chicken skin) and flavors that come straight from grandma's kitchen, tripe done right is a beautiful thing. I gobbled up the pile in front of me and shamelessly went back for more until the plate was clean.
After lunch we found some gelato (which is never not delicious), and strolled around the city a bit more, working off our meal and perusing souvenirs to take home to friends and family. When it was time to bid goodbye to our new friends, Julia and I continued the search for her boots, ultimately finding them mere minutes before our shuttle arrived to take us back to the hotel. After a little downtime in the room, we returned to the hotel restaurant for dinner, our sights set on another Tuscan classic: Bistecca Fiorentina, the T-bone steak of jaw-dropping proportions.
|T is for 'tasty.'|
The steak was all we’d hoped it would be: flavorful, tender, and just bloody enough. As I look back on the process of eating it, I can’t help but recall John Candy in The Great Outdoors, taking down “The Old 96er.” And while our chop wasn’t quite the monster John’s was, my romantic mind will always think fondly on it as equally sizeable. The grilled vegetables that accompanied did so aptly, the radicchio being particularly memorable: a far cry from the tongue-stinging chicories I have come to expect in the states, it was pleasant, its flavor actually existing beyond simply ‘bitter.’ Better stated, its flavor actually existed.
We passed on dessert, as the steak had been more than enough to leave us full. To our surprise, however, the chef sent out a small plate of biscotti and a glass of Vin Santo into which to dip them. We turned our heads toward the kitchen and saw him smiling; he acknowledged us, watching with obvious pleasure as we enjoyed his gift. On our way out of the restaurant we stopped to thank him, and after a bit of conversation that eventually revealed our profession, he invited us into the kitchen for a look. We marveled at its cleanliness and delighted in poking around an environment familiar, yet foreign, talking shop with the soft spoken but gregarious chef. In our element, we were reminded of the wonderful connections that flourish among cooks and within kitchens, capable of traversing language barriers and international boundaries. Our new friend bid us goodnight and safe travels with classic Italian effusiveness, and we retired for another night of satiated sleep.
The following morning, our excitement was palpable. Julia was feeling butterflies as we prepared to return to San Miniato, a place and time in her life that had affected her deeply, both as a chef, in skill and technique, and as a human, in self-reliance. I was experiencing similar emotions, though my thoughts were focused on one thing and one thing only: truffles. The very idea that we might be able to purchase and cook with white truffles, was almost too incredible to be true. Though I had certainly eaten my share in restaurants, and gotten my hands on plenty while working, I had certainly never called any my own, due to both their rarity and their typically exorbitant cost.
Case in point: I remember one Thanksgiving, shopping at a gourmet grocery store in Maryland that happened to be selling a very limited supply of truffles, at the literally unbelievable price of $10.99 a pound. I could barely contain my excitement: truffles for Thanksgiving, what a treat! “How is it possible,” I asked the clerk, “that they’re so inexpensive?” He looked puzzled for a moment, then realization dawned on him and he started belly-laughing. Apparently, I had misread their price, fabricating a decimal point in my mind out of sheer (and silly) hope. The actual price of the truffles was $1,099 a pound.
We arrived to our ‘agriturismo’ a bit distressed, as the rain continued to fall, that its proprietor was nowhere to be found. After a bit of minor fretting, Julia performed some light breaking and entering, found a phone, and eventually procured his arrival. A few hours and a couple of showers later and we were right as rain (yes, pun intended), refreshed and ready for dinner. A short cab ride later, we had arrived at Pepenero.
Everything looked just as we remembered it, and after being seated at our table, we headed to the kitchen to say hello to Gioberto and Salvatore, chef and sous-chef, respectively, and Julia’s former mentors. They embraced us like family, chattering excitedly about our return and the meal to come. I was able to pick up bits and pieces of their colloquial Italian, and Julia filled in the blanks when necessary. As food orders started to come in, they offered more hugs and wished us “Buon Apetito.” It was time to eat.
First up was the amuse bouche: creamy, dreamy leek soup beside a black sesame puff pastry. The soup warmed our insides, obliterating the rain outside from our memories and pressing reset on the day. It never ceases to amaze me how wonderful a good soup can make you feel (even an amuse-sized portion), and I wondered if the rain had inspired the chef’s choice, or if it was just fortunate circumstance. Either way, we were content as could be, the stage set for the meal to follow.
|Enough is never enough.|
My calamari was no slouch, oozing liquid mozzarella all over the place that mingled with a delicate broccoli puree. But if I’m being honest, it didn’t hold a candle to Julia’s truffle-laden beef. She admitted to knowing exactly what to order, having worked at Pepenero during the season and remembering the majority of the restaurant’s go-to items. Considering our unspoken restaurant rule against ordering the same dish in any given course, I had a feeling I was in store to feel more jealousy than just my present portion.
|"On top of spaghettiiiii…"|
|And to think: a pig found these.|
|Doesn't it look like the best candy bar ever?|
Though we had little room for dessert, we knew we weren’t likely to make it back to Pepenero until an essentially diabetic age, so we made a selection that involved mascarpone and amaretto crust. As the plate was set before us, it resembled a cheesecake topped with one precious gooseberry. On bringing first bites to our lips, however, we could think of no better way to describe it than a deconstructed cannoli. Creamy mixed with crumby, sweet with nuances of punchy tang, it disappeared far faster than we expected it to. As we waited for our taxi, we shared a glass of Vin Santo before returning to the kitchen to thank and bid farewell to Gioberto and Salvatore, promising to stop by the following day when we returned to San Miniato for the truffle festival.
|Imagine our surprise when a tiny comet landed on our dessert!|
|Schiacciata: hard to spell, easy to eat.|
|I'm calling it 'Tuscan Toothpaste.'|
|Enough truffles to feed an army; a very, very fancy army.|
|Just another day at the market...|
For the rest of the afternoon, we lazed about our cozy apartment, depleting a magnum of Chianti Riserva (courtesy of Gioberto), and snacking on pickled garlic and meaty Castelvetrano olives. With an arsenal of Q-tips, I painstakingly cleaned every nook and cranny of the truffle, transforming its surface from mottled gray and brown to pristine beige, the hue of bone beside candlelight in a painted still-life. Never in my life had I reveled so in the minutiae of preparing a foodstuff, taking nothing for granted amidst the gift of its experience. It’s not every day you get to clean your very own white truffle.
|When clean foods give you dirty thoughts...|
|In Italy, this is a small serving of pasta.|
By late morning the following day, we were back at the train station, our suitcases considerably heavier from the spoils of the Truffle Festival. San Miniato had provided an exceptional (and aromatic) stay, one that I would think on fondly for a very long time. But it was time to say goodbye to Tuscany and head south, my mind already swimming with thoughts of gooey, melted cheese pooled inside a char-flecked crust. We were off to Naples, the birthplace of pizza!
It was to be my Graceland.