Traveling from the red city of Bologna to the gray city of Florence marked the transition from the Emilia-Romagna region into Tuscany. Florence and Siena, my two stops in Tuscany, were by far the most scenic, and were home to the most beautiful works of art.
In Florence, after a full day of walking through galleries and visiting the David, my stomach demanded sustenance. Luckily, there was a nearby panini shop, All’Antico Vinaio, that had a never-ending line out the door. The enigmatic guys behind the counter made ordering a panino easy – either you told them what you wanted, or they surprised you with a combination of meats, cheeses, and veggies that melded so perfectly together you could say they were the Michaelangelo of sandwiches. I can’t even tell you what the specific ingredients were in my panino, but I do know there was a hefty amount of pecorino cream on each piece of freshly baked rustic focaccia. It was divine.
In addition to art, Florence has some great shopping opportunities – not only are there many high-end boutiques around every corner, but the street vendors selling leather bags and scarves of every color, fabric, and pattern are rampant. At the San Lorenzo Mercato Centrale, street vendors span for blocks outside of the indoor food market. Inside, fresh fruits, meats, cheeses, and handmade pastas span as far as the eye can see. The San Lorenzo Mercato has a second level, which is a relatively new addition featuring at least 15 dining options in a food-court setting, so you can get pasta or pizza or a burger – or all three if you just can’t decide. They even have a cooking school and a mini-Eataly retail store. Basically, everything you could ever want to eat is in this one convenient location.
Another great market was the Mercato di Sant’Ambrogio, though it was smaller and less popular among tourists. This market was home to Trattoria da Rocco, a casual eatery smack-dab in the middle of the indoor market serving quick and cheap Italian meals done right. Their spaghetti alla carretierra (meaning “car driver spaghetti” – garlic, red pepper, and tomato sauce) was simple and delicious – and the self-serve wine was more than welcome.
And in the heart of Florence, a modern coffee shop stole my heart: Ditta Artigianale. They serve delicious cold brew coffee and espresso, along with an original breakfast and lunch menu. This place was a hipster’s paradise.
Next stop: the tiny city of Siena. While only there for less than 24 hours, Siena managed to lure me in with its rolling hills, impossibly steep cobblestoned streets, and small-town feel. And its church was more awe-inspiring than any that I had seen so far.
The white pizza at Pizzeria di Nonno Mede (below) was done just right, and next door at Il Campaccio Food and Wine (not pictured) I tasted my first Tuscan pappardelle with wild boar sauce. Il Campaccio’s dessert, “un bacio” (or “kiss” – a chooclate-enrobed frozen ice cream with a pointed tip) was the ideal sweet ending to any meal.
Ah, Roma. This city was full of culinary surprises. Going in, I knew I wanted to eat my fill of all the classic Roman pasta dishes. Roman food is characterized by “la cucina povera”, or peasant cooking: simple, affordable dishes that celebrate each of the ingredients rather than letting them get lost in a sea of flavors.
A prime example is cacio e pepe, a pasta dish with pecorino cheese and black pepper. At Flavio Al Velavevodetto (say that 5 times fast, I dare ya), I also tried spaghetti alla gricia, essentially the love-child of cacio e pepe and carbonara, with pecorino, guanciale, and black pepper. Their tiramisu was also uber rich and one of the best I’ve ever tasted.
To keep cool after a full day of roaming around ancient ruins under a hot mediterranean sun, I would stop at one of the many drinking fountains around the city, called “nasoni” (literally: big noses). But when their ice cold water couldn’t even keep me going, I would get a granita di caffe. This sweetened iced-coffee slush with generous amounts of whipped cream is THE way to get a caffeine fix when you feel like your skin is melting off.
Of course, there is so much more to Rome than I could ever discover on my own. So I took a food tour with Eating Italy and got an inside look at the local food in Trastevere, the working class neighborhood across the river from the center of Rome. It was thanks to my tour guide Bethany that I really fell in love with the rustic simplicity of Roman food.
On our first stop, I Suppli, we were introduced to their namesake: risotto balls filled with tomato sauce and cheese, similar to Sicilian arancini. These suppli were fried to perfection and oozing with melted cheese (so naturally, it was love at first bite). They’re actually sometimes called suppli al telefono because of the way the melted cheese becomes a string when it is pulled apart, like the telephone cords of yore.
Another Roman specialty was the pizza rossa. While it was essentially pizza with nothing but sauce on it, this sauce was delicately flavored with oregano and basil. Surprisingly, I didn’t even miss the cheese.
Our next stop was La Norcineria, a small butcher shop specializing in porchetta. Porchetta is slow roasted boneless pork that’s salted and stuffed with garlic and herbs, and at Norcineria, they prepare their own and send it out daily to be cooked in traditional wood-burning ovens in a nearby village. We snacked on slices of porchetta with a piece of crispy pork fat atop a some pizza bianco. Served with a cold beer, this was what dreams are made of.
A quick trip to Piazza di San Cosimato to visit the markets and get some fresh prosciutto and melon, and then it was time for lunch at Enoteca Ferrara. Which meant mountains of pasta and way too much wine.
Finally, the tour ended with bignè from Pasticceria Trastevere and some delicious coffee. Bignè are cream puffs filled with zabaglione cream, and were the perfect accompaniment to a small coffee. I ordered my coffee with some cremina di caffe, which is a thick paste made by whipping sugar into coffee, that manages to be creamy sans any cream. (Pro-tip: cappuccinos are not to be ordered after 11am, because Italians believe all that milk is bad for digestion. If you dare to order one after lunch, you are a brave soul.)
At Bethany’s recommendation, I went to dinner at Trattoria der Pallaro, an out-of-the-way restaurant with no menu – if you sit down, you have to be prepared for a four course meal of their choosing. The owner and cook is Momma Paola, an 80-year-old woman who I spotted hard at work in the tiny kitchen. So much respect for that woman. And not only did you feel like part of the family, but the food was authentic and delicious.
On my last night in Rome, I finally ordered my favorite dish: spaghetti carbonara. Spaghetti alla carbonara is made with guanciale (pork cheek), egg, pecorino cheese, and pepper – no cream. At Roscioli, the carbonara was the perfect balance of salty, smoky, and creamy. It was one of those dishes that I never wanted to stop eating. And their tiramisu? Unequivocally the best I have ever tasted – the mascarpone alone was so dreamy I wondered what planet their cows came from.
I hope you’ve enjoyed my culinary adventures. And if you’re wondering about the suspicious lack of gelato in any of these posts, it’s not because I didn’t indulge. So keep your eyes peeled, because a gelato round-up is coming very soon!