The availability of ethnic food in even the most international cities like Florence can prove to be a challenge.
Don’t give me that “oh there’s everything in Florence” bit…there is ONE of everything! ONE good Indian restaurant ONE decent Japanese noodle joint..ONE!!!! And, where is the good Mexican food?! With all of the Americans in Florence, Tijuana is as much of a disgrace to Mexican food as Tijuana is to Mexico.
The fact is, the restaurant scene in Florence is very Italian (Tuscan, moreover) centric. Salami boards…the trusty pecorino cheeses, crostini, rustic vegetable and bean soups, roast meats and potatoes, fancy tagliatelle pastas…wild game stews…As amazing as all this is, it starts to become routine after having it every single day. What’s the menu usually like, you ask? Starter of cold cuts, fried bread, cheese…maybe some “edgy” veggie starter like fried eggplant polpette then a pasta and if you’re lucky, a braised or grilled meat. but it’s basically all Italian and all pretty predictable.
Not to mention, most of the stuff you can get at the markets and re-create quite simply (i.e. charcuterie boards, pasta and crostini- no effort). Okay, I get it- it is the best food in the world bla bla bla…but Italian food is a result of several other cultures and sometimes it’s nice to pay gastronomic homage to someone else once in a while.
To prove the local apprehension towards anything not Tuscan, I asked a group of Pratesi for eating advice- they must be able to find great Chinese food since Prato has a giant Chinese population and they were like “noooo noi non mangeremmo mai cinese!!!”
I think this defensiveness towards culinary integration (and immigrant integration for that matter) is slowly changing. I see a lot of Italians showing curiosity for Asian food, international cuisine including Lebanese food as I recently experienced on a lunch visit to Valle dei Cedri in the Santa Croce district.
I picked Valle dei Cedri out of a need for something different and simply because I had passed this place so many times and always said I’d go and never had. General life tip: Try something new, do something you’ve been saying you’ve been wanting to do. Even if it’s as simple as trying a new restaurant.
Suggestion: Order the mixed plate. The sandwich option is decent as well, but not as fun. Reason: The mixed plate has like 8 things on it and feels like a mini-amusement park of flavors. I don’t remember them all (I know, slacker) but it involved the following:
Fatayer- a super crispy phyllo-dough wrapped pastry stuffed with spinach and brimming with traditional Lebanese spices like cardamom, cumin and paprika. Drool….
Rikakat- a sort of savory pastry (like a mini-calzone) filled with lebanese cheese and spiced with parsley, mint and Lebanese spices.
Kebbeh- A very delicious meatball of beef and bulgur (very hearty, wheat groats) that almost seems a little dry but in a good way. Meaning, meatballs are usually fatty and juicy, whereas these meatballs seem like they are made with very fine ground meat and rolled around in fresh spices, bulgur and formed very tightly and then baked. So you bite into a world of exotic spices, textures smells and savory delight.
Then of course, there was a bit of falafel, baba ganoush (a garlic and herbs roasted eggplant dip- amazing!) and hummus. I really really was a huge fan of their eggplant baba ganoush. Ironically, it was probably because they are using Italian grown produce which makes a huge difference from the Lebanese food I’ve had back in Seattle. You indeed, cannot beat Italian agriculture and it’s amazing produce as it comes from some of the best soil (and weather) on earth.
Then the desserts! Honey and butter drenched Baklava, Nammura (a coconut and semolina sweet delight soaked in a honey, rose and citrus syrup called Kater) and Shaibieh which is a sort of noodle dessert laced with a thick custardy pastry cream and dressed in Kater syrup.
I’ve realized something about myself during this small little trip. I rarely go back to the same restaurant twice UNLESS it really really rocks. Bars, yes. If I find a good barman to make a mean Negroni, you’re damn right I’ll be back.
But after looking at the menù again, I think I will have to come back to Valle dei Cedri in Florence and next time it should be for dinner on a weekend. Apparently they have live belly dancing on Fridays and Saturdays. Amazing.
Yours in exotic foodlust,