ribollita in Florence: Tuscan peasant bread, bean and garden vegetable soup

La Ribollita…this dish has been haunting me the last few months as I have been trying in every way to understand it. Before I get too wordy, let me explain what Ribollita is for those who may not know.

Ri-Bollita literally means -re-boiled. I want to cry in hysteria every time I see a poorly translated English menu’ boasting “re-boiled bread soup.” It is almost impossible to translate this dish while making it sound appetizing to the foreign masses. In Tuscan cuisine, which I harp on quite often, is based on peasant eating and not leaving any scrap behind. Tuscan bread is made without salt, for a slew of historical legends (feuds between port towns, high salt taxes, etc) and as a result it goes stale quicker than salted bread. In order to not toss out unused bread, it was then re-purposed to many iconic dishes we eat today such as Panzanella. Leftover bread gets cooked with what seems like the kitchen sink: carrots, beans, onions, garlic, a bit of tomato, kale, beans, cabbage, more greens, etc. All things found easily in the Tuscan garden. This is a poor dish that packs a caloric punch, another requirement for la cucina povera (poor cuisine). Years later after being at what seemed rock bottom, Tuscans still eat saltless bread and fiber rich peasant foods as an ode to tradition and in my opinion, it serves us as a humble reminder of a scarce past. Something that Americans can only relate to with canned, pre-made foods which are oddly enjoyed willingly.

I wanted to understand this dish, I wanted to see who made it and who did it well. I almost felt it my duty as someone who does foodie tours to get to the bottom of this soup, so iconic to Tuscany’s culinary identity. In the middle of my search, I decided to make it myself.Β  During the whole process, I sneakily brought it up in conversations with fellow foodie colleagues, trusted farmers and chefs to understand their thoughts on the matter. It may sound extremely dorky to be so engulfed with just one singular dish, but la ribollita has a legacy that deserves to be understood.

I was surprised to realize that even some of the chefs I most admire hadn’t yet attempted to make la ribollita. They gave me general tips from their culinary knowledge vault, but could only recommend published recipes. The entire process left me feeling humbled as a young American woman, in a place where young foreign women are held under high scrutiny, closely examined under a microscope in the culinary wine world. If anything, to any of my critics, I could at least say making la ribollita was under my belt.

The main concepts I obtained from making la ribollita is how detached we are from home cooking. How detached we are from the journey itself. And how isolated we are in cities where we live among thousands and dine in the direct company with few.Β  I spent the whole day working on this dish, not to mention all the time I spent talking to people, learning little tricks and secrets. From shopping for the freshest, local ingredients from only one or 2 farmers I completely trust to circling around the market, looking for leftover rinds from Prosciutto. The dish takes several steps, involving special care.

Ribollita cooking tips I found useful:

* When cooking the white beans, don’t cook on boiling heat. They should cook gradually over a steady simmer rather than a heated boil. Otherwise, the beans will blister, wrinkle and shrivel.

* The bread should be thinly sliced. Which is hard for day-old bread. Perhaps buy fresh bread, slice in advance and leave to go stale.

* If you think you’ve added too much water to the vegetable base, it will simmer away. It will get absorbed by the beans and veggies. Use the water that was used to cook the beans.

* The water you use to cook the beans, can be enhanced by a whole clove or 2 of garlic.

* Once you’ve added the liquid (which was used to cook the beans) to the vegetable base, you can enhance the flavor without using stock. For more umami flavor, chuck in prosciutto skins that normally get tossed out from delis once it’s been all sliced up. Your local deli should know what this is or if you are in Italy, it is called “la cotenna.”

* For even more umami, chuck in leftover parmigiano cheese rinds, or any aged cheese rinds for that matter.

* There is no real set time for how long you should simmer your soup, this is where North Americans get obsessed. “How long, and how much” is commonly asked. Everything is intuition in the kitchen and paying close attention to signs, and of course tasting along the way. For example, the “eye” of carrot medallions should fade away when it gets closer to being ready.

Even when the first phase of making la ribollita is over, it is simply a Minestra di Pane and not yet a Ribollita. In order to become one, it should rest overnight and be brought to a boil again the next day, adding water if too dry.

 

Here are the results from having ate out. By the way- soups like these may just look like mush. In addition to la ribollita I made, I sampled it at the following places:

Caffe degli Artigiani- Forgettable. Too much oil, too much tomato and made haphazardly. Then again, it was my fault for ordering a peasant soup in a caffe’ which has a better reputation for baked goods. I decided to include an example of what ribollita shouldn’t be and look like, in order to help diners discern the good from the mediocre.

Da Nerbone- One of my favorite greasy spoon, cheap eats spots in Florence. Pretty good and dependable. Not mind-blowing but solid. If you are in the San Lorenzo market- please eat at Nerbone. I love those guys. Disclaimer: I take people there during food tours so I am slightly biased.

at Sergio Gozzi

Trattoria Sergio Gozzi- Another favorite historical trattoria of mine (which has been around for 100 years- folks!) For being a rather large sit-down eatery, it offers mom & pop style Tuscan fare and reasonable prices. I would say their Ribollita came in 2nd place for me.

Trattoria Cibreo’-Cibreino- Not the outrageously expensive restaurant next door, but the modest Trattoria on the side where you can get pretty much the same food and service for a fraction of the price. I understand expensive restaurants, but not for poor Tuscan food like bread soup. It was pretty decent but it wasn’t something I’d order again. Cibreo is best for super gourmet, in-depth experimental twists on regional Italian food.

Vini e Vecchi Sapori- Well well well…I think we have found a winner. The soup here was to my pleasure the best for moisture level, bits of breads, savory base, perfect amount of oil, umami heaven, down to every last morsel. I could have eaten that stuff for days.

Although I ran out of places to try it, especially now that we are in Spring and La Ribollita is a winter soup, I would say for now my search for the best ribollita ended at Vini e Vecchi Sapori. I seriously love this place. It is located smack dab in the center, the service is spot on and the food is always dependable. Like their saffron and zucchini flower paccheri pasta- swoon! I am so glad places like Vini e Vecchi Sapori still exist. Let’s hope they don’t raise their prices and become a tourist trap.

If you’d like to know the recipe I used, check out this cook book. (Unfortunately only in Italian, if you’d like a translated version, contact me!)

http://www.giunti.it/libri/cucina/il-grande-libro-della-vera-cucina-toscana/%5B/caption%5D

In constant search for the best,

The Curious Appetite

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3 Comments on In search for the best ribollita in Florence

  1. GirlinFlorence
    April 24, 2015 at 3:08 am (2 years ago)

    Fabulous post Coral, I know how hard you worked on this ribollita when you called me desperate to find people to eat all of the leftovers, how much did you make again? I really appreciate the effort you went into researching this, and I was surprised to that so many chefs have never tried it. Perhaps because it isn’t ‘special’ enough? I really like the one at Vini e Vecchi Sapore, I am planning on taking Nico’s family there when they come in town. Thanks for the tips, I will definitely save this post for future home-cooking endeavors!

    Reply
  2. Cristina
    April 28, 2015 at 8:37 am (2 years ago)

    A Florentine took me to Trattoria 4 Leoni in February and I had their ribollita and thought it was fantastic. Put that on your list to try when it’s cool again! It was a cozy place with nice food and no tourists (except in our party).

    Reply
    • Curious Appetite
      April 29, 2015 at 2:18 am (2 years ago)

      Hi Cristina! I’ll have to try it- I’ve been weary of 4 Leoni because it seems very overpriced- but if you suggest it, I will give it a go!

      Reply

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