Curious Appetite

Florence

Eating cheap, discriminately and extremely Tuscan in Florence

I take eating very seriously. It’s my job- fer chrissake! When I originally started this food blog, it was intended for detailing restaurant experiences. And I kind of took a detour with bits of travel notes and cultural reflections, but my true passion in blogging still lies within writing in a sort of food critic-y voice.

If you gave me an unlimited dining expense account, I would probably be like a kid in a candy store. Everyone goes out to restaurants and has their own selection process. I have my own which can become a job of its own. It needs to have the following ingredients: character, location, a good SMELL and a menù that incites curiosity and passion.

There are so many garbage restaurants in Florence, so many overpriced mediocre restaurants and so many overrated, over discovered restaurants that to me make it harder to find a restaurant that I am pleased with (at least in the city) than it is for me to eat back in Seattle. Okay, that is a high claim but it is very true. It’s so easy to get ripped off in Florence. But the type of restaurants that I am currently in love with are casalinga-style trattorias.

Casalinga is a very hard concept to translate but it literally means housewife. If a restaurant does cucina casalinga (housewife style cuisine) it’s kinda family, rustic style with absolutely no frills and no makeup. It is the grandma in the grubby kitchen with the family or just simple cooks whipping up greasy spoon Tuscan fare at very modest prices. It is blue-collar dining and it is the kind that warms my heart and reminds me why Italy is such a wickedly awesome place.

I really don’t go for the top name brand restaurants that have the most cutting edge modern Jackson Pollock style cuisine (dot on a plate- not food!). Okay, Michelin starred chefs really do have some skill and deserve their fame. But what to me these fancy, exclusive arm-and-a-leg priced restaurants lack is grit. They provide a very sterile experience in a stuffy, privileged atmosphere which you can get anywhere in the metropolitan world.

The illustrious hole-in-the-wall (such that of a cucina casalinga) is a true gem that you can only find off the beaten path. Granted, my idealization of casalinga restaurants aren’t super organic and presumptuously artisan, but they provide to me one of the cornerstones of the food movement that I think is utterly essential. And that is: good, fresh healthy food at fair prices which is accessible to everyone.

I very much disagree with the exclusivity of eating and dining. I think dining is a beautiful experience that everyone should have access to- regardless of socio-economic status. And this is why I loved these blue-collared, working class casalinga resto joints in Florence. In America, unless it is ethnic food, it is quite hard to find healthy, cheap food in a charismatic environment. There are things like diners, soup kitchens, delis, burger joints, etc but nothing…I mean NOTHING can compare to the sheer wholesomeness of a Tuscan hole-in-the-wall.

Recently I discovered 12€ Tuscan straccetti chicken in a luxurious cream sauce topped with aromatic fresh shaved truffles with rice pilaf at a restaurant I will not disclose because I do not want them to get over-discovered. However, if you want a name you can take the time to contact me and I will happily give that name to you.:)

creamy chicken truffle heaven

I also enjoyed a fresh personal burrata with an anchovy cream (which strangely is a great balance between extreme umami saltiness for the sweet creamy gooey burrata cheese). Burrata and truffles are basically 2 foods in life that have the ability to make me cry.

Burrata cheese- a mozzarella-like embodiment of heaven

At Trattoria Giorgio, a name I can disclose since they are already over discovered but still okay, I marveled at the fact they offer a full course meal for €14 euros to include a 1st (an ample selection of delicious, gut filling pastas) a second (albeit salty, yet savory meaty mains including sliced steak or crispy saucy rabbit leg) a veggie side like garlicky collard greens or Tuscan beans and this also includes a 1/4 liter of house wine, water and bread. The food wasn’t exquisite, but I quite enjoyed how we were all cramped inside, eating elbow to elbow, surrounded by cheesy imitation renaissance wall paintings (including very creepy looking babies with la madonna) eating on tiny tables with red checkered paper place-mats and the kitchen looking like a scene from some New York soup kitchen in the 80’s. Again, it’s an everyday blue collar joint that everyone can partake in.

 

I actually recently visited La Casalinga (THE casalinga resto in Santo Spirito with the family working their tushes off 6 days a week, hooting and hollering around the kitchen making cheap Tuscan fare for the tripadvisor masses) and I must say- I wasn’t that impressed. I felt they were a bit over-discovered, commercial and didn’t have much of a soul in respect to the last couple places I recently attended.

I distinctly remember going to the bathroom and noticing wrappers of grocery store mozzarella and while I know this is the sign of a casalinga, home-style resto, I just wasn’t impressed that a mozzarella plate was nearly €10 when at the Conad (where they bought the mozzarella) it cost them €1-2. Having ordered a slab of pork chops and a bruschetta board, I didn’t think it was that tasty, interesting or that remarkable in character, aside from the scenes in the kitchen of the family stewing away in aspirated Tuscan dialogue. However, it is still quite cheap as we got away with appetizers, a main, wine and dessert for €20 each. Just not my cup of tea.

I have a few more I have found off my curious path that I intend on trying and that I may share on my instagram feed but whose name I may not reveal in the romantic hope that they retain their charm and local vibe.

Until then, stay hungry and ever so curious- as they say: when in Rome!

p.s. don’t forget dessert- especially when it’s a flourless chocolate TORTA!

rich, thick chocolate love.

Curious Appetite

Unique flavors for any palate to discover in Florence

My life revolves around 3 things: Italy, food and hooch. Food being my first love, Italy second and Hooch the last but not least! I knew one day I would move to Italy but I didn’t have any clue I would have been this lucky. In a country as paradoxical as Italy, I somehow managed to make a way for myself without knowing anyone. In exactly what I wanted to be doing. Believe me, I took odd jobs, had my patience tested and I did whatever I needed to do to. So now that I’ve bored you all to tears with my Dr. Phil Opera book club ego stroke fest, I will tell you that I do plan on writing a book about this experience, it will include of course the token romantic scandal. Stay tuned!

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Finding ethnic food in Florence- Valle dei Cedri

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,

Curious Appetite

Best Tours for Fall in Italy

My 1st whole year in food & wine travel is coming to a full circle. So every season I learn about what tours are most popular- and most ideal.

The majority of tours I help with are food and wine related, although it happens when I plan an art tour or cultural sights tour (boring- can we just get to the food and booze already?). Friends used to ask me what were the best tours to take in Italy and I never knew how to respond. So I really love the work I do here because now I feel like I’m learning Italy inside and out.

People also ask when is the best time to come to Italy. In my opinion- it’s anytime! Italy is so festive so every month there is something rich and colorful happening no matter where you find yourself. Even August. It may be empty and hot, but you can explore the streets in a much more unique way in a month where most people are away at their beach house.

So Fall used to be my favorite season when I was a Seattleite, and now I have to say it’s Summer. Fall, however has much more to offer to travelers to Italy in terms of activities. Summer is hot and is good for beach bumming and prosecco spritz in the local, hidden squares of Venice. Fall is good for really learning about Italian traditions when it comes to food and wine. This is a period where harvesting takes place for things like wine grapes, olives, chestnuts and lovely fall produce like kale, persimmons, squashes, MUSHROOMS, white truffles and more.

So in honor of Fall in Italy, I’d like to give my readers some advice on the best tours to consider for any person interested in traveling in Italy:

White truffles found from a recent truffle hunt

Truffle Tours- I live in Tuscany so I can only speak personally for amazing truffle tours in Tuscany but I know that Piedmont is also king for Truffle Hunt tours and I most recently learned that Le Marche is home to truffles and there are truffle hunt tours there as well. The great part about truffle hunts is that you get to have a moment outside of the city and really connect with nature and well, food. You get to really see the 360 process from meeting the hunter and the dog and getting to eat some of the truffle you find out in the woods. It’s a super authentic experience (with the right travel planners, ahem.) especially because a good travel planner will book you in to lunch too at a restaurant in a small village that is completely off the beaten path and brings you food so good, you’ll want to cry. Like I do, everyday as an avid eater in Italy . 🙂

Sangiovese Grapes in Chianti Classico

Wine Tours- Regions to focus on: Barolo, Chianti Classico and Montalcino. Barolo is the king of Italian wines in my book as I much adore the Nebbiolo grape, and it so happens to be somewhat close to Alba where you can also attend the yearly truffle festival and take a truffle tour, too. Chianti Classico I recommend because it’s so damn pretty with so many colors painting the rolling countryside which you will enjoy even from the window of your vehicle. Montalcino is great because in October they have a wine festival called Montalcino D’Ottobre and the city transforms into a wine fair. The scenery here is simply breathtaking and gorgeous as it sits high up in the Tuscan hills and is a total paradise for food and wine lovers. Wine tours are great all year round, but in the Fall they are especially special because you might be able to taste grapes ripe off the vine, see the harvest and perhaps even attend one of the many harvest festivals that run about.

Taken from my Trek from Panzano to San Donato (Chianti)

Trekking Tours- Oh my god, I went on a trek recently through Chianti (Panzano to San Donato, to be exact) and it was one of the most beautiful experiences of my life. The weather is perfect, there are no mosquitos (the bane of my life) and it provides a much needed escape from the city buzzing and smog. Plus!!! All the Fall colors in the forests and wine fields was just simply incredible. I’ve decided- I need to do a trekking tour at least once a week to maintain my sanity (and to justify my wine and cheese habits;)

 

Gelato Tours Okay, so with the harvesting of chestnuts and persimmons- gelato gets REALLY good in Florence (where I live). I recently had a Marron Glace and it was omg amazing. So creamy, starchy, caramel-like, slightly bitter and just bursting with nutty fall flavors. Plus, in the summer gelato is like a heat-survival tool. In the Fall, the weather remains slightly warm during the day so your gelato doesn’t melt in like 3 seconds yet it is still very weather appropriate. I love how my favorite gelaterie add fall spices and wild herbs to their artisan concoctions.  On a gelato tour, you have the option to make your own gelato and tour the gelato kitchen! I can’t believe how cool my job is.

Fresh ravioli filled w seasonal ingredients!

Cooking Classes- I think it’s so great to take a cooking class in Italy especially in the fall when produce is so abundant and there are some cooking classes that combine market tours with the cooking classes. I highly recommend taking a cooking class in Venice and in Tuscany. Oh hell, actually anywhere. I love when a cooking class booking comes in, as I usually get to be the interpreter (and have an amazing lunch). But also, I get to cook with Americans for the day and it cures my homesickness! It’s super cool since they are obviously curious about Italian cuisine in a country that I love so much. The best of both worlds!

I’m sure there are more, but it would get too long to list them all!

If you are interested in learning more about food and wine tours in Italy, contact me.

Best wishes for your Fall adventure,

Curious Appetite

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