Florence: Day 27

Today was the coldest, windiest, rainiest day we have had yet in Florence. Our place was a mess and laundry needed to be done anyway, so it ended up simply being a productive day at home indoors. We had some leftover bread and the weather made me crave soup, so I took a stab at making zuppa di pane e pomodoro (tomato and bread soup). It was so simple and easy and turned out so delicious! I have no doubt this recipe will become a staple of mine, both while in Italy and after we return home.

Zuppa di Pane e Pomodoro (Tomato & Bread Soup)

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 cloves garlic, chopped
2 15 oz cans of whole Italian tomatoes
6 basil leaves, torn
2 cups chicken or vegetable broth
2 cups leftover bread, torn
salt and pepper to taste

Heat the oil in a saucepan over medium heat. Add the garlic and cook until soft and fragrant, about a minute. Add the tomatoes and crush with a wooden spoon. Add the basil and let simmer about 10 minutes. Add the broth and the bread, season to taste with salt and pepper, and let simmer to melt the bread, about another 10 minutes. Serve with toasted fresh bread and an extra drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.

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Florence: Day 26

When we left the train station returning from Lucca yesterday, we noticed a market being set up in front of the Basilica of Santa Maria Novella. So today we decided to head over and check it out. It seemed like a fun little food festival with local artisans and a few foreign constituents as well (Greek, German, etc). We bought some cheese and olives from a couple vendors, then decided to head to the Central Market of San Lorenzo for better prices. We shopped for ingredients for our Easter dinner. Easter is the second biggest holiday behind Christmas in Italy, so we expect most restaurants to be closed.

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Emily took a very long nap this afternoon and therefore was up a little later than usual, so this allowed Joe and I to finally participate in an early-evening Italian tradition: aperitivo. Italians eat dinner pretty late, long after we are settled at home and Emily is sleeping. Before dinner, they will sometimes go out around 6:00 or 7:00pm for aperitivo where bars will charge slightly higher prices for their drinks, but they set out a buffet of food for their customers to snack on (Italians generally aren’t trying to get drunk and don’t prefer to drink without some food). We went to a small bar near one of our favorite neighborhood squares. We tried two traditional Italian cocktails: a negroni (gin, vermouth rosso and Campari, an Italian bitters) and a spritz (prosecco, Aperol and sparkling water). I didn’t get a great picture of the buffet. Not shown were a pasta salad, potato salad and farro salad. It was a fun evening out! Everyone takes their drinks into the square to hang out. Emily enjoyed the snacks with us, as well as walking around the square and pointing at birds.

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Florence: Day 25

We finally took our first train ride out of the city! We caught the 9:10am train and headed west to Lucca, a beautiful, small medieval town that has its historic center circled by a wall. We got to Lucca at 10:30am and explored the town, climbed a couple towers, walked around the city wall and visited the botanical gardens. It was a perfect day!

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Before we left, we researched the restaurants in Lucca online and decided to go to Buca di Sant’Antonio, a restaurant that has been open since 1782. This lunch was the delicious, inspiring Italian meal I had been craving!

We started by splitting the ravioli di ricotta con zucchine filangee (ricotta ravioli sauteed in butter and zucchini). Even though the pasta was filled with cheese and sauteed in butter, the dish was very light. It was a great start to the meal.

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For our mains, we ordered the tortino di porri e ricotta in crosta su vellutata di ceci (ricotta cheese and leek pie with chick pea) and the fritto di costolette d’agnello, pollo e carciofi (deep fried cutlets of lamb, chicken and artichokes – it was marked on the menu as a typical local dish). The pie was rich, indulgent and delicious! And the fried lamb, chicken and artichokes were so flavorful! This combined with a half bottle of Chianti made for a perfect lunch.

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After lunch, we found a main square in the city with a carousel for Emily to ride and gelato for a treat. I was a little nervous to try a gelateria on a main city square (in Florence, that would mean it’s probably touristy and not the best gelato), but the gelato was creamy and delicious! We caught the 5:31pm train home and by the time we got back to Florence, we were all exhausted. It was a successful first trip!

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Florence: Day 24

I was in the mood for some food inspiration today, so we decided to try the last restaurant in the small square by our apartment, Ristorante Celestino.

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To start, we ordered the crostini misti di polenta fritta.  These were crostini using fried polenta cakes instead of bread.  There was one with a porcini mushroom topping, a tomato topping, a ragu topping and a traditional Tuscan chicken liver pate topping.  I really loved the idea of this starter, unfortunately the seasoning wasn’t quite right.  The polenta was bland as were the porcini and tomato toppings, but the ragu and pate were extremely salty.  Had the seasoning been balanced on each of these, they would have been outstanding.

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For our main course, we ordered crespelle di ricotta di bufala e spinaci freshi alla Fiorentina (Florentine style crepes stuffed with buffalo ricotta and spinach) and pesce fresco a porzione, grigliato e guarnito (grilled fresh fish of the day with a garnish, today it was dorado).  The crepes were also a little bland and in a very rich cream sauce.  The fish was a neat presentation.  They brought the fish out whole and then cleaned it table side before serving it as pictured below.  The fish was very good and flavorful.  I’m glad we tried this last restaurant in our neighborhood, but we won’t return.

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We didn’t have much for breakfast, and that lunch wasn’t a huge amount of food, so by late afternoon we were ready for a snack.  We decided to try a small wine bar we had discovered a few days earlier.  This place was great!  Extremely small and quiet, but the person working there took such care of the product and we could really tell.  Our glasses of wine were only €3 each, but he poured them into beautiful wine glasses and swirled the wine before bringing them to our table.  We ordered two bruschetta for a light snack.  It took him about ten minutes to prepare the simple bruschetta.  He freshly toasted the bread, he cut and seasoned the tomatoes, he arranged them beautifully on a plate with a garnish or arugula and olives.  I think it’s rare to find a place that would put that much time and care into a small plate of bruschetta that only cost €2.  And they were truly delicious!  Everything on that plate was so delicious and flavorful.  Even though it was very simple, it was so good!

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After this day of eating out, we kept dinner simple.  I picked up a couple involtini di pollo and some fava beans from the grocery store.  After shelling the fava beans, I cooked the chicken in a pan with extra virgin olive oil.  Once cooked, I removed the chicken and tossed the fava beans in the sauce that developed in the pan.  Simple and delicious!

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Florence: Day 23

Today was colder, windy and a little rainy and I’ve had planned activities the last couple of days, so today we decided to take it easy. Emily and I got out for gelato this afternoon and I can officially say – this is my favorite gelateria so far. It is called Gelateria della Passera and is right off a small square a couple blocks from our place that we have enjoyed hanging out in quite a few times. It seems to be an area where a lot of locals congregate. We had noticed the gelateria before, but the line is always so long. Today it was not, so I got to try it! The flavors they had available were very unique and I was feeling adventurous, so I got cioccolato e arancia (chocolate and orange) and Zabaione (egg yolks, sugar and marsala wine). Not only were the flavors unique and extremely delicious, the gelato just tasted of a higher quality. Not too sugary – the right balance of sweetness and richness. And the texture was so smooth! We will definitely be back.

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Again, because of the weather and the activities the last few days, I was craving some home-cooked food. I have been so inspired by all of the amazing soups we have had here and today felt like a great soup day. So I took inspiration from the zuppe di verdure we had the other day and made an at home version. I just went to the store and bought vegetables I thought looked good and threw them together in a pot with olive oil to saute for several minutes. I then had a little bit of my marinara sauce leftover which I added along with chicken broth and a can of beans. I let these simmer until the vegetables were soft, seasoned with salt and pepper to taste and then served. I drizzled each bowl with some extra virgin olive oil and topped with grated parmigiano reggiano cheese. I then made crostini using zucchini flowers. I have noticed zucchini flowers everywhere here. They are almost always attached to the zucchinis in the markets and even the regular grocery store. They are so rare to find in the United States! So I had to do something with them. I simply fried them in extra virgin olive oil and sprinkled with some salt and put them on toasted bread as an accompaniment to the soup. They were delicious!

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Florence: Day 22

Today I took my third cooking class.  My class started at 2:00pm, so Joe, Emily and I went out for lunch before I left them for the afternoon. We went back to the pizza place down the street from our apartment, La Delizie. It is just so good!

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We ordered the zuppa di pane e pomodoro (tomato and bread soup – a Tuscan staple) and a prosciutto and arugula pizza. The pizza was just as good as the others we have had there and the soup was extremely flavorful. Because zuppa di pane e pomodoro is a traditional Tuscan dish and we all enjoyed it so much, I plan to try making it at home soon.

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Today’s class was at Scuola di Arte Culinaria Cordon Bleu.  The theme of my cooking class today was South Italy cuisine and more specifically, it focused on Sicily. There were only three other students in the class.

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First, we made polpette di melanzane alla siciliana (eggplant fritters, Sicilian style).  This was my favorite dish of the day. The fritters were basically made in the style of meatballs, but with chopped, roasted eggplant instead of meat.  This was a very hearty vegetarian dish.

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Second, we made sarde a beccafico (sardines wrapped around a bread crumb mixture and baked).  This dish was good, but not my favorite. I don’t think I would go to the trouble of handling the fragile sardines to put together such a labor-intensive dish.  But, the greatest thing I learned today was how to clean fresh sardines. That is something I had never done before nor do I think I would have tried if the activity hadn’t been put in front of me like it was today. But it’s actually quite easy and not as gross as it might seem.

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Next we made pasta con le sarde (pasta with sardines).  It was a very unique pasta dish.  The sauce was made of olive oil, onions, saffron, anchovies, raisins, pine nuts, and a ton of fennel fronds (which they call finocchietto) and then the pasta was topped with sauteed sardines. Raisins and pine nuts are not my favorite, although I did tolerate them in this dish. I would attempt making this again, but would try to figure out a substitute for the raisins and pine nuts (even though these are very typical Sicilian ingredients).

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Lastly, we made cannoli alla siciliana (cannoli Sicilian style).  This was a lot of fun, but also a LOT of work. We made the dough from scratch, let the dough rest, rolled out the dough in a pasta roller and then formed it around metal rods and deep fried the shells.  Even the filling was labor-intensive.  We worked the ricotta cheese through a mesh sieve to make the filling as smooth as possible.  I do plan to try making these again one day, but it will need to be a special occasion or a group activity with friends or family. I will appreciate the work behind every cannoli I eat from now on!

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Overall, the experience was great and I do plan to take at least one more class at Scuola di Arte Culinaria Cordon Bleu. However, the experience was much more of a professional cooking school style and didn’t end with a dinner with wine. We tasted each of the dishes, but didn’t sit down to eat a meal. There are pros and cons to the more formal and less formal styles of class, so I plan to continue to take a variety. It is all great experience that I am very thankful to be getting!

Florence: Day 21

Today’s focus wasn’t on food, it was on the 5K I ran in the morning. The race started in the Piazza della Santa Croce. I wanted to get a little more substantial breakfast before running, and the frittata and prosciutto cotto sandwich we enjoyed previously happened to be in a cafe right on the corner of the Piazza. So it worked out perfectly! We enjoyed that sandwich again with two espressos and an amazing breakfast view.

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It was such a fun experience running a race through a historic city passing so many famous sites! I am so glad I ran this 5k. It definitely was a memorable experience!

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When the race was finished, Emily needed a nap and I needed a shower, so we just stopped in at our local wine shop and got a sandwich to go. We ordered the salami, picante and brie panini. The picante was a sort of pepper relish. Italian sandwiches aren’t generally more than a few ingredients, but the bread is always incredible which completely makes the sandwich. This was a great post-race lunch!

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Florence: Day 20

We started the day with a long walk through the Boboli Gardens and explored a part of the city southwest of our apartment that we had not yet explored. As we walked, we passed a gelateria that Marcella (the woman who taught my gnocchi class) had recommended, La Carraia.  We decided we had earned gelato before lunch.  We enjoyed our gelato along the River Arno, a beautiful view!

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By mid-afternoon we had worked up an appetite for lunch, so we stopped at a small cafe called Buonamico for lunch.

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We split two dishes, the pollo al forno, which was a broasted half chicken with grilled vegetables, and the zuppa di verdure (vegetable soup). The chicken and vegetables were good, but not exciting. They bring bottles of extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar to drizzle on the food for extra flavor.  Dipping the chicken and vegetables in balsamic definitely helped liven up the meal.

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The vegetable soup was extremely delicious! There was so much flavor in that bowl. It was extremely comforting but felt light at the same time. It looks so simple, but honestly it was one of the best bowls of soup I have ever eaten. And it felt good to have a meal with so many vegetables.

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We have a ton of leftovers from my gnocchi class, so I didn’t cook anything new for dinner. I did make a snack to start, which is something I’ve made a few times at home before coming here. I just took a handful of asparagus and quickly sauteed them in olive oil. I then wrapped them in prosciutto, put them back in the pan to crisp up just a little and then served them drizzled with balsamic vinegar. A delicious treat!

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Florence: Day 19

Yesterday is a tough day to follow, but we had a nice low-key day. We didn’t even do any real sight-seeing. We just wandered the streets of Florence for the most part. And again the weather was beautiful! The weather has been nearly perfect since we have been here. Generally sunny and around 70 degrees.

We enjoyed a nice lunch at Ristorante la Galleria.

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They had a menu special for a primi piatti and a secondi piatti (first and second course) for €15, so Joe & I decided to split one meal.  We started with the risotto ai piselli e zafferano (risotto with peas and saffron). It was fun to compare this risotto to the asparagus risotto we previously had at the central market. This risotto was a little creamier and a little less al dente than the other risotto. But not too soft or creamy – the texture was a perfect balance, in my opinion.

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For the second course, we ordered the polpette della casa (meatballs of the house). They were served simply in a red sauce with an arugula and radicchio salad on the side. The meatballs were extremely tender and flavorful!

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We continued wandering around Florence in the afternoon and found a small street with a butcher, produce stand and other local food shops. We bought some costollete di vitello (veal chops) and some asparagus. At home I had a bunch of basil and garlic to use, so I picked up a large can of plain peeled roma tomatoes and made marinara sauce (recipe below).

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I then sauteed the veal chops, topped them with marinara and a few cubes of fresh mozzarella. At home I would next put them under the broiler to melt the cheese and get it brown & bubbly, but since I can’t figure out the oven here, I put them in the microwave just to melt the cheese. I sauteed up the asparagus with some olive oil and salt and dinner was served!

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Marinara Sauce

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
4 cloves garlic, peeled and halved
1 35oz can whole, peeled Italian tomatoes
2 full sprigs of basil
pinch of sugar
salt & pepper to taste

Heat the olive oil in a sauce pan over medium heat until soft and slightly golden, about 2 minutes. Add the can of tomatoes and break up with a wooden spoon. Season with salt and pepper. Add the pinch of sugar and the basil sprigs and let simmer to reduce slightly, about 30 minutes. Check seasoning and adjust to taste. Remove the basil sprigs and garlic cloves, then serve.

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