Florence: Day 58

Today we rented a car and travelled up north to Lake Como. Once we got the GPS programmed correctly and got the hang of the Italian autostrada, it felt nice to be in a car for a change!

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We had a small late lunch when we got into and settled in Como. It was an awkward time when restaurants weren’t really serving lunch or dinner (it was about 3:30), so we walked up the lake the found a small cafe serving food. Joe got a tuna sandwich. It was served on toasted bread with tomatoes and lettuce and the tuna was mixed with a tiny amount of mayonnaise. Although very simple, it was extremely delicious!

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I ordered a pasta dish that came with zucchini and mini shrimp and was served in a creamy cheese sauce. The sauce was extremely rich, so luckily it was a small plate. It was also very good and Emily loved it. Best of all, the cafe was lake-side, so we got to enjoy our lunch with an incredible view!

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We simply ordered a pizza to go for dinner and ate it in our room after Emily went to bed, so I don’t have any pictures of that. The focus today was more on getting to Lake Como and getting settled than it was on food. More to come tomorrow!

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Florence: Day 57

Today we had a wonderful lunch at another restaurant that was suggested to us, Birreria Centrale.

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We started with Ribollita. This is a traditional Tuscan bread soup. I had tried it at a restaurant once early in our trip and found it was more like stuffing than soup. Researching the tradition of this soup after that meal made me believe that version was rather unique. So after having tried the first version and making my own version at home, I wanted to try it in a restaurant again. As I believed, this version was much more like soup than stuffing. It was very good, although I have to say that when it comes to traditional Tuscan bread soups, I prefer zuppa di pane e pomodoro (tomato and bread soup).

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For our main dish, we ordered the plate of mixed grilled meats for two. Meat is huge in Tuscan cooking and it makes sense as there is also so much leather around being sold in stores and markets. This is something we haven’t been experiencing enough. A traditional Florentine dish is the Bistecca alla Fiorentina, which is a huge T-bone steak simply grilled and served medium-rare to rare, big enough to serve at least two people. We have yet to try this, but were planning to before our time in Florence ends. Today’s lunch motivates me to try it very soon because we are probably really missing out. The grilled meats we had today were delicious! The platter consisted of chicken, lamb chops, pork sausage and beef. We both agreed the beef and chicken were the standouts. The meat was so juicy and flavorful! They provide extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar on the table as condiments. Drizzling balsamic vinegar on grilled meats is very common here, so we tried it. That elevated the flavor even more! I would never think to bring out a bottle of balsamic vinegar when serving grilled meats at home, but I definitely will now. It was a fantastic lunch!

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Florence: Day 56

We didn’t do a whole lot that was exciting from a food perspective today, but we did go get gelato again. We went to Gelateria il Magnifico near our new apartment and walked it back to the piazza della Liberta and ate it on a bench looking at l’Arco di Trionfo. Between speaking with Marcella from the Giglio cooking school, taking the gelato class with Kyle and Lindsay, and firsthand experience, I have learned how to identify good gelato in Italy (yes, there is actually not-so-good gelato in Italy). First, along super touristy streets, there will be gelaterias that have HUGE mounds of gelato that are all sorts of beautiful, enticing colors. These are actually places to avoid. They are less concerned with the quality of gelato and more concerned with the tourist traffic driving their revenues. Good gelato should actually be covered. And the color of the gelato should not be unnatural. For example, banana gelato should not be yellow. Pistachio gelato is actually more the color of nut-butter. It is not bright green. Next, a gelateria should not have more than two dozen flavors. If they have 50 flavors, they are not taking the time to make them each high quality and you don’t know how quickly the flavors are getting turned over, so it also might not be very fresh. Last and certainly not least, if there is not a single customer in the gelateria speaking Italian, that means there is a high probability that you are in a gelateria that isn’t serving gelato good enough for Italians. As with most things, go where the locals are!

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Florence: Day 55

Joe and I both felt like going for a run this morning, so we took turns getting out of the apartment and running. I love running around this city! But I guess I really love running around all cities. That is one thing I will greatly miss about Chicago and one thing I really look forward to in Minneapolis. Anyway, because we had to take turns watching Emily while the other one ran and then showered, we didn’t end up leaving the house until close to noon. Emily was already showing signs of tiredness, so we decided not to push it with a full lunch out. Instead, we stopped by a bakery a few blocks away that we have had our eyes on, Vecchio Forno.

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They have a few incredible looking pizzas in their window that you can buy by the slice and then pay by weight. We got a prosciutto and mushroom pizza and a three meat pizza that was covered in salami (this kind most closely resembled pepperoni to anything we have had or seen in Italy), sausage and hot dogs. Yes, hot dogs. We have seen hot dogs on pizzas all over! Obviously it’s strange to us, but we thought it might be worth trying. Since the hot dog played a supporting roll in this pizza, we decided to go for it. It wasn’t bad at all. I won’t be craving a hot dog pizza anytime soon, but it wasn’t as strange on pizza as an American would expect. We brought the pizza back to our apartment. I made us salads identical to dinner the night before while Joe put Emily down for a nap. Then we had a wonderful lunch of hearty pizza and a fresh, light salad.

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I cooked dinner again tonight and it turned out so well! I contemplated putting together a recipe for what I made, but I don’t really want to take the time right now. I think at the end of this trip as I’m looking back on some of these meals for inspiration, I will work on a collection of recipes of our time spent in Italy.

Joe had requested stuffed peppers. Bell peppers are his favorite vegetable and stuffed peppers are one of his favorite dishes. I always enjoy stuffed peppers when I eat them, but I never think to make them. That might change after tonight because this was one of my favorite home cooked meals so far! We got a couple HUGE beautiful red peppers at the market yesterday. I reserved some of the ground beef, pork and pancetta from the meatballs last night. For the filling, I sauteed some chopped bell pepper (from the tops of the peppers I cut off to prepare them for stuffing), red onion, celery and garlic. I then added the mixed ground meat and some red pepper flakes. Once browned, I added chopped parsley. I then mixed this with some grated grana padano cheese, some crushed unsalted saltine crackers, capers, and two beaten eggs. I stuffed each pepper half with the mixture. I spread some of the leftover marinara sauce from yesterday into a baking dish and nestled each pepper half in the sauce. I topped each pepper with a little more marinara and cheese and baked at 350 degrees for an hour. Towards the end of baking, I put a pan of asparagus that were just tossed in extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper into the oven to roast. This was such a hearty and comforting meal but neither of us felt terrible after eating it! And as usual, I made a couple extra that we can bake up again in the near future.

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Florence: Day 54

Our apartment was pretty empty from a food perspective, so we decided it was time to go to the market! I love the days we go to the Central Market for our food shopping. We then generally eat lunch there as well. With the lunch spots nestled between the food purveyors, you are almost guaranteed to receive a really fresh product. After buying a bunch of fresh produce and meat to bring home, we returned to Nerbone for a quick and delicious lunch.

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We ordered their risotto of the day. I don’t remember what it was called. In fact, we had no idea what we were ordering when we got it. But we have become pretty adventerous since being here, so we decided to roll the dice. It turned out to be a seafood risotto with what looked like baby octopus chopped and mixed in. The fish was so tender, it just melted in our mouths and the rice was perfectly cooked. We also ordered penne matriciana. I was curious about this dish after having learned Bucatini all’Amatriciana in my cooking class earlier this week. One thing I had learned was that Amatriciana was always served with Bucatini. So the slight variation in spelling and the different shape of pasta piqued my interest. The sauce was the red version of what I had learned in class and was delicious! After doing a little internet research when I got home, it seems as though the spelling of the dish and which type of pasta it is served with are regional variations. What I learned at Le Cordon Bleu was the traditional Roman preparation.

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While Emily napped in the afternoon, I decided to make more marinated artichokes. This time I bought several baby artichokes. I just think the artichokes here are so beautiful! And this is one of my favorite snacks to have on hand. This time I simply marinated the artichokes with garlic and capers in olive oil and lemon juice.

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Once Emily woke up, we decided to go for a walk to get some gelato. I realized it had been nearly a week since we had any and that just didn’t seem right while living in Italy! So we went and tried a new gelato shop we had discovered while exploring the area around our apartment, Gelateria il Magnifico. I got ricotta e pera (ricotta and pear – delicious, but I still prefer ricotta and fig) and biscottini. Biscottini are little Italian cookies often dipped in chocolate. Basically, this gelato was kind of like cookies ‘n cream ice cream, but even better. Both were so good!

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By late afternoon I was excited to get cooking. There were so many spring greens at the market, so I had purchased greens and vegetables for a salad to start. I served it Italian style – undressed with a bottle of extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar on the side. Then for the main course, I made meatballs. In Italy, meatballs are served on their own, generally in a red sauce. They are never served over pasta. So I stuck to Italian tradition and served them on their own (plus we had pasta at lunch). I made a huge pot of marinara sauce that I used for this and will continue to use for other dishes in the future. For the meatballs themselves, I used a mix of about 70% ground beef, 15% ground pork and 15% ground pancetta. I mixed these with grated parmigiano reggiano, some bread crumbs soaked in milk, chopped parsley, a beaten egg and salt and pepper. I then sauteed them in a pan until brown on all sides and then added marinara sauce and covered the pan until the meatballs were cooked through. Meatballs are something I never think to cook, but always enjoy eating. I need to make them more often! And I made extras, so I imagine these will show up in a future post, probably on a sandwich.

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Florence: Day 53

We tried a neighborhood cafe for lunch today, Il Posticino. It is right around the corner from our apartment and we were drawn in by the menu because it sounded delicious and was also extremely inexpensive. The value we got was phenomenal. It wasn’t the most amazing food I’ve had here, but we also didn’t have to pay much for it!

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We started with a mixed salad of greens, carrots, tomatoes and fennel. In traditional Italian style, the salad came undressed and they gave us a bottle of extra virgin olive oil and a bottle of balsamic vinegar to dress the salad ourselves. The vegetables were so fresh!

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Joe and I then split two entrees. The first was Lasagna. We haven’t had lasagna once on this trip, so we figured it was time. Our conclusion was that it was perfectly enjoyable, but nothing outstanding.

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The second entree was veal in a tuna sauce. We wanted a meat dish to offset the pasta and this one sounded intriguing to us. To our surprise, it was served cold. But it was delicious! There were a few pieces of thinly sliced veal completely drenched in a creamy tuna sauce with capers. The sauce tasted like an incredible tuna salad sandwich and was perfect for dipping the Tuscan bread. It sounds strange, but it was so good! The sauce was addicting.

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Our lunch was pretty filling, so after a late nap for Emily, we tried out a new aperitivo. This was at a strange little venue that was set up as a restaurant/deli/cafe. We were the only ones there which was a bit of a shame because the food was pretty good and the drinks were very inexpensive. The owner was very nice to Emily and we really enjoyed our time. After the aperitivo, we really weren’t hungry for dinner. So Joe and I simply took a bottle of wine and some light snacks to the balcony to close out the night with an amazing view.

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Florence: Day 52

Today I took my seventh cooking class. I returned to Le Cordon Bleu for a class focused on pasta sauces. This was a fun class to take, not only because I got to learn five great pasta sauce recipes, but I also got to learn the background of each dish. Each sauce comes from a different region of Italy.

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First, we made Pasta alla Norma which comes from Sicily. This was served with a short penne pasta, but the shape of pasta isn’t critical in this dish. We made a fresh tomato sauce by simmering two pounds of tomatoes in some olive oil, garlic and red pepper flakes. Once the tomatoes were soft and had released their juices, we removed the lid from the pan and let the sauce reduce. We then put the tomatoes through a food mill, adjusted the seasoning as necessary (salt for flavor, sugar if the tomatoes are too acidic) and added a few leaves of torn basil. Meanwhile, we cubed a large Sicilian eggplant (which is sweeter than the traditional eggplant we find in the US) and fried the pieces in sunflower oil. To finish, we tossed the pasta with the tomato sauce and topped it with the fried eggplant and then some shaved ricotta salata cheese.

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Second, we made Spaghetti alla Puttanesca which comes from Naples. Whereas the shape of pasta wasn’t critical for Pasta alla Norma, Puttanesca is always served with spaghetti. We started by cooking chopped onion and red pepper flakes in olive oil. We then added garlic and anchovies (the anchovies were chopped and we added a small amount of water at the same time which caused the anchovies to melt into the sauce). We then added chopped tomatoes and cooked until soft. Lastly, we added chopped capers, olives and chopped parsley. The finished dish was garnished with extra virgin olive oil, grated parmigiano reggiano cheese and chopped parsley.

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Third, we made Bucatini All’Amatriciana Bianca which comes from Rome. The traditional version of this sauce does contain tomatoes, but because we already had two red sauces, they taught us a white version of this sauce. And like Puttanesca with spaghetti, Amatriciana sauces are always served with Bucatini. We started by pan-frying some chopped pancetta with red pepper flakes. We then added chopped onion and cooked until soft, then deglazed with some dry white wine. This was then simply tossed with the cooked pasta and topped with grated pecorino romano cheese.

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Next we made Spaghetti alle Acciughe e Mollica (spaghetti with anchovies and breadcrumbs), which comes from Tuscany. We sauteed chopped onion in extra virgin olive oil until translucent, then added garlic, red pepper flakes and chopped anchovies. We again added a little water which made the anchovies melt into the sauce. In a separate pan we toasted the breadcrumbs in olive oil. We tossed the spaghetti with the anchovy mixture and then topped it with toasted breadcrumbs, parsley, and grated parmigiano reggiano cheese.

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Last but not least, we made Salsa alle Noci (walnut sauce) which comes from Liguria in northwestern Italy. First we peeled walnuts (yes, walnuts have a skin that can be peeled off – I never thought I’d peel a walnut!). Once peeled, the walnuts were chopped finely in a food processor. In a pan we cooked some garlic in butter (more commonly used in northern Italy) and then added the walnuts. To this, we added cream and salt and pepper to taste. Short-shaped pasta is best for this dish, but the specific type doesn’t matter. Today we used trofie, which is a short, thin, twisted pasta that comes from the region of Liguria. Once the cooked pasta was tossed with the sauce, it was topped with grated parmigian reggiano cheese. And I will admit, peeling the walnuts was worth it because the sauce was really creamy and smooth.

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This was such a fun class to take! I absolutely loved learning how to make and trying each of the pasta dishes. If I had to choose a favorite, I would choose Spaghetti alla Puttanesca. The flavors were so vibrant! But they truly were all good and for different reasons. Pasta alla Norma tasted extremely fresh and light. Bucatini All’Amatriciana Bianca was rich and hearty. Spaghetti alle Acciughe e Mollica was the least like anything I have had before, but was super flavorful (not as “fishy” as you would expect) and the bread crumbs gave the pasta incredible texture. And the Salsa alle Noci was creamy and decadent. I’m sure I will make some of these more often than others, but I do plan to make every one of these at some point after returning to Minnesota.

Florence: Day 51

We spent the day exploring our new neighborhood. Although getting to our old neighborhood is completely walkable, it feels like we are in a completely different city! And we love our apartment so far. The kitchen is still small compared to American standards, but huge compared to our last apartment. And it has a window with an incredible view! I get to sip wine while I cook and occasionally turn around and be reminded I’m cooking in the Tuscan hills.

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Tonight’s dinner closely mimics last night’s dinner because I had more zucchini, mushrooms and pancetta to use. But instead of risotto, I cooked pasta in a truffle cream sauce (I use the term “cream” lightly here, because the sauce wasn’t as rich as it sounds). Just like last night, I first pan-fried the pancetta and once crispy, removed it to a paper towel-lined plate. And again I added the zucchini and mushrooms to the pan with the pancetta fat to soften. Next, I added some black truffle relish that I had leftover from when Kyle and Lindsay had visited. Meanwhile, I was boiling farfalle pasta (I thought Emily might enjoy this pasta shape). When the pasta was almost al dente, I drained it and added it to the pan. I then added about 1/2 cup of whole milk and about 1/4 cup of grated parmigiano reggiano cheese and salt and pepper to taste. To garnish, I topped the pasta with the crispy pancetta. I served this with my go-to salad of arugula and tomatoes tossed with extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Molto bene!

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Florence: Day 50

Today was the big move to apartment #2! We decided to split our time between two apartments for a couple reasons. First, we were having a hard time finding a vacation rental available for the full 88 days we were looking for. Second, we figured it would be fun to experience living in two different parts of the city. I am so glad we did it this way! Our new apartment is much bigger, brighter and is on the 6th floor with an incredible balcony and amazing views. It’s not as close to all the tourist sites as our last apartment and doesn’t have quite as many restaurants, cafes, etc. nearby. But it is also so much quieter. I truly think this worked perfectly for us.

We had to check out of our first apartment at 10:30 and then we checked into our new apartment at 12:00. Most of the day was consumed by packing, unpacking, running to the store for a few essentials, and trying to get Emily to nap (which we weren’t able to). By 4:30 neither Joe nor I had eaten anything terribly substantial, so we decided this was the perfect day to go to the aperitivo we had previously found in this neighborhood, Wine Bar Nabucco. This is still the best aperitivo spread we have discovered. We were pleasantly surprised to see that the variety changed a bit from our first visit and it is SO close to our apartment now! I imagine we will become regulars here.

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Once we successfully got Emily to bed, we decided to unwind on the balcony with a bottle of wine we purchased in Orvieto. Our view from the balcony is incredible! We look right at the Duomo and Giotto’s tower. We feel so lucky that this is our life right now!

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After unwinding a bit, I started cooking dinner. I had picked up some zucchini, mushrooms and chopped pancetta at the grocery store and I had arborio rice and broth on hand, so I made a risotto. I pan-fried the pancetta until crispy, transferred them to a paper towel-lined plate and then proceeded to make the risotto in the same pan. I first added a chopped shallot as well as the zucchini and mushrooms. Next I added the rice and let it toast and get coated in the fat in the pan. I then deglazed the pan with some of the Orvieto wine we had open and then cooked the rice by adding vegetable broth one ladle-full at a time. Once the rice was cooked, I added a little butter and some grated pecorino cheese to make it extra delicious. I decided I wanted to keep the pancetta really crispy, so instead of adding it back into the dish at the end, I just used it as a topping. We then enjoyed the risotto on the balcony.

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