Florence: Day 76

Today we took a day trip to Siena, a medieval Tuscan town most famous for their bi-annual horse races that take place in the main piazza of the town, piazza del Campo. We walked around and explored, shopped, and climbed the Torre del Mangia in the Palazzo Pubblico.

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Temperatures were in the 90’s, so we sought out a restaurant for lunch that not only looked to have good food, but also air conditioning. We found a delicious gem and the staff absolutely loved Emily, which is always a bonus!

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We started with the tortino di porri su fonduta di Pecorino, la sua cialda e noci which literally translates to leek patty fondue Pecorino his waffle and nuts (and that was the English translation written on the menu). I’m not sure what “his waffle” was supposed to be, but what we were served was like a leek frittata (but lighter) drenched in a walnut-cheese sauce, with toasted walnuts and a parmesan crisp on top. It was so delicious! The sauce was incredible. After we each ate our third of the appetizer, we put the plate in the middle of the table so we could all dip bread into the extra sauce.

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Next we tried the risotto finferle e ricotta salata, which was risotto with chanterelle mushrooms and ricotta salata cheese. The mushrooms were fantastic, the rice was perfectly al dente, and the whole dish was delicious. My one criticism is that the risotto wasn’t as creamy as I like it to be. But that’s my personal preference and as I’ve learned being in Italy, the creaminess of risotto varies depending on where you get it.

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When we are with someone who is in Italy for a short time, I feel like we always need to get at least one plate of pasta. This time we tried the ravioli di zucca in salsa di noci e parmigiano (pumpkin ravioli in walnut sauce and parmesan cheese). We all agreed the sauce on this ravioli was probably the same sauce that was on our appetizer and we were all okay with it! The sweetness of the pumpkin stuffing went well with the cheesy, nutty sauce and the dish was excellent.

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Lastly, we ordered the vitelle tonnato con misticanza ed emulsione di olio extra vergino di oliva e capperi, or veal with tuna sauce, seasonal salad and emulsion of olive oil and capers. Joe and I had tried a veal with tuna sauce once before and really enjoyed it, so we were curious to try it again. Like the first time, the dish was served cold. The combination of flavors still sounds strange to me, but it works so well. It was delicious and a great balance to the other dishes we ordered.

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Florence: Day 75

Erin and I were up very late last night drinking wine and talking on the balcony, so we were both okay with a low-key lunch at home while Emily took an early nap. We simply walked down the street to a bakery that Joe and I had previously gotten pizza from, Vecchio Forno. We just bought a variety of items that looked good to us and brought them home.

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While I was putting Emily down for her nap, Erin stuck everything in the oven to warm and then we feasted. In addition to some pizza and focaccia, we also tried cecina which is like a chickpea pancake. It was fun to try, but rather plain. But truly, everything was delicious and it was a fun lunch to just munch on casually.

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Because Joe spent a large part of the previous day watching Emily, it was his turn to go out with Erin. We had stopped by the upstairs of the Central Market for a drink in the afternoon, so before heading home to put Emily to bed, I picked up some trofie pasta and calamari to cook for dinner. The man in this picture is actually cleaning my calamari for me at the seafood counter.

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While we were in Cinque Terre, I bought a jar of pesto to enjoy in Florence. For dinner, I simply boiled the trofie pasta, sauteed the calamari in a little olive oil and then tossed the cooked pasta, calamari and pesto in the saute pan to combine. Simple and delicious!

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Florence: Day 74

Erin and I were on our own for lunch again today, so I took her to one of my favorites: La Prosciutteria! ¬†There was a chance Joe was going to join us, so we went for the lunch board. ¬†Unfortunately Emily didn’t wake from her nap in time for them to meet us, so Erin and I had to finish the whole thing ourselves. ¬†This place never disappoints and Erin loved it too!

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Today I took my eighth cooking class and was lucky enough to have Erin join me. We returned to Giglio Cooking to learn stuffed pasta techniques from Marcella. It was great to watch her technique for fresh pasta. Making fresh pasta really seems to be an art in Italy. I look forward to going home, taking what I have learned, and finding my own footing with my pasta making. Today specifically we learned how to make ravioli, agnolotti and tortellini.

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I did encounter one unexpected thing in this class, and that was handling a lamb brain. The picture below shows the ingredients of the stuffing for the agnolotti. In Italy it is not uncommon to add a calf or lamb brain to the stuffing of a pasta. We blanched the brain and then I was tasked with the job of peeling it (yes, you have to peel it!). I am proud of myself for stepping up to the plate for this task, though I never plan to cook with a brain again!

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The first dish we completed and enjoyed was tortellini in brodo (tortellini in broth). The tortellini were stuffed with a mixture of pork, chicken, mortadella and prosciutto. They were then served in a homemade chicken broth. I actually appreciated the tortellini served this simply because we were able to really taste and appreciate the tortellini and all of the work that went into making them!

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Next was the most stunning dish of the day and one I really look forward to trying again and perfecting at home. It was ravioli ripieni di brodo, crema di zucchine, patali di carota, spinaci croccant, or ravioli stuffed with broth in a zucchini puree topped with oven-dried carrots and fried spinach. To stuff the ravioli with broth, we first had to make the broth into a gelatin. It then liquified while we boiled the pasta. Joe and I had the extreme pleasure to dine at Alinea in Chicago a couple years ago and one of the courses we had at that dinner was a stunning broth-filled ravioli topped with a huge slice of black truffle. If I could use this skill to come anywhere close to replicating that dish, it would be amazing! I was so excited to learn this technique. And the dish was delicious! The ravioli we made today were too big to eat in one bite, and that is the first thing I would change at home. But the flavors of the dish were very well balanced and extremely enjoyable.

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Next we made ravioli ripieni di carciofi con salsa al pecorino e timo (artichoke filled ravioli with a pecorino cheese and thyme sauce). And for a little variation, we made spinach pasta for this dish. This dish was so rich and decadent! The sauce was purely butter, cream, cheese and thyme. I absolutely love this recipe the way it is, though I might try to make a variation at home with a sauce that is a little less rich.

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Lastly, we had the agnolotti alla piemontese, or agnolotti Piedmont style. I asked Marcella what the difference is between ravioli and agnolotti and although they are used relatively interchangeably these days, traditionally ravioli were filled with cheese and or vegetables (most traditionally spinach and ricotta) and agnolotti were filled with a meat mixture. In this case, our agnolotti were filled with the mixture previously pictured which included prosciutto, pork loin, blanched lettuce, braised beef, and lamb brain. We put all of the ingredients in a food processor to make a homogenous mixture. The agnolotti were served in a truffle butter sauce. Honestly, the dish was delicious, but I (and especially Erin) had a hard time mentally getting over the fact that there was brain in the stuffing of this pasta. And Marcella made sure to keep reminding Erin of what she was eating which I found hilarious!

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I loved having Erin here to take this class with me. Life is so much more fun and food is so much more delicious when shared with the ones we love!

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Florence: Day 73

We started our second day in Cinque Terre with breakfast by the sea. The breakfast itself wasn’t notable (typical European hotel breakfast – meat, cheese, pastries, bread, nutella, jam, yogurt, etc). But the setting was absolutely incredible and it was just the fuel we needed to get ready for a grueling three hour hike between Corniglia and Manarola.

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The hike was absolutely breath-taking, quite demanding and a bit scary at points. But none of us regret doing it. It was unforgettable! And we fully earned the carb-heavy lunch we then consumed. The first time I hiked Cinque Terre was back in 2003 and I was able to hike all of the ocean paths since it was pre-mudslide. At the end of the full day of hiking (we did all four hikes in one day), I vividly remember enjoying a seafood pasta dish in a white wine sauce. When we arrived in Manarola, I was hoping to replicate that memory. I was excited when we found a cute restaurant that seemed to be quite popular that had the same dish on the menu!

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To start, we ordered their version of a shrimp cocktail. The shrimp were rather small and not the best I’ve had. And instead of a typical cocktail sauce, the shrimp were served with more of a tomato mayonnaise. I would have preferred larger shrimp in a more traditional cocktail sauce, but these certainly weren’t bad and we were all so hungry, we gobbled them down in just a few minutes.

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After the shrimp cocktail, we ordered three pasta/gnocchi dishes and shared them all. We didn’t bother with a meat entree for any kind of balance this time! Obviously we ordered the spaghetti with seafood in a white wine sauce since this was the reason we chose this restaurant. This dish lived up to my memories! The pasta tasted so good after the hiking, the seafood was incredibly fresh and hit the spot after looking at the sea all day. And the white wine sauce was refreshing and light. This was everyone’s favorite dish of the meal!

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The second pasta dish we ordered was linguine with local lobsters in a spicy red sauce. The spice was very mild and the lobster very fresh. And the tomato sauce varied this dish from the seafood spaghetti enough, so it didn’t feel like we were eating a similar dish at all. I wouldn’t think to serve lobster with a tomato sauce, but it was very good!

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Lastly, we ordered the pesto gnocchi. Again, this region of Italy is known for pesto, so we had to try one pesto dish. This pesto was a much darker green color than what we had the night before. It was lighter on garlic and heavier on basil. We all agreed if we had to choose a favorite, the pesto the night before would win. But this one was extremely delicious as well. This lunch definitely ranks up there among my favorite in Italy.

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Florence: Day 72

We got up bright and early this morning and took a train up to the Cinque Terre region of Italy. It is an area consisting of five coastal towns between which there are various hiking paths. Unfortunately there were massive mudslides back in 2011 and all but one of the paths along the ocean are closed. We were still able to find plenty of hiking to do each day and even the “inland” trails had ocean views at almost all times because we were up in mountains.

After a day of traveling with a toddler, visiting a couple towns and then a two hour hike from Monterosso to Vernazza, we were ready for a delicious sit-down dinner! As we approached Vernazza from above (where we stayed the night), we noticed an outdoor space that was covered in various sizes of bright colored umbrellas. We later learned that was the restaurant associated with our hotel and since we didn’t have a specific restaurant in mind and didn’t want to take a long time searching, we decided to eat there.

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Again we got four dishes and split them all. Being on the ocean, we were all craving seafood. So we started with the polpo e patate which is an octopus and potato salad. Generally this would be slightly heavier on the potatoes, but in this case it was almost all octopus. It was simply seasoned and the texture was perfect!

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Next we ordered black linguine in a prawn sauce. The linguine was colored with squid ink, but wasn’t as dark as other squid ink pasta I’ve had. And we were hoping there would be actual prawns in the dish, but it turned out to literally just be a prawn sauce. It was extremely delicious, though! We weren’t disappointed with the lack of prawns at all. They simply would have been a bonus.

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The Cinque Terre region of Italy is known for its pesto, so we had to order a pesto dish. We decided to get the trofie with pesto. Trofie is a kind of pasta that is essentially tagliatelle that has been twisted. This pesto was such a light green. It was beautiful! It seemed to be heavier on the garlic and pine nuts and lighter on the basil. It was definitely one of the best pestos I have had in my life.

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Lastly, we ordered the “catch of the day.” To be honest, it was the end of a long day so we were working pretty hard to keep Emily entertained at this point in the meal. I failed to ask which type of fish we were even served. I do know it was local and it was delicious! And the roasted potatoes were absolutely incredible. This was the perfect meal to end a long day of traveling and hiking!

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Florence: Day 71

Today Erin and I went out to lunch at Osteria Santo Spirito. This restaurant is a favorite that I definitely wanted to return to and share with Erin (see day 41). And it was such a treat to be out to a meal two days in a row without a toddler where I could really focus on and appreciate the food!

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We started with the bocconcini grigliati di prosciutto crudo e mozzarella di bufala affumicata su letto di rucola which was grilled pieces of prosciutto wrapped around smoked buffalo mozzarella on a bed of arugula. The meat/cheese pieces alone were a bit salty, but when combined with the arugula, they were perfect. I appreciate that Italians often think of the composition of the entire dish and season accordingly.

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We then split a primi piatti of tortellaci fatti a mano con ricotta e spinaci in crema di noci, or hand-made tortellaci (which are essentially giant tortellini) stuffed with spinach and ricotta served in a walnut-cream sauce. I mentioned to Erin that I had learned how to make this sauce in one of my cooking classes and she thought it sounded great to try. These were so decadent and delicious! We ordered the half portion to share and having one and a half tortellaci truly was the perfect amount to really enjoy the dish, but not get stuffed.

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We then split a half portion of the tagliata di manzo, which was grilled beef sliced and served with a bed of arugula and shaved parmigiano reggiano. The half portion was huge! This is a classic dish we have had in Florence a few times that I am sure I will cook relatively frequently once we return home. It is so simple and delicious.

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Next we decided to split dessert. Erin (like Joe) is not a huge fan of tiramisu, and for the same reason: most versions in the United States are very heavy on the soaked lady finger component and they don’t love that texture. And I agree with them. But I felt that she really should give tiramisu a try while in Italy. Thankfully this one was consistent with the others we have had in Italy. The lady finger component was small and the focus of the dish was on the silky mascarpone cream. Erin liked it! I also ordered a grappa so she could try that as well. That she didn’t care for (and I don’t blame her – I haven’t grown to love grappa either).

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While I was finishing the grappa and Erin was finishing her wine, the waitress brought over a small bowl of cherries. I love little touches like this in restaurants. It was nice to have a little extra sweet bite while we finished our drinks. It was a fabulous lunch!

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Florence: Day 70

Our friend Erin arrived in Florence the previous day and joined us for ten days. It was so fun to share part of this experience with such a great friend! And it was certainly nice to have a new person to talk to and an extra set of hands around to help with Emily. Today was her first full day in Florence, so we started with the same hike and lunch that we did with Kyle and Lindsay (see days 30 & 35). We brought Erin up to San Miniato al Monte and then had lunch at Fuori Porta.

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We started with a crostone topped with porcini mushrooms, truffles and pecorino cheese. I love how common truffles are here and I’ve decided I need to eat them as often as possible before we head home!

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Erin was completely on board with picking three dishes we were all interested in and sharing them all. It is so much more fun to eat a small portion of many things that one huge plate of the same dish! The first dish we chose was gnocchi served with calamari and asparagus. The gnocchi were so light, the calamari so fresh, and the asparagus were chopped up so small I actually forgot they were asparagus until I took a bite.

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The next dish we chose because it listed a few different types of local fish (cuttlefish and branzino, if I remember correctly) and mentioned spinach as well. We wanted one dish of a protein with vegetables to somewhat offset all of the carbs we were consuming. When we ordered it, we didn’t know exactly what we would be getting. It turned out to be a pile of cooked spinach with the seafood incorporated. It was good and all of the ingredients tasted fresh, but it was a bit too heavy on the spinach for my taste. Eating a third of it to accompany the other dishes was perfect. If this had been my entire entree for lunch, it would have been too much spinach for me.

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Lastly, we ordered the guinea fowl ragu because we had it previously with Kyle and Lindsay and it was our favorite dish at that meal. The type of pasta it was served with was different, but otherwise it was the same dish. It was still hearty and delicious, although I preferred the pici pasta it was served with the first time. I would count this as our third successful meal at Fuori Porta!

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Erin had promised to babysit Emily one night so that we could have a date night and with our plans for the week, it made sense to do date night early on in her visit. We decided to go to dinner at Il Latini.

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It’s a very well-known restaurant often recommended to tourists visiting Florence. It is a very unique dining experience. They only do two sittings for dinner at 7:30 and at 9:30. A crowd of people forms outside of the restaurant doors waiting to enter and at 7:30, they usher everyone in. We felt like we were being herded like cattle. They pack as many people into the restaurant as they can, which means you will almost certainly sit with other people at your table. We were sat next to a couple from Ohio and it was actually very fun to converse with them during our dinner. There is no menu at Il Latini. The servers simply start serving you food, giving you a few options for some of the courses. To start, they brought us prosciutto and melon, a barley salad and a traditional Tuscan chicken liver crostini. The prosciutto and barley salad were great, but the star of the antipasti course was definitely the chicken liver crostini. Previous versions we had tried were extremely salty, or tasted more like a stew. This one wasn’t too salty and the bread had been pan-fried in olive oil, which took it to another level.

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For the primi piatti we were given three choices: gnocchi with a rabbit ragu, spinach and ricotta ravioli in a fresh tomato sauce, or penne bolognese. I had heard great things about the rabbit gnocchi, so that was an easy decision. And because we have had quite a bit of bolognese on this trip and not a ton of ravioli, we decided to go with the ravioli. The flavors of the ravioli were very simple, but very fresh. The gnocchi were extremely soft and light and the rabbit ragu was hearty, but not too heavy. We definitely enjoyed both dishes.

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For the secondi piatti, they mentioned several grilled or roasted meats available, but the server specifically (and rather forcefully) recommend the roast veal and the prime rib. We decided to go with the recommendation, but after were worried they were only recommending the dishes because they over purchased those particular types of meat and wanted to be sure to serve it all. So I was definitely curious to see how much we would enjoy this course.

We didn’t have any say in how the meat was cooked. We were served the dishes as the chef intended them to be eaten. The roast veal was served well done, but it was still very juicy and tender. It was served with some sort of au jus poured on top of the meat. I actually found the sauce extremely salty, so I didn’t care for this dish that much. If the sauce had been on the side and I could have controlled how much to use, that would have been extremely helpful. Having said that, I have never eaten veal cooked this way, so I’m glad I tried it.

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The prime rib was served medium rare. Prime rib is one of my absolute favorite dishes and this one was excellent! Again, the au jus was poured on the meat but luckily this one was less salty than the veal. If this dish had been overpowered with salt, I would have been so disappointed! This dish was possibly my favorite of the night.

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The meats were accompanied by sides of roasted potatoes and sauteed spinach. The potatoes were incredible! The spinach was good, but nothing outstanding. Frankly at this point of the meal, I didn’t eat much of either because I was getting too full and wanted to save as much room for prime rib as I could.

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Once we were finished with the meat course, the server brought out champagne glasses and poured us each a glass of sparkling moscato. It was delicious and sweet, but not too sweet. Next they brought cantucci and vin santo (biscotti cookies and dessert wine for dipping). I didn’t care for these very much. The cantucci and vin santo we had the Osteria Santo Spirito were FAR better (see day 41).

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Unfortunately at this point of the meal I began to get very disappointed. Other tables were clearly offered other desserts, but we were not. Our theory is that the other couple at our table had pretty much stopped eating and drinking at that point and they probably wanted to clear our table as soon as possible for the next seating as we were approaching 10:00 at this point. The manager of the restaurant comes to each table and the server tells him what we ate and drank and how much. The manager then writes a number on a piece of paper and places it on the table and that is what we pay for dinner.

I am definitely glad we tried Il Latini as I had heard so much about this restaurant. Overall, the food was delicious, but not outstanding. And I found the entire format of the dinner very odd (but I knew what we were getting into – I thought I would enjoy it more). I think this restaurant is great for people that are spending a small amount of time in Florence and just want to get a good sampling of regional dishes with very few decisions needing to be made. But because we have spent as much time as we have here and have had some incredible and unique meals here, I have no doubt we could have found a better meal for a lower price. But I don’t get too upset about less than stellar dining experiences. I always enjoy being out and I definitely had a fabulous date night with Joe!

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