Florence: Day 83

Today began the weekend celebration of Father’s Day and Joe’s Birthday, so we started by enjoying our last lunch out at a new restaurant. Buca dell’Orafo was recommended on Giada De Laurentiis’ website with a rave review, also mentioning the chef in the kitchen was an American girl in her twenties (http://www.giadadelaurentiis.com/giada/faves/9/florence). I was intrigued by the chef and figured this sounded promising for a great birthday/father’s day meal!

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We started with the fritto di fiore di zucca e zucchini, or fried zucchini and squash blossoms. I love the fried vegetables in Italy. They are such a treat! These were exceptional.

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Next we split the pasta e fagioli, which is a traditional Tuscan bean soup. It seems the consistency of this soup varies from restaurant to restaurant and household to household. This variation was completely smooth with the exception of the pasta. It wasn’t what I was expecting at all, but it was smooth, creamy and comforting!

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Lastly, Joe was in the mood for a meat sauce, so we ordered the pappardelle al sugo di coniglio, or pappardelle pasta with a rabbit sauce. The texture of the pasta was perfect. And the sauce was hearty, but also tasted of fresh herbs, primarily sage. I don’t find many dishes more comforting than pasta with a meat sauce. This was so good!

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As we are nearing the end of our time in Florence, I had a few things in the freezer at home that needed to get eaten. Specifically, I had some meatballs and marinara sauce. Joe loves meatball subs, so it worked out perfectly to make him a favorite at home for dinner. I just picked up a couple rolls from a local bakery, cooked the meatballs, assembled the sandwiches topping with some fontina cheese and baked in the oven until warm and the cheese melted and started browning. Joe said it was one of the best meatball subs he has had in his life, which is the best compliment I could hope for!

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Florence: Day 82

Today I took my ninth cooking class. A beautiful cooking facility opened in the new upstairs portion of the Mercato Centrale since we have been here. It is an extension of La Scuola di Cucina Lorenzo de’ Medici, which is a culinary school in Florence. I am so excited I got to take a class here. The facility was absolutely gorgeous! In addition to the beautiful, high-tech facility, the two other people that were signed up to take the class didn’t show up, so I ended up getting a private lesson from a chef/sommelier and a sous chef!

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The class was l`arte di abbinare il vino al cibo, or the art of pairing wine with food. Wine pairing is something I have never learned much about. I know generally how to pair wine with food, but can’t claim to have created masterful pairings in the past or understand why wines sometimes pair well and other times do not. To start, we simply tasted a prosciutto toscano paired with prosecco. So right away on the first thing we tried I learned something because I would have never thought prosecco would be a great pairing with prosciutto. Chef Gennaro Napolitano who taught the course is also a sommelier, so it was so fun talking to him about the process of tasting the food and the wine. This pairing of food worked for a couple reasons. First, the strength of smell of the prosciutto matched the strength of smell of the prosecco. If you have a very strong smelling dish of food, you want a strong smelling wine to match, otherwise the flavor of the wine will get lost (since smelling plays a large part in tasting). Second, the acidity of the prosecco balanced the richness of the meat. We first just tasted the prosciutto. Not only did I taste salt and a bit of spice, my mouth was coated with the richness from the fat and it dried my mouth a bit (I’ve never put that much thought into eating prosciutto before). The prosecco’s acidity helped create saliva, offsetting that richness. To prove the point, he had me take a bite of prosciutto and while still chewing, add a sip of the prosecco. It was incredible how the two neutralized each other while still producing a pleasant flavor. This was the perfect start to understand the basics of wine-pairing.

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Next, we started cooking. We made spaghetti with clams and zucchini in a white wine sauce. I am so excited to have learned this recipe because I plan to modify it slightly to recreate the delicious mixed seafood pastas I have tried while in Italy! Although the dish was also delicious as is. Once we completed cooking the dish, we sat down and tried the dish with the prosecco. Again, we sat and talked about what we were tasting, how it paired, etc. I definitely spent more time just sitting and talking in this class than any other, but the conversation was so valuable (and I was taking notes!). Although the pasta and the prosecco paired pretty well, it didn’t pair quite as well as the prosciutto. Again, I would have never guessed that outcome before taking this class.

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Next, we cooked a dish of beef medallions with an herb crust served over a bed of beet greens cooked with raisins and pine nuts. I’ve stated before that raisins and pine nuts are two ingredients I don’t really care for. Raisins specifically, I have never liked, even as a kid. MOM – I liked these raisins!! I didn’t just tolerate them in this dish, I LIKED them! I still didn’t care for the pine nuts, but I actually sought out the raisins as I ate the greens. They were very mild flavored, had been plumped in water before adding to the dish, and actually browned in the pan while we were cooking the greens. So this all transformed the taste of the raisins and they added a fantastic sweetness to the greens. The beef was incredible as well and the dish was dressed with a red wine reduction. We paired this dish with a Chianti Classico 2009 Reserve. Again, the strength of the aromas of the food and wine matched well. And the dryness of the wine balanced the richness of the beef and the greens. During the time I’ve been here, I thought I didn’t care much for Chianti because it is so dry. I now know it just needs to be paired with the right dish!

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To end the class, we tried a couple pairings with a dessert wine. The first was an Italian bleu cheese called maleghino. This pairing was INCREDIBLE. In fact, we had a bottle of dessert wine from Orvieto at home to drink before we left, so the day after taking this class I went to the market and bought maleghino to have at home. I’m not a big fan of bleu cheese. I don’t hate it; I can eat it. But I just don’t prefer it and will often avoid dishes containing any kind of bleu cheese or gorgonzola. I don’t know if that preference of mine will change overall, but I will likely crave this particular pairing. When pairing dessert wine, the rules change. Instead of offsetting richness with acidity, etc, you want to match sweet with sweet. The mold of the cheese was almost spicy, but the body of the cheese was sweet. When tasting the two together, they came together and created a new flavor that was greater than the sum of its parts. And that’s when you know you have found a fabulous pairing!

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Lastly, we had some cantucci with the dessert wine. This is a classic pairing that we have had before in Italy. This was just as enjoyable, though not very notable after the incredible cheese pairing.

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So I never forget the exact pairings, these are the three wines we tasted during this class. Overall, this class was fantastic and I really lucked out getting the individual attention of my own private lesson. It was an unforgettable experience!

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Florence: Day 81

We had such great luck with the recommended restaurants near Santo Spirito (see Osteria Santo Spirito on days 41 & 71 and Trattoria Casalinga on day 44), we wanted to be sure to try the third restaurant that had been recommended in that area, Gusta Osteria. This restaurant was fantastic as well!

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We started with the antipasto casereccio del Gusta, which means the homemade appetizers of Gusta Osteria. It was basically like an appetizer sampler, Italian style. On the plate we had prosciutto, pecorino, a fried ball of something (maybe an arancino?), sun-dried tomatoes, an artichoke bruschetta, tomato and bread soup, and a zucchini and carrot frittata. I’m so glad we had an antipasto platter like this again before we left! Everything on the plate was delicious. The frittata was served room temperature, which is common in Italy. And I’ve come to really enjoy them that way. And the biggest revelation for me was the cold tomato and bread soup! It makes perfect sense. It is like a gazpacho made thick with the bread. It was very delicious served this way and since I love to make that soup, serving the leftovers cold makes it even easier!

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We then split a primi piatti, the spaghetti allo scoglio (spaghetti with seafood). Similar to what we had in Cinque Terre (see day 73), I think this will officially become one of my favorite dishes to have in the summer! Again, this was a mix of seafood tossed with spaghetti in a white wine sauce. I’d have to say the dish we had in Cinque Terre was better, but part of that has to do with the hike we did there and being on the ocean, I’m sure. This was certainly delicious as well.

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The last dish we split was probably not the wisest choice on another hot day, but it sounded good to us at the time. It was the polpettoncino del Gusta con patate arrosto, or meatball with roasted potatoes. It was one huge meatball, served with roasted potatoes and a small lettuce and tomato salad. It was very good, although I would bet I would have been more impressed by it had it been cold outside. Nonetheless, we enjoyed this dish and the entire meal and getting back to one of our favorite piazzas before we head home!

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Florence: Day 80

I had made a “clean out the fridge” risotto a couple days ago. I chopped up a bell pepper and a red onion that needed to get eaten and threw in some frozen peas as well. And we had arborio rice in the cupboard, so a risotto was easy to throw together. I ended up making more than I anticipated, so to use up the leftovers I decided to make arancini. Arancini are fried rice balls, coated in breadcrumbs, generally stuffed with cheese. I was actually surprised and a little disappointed to realize we haven’t had any arancini in Italy yet. So I decided I would just make my own at home! I simply mixed some breadcrumbs, parmesan cheese, and a couple beaten eggs into the leftover risotto. I then formed a patty with a couple tablespoons worth of risotto, put a piece of fontina cheese in the middle and formed a ball around the cheese. I then rolled the ball in breadcrumbs and then fried in peanut oil for 3-4 minutes until golden brown. It was actually the first time I have deep-fried anything myself at home. And I’m happy to say they turned out quite well! They were golden brown, the cheese melted in the middle, and it was a fun way to transform leftover risotto into a new dish.

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It was another hot day, so we decided to try out a new gelateria. I had my eye on this particular place, Edoardo, for quite some time and it did not disappoint! They had some very unique flavors including a moscato sorbet. I paired it with a peach sorbet (the fruit/wine sorbet combo sounded best to me in the heat) and Joe had moscato with melon. My moscato/peach combination tasted like a bellini in ice cream form. It was such a great treat on such a hot day!

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Florence: Day 79

Erin flew home yesterday and Joe, Emily and I took the day to recover from all the fun and traveling and catch up on cleaning, laundry, etc. It felt really good to take a day mostly at home, but today we were ready to venture out again. One of my favorite places in Florence is the new Mercato Centrale, upstairs from the old Central Market. It’s a beautiful space that opened about a month after we got here with a handful of artisans providing different types of food, both for consumption at the market, take away to eat at home, or you can buy groceries to cook at home. Today we decided to try out a few of the dishes available for lunch at the market.

Temperatures were still in the nineties, so we still didn’t feel like anything too heavy. We first tried the fruit and vegetable stand (la frutta e le verdure). The artisan is a local organic farmer, and in addition to produce that you can buy and take home, they offer fresh juices and smoothies and 3-4 plated items for lunch. We chose the farro salad which was simply dressed with some incredible olive oil and was served with tomatoes, onions, cucumbers and basil. It was perfect for a hot day and Emily loved it too!

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There is an entire stand dedicated to buffalo mozzarella and they were offering a caprese salad made with burrata, which is fresh mozzarella with a cream center. Everything on this plate tasted incredible, just as you would imagine a caprese salad to taste in Italy!

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Lastly, we tried the fried mixed vegetables from il fritto e le polpette, which means the fried and the meatballs. We got a mixture of eggplant, zucchini and bell peppers. Unfortunately it was later afternoon and the vegetables weren’t freshly fried, so they were a bit soggy and heavy. These were a disappointment. But the first two dishes were so incredible, it was still a very enjoyable lunch!

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Florence: Day 77

Today was a balmy 95 degree day in Florence. Erin and I walked around the Boboli and Bardini gardens all morning and then met Joe and Emily for lunch in our favorite piazza, piazza della Passera. We returned to Trattoria 4 Leoni where we had dined early on in our time in Florence (see day 8).

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Erin and I had certainly worked up an appetite, but it was also so hot that none of us felt like anything very heavy for lunch. We ended up just ordering an antipasti, a salad, a primi piatti and a side dish and having them bring everything at once. The antipasti we ordered was a mixture of local pecorino cheeses served with local honey. Pairing cheese and honey is very common in Italy. I will miss all of the varieties of pecorino in Florence. Pecorino Romano is nothing compared to these! I will be curious to see if I can find other varieties in the states.

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Erin had never tried gnudi, and I hadn’t tried any here except for what we made in my gnocchi cooking class at Giglio cooking, so we decided to order a plate. Basically, it’s spinach and ricotta ravioli filling formed into a dumpling and served without the pasta. These were so flavorful, yet light!

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We wanted to order a side vegetable and I can’t get tired of the abundance of zucchini flowers here. One of their vegetable sides was fried zucchini flowers which we all thought sounded good. These were delicious, though heavier than any of us were in the mood for. They had a thicker coating than I expected. Having said that, we certainly didn’t have a problem finishing them.

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Lastly, we all thought a salad sounded great on such a hot day, so we ordered the restaurant’s signature salad. It was a mix of greens and arugula with avocado, tomatoes, pine nuts, emmental cheese and an arugula pesto. This salad was light, crisp and hit the spot perfectly! We combined all of these dishes with a bottle of cold white wine and it ended up being the perfect amount for a lunch of substance, but not heaviness.

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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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