Day 1: We reach Florence around 9:30 on the morning of November 27th. We are famished. After dropping off our luggage at Hotel Maxim, near the Duomo, we head out in search of food. The sandwich shop that I had planned on eating at, a hole-in the wall called I Fratellini, is closed for repairs. We need to find alternatives. We decide to drop into Procacci – a gourmet sandwich shop, to taste their famous finger sandwiches. We try the (tiny) truffle sandwich and a (tiny) wine jelly sandwich. They are strictly ok. And we are still hungry. So we share a frittata to fuel our walk to Mercato Centrale- Florence’s most famous food market.
At Mercato Centrale, I know exactly where I want to go. I need to bypass all the hanging cuts of meat and get to Baroni’s Cheese Stall and the Conti stall, which I’ve read are across from one another. Once we reach the stall, I am unsure of what I need to do. There seems to be a filming of some sort at the Conti Stall and I feel too unimportant to try and catch somebody’s attention. At the Baroni stall I feel a little unwelcome and so venture back to the Conti Stall. A woman (from the Conti family) finally spots me and with welcome warmth asks me if I want to taste some olive oil. I nod and she informs me that because of the filming, she will take me to another site (also part of their store) where somebody will take us through the tastings. I begin to feel a surge of excitement.
At the site, Stefano Conti’s son takes over. He suggests that we taste the balsamic vinegars before we taste the olive oils. We start with regular table vinegar, which is already more delicious than any department-store vinegar I’ve tasted. And then it just gets better, as we taste a range of balsamic vinegars – a 10-year aged vinegar and then the traditional vinegars- 15 years and 30 years.
Here, take a peek.
The more aged a vinegar is, the more syrupy sweet it becomes, losing the puckery tartness that characterizes the younger vinegars.
We decide to get the 10 year vinegar which has a syrupy ‘top note’ and a slightly tart finish- a perfect complement to the parmesan cheese it is drizzled on.I almost buy the 15 year traditional one which is smooth, sweet and delicious and would be a lovely accompaniment to any dessert- but I resist.
We then move on to sampling some of the new olive oil. Tuscan oils have a very characteristic ‘peppery’ flavor which I find interesting. There is one particular oil that we taste which has an unusually strong artichoke flavor. This place is a foodie’s delight- so many wonderful things to sample (and buy) and absolutely delightful service.
We taste cheese dipped in various mostarda (a tart jam like preserve) including Judy’s wonderful mediterranean mostarda (that I still regret not buying). However I do buy a tiny jar of some divine white truffle honey (that we are told was invented at Conti and is their signature item) , a jar of black truffle salt and some fresh fettucine pasta that needs to be dunked in boiling water for just two minutes to cook. I also get a small bottle of truffle oil and a jar of ‘tuscan herb mix’ as a gift for my uncle and aunt, whom we’ll be meeting at Christmas.
Happy and armed with these delightful goodies, we head off to La Burrasca, a restaurant recommended at Conti’s. We have a ravioli in a wonderfully flavorful leek sauce and a ribollita (a typical Tuscan soup with beans and old bread), finishing off with biscuits and vin santo (sweet wine). The vin santo is probably not the real deal as it is pretty cheap, hinting more at ‘nail polish remover’ than ‘gourmet dessert wine’. However, it is a very enjoyable meal in an unpretentious and welcoming setting.
In the evening after a round of museum art, we are in the mood for gelato. Atleast S definitely is. Vestri, a chocolate shop, is our chosen gelato destination, specifically because it will also satisfy my hot chocolate craving. The hot chocolate is not bad (but not great) refusing to touch greatness even after the addition of a rummy afterthought. However, the cup of gelato (1 scoop of chocolate and sicilian orange, 1 scoop of pistachio) is amaazing (And although we do not know it yet, the best gelato of our trip). S has another cup with a scoop of chocolate hazelnut and vanilla crunch which is also very good. Spurred on by free bites of yummy chocolates, made in-house, we buy a few squares of chocolate : a very unusual and tasty white chocolate with pink pepper, chocolate with sicilian oranges (with the same bright orange note as the gelato has) and some ginger flavored ones. Not knowing that these chocolates aren’t going to make it with us back to the U.S, we head off for a bit of meandering, near the historic center, before dinner.
We are greeted at Trattoria Cibreo with a cheery Buona Sera (good evening). This is the trattoria that shares the kitchen with celebrity chef Fabio Picchi’s upscale restaurant Il Cibreo. We are a little wary about the service having heard a few stories of unaccommodating and snooty waiters- however we really needn’t have worried. The service is very gracious and friendly. The waiters have this unusual practice of sitting beside you, while guiding you through the menu and taking orders, which we find disarming. The famous yellow bell pepper soup is not on the day’s dinner menu and so, with a little help from our waiter, we order an herby polenta (topped with parmesan cheese) and an eggplant parmesan. The polenta is creamy and homey (and a little bland), offsetting the sharper flavor of the cheese. The eggplant parmesan is good, but I am more taken up with the perfectly spiced cauliflower stew that is served as its side. For dessert (even though we are full), we order the chocolate tart which our waiter says is better than the cauliflower stew. And it is! The crust of the chocolate tart is either very thin(or non-existent), so I realize that this must be the flourless chocolate cake that I have heard great things about. It hits the spot and we happily head home.
Day 2: We stop by Pugi bakery in the morning, to taste their famed schiacciata (tuscan flat bread) before visiting the monastery in Piazza San Marco, just across the street. We also try their yummy mini pizzas, our favorite being the one with tomato sauce and cheese. After this hearty breakfast, we take huge dips into some glorious art before hunger finally strikes at around 1:30 p.m.
Al Tranvai turns out to be the perfect stop to round off a beautiful afternoon of lingering in Brancacci Chapel (in the San Frediano area, across the Arno river). The service is so warm, the restaurant so comfy, yet unpretentiously artsy. And the food is so delicious, light yet filling, that I feel like smilingly sinking into a cozy snuggleful slumber. Oh yes, the food. We start with a fig and fennel cake (yes- I love mixing up courses and the waiter sweetly obliges) that is warm and tasty- soft crumb and bits of fruit. Then, we order a leek risotto, which tastes just like something from a home kitchen- if I had an Italian grandmother, this is what she would feed me. Once we lick our plate clean, I am ready to order another plate of exactly the same risotto. However, since it is in the nature of travel and travelers to sample a variety of things/food, we order a plateful of zucchini fritters, as per our waiter’s suggestion (who says he prefers them to the artichoke fritters). Like the rest of the meal, this too is perfect- crisp on the outside, with the juicy zucchini flavor intact. Look up and enjoy the handwritten menu (and the huge brass pepper grinder).
Our original dinner plan revolves around tasting the melt-in-your mouth gnocchi at Trattoria Nella. However, tired after an evening of visiting the Uffizi and searching for and tasting the gelato at Gelateria dei Neri, we are ready to call it a night and take the early train to Rome. It is around 5:30 p.m and not many restaurants are open for dinner at this time. We decide to take our chances and walk to Trattoria Quattro Leoni very close to Ponte Vecchio, across the Arno. We are in luck as they are open. I have been dying to try their Fiocchetti (purse pasta)stuffed with pears, in a taleggio asparagus sauce. So that is exactly what I order. Because of our late lunch, we aren’t too hungry and decide to share the dish. And the dish doesn’t disappoint. The pear is not too sweet and provides a great foil to the sauce, which is creamy dreamy heaven.
And with these lovely tastes of Florence tucked away to later drool over, we set off Rome-ward.