You can't make everything from scratch

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Wednesday, July 19, 2006

What I Did on My Summer Vacation, part II: Rome and Florence

The ponte vecchio in Florence

It's extremely difficult to summarize our time in Italy, if only because we spent two weeks there, with a multitude of extremely different food experiences in a wide variety of cities. So I've broken this leg of the trip into two posts, in which I offer one or two highlights from each of the four cities we stayed in, with some general observations thrown in for good measure.

First, Rome. It’s hard to single out one meal as the best based solely on the quality of the food, so I’m going to talk about the meal that was the best experience. As so often happens, it earned that status because it was shared among friends. Our friend André, who lives in Rome, took us out one night with a small group of his friends to a trattoria whose owner, Paolo, they know. The only name I ever saw on the building was something to the effect of "Trattoria Antica," which seemed unusually generic. The food, however, was anything but.

We were all served prosecco shortly after our arrival. Menus were placed on the table, left there without being consulted, and then removed. As if by tacit agreement, we were served mixed fried fish, followed by a variety of perfect vegetable dishes. (At least, the ones that made it to my end of the table were perfect. I can only imagine that the others were even better!)

The selection of secondi was a serious affair: Paolo asked whether we wanted meat or fish, and then made a suggestion based, apparently, on his mood or our appearance or how our appearance affected his mood. Or maybe it was the alignment of the stars. In any event, I had beef straccetti with arugula and my husband had an enormous piece of tuna with tomato sauce. All of this was washed down with excellent house red wine, and finished off with limoncello.

Besides the food being excellent, you couldn't beat the atmosphere: we were sitting out on the uneven street, with the occasional car driving by inches behind us. We had arrived quite late, so the weather was beautiful. The conversation was in a mix of Italian (which we don't speak), French (which we do speak) and English. Also, the evening spun off into one of our better dining experiences in Florence.

Rome being Rome, we had more than one great dining experience. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention another excellent meal, at a small restaurant called "Eduardo II". We were taken here by André as well, though it was just the three of us for this meal. It was another case of André knowing staff at the restaurant, so menus were, again superfluous. Our waiter, Mario, said he would "take care of us." And he did: this may have been the only meal on the whole trip where we had antipasto, pasta, secondo, dessert, wine, coffee and limoncello. And each dish was very well executed. My only regret is that I don’t know the address of the restaurant to recommend it to anyone, though it was near the Piazza Margana.

Next on our itinerary was Florence. On the whole, we found this city rather disappointing as a destination. The place was overrun by tourists, with food prices and quality to match. (I suppose I can't complain too much, since I was a part of the tourist crush.) Among the best things I ate were the lampredotto sandwiches (as discussed in this eGullet thread). I had them from two different stands, one right next to the Mercato Nuovo and the other right next to our hotel on Via Dante Alighieri. I preferred the latter.

In terms of sit-down meals, though, the best had to be at a restaurant called Maso. We ended up here at the suggestion of one of our friends at our big dinner in Rome: Maso is owned by a friend of his, Paola, whom he called from our dinner table that night in Rome to get the restaurant's address. So when we went to Florence, we made a point of dropping in. I also made a point of seeking out Paola and acknowledging her, feeling it would be rude not to. We managed to meet her, and we managed to convey in broken Italian that we were friends of Luc and André, but with no common language between us, conversation was pretty limited. However, we still got the VIP treatment. Based on our experiences in Rome and Florence, it would seem that VIP treatment at a neighbourhood trattoria in Italy consists of the owner sending you a glass of prosecco to start the meal, then allowing you to order what you want, only to whisk away the bill at the end and charge you whatever they feel like - usually an amount that seems barely sufficient to cover their costs.

The food at Maso was excellent all around. The Tuscan crostini (topped with mashed chicken livers) had a wonderful depth of flavour, and the house-made pasta with porcini mushrooms showed both main ingredients to great advantage.

Our time in Italy suggested a few things about food culture there. The first law of Italian dining seems to be Wine Is Cheap, And House Wine Is Good. Nowhere did we pay more than 5 euro for wine for the two of us at dinner, and since the house wines tended to be locally produced, they also tended to be the best accompaniment to the local foods. It’s too bad Canada has the wrong environment for wine to be so casually consumed!

Another thing we noticed was the almost complete lack of chicken dishes on restaurant menus. Given the my husband can't eat red meat, this could have been quite a difficulty, if not for the fact that there were ample fish and vegetarian options at most places. But with respect to the Tuscan crostini mentioned above, one has to wonder where all those livers came from, if the chicken itself is nowhere to be seen on the menu! (And surely any sauce that can be poured over pounded-flat veal could be poured over pounded-flat chicken breast...)

Stay tuned for some thoughts on Bologna and Venice. Hopefully I won’t break the 1,000-word mark on that one, too!


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