This blog post is a couple weeks overdue. I got back from possibly the most wonderful vacation of my life to Italy and Greece nine days ago. The reason why it’s taken me so long to write this post is because it’s been daunting to try and describe a country’s cuisine in a blog after only being there five days and visiting only three cities, and hardly tapping into everything that the country has got to offer. I’ll be writing the posts for Italy and Greece separately, since it’s unfair to lump the two food experiences in the same category. So here it goes!
Our vacation was over the span of roughly eight days, not including travel days. The plan was to spend approximately four days in Italy and four days in Greece. We decided to fly into Pisa, which is WAY less expensive and only an hour and a half from Florence, our true destination.
Unfortunately I don’t have much to say about Pisa, mostly because there isn’t much to say other than the Leaning Tower was cool! We got in late, around 10 PM, and by the time we checked into the hotel (they lost our reservation) we were pretty sure all restaurants had closed. The only negative thing about Italy (and lots of places in Europe) is that places are closed way too often. Lots of places close around 10 (except for super popular areas), or they close at lunch, or random days during the week, or for random weeks at a time. It sure takes some getting used to after living in NYC where you can find anything you want literally 24 hours a day.
Nevertheless, we thought we’d try our luck and explore a little bit and see if we could find a good introduction to Italian cuisine! After walking a couple blocks we came across a Ristorante Paradise 2 which appeared to be the only place open for miles around. Upon entering, we could tell it was a local spot and had a back garden where some local Italian families were enjoying a late dinner and wine. It wasn’t necessarily the nicest place; it had a cash register where you stand to pay and some plastic tables clustered together on tile flooring. For a fleeting moment I wondered if this would be the best introduction to Italian cuisine, but then my stomach rumbled and I said “screw it, I’m hungry.”
Not gonna lie, this was probably one of my favorite meals. I’m still not sure if the food they served would be extraordinary by Italian standards (actually, I’m sure it wasn’t), but something about being starved and jet-lagged, sitting in the backyard of this little place, with little Italians drinking and smoking around me in the humid night air and a bottle of wine, made this extremely enjoyable. It just so happened to be the perfect introduction to Italian food, because it showed that even in the most average of places the food is still spectacular. The food just tastes better. It’s hard to describe, but it just tastes like more. You can taste more flavor, more salt, more herbs, more grease, more of anything that the dish is supposed to be.
Since it was our first night we decided to pull out all the stops and do as Italians do. In doing research for our trip to Italy, I read that you’re supposed to order antipasto, primi, and secondi, or else the staff will basically label you as a stupid tourist. So why take the risk? Usually, the primi and secondi are not priced as expensively as ordering multiple courses would be in America, so you can get all these courses for relatively the same price as ordering a large meal in the States. Also as a side note, just order the stupid still water bottle instead of trying to get tap water. Even though you can technically drink the water, Italians think tap water is disgusting and they don’t trust the government to provide them with quality drinking water, so “when in Rome…”. We found that the still water bottles were quite large and very cheap, usually around €2. (Unlike in Paris, or as we call it “the land of no water”, because a tiny little bottle of still water will set you back €6.)
A charming quality of this restaurant is that it did not offer its menu in English, so we basically picked out key words and chose at random what to order. Primi is often a pasta dish of some sort, so for primi Matt ordered pasta fritta con cruda and we had no idea what that meant. I ordered delizia di mare and again, the only thing I knew was that it contained seafood. Man oh man were these dishes good.
As it turns out, Matt’s pasta wasn’t pasta at all! It was sliced ham with fried balls of dough! Oh my god it was so good. Layering the meat on the salty dough balls was so perfect. (DISCLAIMER: YES, I ATE LOTS AND LOTS OF MEAT ON THIS TRIP.) The delizia di mare was an assortment of seafood including a grilled shrimp salad, and what I’m guessing was smoked tuna slices, and a warm seafood salad on toast. We couldn’t have made better choices if we had tried.
For our second course we did pizza, of course. Matt ordered the regular margherita while I ordered the diavolo. I had no idea what diavolo was but the waitress suggested it (in broken English). It turned out to be a pepperoni pizza, which I initially was disappointed about but it turned out to be the best pepperoni pizza I’ve ever eaten. It didn’t have gross American pepperoni, but spicy, juicy, pork slices! Ahhhhh.
Let’s not forget the wine. We ordered two half liter carafes of wine for €8 each (such a steal), and it was the most deliciously drinkable wine I had ever had so far. It was juicy and had depth, and was so smooth I could have literally chugged it if I had to (actually, I think we did at one point).
In total with two primis, two pizzas, still water, and a liter of wine, our bill came out to €45.50. Matt and I were shocked that we had gotten all this food for basically $55. In New York we’d be running up a $200 check. Even though they had included the cover charge (usually there’s a €2 “cover” per person at an Italian restaurant that’s the equivalent of a service fee) we felt like we had missed something, so we tried to tip the waitress. Usually in Europe we tip 10-15% or round up and people generally understand that we are giving them a tip for good service. However, when we tried to tip the waitress she was genuinely confused. We tried to explain that we wanted to tip her but she didn’t understand what we were saying and we couldn’t remember how to say “gratuity” in Italian. We stood there at the register for a good five minutes trying to explain that we wanted to give her more money, until the Italians behind us translated for the waitress what our intentions were. She said “oh no, you only pay the bill!” And we were like “uhhhh okay….” So we walked away slightly guilty that we just got an amazing meal for practically nothing.
After taking the train to Florence we arrived at around noon, and checked in to the most darling hotel, Hotel David, and set out for the day. I really wanted to explore the Oltrarno neighborhood, which is south of the Arno River and reportedly had the cutest little shops and restaurants, and was quintessentially Florentine.
The thing I was really craving was a panini! We walked past a couple placed until we came across the cutest little panini place with a great selection of delicious looking sandwiches. They offered paninis and schiacciate (still not exactly sure what this is). I ordered a schiacciate with ricotta, soprassata, and balsamic, whereas Matt got one with cotto (cooked ham), mozzarella, and tomato.
Definitely mine was better than Matt’s, because the balsamic was so sweet/savory/juicy it just filled your mouth with flavor. But both of ours were delicious. The bread and the meat were both so fresh, and the cheese so creamy. It was the perfect midday snack and kept us enthusiastic for more.
By the time we had reached the Ponte Vecchio bridge and walked along the river a little, we were ready for some gelato! I had been looking forward to gelato all summer, mainly because I had deprived myself of ice cream in preparation for this trip. On the edge of the Arno River there is La Carraia Gelateria, which had a line out the door and people sitting around eating their gelato, so it looked like the place to try it for the first time. I got the caramel (a favorite of mine) and Matt got cookies.
Look how creamy and smooth it is…. It was the perfect treat. I couldn’t finish all of it of course and cried a little when I threw the rest away. Turns out, La Carraia is ranked as a pretty good gelato place in Florence — you can always tell by the line!
That evening, we had happy hour at our hotel. Hotel David has a free happy hour with unlimited wine and hors d’oeuvres, which was perfect to start our evening out right. We sat in the garden just sipping our Chianti and nibbling at the smoked peppers and cornichons until we were ready to leave.
Again, the wine was on point even though I’m sure it was a cheap Italian brand. But I guess even the cheapest stuff in Tuscany can rival bottles anywhere else in the world.
We ate dinner that night at Trattoria Pallottino in the Santa Croce neighborhood, which I saw on Foursquare as ranked as a pretty good place to get pasta and Steak Florentine. Sure enough, this was another favorite meal of mine on this trip. We arrived a little early for our reservation, so the waitress gave us each a big glass of Chianti and we sat in the window people watching until our table was ready. The nice waitress seemed so apologetic for our table not being ready 20 minutes early, although we tried to explain that we were just fine! We got our outdoor table which was pleasantly situated on a quiet cobblestone street. For primi, I ordered ravioli al pomodoro and Matt ordered the lasagna! Both were fantastic. My succulent ravioli had a sweet and fresh tomato sauce and was filled with an awesome, creamy ricotta. Matt’s lasagna was piping hot and was layered and baked in a single-portion dish, and was downright smothered with the same amazing sauce and some cheese.
For secondi I ordered the eggplant parmesan and Matt ordered a steak on a bed of greens topped with fresh parmesan. We were both interested in the Steak Florentine but it was €45 per kilogram and could only be ordered for two people, and I’m not a meat eater enough to want that to be my main course. Regardless, we were both so happy with our dishes. Matt told me that it was the “best steak he ever had.” Wow! I did try a bite, and it was seasoned to perfection and so, so juicy! Ahhhh. My eggplant parmesan was equally good but by that point I was starting to get full! Neither of us could understand how Italians eat all these courses all the time and still stay thin.
The next day, the one thing I wanted to do was go to the Mercato Centrale, which supposedly was a big building filled with vendors and restaurants, and where you could buy quality Italian ingredients and eat some really really good food. And yep, that was exactly it. Walking in, there’s a million vendors all selling similar things but specializing in one type of product: things like fresh carved meat, specialty cheeses, olive oils and vinegars, fresh pasta, seafood, etc. We browsed for a little but were starving, so we wandered upstairs where the restaurants are located.
This is probably my favorite food place in all of Florence. Immediately our eyes wandered to a restaurant specializing in truffles, and more specifically, Tagliolini Tartufo, or tagliolini pasta with truffle cream sauce. Tagliolini is made with egg pasta dough, and is popular in Tuscany. We ordered one order of the tagliolini to share, and I think it was my favorite single dish in the whole trip. I’m drooling thinking about it.
LOOK AT THAT. Have you ever seen anything more beautiful? That right there is insanely fresh pasta, cooked to al dente perfection, topped with a truffle cream sauce and FRESH SHAVINGS of black truffles! They don’t do the “truffle oil” nonsense here! Our mouths were literally in heaven, as we washed it down with delicious house red wine brought to us by one of the Mercato’s waitresses.
But wait, the day isn’t over yet. We still had room to continue our splurge. Pizza seemed like the way to go, as we hadn’t had pizza in Florence yet and we weren’t sure how “gourmet” our pizza was from Pisa. I’m not sure of the name of the pizza joint there, but it’s the main one and there’s even an upstairs that you can sit down in and order from a waiter, if you don’t want to stand in line and fight for a communal table among the masses. So that is what we did. We ordered the Napolean pizza, which has the same ingredients as a margherita but the buffalo mozzarella, basil, and tomatoes are fresh instead of cooked, and sprinkled with some savory oregano.
I can honestly say this pizza was unlike anything I’ve ever had. How can separate ingredients come together so seamlessly and deliciously? And the dough… THE DOUGH. It was soft and pillowy at the crust, but still ridiculously thin throughout the pie. The flavors all melted together in my mouth and I couldn’t think of any other time that I had ever eaten pizza.
Mercato Centrale was definitely an epic foodie excursion.
Brief sidenote: For those of you who don’t know, Matt PROPOSED to me later that night!!! Although it’s not food related, here’s a pic of the ring because I’m literally obsessed (and yes, that is a beautiful Tuscan sunset and the Duomo in the background).
I think Matt’s plan was to get me high on truffle pasta and pizza before he popped the question….
To celebrate that night we ate at La Giostra, which is famous among tourists and known as an amazing (yet totally filled with Americans) restaurant. And no, I don’t have pictures because I had to put my phone away because we literally broke the internet that night with our announcement. And to be honest I don’t even remember what we ordered because I was so swept away. But it was good. Sorry.
Ahh Rome. Our last day in Italy. The next day after Matt proposed we hopped on a train for a few hours and arrived in Rome, where we would be spending about 16 hours. Our flight to Santorini would be at 3 AM, which means we would have to leave our hotel around 1 AM (fun, I know.) This meant that we had hardly any time to explore the city aside from the usual touristy locations. So I definitely will not claim to know the city’s food culture.
However, I did notice some striking differences in the food between Florence and Rome. for one, was the tomato sauce. Tomato sauce in Florence, al pomodoro, is fresh looking and chunky with visible basil and herbs in it. Similar to what I would call a marinara sauce. The sauce that we had on two occasions in Rome however was thin, tangy, and almost “Chef Boyardee” looking. It still tasted fantastic no doubt, but I was surprised at how un-Italian it appeared to be.
We first ate at a little place, Da Brunellos’ which is located near the Spanish Steps in a pretty touristy neighborhood. However, the owners of our hotel recommended it as a place that had great food and was cheap but that “cheap did not mean it was bad.” So we tried it out while we were waiting for our room to be ready, and it was pretty good but not awesome. It definitely satisfied our craving for pasta though.
That night we ate after we visited the Vatican at night. We walked quite a ways from our hotel to the Vatican, so in doing so we passed through some neighborhoods that are pretty devoid of tourists. Some restaurants seemed very New York-esque and were filled with young, chattering, well-dressed crowds. We stopped at a restaurant called La Zanzara, and it was cute and trendy but the food was nothing special. It actually had French seeming dishes on the menu, and I got a smoked salmon club and Matt got a seafood pasta, which had hints of vinegar and tarragon in it. The tangy and citrusy flavors were a bit shocking to the palate after scarfing down cheesy carbs for the past few days, but I can imagine that as a Roman it would be a nice place to grab a couple drinks and some late night food. The ambiance was really nice, as there was a large outdoor space with overhanging colored lights that added a fun vibe to the place.
I wasn’t as impressed with the food in Rome than I was in Florence, but of course I barely had time to check out the truly Roman hidden gems. I would love to go back and really get to explore and eat my face off!
I hope this blog post was sufficient to give you a little taste of my food adventures in Italy! My next post will be all about my experience in Greece! Yippee!