Whilst both Japan and England possess any amount of generic “Italian” restaurants, it took a visit to Florence itself to really appreciate the good stuff. Most guidebooks and websites mention before anything else, crostini and the infamous bistecca alla Fiorentina, a T-bone steak of a fashion but of gross, almost American, proportions, but in reality the food had a great variety, often very historical or culturally based; ‘peasant food’ such as boiled beans, Tuscan bread baked without salt (the result of a disagreement with Pisa); also truffles and game and unfashionable pieces of the cow such as tripe. Personally I found it delicious, right from the beans to the haughtiest dishes. I think for me the main thing was the food was not overly elaborate or scientific, instead trusting to the freshness of the ingredients to speak for themselves. The fresh herbs and tomatoes were wonderful – something you will miss living in Tokyo – and in some places, the olive oil was good enough to drink; bright green, cloudy and fruity like a juice. Florence is the most popular city for tourists on earth and filled with hideous restaurants offering generic pizza, generic pasta, generic beers; one must be careful to avoid at the least the most overt traps. In fact the more traditional restaurants will refuse to serve pizza, and even in the most extreme cases, pasta, as not being Tuscan.
Crostini laden with smashed-up olives, chicken liver or tomatoes and herbs. Very good, but dangerous to indulge in too much before the steak of infamy. Most restaurants take their meals very seriously offering a starter, then a pasta or similar dish, and then a main course (almost appearing shocked if you do not order the full three courses) but as my powers of digestion wane with increasing age it was prudent to order only a few dishes and share them amongst dining companions.
Tuscan white beans seasoned with just salt and a little olive oil; simplicity is genius.
Other starters included the various types of cured meats, from the ubiquitous prosciutto to more esoteric game or cured sausages. These were always served with Tuscan unsalted bread, which must be eaten with moderation if one is planning on tackling a steak for afters.
Two specialties of Florence particularly stick in the mind: truffles (for which my liking borders on sinful) and porcini mushrooms. Although I was in the city too early for the season for the fresh stuff, I ate some excellent examples of both. I must visit again in autumn, when they are in season; indeed you can go picking porcini mushrooms in certain areas.
The more strategic diner should choose a simple pomodoro-sauce pasta, as it is not overly filling nor greasy but still, made with fresh sweet Tuscan tomatoes, very delicious. The Florentine steak usually has to be ordered an hour or so in advance, or at the very start of the meal (presumably because it has to be returned to room temperature before grilling) leaving plenty of time to fall into the pit-trap of stuffing oneself with richly dressed pastas, great chunks of bread and glass upon glass of Chianti.
The colon-busting Florentine steak arrives at table; this is a serving for two, and it is thick as a paving block. The steak is a marvel of well-hanged matured beef, cooked just how beef should be, in my opinion – bleu – and requiring no more dressing than salt & pepper and a swab of Tuscan olive oil. Wondrous after so long in Japan, where beef is so hideously warped by wagyu. Since my companions at table had not been so tactical in their dining, by the time the steak arrived they were reduced largely to wine or grappa drinking games and grasping one another, giggling; I was obliged to eat Florentine steak for four. It was wonderful.
Game seemed to be a big feature in Florence too, and although it was not season, dishes of wild boar and rabbit were on offer in every restaurant I went to. The dish below is wild boar stewed in red wine with Tuscan olives and served on some kind of delicious potato-waffle.
This is rabbit ragu served with papardelle. I do like the large flat varieties of pasta, which are hard to get here in Japan yet so important for ragus and thick sauces.
One discovery I made during my trip was Florentine fast food: trippa. Although there is any number of hideous MacDonalds and Starbucks about the city, I sought a more native lunch and came across trippa and its cousin lampredotto; served in a bun and laced with hot chilli oil and a herb salsa verde, and taken with either a cup of wine or a native Moretti beer for the princely sum of four and a half or five Euros all told. I gather you can also have it served in its soup, to be eaten with bread or potatoes. This particular photo is lampredotto in a bun I bought from a stall just south of Santa Maria Novella train station, run by a very glamorous young couple. Florence is full of beautiful people – improbably proportioned, fashionable women and immaculately dressed, fashionable men – so it is hardly surprising the makers of lampredotto should be so too.
I gather the difference between trippa and lampredotto is the particular stomach of the cow it is taken from, and after trying both I believe I prefer the lampredotto, so named for its apparent similarity to the agnathan (served up as a health food here in Japan, but allegedly the dish that caused the demise of King Henry I, much in the manner that tenpura did for Tokugawa Ieyasu). Tripe-stands are rather spread out in the city, and I sampled four – often being mocked by my travelling companions for my willingness to walk half-way across the city just for tripe – but I found the one I like most, and returned to twice, was the one featured in the photo at the start of this entry: tripperia di Sergio e Pierpaolo, on Via de Macci.
Despite my wild ravings on the food almost bordering on enthusiasm, I must say that breakfast was a most disappointing meal during my stay in Florence. Hideous little sweet things and contemptible little cold breads; nary an egg or toast or sausage or marmalade in sight. Indeed, the only thing saving breakfast was the coffee, which was amazing; probably among the best I have ever drunk; even though I am not a great coffee maniac.
For the digestion, and to wrap up this rather disjointed and image-heavy post, here is a dish of grappa. It was good enough to drink at room temperature and I toyed with the idea of picking up a bottle at the duty free shop on the way home; however, like so many of these things (such as the arrack I drank in Sri Lanka) it would not really be the same drinking it at home, so I look forward to visiting Florence again where I can drink it in its native heath.