Category Archives: Italy

Picnic at Palazzo Pitti

Let’s face it: traveling through Europe can be quite an expensive endeavor. And if you’re like me, there’s always an infinite amount of places to visit, an infinite amount of food to eat, but definitely not an infinite amount of money to make it all work. The last thing you want to do is spend your vacation eating McDonald’s everyday, which is what one German couch-surfer did while staying at my D.C. group house few years ago (I think he may have been a McD super-fan though, as he seemed pretty happy about it). Don’t get me wrong, I definitely have my McDonald’s cravings once in a while, but anyway, I think a  gourmet picnic is an excellent compromise.

Granted this works best with nice weather, the idea is basically to go to a fresh Italian market, pick up food that doesn’t need (much) preparation, and go somewhere incredible to eat it. I was in Florence a little while back with my eating buddy, B, and we made up a great system for traveling together: spend the majority of our money on food, and the rest of our funds on select historical sites and museums. We went to the famous San Lorenzo Mercato Centrale food market in Florence and were overwhelmed with fantastic lunch options. There were plenty of locals grabbing a bite to eat at their usual food stalls, chewing slowly and watching the chaos of indecisive tourists circling the market several times, or struggling to articulate what it is they wanted to the loud and abrupt Italian waitstaff, who were just trying to get through the lunchtime rush. My friend B and I were among those who circled the market over and over, trying to investigate all the unique merchandise (cow face, anyone?) until we realized that we were starving and that it was decision time.

There was a section in the market just for prepared foods. First thought: we should probably eat some vegetables. After my previous discussion about contorni (healthy side dishes that usually include vegetables) and how I usually opt for something new and delicious-sounding that has carbs or cheese in it, my eating buddy and I decided to look for the healthy stuff. I got a nice mix of roasted peppers, carrots, eggplant, and zucchini (yum!), and some fresh ricotta ravioli with pesto (no carb left behind…), which the food stall staff packed up for us in a little container to go. B also picked up some fried fish and bread. We were then mesmerized by this beautiful salumerie stall by the exit, where we asked the salumerie man to pack us a sampling of his favorite meats, and somehow resisted eating our food for the next twenty minutes while we walked over to the Pitti Palace, the original home of Florentine banker Luca Pitti, which later became the Medici family’s “treasure house” and living quarters. It had a large, foreboding, fort-like presence that was undoubtedly meant to intimidate commoners and let them know just who had more money, as if that wasn’t obvious enough. The impenetrable exterior was protecting the most beautiful palace grounds and gardens, with a spectacular view of Florence.

This was where B and I wanted to eat our picnic lunch, where the Medicis once ate theirs. We walked up to the highest point in the Boboli gardens and sat down on a bench in a smaller, enclosed garden.

The salumerie man definitely knew what he was doing, he gave us the classics– different types of regional salami as well as some refreshing spicy salumi.

We made salumi sandwiches and also had some of the ravioli and veggies.

It was a perfect traditional lunch in the privacy of the most beautiful palace in Florence. I’m sure the Medicis had an entourage of butlers, maids, and chefs, and a spread of the most exotic foods, but we were perfectly content sitting on a bench with our small plastic containers of fresh, local food, in our very own Florentine garden.

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Venice in Black and White

Visiting Venice in the winter is like being in a timeless, romantic black and white movie. My friend and I went during a particularly foggy couple of days and were amazed by how the entire city is transformed at this time of the year. The sky was colorless and blank, while the city itself was made up solely of varying shades of black and gray. Humphrey Bogart circa 1940 could have floated by in a gondola and I would not have been the least bit alarmed.

Being on a real life, black and white movie set has its perks. One: your pictures from any angle in the entire city look classic and beautiful, AND pictures of yourself and your friends instantly look artsy, reflective, and deep. Two: Many of the streets and small alleyways are quiet and shiny from all the rain and intermittent flooding– a huge contrast to the hectic tourist season in the spring and summer, when you can’t move your big toe without making awkward (but necessary) contact with a fellow tourist or baby stroller. Three: Just as you start to feel listless and tired of seeing a world in two tones, you can just step into a great Venetian restaurant and have some colorful food!


Oliva Nera

Castello, 3417 Venezia, Italy 30122- (+39) 041 5222170

Oliva Nera: a small, family-run establishment. The restaurant is dimly-lit, cozy and warm, with a very friendly husband and wife team managing the entire experience. I told them I spoke some Italian but hoped to get more practice, and the wife proceeded to explain everything to me slowly in Italian, then once again in English so my friend could also understand without my translating. I must admit, out of all the restaurants I’ve been to in Italy so far, the service has never been more patient and accommodating. The menu is a bit on the pricier side, as is the case with many restaurants in Venice– about 15-20 euros per primo dish– but as my friend and I were on a mission to spend most of our money on food and not on sight-seeing, we rolled with the punches.

1. Combination of Venetian antipasti

My stomach is seriously growling with hunger at the thought of this dish. The round, white mound on the left is baccala mantecato alla veneziana, or dried, salted cod mixed with cream, olive oil, and garlic. Baccala is is loved by many European (and perhaps other) cultures, particularly the Spanish. However, this Italian preparation is absolutely delicious, especially when paired with the crostini we had two baskets of. I found a recipe for it, that I would love to try soon…once I get some hands on some salted cod!

The other appetizers consisted of a mixture of carmelized onions and sweet golden raisins with salty soft-shell crab, a pickled anchovy, and a large basil leaf. The waitress explained that Italians appreciate sweet and sour tastes, much like the Chinese. Hmm..guess so! At any rate, my friend and I mopped up every last bit of the most delicious olive oil in the world as well as any remaining bits of baccala with our crostini and could not wait to see what was next.

Fried Zucchini Flowers

In retrospect, I’m not sure why I ended up taking only one picture of one lonely fried zucchini flower left on the plate…but while we were very systematically demolishing the others I suddenly realized, I did not take any pictures of these giant fried zucchini flowers! I would say that this is one of the toughest things about food blogging- sometimes you just want to eat everything in front of you the moment it comes out and sacrifice the picture for the enjoyment of it all. I loved that the crispy fried flowers were served on top of thin strips of dark green zucchini flavored with that same amazing olive oil.

2. Squid Ink Pasta with Shrimp

I’ve always had a weird curiosity about squid ink pasta. I’m not sure what initially inspired the Italians to add this rich black coloring to their beloved pasta, but I am all for it. It has a very, very subtle hint of squid and seafood, and is great with a light, barely perceptible but flavorful seafood sauce. This dish seemed so simple– sauteed with onions, zucchini, and carrots– that I felt like I was eating at someone’s house. I think it was generally good, but I would have preferred some fresh herbs or a white wine sauce to bring out the taste of the squid ink pasta.

3. Panna Cotta

Of course we weren’t exactly planning to have dessert after the big meal, but somehow, the owner of the restaurant was able to persuade us. The owner stood over our table and drew a picture of a flower on our brown paper place mats and proceeded to carefully write the name of each dessert in each flower petal, while explaining each dish. When he was finished, my friend and I looked at each other and said, “Alright…what do you want to get??” After all, this guy put so much work into it that we felt the desserts must have been worth it. And of course it was.

The panna cotta was the perfect texture– as opposed to the super gelatinous, stiff panna cotta we had tried at another restaurant the day before– and was complemented by the most delicious purple berry sauce on top, and a smooth, yellow vanilla sauce on the bottom. When we finished, the owners presented us each with a bottle of their own brand of olive oil, that we had tasted throughout the meal. Yes! We sat at the table for a while longer, savoring our meal and discussing what we were going to do about the Italian food situation back in the US, and eventually wandered back onto the movie set. Now if only I can decide what the perfect use for this incredible little bottle of olive oil would be, I will be all set. Would love to hear some suggestions! 🙂

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Food Enlightenment in San Gimignano

As I travel around Italy and across Europe, the most difficult thing for me is picking the perfect restaurant. I am always determined to find the most perfect local meal in the few days that I have at each place. This can be kind of a difficult mission, as restaurants in Italy tend to be closed on random days and/or hours of the day and of course the food might not be all it was advertised or reviewed to be. In the event that any of these factors prevent me from having my good meal, I am sad and dejected for the rest of the night. Childish? Yes, I am aware. Incredibly annoying for those associated with me? Perhaps. But I am happy to say that the opposite was true for Cum Quibus, an amazing little restaurant in San Gimignano. In fact, it was so good that it is one of my most memorable meals in Italy to date.

The food was quintessentially Tuscan-Sienese: incredibly simple, made with a few fresh ingredients; inspired by local produce and meat, such as wild boar (cinghiale), beans, lard, and ribollita, or “leftovers” soup originally made with day-old bread and vegetables by Tuscan peasants.

We arrived at precisely 8pm. We had actually spent the hour before wandering the frigid town with nothing to do– we had already shopped the entire main road, climbed to the top of the tallest tower, visited a cafe, took a million pictures–and kept looking at our watches until it was the proper Italian dinner hour. We were the first ones there. This is usually a cause for concern because you are not sure if it means the restaurant has become terrible and subsequently abandoned by everyone in town, but the atmosphere was homey and endearing, with exposed brick, plenty of Italian floral still-life and market-scene paintings. Plus we were starving and relieved to escape the cold.

My friend and I were admittedly more willing to spend money on food than on tours and museums when traveling, but luckily everything at Cum Quibus was reasonably priced if compared to an Italian meal in the US (primi are about 10 euros, secondi range from 13 to 18 euros). We shared three dishes.

Cum Quibus

Via San Martino, 17  San Gimignano, Italy 0577 943199

Primi:

Ribollita

The ribollita was a chunky and traditional combination of bread, Tuscan beans, garlic, tomato, and a wide variety of local vegetables, including kale, carrots, and cabbage. The soup was born out of necessity as peasants in the Tuscan countryside were constantly looking for ways to prolong the life of their food. Fortunately, they had the skill to transform day old bread and leftover vegetables into a filling, all-encompassing dish for us to eat today. At Cum Quibus, they added a rosette of thinly shaved raw red onion for a sharper bite as a contrast to the soothing flavors of the soup. However, they are shaved so thinly that the raw onion mellows out a bit in the hot soup and balances all of the ingredients.

I’ve had ribollita in Florence at Il Latini, and noticed several differences. At Il Latini, the soup was well blended and had a stronger flavor that was more focused on the taste of kale. It was also not garnished with raw red onion. Although Il Latini’s ribollita was good, I preferred this version of the soup, particularly in that it retained the original textures of the ingredients and had more balanced flavor.

Pici alla Montalcinese, fresh thick spaghetti with white ragout of beef and bacon

There isn’t much to say about this dish. Just please look at the picture below.

Pici is a thick, homemade spaghetti that is typical of the Siena province of Tuscany. I, for one, am a big fan of large, chewy al dente noodles, regardless of cuisine (i.e. Japanese udon noodles, or Taiwanese hand-cut noodes). I’ve had pici with red sauce, but the simple white ragout brought out the freshness of the noodles. I really loved the simplicity of the dish and of course the dreamy combination of butter, beef, and bacon. Extra points for presentation too.

Secondi:

Controfiletto alla griglia con lardo agli aromi (Grilled sirloin of beef with aromatic lard)

One of my favorite Italian food discoveries is lardo agli aromi, or flavored lard. Before you judge, let me just tell you that it is absolute perfection. The lard is seasoned with many herbs, such as sage, rosemary, and pepper, and is bathed in a marble basin with garlic for at least six months. It is sliced so thinly that its outer layers melt, leaving just a small, salty lump of amazing flavor.

The steak was covered with the flavored lard (also known as Lardo di Colonnata), which was seasoned further with additional fresh herbs. The meat itself was perfectly cooked but the lard single-handedly transformed the great steak dish into what I considered to be food enlightenment: lard is good. Lard can be flavored and can make everything better. I could not believe that US customs would ever protest my bringing a huge chunk of lard to share with my fellow Americans. I would be a hero.

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San Gimignano, Italy: Home of the Original Skyscrapers

San Gimignano is a small town in Tuscany, about an hour by bus from Florence. Given its key location in between Florence and Siena, it was once an important stop on the Medieval pilgrimage route, and the center of two warring factions in the 12th century. At the height of its power, the many wealthy families in town built a total of seventy towers to showcase their wealth and power–also referred to as the “original skyscrapers” by locals. Today, the 14 remaining towers are a testament to the city’s ability to withstand war, weather, and time.

Although traveling during the winter means imagining what the countryside might actually look like when things are lively and green, the slightly eerie empty fields create a very beautiful but ghostly effect.The town is surrounded by a large fortress-like medieval wall, that shelters the most picturesque little Italian town. This was the peace and quiet we had been looking for! Besides the occasional tourist and/or local milling about, there was pretty much nobody and no cars in sight. In fact, the one prevailing sound within the entire 10 mile radius of San Gimignano was that of the thunderous wheels of my friend B’s little suitcase as they rolled and echoed loudly over each and every bumpy cobblestone across town– much to the dismay of all the locals who peered at us from their windows because they probably thought a space shuttle was blasting off dangerously close to their town. B and I couldn’t stop laughing hysterically at our sad/hilarious tourist attempt.

There were plenty of leather and food specialty shops along the main road, where there were about ten people (and plenty of boar heads)…Tuscany is all about the wild boar (cinghiale)!  Wild boar prosciutto, salami, and meat can be found at various specialty shops all over town.

There are several points around San Gimignano with panoramic views of the countryside. The tallest tower measures approximately 54 meters (a bit more than 10 stories), and is one of the main attractions in town, as you can climb a decent amount of stairs to the top for magnificent photo ops of the San Gimignano skyline and a chance to count all 14 towers. Beware of the steps down though– I’m not very afraid of heights but I did have trouble going down the stairs because they are made of see-through metal grates!

It got dark pretty quickly, and B and I tried to find something to do after our amazing dinner– to be detailed in my next post. It was dangerously cold out, but we put on our extra pairs of socks, sweaters, and ventured out to find something to do. By this time of the night, the streets were completely deserted because all of the smarter people were nice and warm at home or in their neighborhood restaurant. We were already full and all the stores were all closed, so we ducked into a local wine shop that was about to close and found an Italian family completely settled into what seemed to be their permanent seats at the bar, relaxing and chatting animatedly. We asked for a recommendation for an inexpensive bottle of local wine and retreated back to our hotel room, where we watched a bizzaro vintage Italian movie on the only tv channel that worked. I loved that the feeling of having only two options in front of me for once– to either stay outside in the freezing cold with multiple layers of socks or to stay inside in a warm hotel room and decipher the plot of a 1970s romantic comedy that suddenly turns into a dark murder film at the last second.  Wouldn’t you have done the same?


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The truffles are here!

Truffle hunting: an intense, risky treasure quest requiring skill and instinct, traditionally shared by both Italian men and wild female pigs. (For culinary enjoyment and out of mistaken identity during mating season, respectively). Upon unearthing these treasures, the truffle hunter can sell each truffle for approximately 250 euros per 100 grams in Italy. In 2006, a wealthy businessman from Hong Kong purchased the most expensive truffle in the world at $160,406– an Italian white truffle weighing in at 3.3 pounds. Truffles are prized for their strong, unique flavor that infuse naturally with other ingredients and enhance any dish. They require several years to grow undisturbed in the root systems of oak, pine, or beech trees, before they are found by trained truffle hunting dogs that can also cost several thousand dollars. Truffles were traditionally hunted by wild female pigs who confused the strong scent for that of a boar. But because pigs are essentially un-trainable, dangerous, and end up destroying many delicate root systems, dogs make much better truffle-hunting companions.

During my Bologna market tour, I visited a specialty store that sold fresh white truffles. As soon as the store owner opened one plastic bin filled with fresh white truffles, Continue reading

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Demystifying Bologna’s Food Markets

Going to an Italian fresh food market for the first time can be a daunting experience. Regulars trade stories and recipes with the butchers, while pointing animatedly to cuts of meat based on the age and gender of the animal. Rows and rows of freshly-cut legs of prosciutto are stacked on the shelves of each salumerie, or  specialty “cold-cut” shop.


Fresh vegetables stands are lined up on the side of the street, often consisting of some never-before-seen plant species. Case in point… what am I supposed to this? And at the fish market, how would I even begin to deal with these?

After many confusing trips to the food market, I decided to schedule a food market tour Continue reading

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How to Make Delicious Pasta Sauce with 3 Simple Ingredients

There are times when, at the end of a long day, or upon returning from a weekend trip, I suddenly realize that my refrigerator is not actually “refrigerator-ing” anything. Somehow, the most random of food items end up being the surviving contents of my previously fully-stocked fridge. Unless you are some kind of food magician who can make something edible out of ramen noodles, ketchup, and one celery rib, I  highly recommend you stock up on these three basic, inexpensive ingredients that make up a delicious pasta sauce, even in the most dire of circumstances: canned tomatoes, butter, and onions. It also doesn’t hurt to have a small-ish block of Parmesan cheese sitting around in your fridge either- it can last for a while!

My friend Thuan discovered this recipe Continue reading

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