Tag Archives: ribollita

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inspired by local produce and meat, such as wild boar (cinghiale), beans, lard, and ribollita, or “leftovers” soup originally made with day-old bread and vegetables by Tuscan peasants.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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One day in Florence…

After a quick train ride from Bologna, we arrived in Florence, the capital city of Italy’s Tuscany region, and birthplace of the Italian Renaissance. We had all visited before, but we had one day (ten hours to be exact!) to go through all of our favorite restaurants and iconic sites in Florence.

Breakfast

Scudieri– Via de’ Cerretani, 2, 50123 Firenze, Italia

We sat down at Scudieri, a classic European cafe with specialty Italian desserts, pastries, and glamorous Viennese chandeliers. Definitely not the usual breakfast establishment I frequented in the U.S.

Croissant at Scudieri

(*ahem my favs Perkins and…Annie’s at Dupont in DC) Since it was a beautiful day outside, we got a table out on the patio, where we were misted with water every 30 seconds by these little sprinklers hidden under the big patio umbrellas. They are meant to keep tourists like us cool, but instead just inspired a debate about the perils of toxic lead water in food. Anyway- day in Florence started with an innocent little puffy croissant. The croissant was crispy on the outside, warm and chewy inside, with a little taste of orange-citrus: the definition of a good croissant, anywhere you go. Paired with a strong macchiato and I was ready for the day.

Pietro got a fluffy prosciutto omelette with fresh mâche. The mache was not seasoned at all because the omelette was flavored with chunks of salty, flavorful prosciutto. You had to get both the mache and omelette in each bite to get the full effect. Delicious.

Omelette with Prosciutto and Mâche

When you walk inside the cafe, you can see platters of small appetizers set up on the counter, and patrons hovering over their espressos while standing up. This is common practice in Italy, as sitting down at a table incurs a cover charge of approximately 2-2.50 euros per person. The platters consist of several varieties of bite-size, crust-less sandwiches, which are referred to as a “buffet”.

Bar counter

Counter at Scudieri

Now for anyone in America (and elsewhere in the world too), a buffet is something entirely different. A buffet is usually: a) all-you-can-eat, b) served in trough-like bins, c) a smorgasbord of food hailing from different countries, and/or styles of cooking. Ah, America. Of course this isn’t the case for some fancier buffets, but these crust-less sandwiches on the counter– these aren’t the buffets I know and love. Although undoubtedly delicate and tasty.

After breakfast, we were ready to re-visit our favorite sites in Florence. We walked over to the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore designed by Filippo Brunelleschi, also known as the Duomo. The lines to enter the cathedral are always pretty long, so for 6 euro each, we opted to climb the 414 steps to the top of Giotto’s Campanile (Bell Tower) for an amazing view of Florence. It is also possible to climb to the top of the Duomo (463 steps), but then you would only get the view of the tower and not the cathedral itself.

This climb might not be for the faint of heart, or the claustrophobic, since many portions of the staircase spiral around in some cramped spaces, but I did see a woman with her foot in a cast and some seven year olds successfully get up to the top, so…basically I think it should be manage-able by most! And did I mention it is totally worth it?

Santa Maria del Fiore, photo credit: Pietro M.

The only advice I have is to bring lots of Purell, or any other antibacterial hand sanitizer. No, seriously. It is a long way up to the top and you are gripping pretty much the same walls that have been around since the 1350s, aka the same walls that have been touched by millions of germy tourists that have made their way through. Think about it.

Lunch

Il Latini – Via dei Palchetti, 6 Firenze, 50123

Il Latini is one of Florence’s most beloved and well-known restaurants. The interior is rustic, with prosciutto hanging from the ceiling and jugs of red wine on every table. There was an Italian kid sitting next to us who was fiercely defending his dessert from his own father. Sadly, I understand how the kid feels. This is how scary people can get when they come here, it is that good.

Il Latini

We weren’t presented with any menus, as the waiters just proceeded to give us what was fresh at the restaurant that day. First, they served us large strips of fresh, thin-cut prosciutto crudo, accompanied by slices of cantaloupe. You wrap the prosciutto around the slices of cantaloupe and eat it together, for a great savory and sweet flavor combination.

Along with the prosciutto crudo came a variety of other amazing antipasti. The Italian salami was another fantastic example of meat curing techniques and great recipes that have been perfected and passed down through time. Texturally, it was quite dense and tough, as salami should be, but the cured flavors presented themselves when I ate it with the fresh bread. The large, white squares of fat were especially flavorful and provided a softer texture to the overall denseness. They also brought us buffalo mozzarella with tomatoes over some salad greens, and a basket of fresh bread.

Prosciutto Crudo

For the primi piatti, we ordered three different types of zuppa, or thick soup. Many varieties of zuppa are made from leftovers, such as day old bread, meat, or produce, that is still edible of course, and incredibly rich in soup form. We had a tomato bread soup (see below, right); ribollita, a soup made entirely of leftovers which included cabbage, kale, tomatoes, and other ingredients; and a creamy barley, tomato, white bean soup that was infused with fresh rosemary. We were instructed by the waiters to drizzle olive oil on top of each soup before eating, which enhanced its flavor.

For more information on the origins of ribollita…please refer to the Food Explainer.

…The Headliner

I was told that Florentine bistecca was a must have. I did not know that it was essentially a Fred Flintstone brontosaurus steak, but it was glorious! I think it was the size of a baby, which meant we had to hold it up and support its head while photographing.

The steak was unbelievably good– very tender, juicy, and of course flavorful. At this stage of the meal, we were all already pretty stuffed with antipasti, zuppa, and various beverages, but I could not let this steak down. I was craving steak the night before after watching an episode of Top Chef, and all I wanted to do was eat this amazing dinosaur-sized steak, which I did to the best of my ability.

Throughout the meal, the waitstaff was very warm and helpful. They overheard us practicing Italian and joked about how they wanted to take Italian lessons from Professor Pietro, and told us about their Italian cousins in Philadelphia. We had a great time, and ended up getting some more dessert drinks, biscotti and vermouth, and two delicious torts. All in all, a fantastic, traditionally Tuscan meal.

We walked around Florence a bit more, and saw the Palazzo Vecchio, the castle-like town hall of Florence and the Piazza della Repubblica, a city square close to shopping (all the main luxury brands, chains like H&M/Zara, as well as some local Italian shops). As it was pretty hot out, we stopped by the Grom gelateria or gelatto shop, which by the way recently made its way to the West Village in NYC.

By the end of our time in Florence, we were all tired, content, and still full from the super Tuscan lunch extravaganza. We took the train back to Bologna and walked home, and yes we stopped by for a slice of pan pizza on the way.

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