Focus on Florence
5 Yummy Things I Learned in Italy
-Francine Segan, Betty Food+Home editor
Florence is a gorgeous city filled with great art, like Michelangelo’s David, and wonderful shopping, like Ferragamo’s handmade shoes and Prada purses. It’s small enough that, after a day or so, it feels familiar and cozy. The only downside to Florence is us … the tourists!
Tourists actually outnumber the natives during the summer, spring and fall, so the best time to experience Florence is actually during the winter. In winter, not only is it less crowded, but everything is cheaper, from restaurants to hotels to designer shoes.
Here are some tips for exploring this amazing city:
1. Hotel dining: I’ve always avoided eating in hotel dining rooms, but not in Florence. Some of the best meals you’ll get in Florence are at hotels. My hands-down favorite is Il Palagio Restaurant at the stunningly gorgeous Four Seasons Hotel.
The restaurant’s executive chef, Vito Mollica, shares some cooking tips:
• Select the very best ingredients and then cook them simply. The more simply you cook the ingredients, the more intense the flavor will be.
• Don’t add olive oil to water when you cook pasta. If your pasta is sticking, it just means you aren’t using a big enough pot or enough water.
• Almost any combination of leftover veggies makes a great pasta sauce. Just toss the cooked pasta with the veggies and a little garlic, oil and Parmesan cheese for an instant pasta primavera.
2. Dinner theater: The best in show in Florence is at Teatro del Sale, a dinner-theater spot. Usually I run away from dinner theater; it’s almost always lousy theater and worse food. But this was some of the BEST food and funniest entertainment I’ve ever experienced.
First you eat, and then they swap out the tables and set up theater-style seating for the show. They serve dozens and dozens of amazing dishes, yelling out the name of each one as it comes out of the kitchen. It’s fresh, delicious and you get all you can eat and all the wine you can drink. All for 30 euros!
The owner and chef, Fabio Picchi, is a hoot. He’s a three-ring circus all by himself, and that’s before the performance. To get a better idea of what I’m talking about, take a peek at this bread he serves; it looks like a Flintstones-style brontosaurus bone.
3. Chocolate!: There’s lots of great chocolate in Florence, yet I didn’t see one overweight Italian in any of the sweets shops. I think it’s because they go for quality, not quantity. Probably the most important yummy thing I learned in Florence is that if you treat yourself to a really fine piece of chocolate, it’s so rich and satisfying that one piece is enough. It actually stops your cravings for other sweets. I think of it as diet food. The best chocolates you can find in Florence are at Amedei and Vestri , and both are available here in the States!
4. Butcher shops: The butcher shops in Florence do everything but come to your house, cut the meat and feed you! The butchers season all sorts of meat, using herbs and even veggies. You just cook and serve.
A few tricks I learned from these oh-so-helpful Italian butchers are:
• Wrap lean roasts with thick, crusty bread and then a few slices of bacon, bay leaves and fresh herbs like rosemary. Tie everything together with kitchen string. The bacon will be crisp, and the bread absorbs all the delicious smoky salty bacon flavors, so you’ll have a sort of instant stuffing side dish to go with the meat.
• Roasted duck breast covered in lots of slices of orange tied on with kitchen string. As it bakes, it makes its own orange sauce.
• Ask your butcher to butterfly and pound a round or flank steak, and then spread all sorts of thinly sliced steamed veggies like carrots, potatoes and celery over the meat. Roll it up and tie it closed with kitchen string. Season with salt and pepper, and bake covered with aluminum foil. It’s like sliced stew!
5. Hearty winter dishes: Winter is the best time of year for food in Florence. The best Tuscan dishes are hearty winter dishes like sole Florentine-style, steak Florentine and ribollita, a thick vegetable chowder that’s even better the next day. Here’s a great recipe you can try at home any time of the year:
1/2 pound dried white beans, like great northern or cannellini
1 bay leaf
2 onions (1 chopped, 1 thinly sliced)
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for serving
3 garlic cloves
1 (28-ounce) can Italian plum tomatoes in puree, chopped
2 cups vegetable or chicken stock, plus more as needed
1 carrot, finely chopped
1 stalk celery, finely chopped
1/2 savoy cabbage, washed and chopped
1 red cabbage, washed and chopped
1 bunch chard, washed and chopped
2 potatoes, peeled and diced
6 to 8 thin slices of day-old Italian bread or baguette
- Soak the beans in 2 quarts of water overnight, and then boil them with the bay leaf and 1 tablespoon of salt until tender, about 1 hour. Discard bay leaf.
- Put about 3/4 of the beans and the cooking liquid into a blender and puree until smooth.
- Reserve the remaining whole beans.
- In a large soup pot, sauté the chopped onion in the oil on medium heat until golden, about 8 minutes.
- Add the garlic and sauté an additional minute. Add the tomatoes, stock, carrot, celery, the cabbages, chard and potatoes. Season with salt and pepper, cook for a few minutes, and then add the pureed beans and sliced onions.
- Cook for about 1 hour, adding more stock, if needed. Then add the bread and the reserved whole beans and simmer for another 10 minutes. Mix well.
- Serve with a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil and sprinkle of Parmesan cheese.