Thick Florentine steaks (and Chianti of course) cooked over a wood grill; delicious olive oil and fine balsamic vinegars on every table; gelato, delicious donut peaches, and ripe summer berries galore… but there were also some new delights and specialties like burrata.
I’d never heard of it before, much less tasted it. We were dining in a little pizza restaurant in a small Tuscan village and the burrata was served very simply with ripe tomatoes, salt, and pepper on a shared plate. It is a mozzarella style of cheese with a delicious butter like filling and must be eaten absolutely fresh. When you tear the cheese open, the inside oozes out. It was such a typical Italian treat - simple but incredibly delicious.
Unfortunately we did not dine at that famous butcher, Dario Cecchini’s Ristorante Solociccia, at Panzano in Chianti, but we did stroll amongst the picturesque village markets and stores, and bought some Chianti to take home. Near Tavarnelle, we had a fine lunch at Ristorante la Fattoria even though we were disappointed to miss out on the wood roasted suckling pig as we were nearly two hours late for our booking, due to the typically Tuscan style directions we were given. We settled for Bistecca fiorentina (Tuscan steaks), and a few other dishes we shared with our party, including what looked like ‘Kentucky Fried’ rabbit. Delicious and surprisingly not greasy, fried rabbit pieces served on the best stuffed and lightly battered zucchini (courgette) flowers I’ve ever tasted.
Of course you cannot visit Italy and not eat Pizza! Although originating in the south, it is everywhere in the north. It varies slightly, although Rome was the only place I saw it made square. Pizza alla Romana or Bianca, unlike the Napoletano pizza with tomato, is a crunchy white pizza, made from a thin crust brushed with olive oil and flecked with large chunks of salt, and sometimes flavored with rosemary. Of course most pizza’s had that perfect thin crust. My favourite was from a tiny shopfront in San Gimignano (Tuscany), just of the Duomo square. Huge pizza’s were sold by the slice, and served on these great triangular ‘trays’ made out of something like corflute! They deftly prevented pizza on shirt.
Traditional roman dishes waere suprisingly simple. There was a distinct lack tomato which we often think every Italian dish includes. Typical dishes were Gnocchi alla Romana, made with semolina flour rather than the potato used in the northern gnocchi; and Spaghetti alla Carbonara, a classic creamy sauce made of egg, cheese and guanciale (unsmoked Italian bacon prepared with pig’s jowl or cheeks). Artichokes are also popular in Rome, and other dishes such as pasta fagiole, or bean soup, and rabbit stews, are very hearty and rustic.
In each destination we sampled beautiful seafood. In Porto Ercole it was simply cooked langoustines and pipi’s in a port side cafe. In Venice it was best summed up with a cold seafood platter, and in the centre a big pile of Bacalà mantecà. Salt cod boiled, cleaned and beaten into a delicious paste with oil before seasoning with salt, pepper and garlic. At first I thought it was a very tasty fresh ricotta-like cheese. Also served on the platter was botargo. I’m still not sure if they are cuttlefish or mullet eggs. They sound horrendous but they were tasty! We also tried the classic Venetian dish of Sepe in nero – Cuttlefish cut into small pieces and cooked with garlic, onion, tomato sauce and the black ink of the cuttlefish, served in its characteristic black sauce, atop creamy polenta. Another classic dish is Figà ala venesiana, veal liver cut into small pieces and fried with onions, oil and butter served with creamy yellow polenta.
Classic bar snacks called cichetti are served in the bacaro, or traditional workingman’s pubs frequented water taxi and gondola drivers after a quick snack, as well as other locals and tourists. In the afternoon, the women drink a spritz. The original Venetian recipe consisted of white wine mixed with water. Nowadays, it’s a bitter, summery pre-dinner aperitif made with (1 ounce of) Aperol or Campari mixed with 2/3 glass prosecco and topped with soda or sparkling water. It is usually served in a lowball glass with ice, a slice of orange, and sometimes an olive.
I also had my favourite dessert in all of Italy, served in Venice. It was also the simplest – Burrano Biscuits served which were piled with what I think was whipped mascarpone, dusted with icing sugar. These Bussolà Buranello are traditional or artisan biscuits originally baked on the island of Burrano (the one with the colourful houses) on Easter Sunday, but they are now available year round. They come in a variety of shapes. Ours were Esse, in the shape of an ‘S’. We were also served these as a snack while cruising around the vast and fascinating lagoon. Biscuit in one hand and a glass of the opulently sweet Recioto della Valpolicella in the other – we were told to dunk. Yum!
Talking about wines. I finally got Prosecco whilst in Italy. I’d previously thought it a little dull and flat, but it is just a slightly effervescent white wine, not at all like champagne. In some great little Italian wine bars (Inoteca) we drank the house wines. As we knew little about Italian wine other than Brunello or Chianti, we decided there was little point trying to select from wine lists. We were there to eat anyway. Generally we found that most served decent wines for very reasonable prices. We learnt the secret to a good Bellini also. The peach puree must be made from fresh white peaches. Not canned, not yellow.
There was a wide variety in bread styles in Italy which I had not expected. For instance, in Venice the bread was made without any apparent salt. I found it rather awful – one of the few things I ate in Venice I did not like! In Tuscany, the bread was typical sourdough. These regional food differences are apparent throughout Italy and provide a hint of the relatively short period since unification (19th Century). It’s also reflected in the architecture – which is unique in each major city and region.