Beast: Hey, didn’t you used to live around the corner from this place?
Foodie: Why yes I did! Michelle and I lived–oh wait a second; you’re making fun of me because I always start every story with “oh I used to live around the corner from here when I was fancy and lived in Italy.”
Well I did live around the corner from Alessandro’s, the place I was taking the Beast for our first lunch in Florence. We’d already had two lovely meals by this point; the first was antipasti laid out by our formidable host, Michelle (I lived with her in Italy in case you didn’t know.)
And the second was a lovely late night dinner at Baldovino, a charming spot tucked in beside Santa Croce.
But back to Alessandro’s, a place I hold very dear to my heart. It’s on Via Ghibellina–the same street where some artist named “Michelangelo” once lived. Did I mention I lived around the corner? Well, Michelle and I used to visit this trattoria for lunch quite frequently not only because it was so close but also because it was cheap and best of all, delicious.
When the Beast and I walked in after a morning of vigorous sight-seeing, we were starving. I was delighted to see that the same man (Alessandro?) who used to serve us was behind the bar. And the same woman (Alessandro’s mother?) was dishing up the food. It’s a cafeteria-style spot: you choose the dishes and then carry your food over to the communal tables.
We settled on a breaded veal cutlet, pasta with leeks and speck, some baked vegetables, and their lasagna bolognese. I waited anxiously for the Beast to try the lasagna.
Foodie: So? What do you think? Do you like it? Do you like it?
Beast: I think it’s the best thing I’ve put in my mouth so far.
Foodie: I knew it! Isn’t it just wonderful?
Beast: I can’t imagine eating anything better than this in the next two weeks.
Well there’s a challenge if I ever heard one! And over the next five days we did our best to top Alessandro’s lasagna.
Potato-stuffed ravioli with fresh white truffles, parmigiano and butter came close. We had this in an off-the-beaten-path sort of place called Tullio, which is somewhere between Fiesole and Montebeni. (Notice that I forgot to take a picture before digging in, because the smell was simply too alluring not to mangia it right away.)
The tagliatelle pasta with meat sauce at Trattoria Mario, a tiny gem of a place near Florence’s central market that you just might walk by should you not know any better, came close too. Mario’s is the perfect place to visit for Tuscan home-cooking. The place gets mighty busy at lunch time, and because you eat family-style at communal tables, seating is pretty tight. But any discomfort suffered is worth it for their homemade ragu which is usually on the menu, even though the rest of the menu changes daily.
The simple sandwiches served from a literal hole-in-the-wall, and eaten on the sidewalk along with a itsy bitsy glass of vino rosso, from I Fratellini were pretty darn memorable.
And then there was also pizza at Il Pizzaiolo near the San Ambrogio Market to contend with, not to mention their appetizer platter that showcased burrata, an absurdly decadent and creamy cheese that had the Beast swooning for days.
But I think it was the Bistecca Fiorentina at Perseus that came the closest to knocking off that piece of lasagna from the top of the Beast’s food pedestal. We’d planned on having this local specialty, which is essentially a three inch-thick t-bone cut of beef from a specific breed of cow called Chianina, since we arrived. It was hard to resist it at Tullio–the place in Fiesole–seeing as there was quite literally a mountain of it at the front door.
But the time wasn’t right until Perseus, a beautiful restaurant in Piazza della Liberta that serves, once again, typical Tuscan fare. Michelle and her husband Andrea (real-life Italian!), and another couple, Bruno (half-Italian!) and his fiance Sofia (real-life Italian!) brought us here, and the six of us shared mounds of crostini, platters of salame and two Florentine steaks.
The Italians even let the Beast gnaw on the bones! Sofia, who studies constitutional law, was fascinated not only by the Beast’s Neanderthallic mannerisms, but also by his questions about the history of constitutions.
Sofia (to me): What is it with him?
Foodie: How do you mean?
Sofia: He is just so, how do you say, curious, no?
Foodie: Oh yes, he’s curious alright.
In fact the Beast was so curious during our two week trip that it actually got a little annoying. A typical day in Florence went like this:
Beast: Who painted that?
Foodie: Uh, Branzino I think. No, actually, Vasari…maybe. I don’t know, we’ll ask Michelle.
Beast: What’s the story behind this Rape of the Sabines?
Foodie: Oh you know, it’s when the Romans needed extra women to make more Roman citizens so they took some from the Sabines, err, something like that.
Beast: Why is that there? Who made this? What year did that happen in? Are there people really buried in there? Is that a real skull? Why are there no more Medici left? Can we go in there? I want to touch that. Did somebody actually make all these? How big is the key for that lock?
It wasn’t so much annoying as it was stressful for me. I studied this bullshit for seven years and I didn’t want to let the Beast down, or look like a dummy in front of him. I’m embarrassed to say that I even got out my university notebooks weeks before the trip in order to refresh myself with the basics. It did some good I suppose, but nothing could have prepared me for the Beast’s inquisitiveness.
He was just as bad in Siena too. But I had a better game plan: instead of waiting for him to ask the questions, I’d tell him everything I knew about everything we saw. I blabbered about the age-old rivalry between Florence and Siena; about the early 14th century Sienese painters Duccio, Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Pietro Lorenzetti, and Simone Martini, about the fact that you could have found life-size sculptures of Plato and Aristotle on the facade of Siena’s cathedral nearly 150 years before the Renaissance proper; and about how the cathedral was to be massively rebuilt but then the Black Death hit and all the artists and architects starting dying so the project was haulted mid-construction (you can still walk along the unfinished vaults and enjoy a spectacular view of Siena and the Chianti countryside beyond).
I bet you’re bored. Anybody would be. Except for the Beast. My diatribe only fueled his thirst for seeing more. Thank goodness I had a lunch plan.
I’ve always wanted to go to Siena’s Osteria Le Logge but I never had the money to splurge on fancy food when I lived in Italy (did I mention that I lived here yet?) I don’t really now either, but we were on vacation. Plus, it’s not that fancy. I’d describe it as serving traditional Tuscan food with many modern twists. And they have a beautifully curated wine list too.
Beast: Have I mentioned that I’ve been very impressed with your Italian?
Foodie: No, but thanks. I’m surprised how much comes back when you’re put into a speak-it-or-look-like-an-idiot situation. What are you having?
Beast: I don’t know. But that looks good! (He points to the table beside us who were eating a crostone topped with things that looked very rich.)
Foodie: Why don’t we share that and then we’ll order two primi, and then I’m going to have the vitello saltimbocca for my secondo.
Beast: What’s guancia?
Foodie: That means “cheek”.
Beast: Then I’m having the Guancia di Manzo.
Foodie: Beef cheeks! Good choice. I’ll choose the wine obviously.
After much deliberation I settled on a bottle of Morellino di Scansano. That’s a wine from Tuscany’s coastal Maremma region, and morellino is what they call their local variety of the sangiovese grape.
And then our crostone arrived.
Beast: Oh no.
Foodie: Oh nuts! I guess quaglie means quail. I should have asked.
Beast: You can do this! I won’t let you get away without tasting it.
Foodie: Oh fine. I’ll try a little bitty piece. Oh God, it looks like a dinosaur embryo wing.
Beast: It’s amazing isn’t it?
Foodie: I don’t really taste anything to be honest with you. What’s this yellow stuff again?
Beast: It’s a saffron aioli I think.
Foodie: Ewww. Egg on top of bird. You eat the rest.
Our primi piatti arrived next (Mom, that means our “first plates”. A primo is usually a pasta, soup or risotto. It’s followed by a, you guessed it, secondo, which is typically a meat or fish dish.
The Beast chose pasta stuffed with swiss chard and served in a white bean sauce (above), and I had some sort of herb pasta in a butter and sage sauce. I can’t remember what the orange sauce was. No, I didn’t take notes. And yes, that was really stupid of me.
Foodie: I think I like yours better.
Beast: Me too.
Foodie: I think they both need more salt, don’t you?
Beast: You always think everything needs more salt.
That’s true, and it was true of our secondi too.
Foodie: These look like meatballs, not veal saltimbocca.
Beast: What’s veal saltimbocca?
Foodie: It’s basically a veal cutlet that’s been wrapped in proscuitto with a piece of sage affixed to it and then it’s cooked in butter, oil and a little wine. Maybe I didn’t translate the menu correctly.
Beast: How is it?
Foodie: Tastes like meatballs. And they need salt. How’s yours?
Beast: These cheeks are amazing!
They were excellent but–and I’m not just being ornery–they needed salt. Le Logge was the most extravagant lunch we had while on vacation. But it wasn’t the best. I think that prize goes to Alessandro’s–the lunch we had on our first day in Florence. This isn’t to say that Le Logge wasn’t amazing. It was! But I think I’ll remember the charming outdoor setting, the cute server, and the feeling of being drunk in the afternoon more than the food. Plus, that lunch cost us over a hundred euros. Alessandro’s was under 20.
Now, you’re probably wondering how the heck we managed to eat so much and not explode. Well, we walked every day from 9am to 1am. We only stopped for pre-dinner drinks (and boy oh boy did Michelle ever pull out all the stops for aperitivi time! She took us to this absurdly cool boutique hotel with a roof-top bar where we sipped on cocktails and watched the sun set…
…and to the top of Torre Guelfo–the last medieval tower standing in Florence–to sip local wine.
We also climbed to the top of the Duomo (no drinking involved.)
And we rode bikes up hill for what seemed like 10 km (it was probably 1 km) to Piazalle di Michelangelo to catch the sun set.
But we still gained weight. I put on a modest four pounds. The Beast, bless his heart, gained 14. That’s a pound a day. Every inch was worth it though.
Stay tuned for Roma, and my colossal melt-down. (Did you catch that? Colossal, like the Colosseum! Oh shit that’s a good one!)
Alessandro’s: **** (F) ****(B)
Trattoria Mario: *** (F) **1/2 (B)
Ristorante Tullio: ***1/2 (F) *** (B)
Pizzaiolo: ***1/2 (F) *** (B)
Perseus: **1/2 (F) ***1/2 (B)
Osteria Le Logge: **1/2 (F) **1/2 (B)
*Maybe you noticed that my photos are of a higher quality. Well you can thank Mamma Linda for that: she bought me a new point and shoot digital camera before the trip as an early birthday present. She’s a keeper.