Eating in Tuscany

08 October 2018

Florence, Italy

No recipes this week - I’m on holiday in Tuscany. You know, the kind of holiday where you spend two hours of every day doing work which, in this case, means writing food blogs and editing and producing podcasts. But that’s just two hours per day. The rest is glorious.

The mission, as you might expect, includes eating lots of great Tuscan food. Only so I can share the experience with you here, of course. I am that selfless on your behalf.

The first stop of the trip involved taking in the beautiful city of Florence. I’d only been here once before when I was a teenager on a coach tour of Italy with my dad. I was an art student at the time, and that study included art history, so of course I was steeped in the Italian Renaissance and an active member of Team Leonardo. The one thing I knew about Florence was that I needed to visit the Uffizi Gallery. Back then, our one day in Florence turned out to be Easter Sunday. It was closed.

So rectifying that 30-year-ago fail was obviously on the agenda. And since that involves getting a ticket and then waiting around for your entrance time to come up, it also meant eating lunch at one of the restaurants at the nearby square - a great way to spend lots of money on average food. Since I’m inordinately (and almost certainly unjustifiably) proud of my home-made gnocchi - I thought I should test my pride against Italian-made gnocchi. It was tasty, but my version stood up very well. Of course, if I’d bought it from a proper restaurant with high standards of local fare, rather than a tourist trap, the result would certainly have been different. But allow me my illusions.

Gnocchi

We did discover a gem of a restaurant for dinner - Cibreo Trattoria. It has a fine reputation for traditional Tuscan food, but they don’t take reservations. You turn up as close to opening time 18:50 as you can and it’s first-come-first-served. We were there ten minutes before opening, and won second place in the queue that quickly formed. Once they opened, the place was full within fifteen minutes.

The menus were hand-written, testament to the fact that they redevelop them every day depending on what’s seasonally available and fresh in. Of course, there are staples. I recognised from the reviews online the flourless chocolate cake, that had received rave reviews. Chocolate is always in season, let’s face it.

The starters were nearly all soups - I had a minestrone soup and my companion a porcini mushroom soup. The minestrone was full and flavourful - interestingly free of any pasta or beans - which I’d always believed to be staple components of a minestrone. This was local vegetables mixed in with red rice, of all things. But it was tasty, and I had no complaints. The mushroom soup was smooth, thick and - as you might expect - meatily delicious.

 

Minestrone soup with red rice

For my main course, I went for something I’d never heard of before - veal tonnato. When it turned up, it looked deceptively underwhelming - like a bowl with a thin layer of hummus. Veal tonnato is veal that is roasted and then sliced thinly and allowed to cool, and then covered with a tuna sauce that is mayonnaise-like in its consistency. Alongside the chickpeas drizzled with a fine local olive oil and the beetroot chutney that came with it, it was a fine main course. The flavours worked beautifully together, and I had something else I now fancied trying to recreate when I got home.

My partner’s main course was chicken and ricotta meatballs in a rich tomato sauce. These sound very straightforward, but the texture of them was remarkable, and this added to the overall sensation. They were wonderfully moist and yielding, full of flavour - all because of the use of ricotta in the mix. Fabulous.

 

Veal tonnato
Veal Tonnato - deceptively simple on the plate
Chicken and ricotta meatballs

At dessert time, we were mysteriously presented with an additional dessert alongside the two we’d ordered. I don’t know if it was because they’d had no orders for the one, so they decided just to give it away, or what. But we were brought an interesting cheesecake with a marmalade glaze - which was quite tasty, and something I’d never seen nor tried before. I wasn’t quite sure that the marmalade coating wasn’t too strong for the relatively mild cheesecake below it - I could imagine that a full-flavoured baked cheesecake with a light coating of tangy marmalade would work incredibly well.

What did work very well indeed were the flourless chocolate cake (gooey, intensely chocolatey as you would expect) and the creme caramel (gorgeous caramel colour and flavour). A fine end to a delightful meal.

 

Creme Caramel
Marmalade cheesecake
Flourless chocolate cake

The next day we walked a lot, we then travelled to Pisa. The B&B we were staying at failed to actually open at 4pm when it was supposed to, so we had to hang around drinking beer. By the time of the evening, we just wanted something simple to eat before crashing. So that was pizza night identified, right there. 

Wandering just a short way along the delightful narrow and character-full alleys of Pisa, we spotted a place that was open (this being a Sunday evening) and a happy fluke it was Pizzeria l’Arancio, where they have a proper pizza oven on site and care deeply about making fantastic pizza. I had the ‘Inferno’ pizza, my partner the ‘Paradiso’. For me, I would happily say that mine was one of the best pizzas I’ve ever had. I struggled momentarily with my conscience when I arrived - eating outdoors was definitely going to be more fun, but it was darker. Eating inside would be less fun, but it would be lighter for the purposes of photos to share with you here. Well, let’s face it. You all know what a pizza looks like. And it is a holiday after all, so you will just have to imagine what one of the best pizzas in Pisa looks like. Sorry.

The foodie quest continues. Will keep you informed.