Italy with the Family Day 7: Our Kind of Town...and Tour!

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June 30th 2014
Published: June 30th 2014
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So after yesterday’s somewhat debacle, today we took a tour. I know, I know. But it’s a different kind of tour—trust me! Nearly 10 years ago, my mom turned us onto the Food Tour of Greenwich Village in New York which was a blast. It is amazing how much history and culture you can learn about a place by its food. Before we left the states, I found a Florence for Foodies tour and signed us up for that. We heard from the guide who said, “Please confirm by the end of January.” I didn’t confirm and sort of thought, “Oh well. We’ll just be on our own,” but a couple of weeks ago, I got an email from them saying, “Please confirm if you plan to attend,” and I thought what the heck. We got up this morning, got breakfast and started walking towards Piazza San Lorenzo where the tour was to meet. I was walking slow this morning—yesterday was a lot!—and between that and having to stop to consult the map a few times we were three minutes late but the group was waiting for us.

Our tour guide was Natalie or Mama Nat as she told us to call her. She was about 30 and full of personality. There were eight of us total in the group, a family from Connecticut, a young couple from New Jersey and us.

The first place we stopped was a pastry shop which had a really great thin light pastry with a cheese custard type filling that I should have taken a picture of. It was fabulous! While sitting there, Mama Nat said we all had to have Italian names. The daughter of the Connecticut family was named Allison and Nat said there was no Italian equivalent to that so we would call her Francesca. She said that’s a very popular name right now. Who knows why? Mark said, “The Pope!” Right on! Our group was Francesca, Barbara, Stefano, Rachella, Giovanni, Marco, Elizabetta, Michelangelo and Mama Nat. After the pastry show, we went into the food market where most of the tastings took place. The food market has been in existence since 1872 and the first place we went has been in that same spot since the founding. At this place we had boiled beef sandwiches with Dante’s Inferno red sauce on the side and red wine. Nat said the Italians always drink cappuccino or café latte for breakfast and then, starting at lunch, it’s vino, vino, vino. Well I mean, hey, we don’t want to offend anyone, right? So vino it is with the boiled beef sandwich. Nat pointed out a man who spends all day cleaning the tables and is paid in food and wine. She also told us that the man who cuts the beef and makes the sandwiches is the cousin of the owner and he does not really like his job so sometimes he has to take a walk away from his station. She said, “They have two things—boiled beef and boiled beef stomach. He gets frustrated because people walk up and say, ‘What do you have? What kind of sauce do you have? Is the bread gluten free?’ When people ask these questions, he says no service for you and walks away.” She also said that it took years of negotiating but the Inferno sauce is now served on the side, only for this tour. Whew—that’s good news! She brought the sandwiches and wine over to the table, we all said Salute and Bon Appetito and bit in. It was very good—tender and flavorful. Mark ate all of his, I ate half of mine (that’s good for me) and he finished his wine and half of mine. By this time we were all laughing and getting to know each other. Giovanni (John) is of Sicilian heritage and was welcoming the opportunity to show his wife (Rachel or Rachella) Italy. Barbara and Stefano had come over to pick their daughter up (Francesco or Alli) from 6 weeks of studying abroad in France and brought their son Michelangelo (Michael) who had just graduated from high school. A most convivial group! We continued around the market and Nat told us that the main protein foods in Tuscany are beef and cheese, and that really, there are not many vegetarians in Florence. The beef in some of the butcher stalls was really quite impressive. There was one slab of beef that looked like it would be T-bones that was priced at 60 Euro/Kg. She said the minimum serving in most restaurants is 500 grams, it is always served rare and that when you finish it, you are expected to pick up the bone and gnaw; otherwise it’s an insult. Don’t think I’ll be ordering steak anytime soon!

The next place we stopped was Conti’s, a vegetable, oil, vinegar and sauce stand where we spent quite a bit of time. While there, we tasted olive oil, several types of balsamic vinegar, honey with white truffle, black truffle and olive oil, and many other things, all representative of Tuscany and Florence. Nat told us that there are very strict laws about food and what you can call various things. She said, “About sex and driving, not many rules. But do not mess with Italian food!” She told us that bruschetta is pronounced “brusketta” and that saying it with a soft “ch” is saying the name of one of the most notorious Mafiosi in Italy. She said, “You say Burshetta and we all say, ‘Shh! Yes we know!’ Italians don’t want to talk about divorce or the mafia.” The food was wonderful and the information was enlightening and entertaining plus the company was grand. It was a Beth and Mark kind of tour.

The next place we visited was a liquor store (mostly wine but all kinds of liquor as well, including some that are illegal in the United States) that had been around since 1300 something, in the same family. We got to see the cellar where the wine is store and where someone had been imprisoned before his execution back in the day. At this stop, Nat had some salted doughnut bread and various types of salami and prosciutto plus some pecorino cheeses and one taste of parmesan. We taste prosecco with the meat and bread and then the owner Mario’s red wine with the cheese. After this, we experimented with grappa spray. Grappa spray? Grappa is an Italian liquer and Mario has invented this thing, grappa in a spray bottle for people who just need a little grappa during the day. Marco and Stefano both indicated they liked grappa so they got to go first to try the spray. Basically, we all got heavily sprayed with grappa but the interesting thing was it wasn’t sticky or smelly. The alcohol evaporated quickly and there was virtually no residue left behind. It was also funny as hell, especially when Michelangelo was spraying his sister and mother. After lots of laughs, we bid Mario adieu and went off to our last stop for some gelato. And it was the gelato place we went to last night! Nat said this was some of the best gelato in the city (agree!) and that they get offended if you only order one flavor (we ordered two each last night but that was totally by accident—we just couldn’t make up our minds!) We tasted five gelato and 2 sorbets and it was all delicious. Well, except the watermelon but I don’t like watermelon. The cantaloupe melon sorbet was fabulous. After this the tour ended and Stefano, whom we reverted to calling Steven, said, “It’s sad. It’s like the Beatles breaking up.” What great memories—and a GREAT tour! Florence for Foodies—highly recommend!

We left there and went to the Holy Cross Church—Basilica Santa Croce—which we had heard from several sources was well worth seeing. True—it was! This is the church where most of the most famous Firenzes are buried—Galileo, Michelangelo, and Machiavelli to name the most famous. Dante has a spot in there as well which LOOKS like a grave but it is really just a memorial. He is buried in Milan (I think that’s what they said.) The church itself is lovely, dating from the 14th century and having a 19th century façade which matches the outer shell of the Duomo. The inside is covered with frescoes and beautifully gilded alter pieces. We walked around in there for about an hour, visited all of the notable graves and just awed at the spiritual feel of the place.

After that we made our way back to the hotel as it had started to rain and we had promised ourselves an easier day than yesterday. Mark tried to nap but couldn’t sleep and I worked on the blog and got pictures uploaded to Facebook. Traveling in the 21st century—not for sissies!

Tonight we went to a restaurant recommended by the Florence for Foodies people—Caffe’ Coquiharius on Via Delle Oche. We had a reservation so only had to wait a very minutes for our table. We opened the menus and started to try and figure out what to order. Mark said, “The chef selected crostini looks good.” I said, “Where’s that?” He pointed to the top of the menu and I could just barely make out that it was a plate of mixed crostini selected by the chef. Okay. The pear and pecorino ravioli was amazing is one of their standard dishes so we opted for that. Now for the main course. I said, “Since beef is such a big thing in this area, maybe we should order something from that menu. Tartare means raw so I don’t think we want that.” He agreed and said, “Okay, we could order the sautéed beef with mixed vegetables and caper and anchovie sauce.” I said, “Which one is that?” He pointed to it on his menu. I pointed to my menu. “What is that one?” He said, “Slow cooked beef cheeks with onions.” I said, “Wow! How did you know that was anchovies in that sauce?” He said, “What? Isn’t your menu in English?” Oh my gosh we laughed! I said, “You so could have kept that going. I was convinced that your Spanish was really helping you understand this Italian thing.” In the end, we ordered the crostini misti, the pear ravioli and the slow-cooked beef cheeks with onions, all of which were fabulous. We ordered a bottle of Chianti Classico which it turns out, they were out of so the waiter brought us three bottles to choose from for the same price. We ordered a bottle of a reserve Chianti Classico which was 97%!S(MISSING)an Genovese grapes and 3%!l(MISSING)ocally grown grapes from the town of Radda. The waiter was very personable (and all of 24, probably) and we told him, after reading the label, that we had spent three days in the area around Radda. He told us that the wine from Radda now is thought to be the best produced in Tuscany. Later, when he brought our bill, he asked where we were from and we told him Virginia. He brightened and said, “I read not so much ago that Virginia is producing some good wine.” We told him yes, mostly good white but a few good reds. He swiped our card and Mark signed and slip and then wrote down for him Barboursville which produces some good reds. When he returned again, Mark told him this was the place that has some good reds and the vines are from Italy. He said, “Grazi! Would you like a limoncello on the house?” So we ended the evening with a complimentary limoncello from our new friend the waiter at an really wonderful Italian caffe. I said to Mark, “This is why I love to travel.”

One of the two gelato places that had been recommended to us happened to be on our route back to the hotel so we stopped and both got very small cups but again, excellent gelato. Back at the hotel now and anticipating our last morning in Florence before we return to Rome tomorrow afternoon. What a magical place!


3rd July 2014

Grappa Spray
I think you need to bring back some of the Grappa spray for all ITCs, who 'just need a little Grappa to get through the day' :) lol!

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