Florence “Fear Factor” Foodie Finds

Ciao Readers! (So how’s that title for alliteration!)

What, more about food, you might ask?  Well, would you rather hear more about food, or another trip to the post office?  I thought so…

Now that we’ve been here going on 2 months (time flies), we are “in the know” about some of the great foodie spots (in addition to all the gelaterias, of course).  However, we are not quite ready to embark into some of the more “interesting” cuisines.  Detailed are a few of the adventures we have yet to undertake (warning – readers with highly sensitive food sensibilities [i.e. an aversion to eyeballs] should probably avoid clicking on the photo gallery).  Here is a “taste” of some interesting foodstuffs:

Tripe stands – This is definitely one place where my cultural comfort zone has gotten the best of me (even though there are many tripe-based foods in New Mexico).  There are these little food carts throughout town (pictured below) – and the most delicious meat smell emanates from them (and they are always super crowded).  The first few times we walked by one I was planning on trying whatever it was they were serving – until we discovered they serve tripe (and only tripe – specifically stewed with herbs and tomatoes and served with/on bread) (some raw tripe also pictured below).  I just have a bad picture in my head (and gut) at the thought of eating intestines (I can remember Anthony Bourdain describing the flavor of improperly washed ones…or was that Andrew Zimmern of “Bizarre Foods”?).  But they smell so good….  I am thinking that in a few months I will put aside my fear and taste away…but then again, maybe not.

Rabbit – “Coniglio” is pretty much a staple here on menus, as well as at the Rosticerria downstairs and in the grocery stores (pictured below, with face – ack!).  While it may not be that fear factor-y to you, since I had a pet rabbit as a kid (“Bucky”), the thought of eating one is totally verboten to me.  However, I can’t say with 100%  certainty that I haven’t already accidentally eaten some – gasp!  The first time I ate at a buffet I specifically pointed and asked “coniglio?” to make sure there wasn’t any rabbit.  However, admittedly, I did not do this the last time we had the aperitivo buffet at Serafini and I did eat many meat stuffs that I assumed were chicken.  ‘Nough said.

There are other foods some might consider “bizarre” but seem fairly normal (and delicious) to me.  For example, the “crostini toscani” is toasted bread with a chicken-liver-based pâté spread – to Steve this is off-limits, but having grown up in New York where “chopped liver” was a deli staple, this is totally within my comfort zone (and yummy as well!).  From traveling to Japan and having lived in Puerto Rico, octopus is another food that I find fairly commonplace (and again, delicious!), but I know it’s not everyone’s cup of tea (frozen grocery store octopi pictured below).   There are many other interesting things here that I am not quite up for, and which may or may not raise your own personal fear factor – like the cockscombs for sale at the COOP (I’ve gone back twice to get a photo for you and both times they’ve been sold out!), or just the fact they sell chickens with faces still attached (photo below).   I suppose what is and is not within anyone’s comfort zone is extremely dependent on upbringing, culture, travel experiences, and adventurousness.  We’ll see how far outside my zone I allow this adventure to take me!

Watching T.V. Online (or “Grazie Mille, Jon Stewart!”)

Ciao Readers!

Now, I have already admitted I watch too much t.v. in a previous post.  I guess I find it comforting.  Little did I know that when you try and watch something you can watch for free in the U.S. online here (like on ABC, CBS, etc.) you get the following message:

I have read that you can buy a U.S. ispn or some such thing so that it appears your computer is located in the U.S. – I am a little weary of that approach at the moment.  You can also buy otherwise free t.v. shows on iTunes ($49.99 for the new season of “The Big Bang Theory” – gasp!).

However, unlike every other television station, Comedy Central lets you watch The Daily Show (and the Colbert Report) for free from Italy (and I’m guessing elsewhere) online.  I discovered this when I was in Bologna by myself in the Spring and getting my weekly dose of Jon Stewart was, and continues to be, one of my biggest comforts here.  While I would never consider myself a groupie (though we have seen him live in NY and I just happened to be in D.C. for a conference and got to attend the “Rally to Restore Sanity“), I never miss an episode.  No matter how many lines I have waited in or how much bureaucracy I have faced, I know Jon Stewart will be there waiting for me and for 20+ minutes I will relax, laugh, and feel like myself (and, like many other people, get most of my knowledge of current events).  So, Grazie Mille, Jon Stewart!!!  (WOW – another Emmy and “thanks” from me all in one week!)

Cafe/Pasticerria Serafini

Ciao Readers!

Today I want to give you an up-close look at one of my favorite finds in our neighborhood.  As I mentioned in the previous post, this little foodie find is so special it gets an entire post to itself!  I only wish I could give you a taste as well…

When we first got here, this place was nothing but a closed metal grate with an unremarkable sign we didn’t even notice.  Then one day when I was out and about I saw it begin to come to life…  From the outside it is pretty nondescript, but once you get inside you are faced with a case of culinary wonders (photos below), as well as very kind staff who are willing to help me learn the words for all the different types of food.  I can’t stop going there!

I go there for a morning “pasta” (breakfast pastry)(but not too often); I go there for lunch (where you can get a single selection or do “mezza e mezza”  [half-and-half], and they have everything from fresh chicken salads to pasta dishes to grilled vegetables and baby octopus with spinach [yum!]); I stop on the way home when I’ve had a trying day (or just a day) and get some pastries “da portare via” (to take away); I’ve stopped for mini-pastries to bring to class (pictured below) and; we’ve been there for the evening “aperitivo.”  The aperitivo goes from about 6:30 – 8:30 and for 7 euros you get the beverage (alcoholic or not) of your choice and free range of the marvelous buffet (pictured below) (again, you don’t approach this Vegas-style here, but you can definitely get your fill).  Everything is so delicious and reasonably priced and the people are so nice – I really can’t say enough about Serafini!  And now that I’ve talked about it so much, I think I am a bit peckish…

Italians Take Long Lunches

Ciao Readers!

When we first arrived, I posted about “ferie,” or the Italian summer vacation.  Since almost everything was closed at that time, I forgot that most things are closed in any case from 1:00 until 3:30 or 4:00 in the afternoon for lunch.  It is a stark contrast to both the fact that you can shop/run errands whenever you want, as well as the eat-at-your-desk or the grab-and-go lunches we’re used to in the States (or the “leisurely” 1 hour lunch when you can find the time).  Along with ferie, this is another example of how I admire the culture and Italians’ ability to take real breaks (until it interferes with my getting things done, of course!).

So here’s my dilemma:  I started back to Italian school this past week and it goes from 9:00 – 1:00.  Hardly anything is open before 9:00 (I can grab a few things at Sant’ Ambrogio Market on the way, as people are getting set-up, but obviously nothing that needs refrigeration).  At 1:00 Sant’ Ambrogio Market is starting to disband and all the good produce has been picked through.  Everything else in town (except restaurants and the COOP) are closed at just the time I am in the part of town where anything I need would be.  You really can’t accomplish anything during this time.   (Well, I guess you can accomplish some things – I am writing this blog as Steve and I wait for the mattress store to open back up [it’s Saturday]).  And, while I find this rather frustrating at times, it does make for a good excuse to have lunch!  Fortunately, everything from cheap pizza stands to sit down restaurants are open for lunch.

Since Steve is working, that pretty much leaves me to my own devices.  Luckily, when you go to Italian language school, you meet people from all over the world; some of them are just in town for the week, others for a month, and others (like me) are here indefinitely.  Also, luckily, the kind of people you meet at language school are often like-minded and make excellent lunch (and apperativo, and dinner, and passeggiata) companions.  This past week I shared lunches and gelato with a lovely psychologist from California (who speaks excellent Italian to boot).

One of my favorite places to have lunch is Caffe/Pasticceria Serafini.  But since this place is so very special, I have decided not to discuss it here and give it its very own post (coming soon).   Another cool discovery is this very eclectic gift store – Maestri di Fabbrica – they sell all kinds of fine local products (including great smelling bath stuff), but then as if by magic, from Wednesday to Saturday, they put out a great lunch spread (and dinner, though I haven’t been there then).  For 7 euros you get a glass of wine and can help yourself to the buffet (there are many buffets in town, but it is an unwritten rule that you don’t treat them like a Vegas buffet and you eat whatever you take).   We had the most delightful lunch here last week (and my companion found some gifts to bring back).  I can’t imagine sitting down for 2.5 hours and having a glass of wine on any given weekday in the States (in part because everyone back home is way too busy to kill 2+ hours on lunch, and in part because there [unlike here] I’d have to drive home afterwards).  Seeing how I love lunch and chatting away for hours, this is definitely part of the culture I see myself adapting to very quickly.

Only 1 hour left until the mattress store opens back up….

My First Italian Run

Ciao Readers!

So, I think how I’ve mentioned that I miss all of the runs back home this time of year.  If there’s a 5K, 10K or 1/2 marathon, I’m usually there!  I may have also mentioned that I have been thwarted here by the need for a professional sports medicine certificate in order to run organized races.  As they say, where there’s a will there’s a way (and in this case a nice woman willing to help me) – so this past Sunday I got to participate in my first Italian run.  Before you read this, know that as I write it I have a smile on my face and am laughing hysterically (lest you become concerned).  So, here’s the story:

Saturday afternoon I get a call from my new acquaintance telling me there’s a run the next day – an easy flat 8k and an uphill 12k; since it is sponsored by a running group I can choose “non competitive” and won’t need the sports certificate.  Since there have been many occasions where I have run a 5 or 10K without adequate preparation, I decide to be spontaneous and over-confidently say (in reference to the 8K) “sure” – sounds great!   The next morning we take off on her moped to where the race begins (first motorini ride in Italy – fun!).  Since she can’t stay, I’ll be walking the 3-ish miles back after the run.  I get signed up for the run, no problem, and we’re off…

Or rather everyone else is off – for about a mile I was able to keep the back of the pack in my line of sight, but soon after that it was just me.  In any case, the route seemed very well-marked with chalk and there were people at intersections pointing the way.  When I encountered one woman she asked “otto?” and while my Italian is not very good, I am sure she was asking if I was running the 8K, to which I said yes and promptly followed her direction.  There were actually a few runners (i.e. walkers) I passed at this point, so I still felt like I was part of the “run.”  Soon after, though, I again found myself alone and at a literal (and figurative?) fork in the road.  With no chalk marks this time I did the best I could – seeing a runner off in the distance and going as fast as I could to catch up with him, I pointed at my bib and said “corso?”- to which he promptly responded “no” and pointed back in the direction from which I had come.  I ended up running into 2 other participants who asked me in Italian which way to go – boy were they asking the wrong person!  In any case, they asked some non-runners along the way if they had seen anyone running by, and we went in the direction they pointed – up a steep hill, into a new town called Fiesole

Now, I have been here long enough to know that things are not always what I expect.  But even in Italy I was guessing that when I saw my very first water stop (and my iPod was telling me I had already gone 7.5K), that this was probably not the water stop for the 8k…  And, as I guessed from the clues (and as you have guessed by this point), I was in fact now on the 12K trail.  I stopped to talk to one of the race volunteers about my confusion and if there was another way back.  He asked me “bella, no?” pointing out to the view.  And, alas, he was so right.  The view from the top of that hill was breathtaking.  If I had any idea I would have brought a camera!  (Since I didn’t, I have found one online for you, below).  At this point I really had no idea where I was except that I wasn’t in Florence (nor Kansas) anymore and I guess my fear got the better of me and I decided to take his directions back to town instead of finish the beautiful trail. In hindsight (knowing after-the-fact that I was really only another 3 miles out) I would have finished the run (in other words walked it) to fully take in the incredible view.  In any case, we have a great place to go back to and really appreciate!

At the bottom of the hill I encountered a family cleaning their little restaurant and I asked the son who was out front how to get to Piazza Beccaria (a landmark close to home).  He looked at me and asked “a piedi?!?!?!”  Which translates to “what – on foot?!?!?!”  I pointed down at my running clothes and race bib and said “certo!”   Since I was lost and had no idea how far from home I was, he got me really scared  – from the way he asked I was guessing I was 10 miles from home (yeah, I know, the math doesn’t add up).  To cut this story a little short, between his father’s directions and a few calls to Steve (“Ah – you’ve walked into the map now!”), I found my way home a mere 3 miles later.  All in all, it was a grand adventure – from the spontaneity of saying “sure” on a day’s notice, to my first motorini ride, to getting lost amidst the most beautiful scenery.  Needless to say, though, I am not quite ready for “non-competitive” runs here!

Bella, no?:

photo by Jefie on “virtual tourist”

Una Passeggiata

Ciao Readers!

Okay, I am past my prickliness from last week and excited to share one of the many things I love about living here in Florence – the “passeggiata.”  While this literally means “a walk,” it’s really so much more.  The passeggiata is the time when everyone in the community is out and about – walking, chatting, stopping at bars for drinks and snacks, meeting up to enjoy a gelato (yay – more excuses to eat gelato!), and basically unwinding from the day.  This is pretty much a nightly event, which gives even a work-night the feel of a festival.  I have never lived anywhere where you can go out on the town at 9:00 on a Tuesday night and enjoy such a jovial and family-friendly atmosphere.  To be honest, until now, we were most likely to be on the couch watching t.v. at 9:00 p.m. on a Tuesday (or most any day).  I love walking around this town at that time of the evening – it is such a fantastic novelty!

While I think the evening walk is most appropriately termed a “passesggiata,” anytime is a great time to saunter around town.  It is still amazing what we get to see on a daily basis – famous art and architecture, outdoor markets, people from literally everywhere in the world, and more.  It is really impossible to describe the richness of a simple stroll.  So, instead of telling you about a walk through town, I will “show” you around.  (You may have noticed that you rarely get an up-close view of individual folks in my blog (other than us) – that is because I have decided not to include clear facial photos of folks unless I ask their permission first (like the proprietors of the places we’ve eaten), so more photos of things than people is the result).

Below are shots (in this order) of the Duomo (famous landmark by Brunelleschi, c. 1436); the Saturday market in the Piazza della Santissima Annunziate (another Brunelleschi creation and where the roundels, or “mummy-babies” are); Santa Croce Church (I walk right past this on the way to my new Italian language school every day!); the Ponte Vecchio (as I mentioned in an earlier post, the only bridge not blown up by Hitler’s troops); a beautiful carousel in the Piazza della Repubblica (a great place for an evening stroll, complete with street musicians); and just a random shot down any street with a peak-a-boo view of the top of the Duomo.  Pretty impressive scenery, no?!

Foreign Food in Florence

Florence is a “foodie” town – if we’re talking Italian food.  Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE Italian food (a huge part of the draw here). And there will be many more posts to come about all of its deliciousness (we’ve started the arduous task of searching out the best pizza).  But once in a while, I just gotta have something different.  I have been surprised that (unlike Bologna), it is really hard to find decent foreign food here.  So, I have been on a quest to discover hidden restaurants and source ingredients.  Today I share with you some of what I have discovered:

Asian food – as there are quite a large number of Chinese immigrants here, there are numerous Chinese “rosticceria.”  From what we have tried, the food is cheap and tasty, though not of the spicy-Szechuan variety we like.  It also seems that Italians don’t really frequent these places (one explained to me they are rumored to be dirty – which leaves me wondering if this is true, or a prejudice…).  As for other Asian food, it is almost completely lacking.  There is not a single Thai or Vietnamese restaurant – not one!  And these are two of my all time favorite cuisines.  There are a few “Japanese” places though most of them don’t look at all Japanese.  We went to one very popular sushi buffet – Pingusto Sushi Wok.  It was not bad – the sushi comes out on a rotating belt and if you stand close enough to where the chefs are launching the plates, you can sometimes snag plates of whole sashimi.  The choices are very limited, (no unagi or umi; very limited tuna), but for 10 euros at lunch, it’s worth a visit.   I did stumble upon what looks to be (here’s hoping) a traditional Japanese ramen house (all the writing is in Japanese).  It wasn’t open when I saw it, but I know we’ll be trying it soon.  There is one “fusion” restaurant – Buddakan – which we have not yet tried – the menu has something that looks like pad thai and something else that looks like Korean bulkogi – will let you know.   So, if you want Asian food, here’s the best discovery in Florence – Vivi Market.  They have lots of imported foods, mostly Asian.  I was able to get authentic green curry paste, bamboo shoots, etc. (pictured below) and create my own green curry chicken (after 2 other stops for the chicken and veggies [hour+ walk total]) – it was extremely close to what I get at Thai II back in Albuquerque! (They also have “American” groceries, which appear limited to all varieties of Duncan Hines cake mixes and frostings, as well as 2 brands of peanut butter I have never seen and am pretty sure are not American).  There is also a lady at Sant’ Ambrogio market among the produce vendors who sells Asian ingredients – have gotten jasmine rice and ginger from her.

Indian food –  so far we have discovered two Indian restaurants (actually, I think the two Indian restaurants).  Neither of them have a buffet, which is interesting, because everywhere else we’ve been in the world (including Kyoto) has these.  However, we did try one of the restaurants and it was delicious (and the naan was fresh made on the spot).  We had the “fixed menu” for lunch an it tasted authentic to us (of course, we’ve never been to India, so “authentic” is relative).

“Mexican” food –  okay, this one is a real sticking point.  We’re from New Mexico, so we love all varieties of Mexican food (real Mexican, New Mexican, Tex-Mex).  There seems to be no Mexican food here.  There is one restaurant, Tijuanas, but the menu looks incredibly expensive, and an American I spoke with (from California, so she should know) said that it is not authentic, but a touristy thing.  There is a brand of “Mexican” food in all the grocery stores, and I was mistakenly excited when I saw it – “Casa Fiesta” (pictured below).  If you read the tiny print carefully you will discover that it is produced by a Swedish company (I know – what??!!!).  I have no idea how you make flour and water taste like absolutely nothing, but that’s what the tortillas in my fajita experiment tasted like (other than that, I got pretty close, though I cheated by having sent some salsas in our boxes).  I have never made my own tortillas of any kind, but since Vivi Market had masa, I have decided to give making corn tortillas a go.  (If you ever come visit and want to bring a present….).  The one ingredient that it seems I will never find here is cilantro.

American food – I am not really sure what this category is, but there are supposedly a few “American” restaurants, which we have not tried (there are also two Irish pubs).  There is a McDonald’s and a Burger King (which, I admit, we did try).  Burger King sells beer and all sorts of stuff you’d never see on a menu in the States, but the burgers taste exactly like you’d expect, or actually better (disclaimer – those who know me know I wouldn’t be caught eating at Burger King in the States, but, 1) Steve really wanted a burger and 2) here I consider it part of my culinary-cultural exploration).  As for groceries, as I mentioned, you can find cake mix and peanut butter; the grocery stores actually have these cute tiny jars of Skippy for about 4 euros (hint for present number two).  There is also a fine food store, Pegna, in which I spotted a big round of cheddar cheese (they also carry English teas and some of the Fauchon line of foods from France).

Other –  there is a Kosher Market and “deli.”  The market part is cool – I bought some matzo meal there so I can make matzo ball soup once the weather changes.  But the deli – oh my – this has been my biggest culinary let-down.  We had passed this place during ferie and saw “pastrami sandwich” on the menu (which is in English), so we were all excited and knew we had to go back and try it.  I am looking at all of this as an adventure, but I’m only human – when I saw the nice kid pull out pre-packaged turkey loaf and a bun from a freezer bag, my heart sank.  Wow, was it bad – not only because it didn’t even resemble a pastrami sandwich (I have the one from Katz or Carnegie Deli in N.Y. in my mind), but because it was just bad.  Lesson learned.

A ubiquitous (and luckily delicious) food here is “doner kebab.”  Now, when you think “kebab,” you may think food on a stick.  But think closer to a gyro instead.  There are little Middle-Eastern places all over town that have a big spit of slow-roasted meat (chicken? turkey? other?) (pictured below) and serve very delicious and cheap sandwiches and wraps (meat, plus veggies and chile and yogurt sauces; some have falafel; also pictured below).  I think kebab are actually the “fast food” of Italy (and all of Europe for that matter).

These are a few of my culinary discoveries (and non-discoveries) so far – if you live here, please post a comment if you have your own finds to share!

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