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….

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!

Are We There Yet?!?

I am getting antsy.  My body is still here in Albuquerque, but my mind keeps wondering off to Italy.  Like right now.  I have papers to grade.  But here I am writing about Italy.  I just can’t help it…

So I am going to allow myself a short daydream about some of the Italy things to which I am looking forward…

I am looking forward to the day after we arrive at our new home in Florence (the day itself involves 3 plane trips on separate flights with cats and a drive from Rome to Florence, then 4 flights of stairs with cats and bags, and presumably serious jet-lag – hence the “day after”).  From Google Earth it looks like there are at least three pizza places within a block, 2 supermarcati and the Sant’ Ambrogio market I have written about in an earlier post, all close by.  (And probably some cool non-food things, too).  I can’t wait to explore OUR neighborhood!  (Wow – seriously – FLORENCE, ITALY will soon be “OUR neighborhood” – surreal – super cool – Wow…).  And after we eat, we can take a walk and use our “Friends of the Uffizi” cards to see the “Birth of Venus” and “David” and…Wow…Wow… I am seriously blowing my own mind!!!  Just a walk from our home: 

I can’t wait to go back to school (yes, I am a geek, but hear me out).  My Italian has seriously been slipping away.  I was having Skype classes on Fridays, but now that I am working full time, the only days I could manage a class were Memorial Day and one last class on the Fourth of July.  It’s definitely not enough to learn anything new and really not even enough to maintain what I’ve learned.  So, because I really want to become fluent, and NOT because I am a geek, I can’t wait to get back into language school.  We have three to visit (and choose from) once we get settled.  Me going to school in Bologna: We are totally looking forward to Sunday, September 2nd when we are taking a trip back to Bologna to see Green Day (and eat, of course).  Green Day (one of both Steve and my all time favorites) is the headliner at the I-Day Festival in Bologna on the Sunday before Steve’s school starts (I still can’t figure out what the “I” stands for – any ideas?).  We can get there as quickly as 37 minutes (on the fastest, most expensive train), but will likely take a slow/cheap inter-city train and enjoy the trip (and begin a more frugal life on one salary, for now).  Before the concert I will get to take Steve to one of the amazing restaurants I discovered when I was in Bologna for school, and of course there will be a trip to La Sorbetteria Castiglione (insert daydream about flavors of gelato here).   How cool is it that our favorite band is playing in one of our favorite towns with the world’s best gelato, shortly after we arrive in Italy?!?  Too cool for words, that’s how cool!!!    Green Day (& Steve in well-worn Green Day concert t-shirt – pics of gelato flavors to follow once we arrive):

Okay, I think I have daydreamed about Italy enough to sustain me through another week of not being in Italy.   As always, thanks for coming along for the ride!  Ciao!

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