Firenze Files: Restaurant Report

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Ciao!  I am finally back with another post from the lovely Firenze.  It’s been a crazy couple of weeks with visits to Sienna, San Gimignano, Chianti, and the Amalfi coast.  Not to mention I’m still at school so I do have to go through the motions of homework and midterms and the like.  This post is actually an essay I wrote for my history and culture of food class.  We were asked to go to a restaurant, to write a review of it, and to relate our experience to what we’ve been learning and reading in class.  So please forgive the more informational and fact-ridden writing style.  I hope it is interesting nonetheless.  I also neglected to take pictures of the actual meal I had at the restaurant so I’ve pasted in pictures of other foods I’ve made or purchased while in Florence for your viewing pleasure.  Avanti!

This past weekend, I enjoyed a meal at Ristorante Vecchia Firenze in the historic center of Florence.  I went with a friend of mine who was happy for the excuse to come along to a nice Tuscan dinner.  The restaurant he suggested was on the Borgo Degli Albizi, and its entryway was so neatly tucked into the stone wall that I almost walked right past it.  The interior dining room was themed in red and green and was decorated with wine bottles.  It had the cozy feeling of a traditional trattoria, with small wrought metal chairs arranged around small various tables with white cloths, where you can a very nice meal while the atmosphere remains casual.

Italians typically have a late afternoon snack of a café or perhaps a pastry to tide them over until dinner, which starts around 7.  If you have aperitivo, then dinner might not begin until 9 or 10 pm, so when my friend and I arrived at the restaurant at 7:15, we were the first ones in the historic dining room.  We were greeted with menus and an extensive wine list which we were not up to the task of deciphering.  I wish I had taken the opportunity to ask for the waiter’s suggestion though, because the Ristorante Vecchia Firenze boasts over one hundred labels of wine and special menus specifically designed by their chef to be paired with wines.

A couple at the table next to us got red wine with their dinner, but it didn’t come in a bottle.  They were given a large pitcher, the ovular shape of which was reminiscent of the fiasco which vino a tavola is traditionally stored and served in.  It was quite a substantial amount of wine for two people, but the couple finished it easily over the course of dinner.  Their consumption is not surprising given that I believe they were Italian, because Italians are used to consuming alcohol with meals and have been doing so regularly for much of their lives.  Because they usually consume it with food as well, they don’t tend to become intoxicated or to drink to excess.  Wine is simply meant to complement the food and to act as a “social lubricant.”

wine bottles from winery visit in Chianti

Bread is another traditional accompaniment to Italian food.  It’s part of the trinity of wine, olive oil, and bread.  A basket of pane Toscana was brought to the table as we browsed the menu.  It’s a bread that reminds me the sourdough we have in America except that it’s not salted.  It’s also not served with olive oil or butter, and it’s not common to eat such condiments with bread in Italy, as bread was normally viewed as more of a vehicle for food.  I enjoy using bread to soak up olive oil and salt or to convey soft, whipped butters, so I haven’t yet become accustomed to this dry, unsalted bread.

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I ordered formaggio con miele as an appetizer, or antipasti, which was slices of cheese with a tiny dish of honey.  Cheese and assorted meats can be a course in and of itself in Italy, either as lunch, a snack, or an appetizer, and I thought a small tasting of cheese was a perfect way to get the palate excited for the coming meal.

After antipasti, an Italian dinner consists of primi and secondi piatti, which are first and second plates or courses.  Primi piatti are typically lighter dishes without meat (but sometimes with fish) of pasta or risotto (or riso depending on which part of Italy you are in).  Pasta is not my favorite, so instead of a primo piatto, I ordered prosciutto e melone which has become one of my favorite food pairings here in Italy.  The salty and dry prosciutto is wrapped around the moist and sweet cantaloupe and is the perfect balance of sweet and savory.

Secondi piatti are the heavier meat or fish courses, and I had entrecotte ai pepi , which was a sirloin steak in black pepper sauce.  The sauce was like a creamy, beef gravy that was studded with whole peppercorns which gave the dish a pop of spice whenever I bit into one.  It seemed a little unusual to me to leave the pepper corns whole when I am used to grinding them in order add a more diffuse flavor in cooking.  I wondered though if black pepper sauce comes from a historic recipe because during the Middle Ages when spices became prevalent in European cooking, they were incredibly expensive, and only the wealthy could afford to cook with them.  If whole peppercorns were visible in a dish therefore, it must have been a sign of the expense and sophisticated nature of the dish.  Furthermore, if pepper were to be used in cooking, one’s wealth and sophistication could be better displayed by keeping the peppercorns whole and visible, rather than grinding them and having them disappear into a dish.

There was excitement during dinner when one of the nearby tables was served bistecca alla fiorentina, an enormous grilled steak particular to the cuisine of Florence.  Despite the fact that Italians don’t eat a great amount of meat, this dish is always enormous and can contain more than a kilogram of steak.  It’s served rare, or al sangue, meaning “to the blood.”  This was meant to honor the animal by not overcooking the meat, and it keeps it flavorful.

bistecca fiorentina that I devoured for lunch recently

At Italian restaurants, there aren’t normally vegetables served with secondi piatti, and you must order a separate contorni or side dish if you want them with dinner.  The resulting focus on meat or fish as the center of a meal relates to the manner in which all foods used to be thought of according to a hierarchy.  Not only were there better versions (white bread versus wheat bread) and better cuts (tenderloin compared to a tough shoulder) of certain foods, but each food product had a place in an overall hierarchy, called the Great Chain of being.  This determined which foods were more expensive and which were fit to be consumed by which members of society.  Vegetables, typically growing close to or sometimes in the ground, were thought to be lesser foods compared to fowl for example, which were animals of the air and were therefore closer to the heavens.  By not sullying a plate with vegetables, it highlights the value of the meat, fish, or poultry that is on the plate.

I didn’t have contorni or dolche at the restaurant after such a large meal, but dessert is a traditional part of a meal out with family or friends at a restaurant.  There are even sweet wines to be consumed as or with dessert.  One dessert that I’ve enjoyed at a different restaurant is traditional plate of cantucci and vin santo, which is biscotti and sweet, “sacred” wine.  Dinner can also finish with a café or a digestive, which is thought to help aid digestion and settle the stomach after a large meal.

tiramisu cupcake

tiramisu cupcake

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