Today I discovered Italian breakfast pastries. I can’t believe I’ve been wasting my mornings on complimentary hotel croissants. So, to make up for lost time, I’m having 2 pastries a day from here on out. (Waistline be damned!)
I have no idea what today’s pastries were, but they were amazing. At Donnini, I had a flaky sugar crystal coated thing filled with some sort of lemon flavored risotto.
Then I bar hopped (in Itay, a “bar” is a coffee shop) to Alessandro Nannini and had something that kind of resembled a Danish, but was it was caramelized and crispy on the bottom. It had some sort of cheese thing. Kind of savory.
Since I haven’t written anything about Cappuccinos yet, now’s as good a time as any. The cappuccinos in Italy are a completely different animal than they are in America.
I’ve never understood cappuccinos before this trip. Back home, a cappuccino is two thirds caffe latte, topped with one third Mr. Bubble bath foam.
That’s not how they work here. First off, there’s not nearly as much foam. And what foam there is isn’t just spooned out on top of the coffee like a beer with too much head. The bubbles are much finer and the foam is incorporated into the coffee so that the whole drink is light and airy and beautiful.
Maybe the cup has something to do with it – they only drink cappuccino in teacup and saucer style cups. Never in paper take-out coffee cups. The teacup gives the foam a wider surface area, relative to the depth of the cup.
The downside to the coffee bars in Italy is that you drink your coffee standing at the bar. In and out in 2 minutes or less. Which I think is a little odd. For a country so big on slow food, they sure are into fast coffee. (Many bars actually charge more for the coffee if you get it for sitting.)
I need to open a Daily Grind in Italy and show them how it’s done.
Anyway, this morning I walked around a bit (to burn off the pastries). Here are a few pictures:
DISCLAIMER: Today I began my cooking class. Several pictures are from the butcher shops in Central Market. These pictures include various meat products. Some still have the head on. If you don’t want to see these pictures, feel free to skip this entry and go watch something that you’ll be more comfortable with. Like the news. Because war, murder and crime are easier to watch.
(Has anyone ever written a passive aggressive disclaimer before? Cause I think I just did.)
Anyway, today was the first day of cooking class with Judy Witts-Francini. I got to her studio at 11 am. The space is great. It’s a bright apartment on the second floor with a view of Central Market. There’s a big kitchen and dining room with a long table. The dining room is painted in warm tones and decorated with hand-painted plates from all over Florence.
(Check it out. I’m the big cheese. Get it? Big cheese?!? Har!)
We all sat down around the dining room table. Judy gave us a copy of her cookbook, a booklet on how to make Limoncello, and a Divina Cucina apron. After some quick introductions, we headed out to the Mercado Centrale.
The Market building is gorgeous. It’s made of iron and glass and covered with French architectural flourishes. According to Judy, it was built in the late 1800s to resemble a French train station. Probably as a practical joke to confuse French tourists.
When you walk through the door to the market, you’re met by two things. The incredible aroma from all the food. And this:
A whole roast suckling pig named Chad. (Okay, so maybe his name wasn’t Chad. But wouldn’t that be a cool name for a roast suckling pig? If I ever get one, I’m totally naming him Chad.)
After our cappuccinos, we visited to the “Chicken Sisters.” (So named because they’re sisters who run the chicken stand. Not because they’re scared.)
We got chicken meatballs. We also got pork tenderloins from the “Pork Tenderloin Brothers” and some Fava beans from the “Fava-Bean-Half-Cousins-On-Their-Mother’s-Side.”
Today, we’d be having a Balsamic Vinegar tasting.
To make Balsamic vinegar, they (the balsamic vinegar makers, not the Contis) boil down the must from the grapes, then ferment it into alcohol. From there, the syrup is aged in several different wooden barrels (Cherry Wood, Oak Wood, Chestnut Wood, Tiger Woods, etc). To give the vinegar its depth of flavor, the producers move the liquid from one barrel to the next over time. While in the barrels, the vinegar is visited twice a week by the “Balsamic Vinegar Fairy” who sprinkles magic dust on the liquid to give balsamic vinegar its complexity. But only if the balsamic vinegar producers leave toenail clippings under their pillows.
At the tasting, we each gathered around a table, where Grazia gave us each a little plastic spoon. Then she came around and poured out a few drops from each bottle.
We started with a 12 year old balsamic. Then moved on to a 15 year old one. Then a 20, a 30 and an 80 year old vinegar, the latter of which sells for hundreds of dollars back home. They were all much, much better than the stuff at Trader Joe’s. And you could definitely tell a difference in the flavor and texture of the older vinegars – they were syrupier and had a flavor that filled out across your tongue.
Next, we tasted a Balsama Bianca, a white balsamic vinegar made with white wine vinegar. We also tasted Crema di aceto Balsamico, which is a syrupy reduction of balsamic vinegar and grape must.
Judy told us that with the really nice Balsamics, you only need a few drops in a whole serving. Thus giving me an excuse to justify buying a tiny bottle for thirty Euros.
After the vinegars, we tasted a piece of Parmesan cheese dipped in onion jelly and another with hot red pepper jelly. They were both very good. The onion jelly would probably go well on burgers too – like my turkey burgers with onion marmalade recipe.
We also tried a piece of cheese dipped in truffle honey. It was ok. Although I still think truffles taste like dirty feet. (Not that I’ve tasted dirty feet.)
Next, we tasted a Sicilian eggplant antipasto dish. It’s boiled in vinegar and packed in olive oil with garlic, fennel, chili and herbs, then threatened by the Mafia. We also tried a Venezian dish with pickled onions served with raisins and pine nuts.
Next, we moved on to the cheese stand to eat more stuff. (When in Florence…) A 4-year-old Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese that was AMAZING as well as a home-made 2 day old Pecorino cheese dipped in fig jam. Also very good, and very very soft. Almost like a Brie.
After stuffing ourselves on samples, we went upstairs to the second floor to check out the produce stands. We bought wild asparagus and wild strawberries (You may recognize them from “Produce Gone Wild: Spring Break in Cancun”).
I was blown away by the quality of the food here. It’s so much better than the stuff back home. The garlic is so fresh that the skin is still moist – not at all papery. We tried a green Sicilian olive that was firm and had so much flavor. And a slice of melon (looked like a tiny cantaloupe) that was obnoxiously perfect. (Although it made me wish I had some of that Prosciutto from Parma to wrap around it…)
(Male zucchini blossoms have only one stamen. Females have several.)
Also, the reason Italian pasta is so much better is the quality of the eggs. Judy told us that in Italy the chickens eat corn. Instead of the ground up fish and corn mixture that they’re fed in the US. This makes the yolks much more yellow in color and the flavor a lot better.
Even the color of the chicken is different. The chickens still have their heads attached so that you know that they were killed humanely, not mass-produced. The skin is yellow – not the pasty Irish-man-thighs color that we’re used to at home. And the meat is a much darker color. Because the chickens can actually walk around.
The level of customer service in the market is also pretty incredible. As Judy told us, most of the vendors have been working there for all their lives. 70 year old butchers have been working their stands helping their families since they were 10. And it shows in their passion for the food. At the market, you’re not allowed to touch any of the produce. You tell the vendor what you want to make and they tell you what you’re going to buy. They pick the freshest, best produce for whatever you’re having.
This is a bit different from how they do it at Safeway, where you ask for Cauliflower and the mouth-breather in the paper hat points you towards the floral department.
Here are a few other shots from around the market:
When we got back to Judy’s studio, her assistant, Perla had already set out all of the ingredients in a terrific spread on the Island.
Judy went over the menu and then it was time to get cooking. We all split jobs prepping and cooking things so that all eight of us got to have a hand in making just about everything we ate. (My job consisted largely of trying to not screw up.)
We started with antipasti. A salad of fresh fava beans with the 2 day old Pecorino cheese from the market, drizzled with olive oil and tossed with salt and fresh ground pepper.
It was fantastic, and so totally easy. We also had a wild boar salame and a cheese from the market called Buccia di Rospo “Frog’s skin” cheese because the rind looks weird and bumpy. Or because they make it by milking frogs.
Either way, It was fantastic. The texture was soft, kind of like a brie, but the flavor was a lot more pungent.
For Primi, we made chicken meatballs that we bought pre-shaped from the Chicken Sisters. Judy said the meatballs were a mix of ground chicken, ground turkey, prosciutto, parmesan and maybe fontina (They use cheese as a binder in meatballs instead of egg) and then rolled in bread crumbs. We browned them in some olive oil, then added a bit of water, cherry tomatoes and I think basil, and covered the pot to steam them and finish cooking. They were terrific. I’m definitely going to have to try to make them when I get home.
Next, we made a no-stir risotto with wild asparagus. You just add the water and stick a lid on the pot instead of adding a ladle of water at a time and stirring until your arm falls off. Making this the perfect recipe for anyone who prefers to keep their arm attached.
The coolest dish of the day was ricotta-stuffed zucchini blossoms. After stuffing the flowers with cheese, we made a tempura-style batter and fried the zucchini blossoms in olive oil. Major impressiveness points. It looks like something from a 4-star restaurant.
For Secondi, we made a fennel pork scallopine. We took very thinly sliced pork loin medallions, dusted them with fennel pollen, and sautéed them in olive oil. Then they got a splash of white wine and a knob of butter to create a nice pan sauce.
We also made a lighter take on Eggplant Parmesan. We sliced the eggplant crosswise into very thin discs, then grilled them dry on the griddle pan. We prepared a simple tomato sauce, sandwiched some fresh mozzarella in between two eggplant slices, topped them with more mozzarella, parmesan and the tomato sauce and baked them.
For dessert, we made a Limoncello tiramisu crème, and topped it with the wild strawberries and ate it with Italian vanilla wafer cookies.
Class wrapped up around 5:30.
And somehow, after all of that, I ate dinner at 9. I went to Coquinarius. The Food Lover’s Guide hit a major home run with this one. I started with Crostini Misti. I don’t even know what was on half of them, but they were all incredible.
One was pomodoro (tomatoes and basil) one was chicken liver pate, The pinkish one I think might’ve had salmon in it? The greenish one I’m assuming was zucchini, but it was a little spicy. Might’ve had a little jalapeno in it or something. Regardless, they were all fantastic.
But not as good as the Primi – gnocchetti in a gorgonzola cheese sauce.
That one blew me away. And luckily, it looks like there’s a recipe for a really similar sauce in Judy’s cookbook. Now I just need to figure out how to make gnocchi.
I got a beef carpaccio salad too, but after the crostini and gnocchi, I had very little room left. It was good, but I could only finish about half of it.
Somehow, in spite of the most massive food coma in history, I managed to waddle home.
Needless to say, I slept very well.