Tuesday, December 1, 2009

BBQ in Florence, Italy

Giulia told me to meet her at Piazza Tasso this evening for dinner. I just assumed that we would be eating at the Vecchia Bettola or at Tranvia, two popular and well-known restaurants in the area. Instead, she took me just a few doors down from Tranvia to a new place called BBQ.
Being an American in Italy, I am often confused for someone whose primary sustenance are hamburgers and coca cola. As a result, I am a little 'touchy' when an Italian suggests a place called BBQ.
The name is most likely only bothersome to myself, an American, since it immediately evokes memories of fried okra and hush-puppies at Smithfield's BBQ, found at several exit stops in North Carolina.
From the Italian perspective, the name BBQ is probably a plus for the locals- it is foreign enough to catch their attention, yet familiar enough to get the point across: WE GRILL THINGS AND MAKE THEM DELICIOUS. Qui si mangia bene la ciccia.
Usual suspects of Florentine menus: Antipasto Toscano (mixed appetizer with prosciutto, salami, crostini "fegatini" and tomato bruschetta, fresh and stagionato pecorino cheeses... sotto aceti: artichokes and mushrooms- made in house!).
Less usual and might I add, genius: Pecorino grigliato with veggies, souffle of pumpkin.
Before I continue, worth mentioning: 0 km. All the veggies used are bought directly from a nearby farmer. Hence, my salad was flavorful and tough, the way lettuce should be in December.
On the grill: chicken, dry ribs, Florentine steak. I opt for the dry ribs, as I eat them whenever possible if there is a wood-burning grill involved. I hesitate to call them 'dry,' as they are juicy, flavorful and crispy around the edges. They bring me the chicken with my ribs. Though I generally don't swoon for chicken it was fantastic. Tasty and not at all dry.
To get some fiber in, I also order the cannellini beans- a staple of the Tuscan diet. These are prepared undoubtedly in-house, and served in a terra cotta terrine.
Finally, dessert. I can barely fit it in, but my friend insists that they make a fantastic cheesecake.
(yes, as in cheesecake- the thing we eat in America. Ever noticed how EVERYONE in America serves tiramisu? Well, everyone in Italy is serving cheesecake. And I can't take it anymore!!!)
I must admit, their cheesecake was good. And that means a lot, considering that I am cheese-caked out.
Genius. Tiny little place with two dining areas. One is at ground level, and seats about 30 people, while another about the same size is downstairs. White walls, tables and chairs make the space feel larger but still cozy thanks to the soft lighting (important and hard to achieve in the land of neon).
The Catch:
My only complaint: I was offered a "prosecco" at the beginning of the meal, but was instead served a dry sparkling rosato. First, there was no prosecco grape in this concoction. More importantly, this "dry" wine was actually a little too sweet and not at all fresh. This wine is not worthy of its surroundings. I'm sure they'll figure it out soon. They've only been open since November 29th!
Overall, pleased with the food, the atmosphere, and convinced that the wine I was served was just a fluke, since they had a great selection of reds, like TERRE A MANO's Carmignano.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Way to My Heart is Through my Stomach

Of the many interesting patterns in Italian dating, the most Italian of all is meeting the parents.
Universally, this is a special moment, generally saved for couples who have arrived at a level of certainty in their relationship.
In Italy, meeting the parents is borderline with picking out a china pattern. It is a commitment. Needless to say, both men and women here tend to put it off as long as possible.
In the beginning I took this a little personally, since I had casually brought a handful of Italian boys home to the States. Not to meet my family, but who met my family anyway since we were passing through.
Visiting my family with Italian boys has always been entertaining, since my grandmother speaks what sounds like tongues, but is actually an outdated version of a Calabrian dialect.
Whenever I bring an Italian boyfriend with me, she precedes to chum up to him on the couch, or at the dining table, hook her arm into his (copping a feel of the muscles and giving me a knowing look) and begins to talk shit in Calabrese. "Qua, tut'ti pazzi, tut'ti pazzi."
My family manages to hack even the simplest names. Years ago, I brought home Marco. Simple, as in Marco Polo. Americans have heard and said this at the pool for decades. No, Marco could not be called by his simple name. They all called him Mario instead.
Mind you, my mom's dog is named Baby Girl. Pretty easy to remember that she is female given her name. Instead, my family calls Baby Girl a he. As in "Baby Girl won't stop barking, he's so annoying."
By the way, my mother dresses Baby Girl like the granddaughter she constantly reminds me I have yet to produce, so not only does her name scream "I'm a she, you moron," but she also wears several pink outfits.
Last year, I brought Gionni home with me. His name, though intimidating on paper, is very easy:
Johnny. As in Johnny Carson, Johnny Cash... Guess who could not handle the simplicity of his name? My family. They called him Giovanni, which is much more complicated in my opinion.
After bringing Gionni home for what I like to refer to as the "Live Above your Means Tour" of New York, Chicago and North Carolina, I decided it was time I got to meet his parents. I wanted to know where the hell he came from, since he'd seen my DNA pool in a variety of shapes and sizes.
I met Gionni's parents on an August Sunday for lunch. We ate at Gionni's apartment, as Gionni does not live with his parents (though most single guys in their 30's in Italy still do).
I actually don't recall what we ate, which is odd because usually that's the only detail I remember vividly of any story.
I do remember being sort of shocked. Gionni is tall and has amazing blue eyes. He's been described as a cross between Sean Penn and Patrick Dempsey. I've even heard him compaired to the statues found at the Uffizi. He has a great nose and fabulous lips, and curly hair, making him painfully cute. Fortunately, he's slightly goofy, kind of like Kramer on Seinfeld.
His parents: Fairly short in comparison. Neither is lean like Gionni. Their stature a question of actual build, not metabolism or youth. I immediately asked myself if he'd been switched at birth.
The lunch was not as uncomfortable as anticipated. His mom made small talk and tried to make me feel at ease. I think I caught his dad checking out my legs (I had on a skirt that day)- kind of like my grandmother does when she meets the guys I bring home- so I didn't take offense to it.
All in all, uneventful. I had now seen where Gionni came from, and was content. I didn't expect this to become a habit.
Within a few weeks, I was invited over to lunch at his partents' house. This was a big deal, but I was working a lot at the time and didn't think about the social consequences. I just wanted to eat lunch. Silly me.
His mother is a great cook. I'm not talking about fancy dishes adorned with balsamic vinegar. I'm talking about the stuff that 99% of the population is too lazy to prepare because it is time-consuming, dirty work: wild boar, duck, nameless types of birds that have more bones than meat, deer, rabbit, wild hare. Food that has to be killed, cleaned, skinned, soaked to take out gaminess, and then turned into a meal.
I can no longer eat these things in restaurants, because they doe not compare to hers. Gionni is not a mamma's boy, but I have become a mammone. I don't think anyone can cook with game like la mamma di Gionni.
My enthusiasm for her cooking has won his mom's heart, especially since the three men she's cooked for always have some kind of comment about adding more salt next time or using less tomato. I, on the other hand, am moaning and squealing with delight as I savor every bite on my plate.
I gladly go over there on weekends to eat with them, regardless of the fact that there are neon lights above the table (oh, yet another blog entry: how Italy kills the mood with economy lighting) and despite the fact that his dad and brother are watching one noisy sporting event or another during meals.
Yesterday, I was at a market and walked right by a stand selling underwear, bras, socks and pijamas. The man (yes, the man- this should be a whole entry in itself: why does the underwear suck so much over here, and why is it almost always sold by aging men?- subtopic: infantile pj's for adults with nonsensical English phrases, like "happy sleep time.")
So, the man selling bad underwear, to grab my attention, called out: "Si! Vero! Queste mutande sono anti-suocera. Ottimo affare!" Roughly translated: Yes! It's true! These underwear are anti mother in law. A real bargain!
And how did I reply? "Sorry! Don't need them! I like my mother in law." I imagine you are raising an eyebrow at the use of the term mother in law...? In Italy, as soon as you are seriously dating, they start using these terms. And usually, meeting the parents is the ultimate sign of serious dating. Eating with them seals the deal.
All I wanted to do was meet his parents and eat good food, now I have in-laws!

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Rude Awakening

9am. The doorbell rings. Doorbells here don't have a cute "ding-dong" ring, but rather a "blAHHHHHH" buzz that frightens you every time you hear it. More or less like a bull horn in your entryway. (Much like the doorbell my grandparents had in Florida, which amazingly never caused either to have a heart attack.)
This morning, I prepare for work as quitely as possible in an Italian apartment where everything creaks and echos... BLLAAAAAHHHHHHH. Doorbell.
I quickly respond, hoping to save my sleeping roommate from the same fear that forms in my stomach and multiplies every time the doorbells buzzes.
It is the gas man. He is turning off the gas, again.
So, 5 minutes before I was going to take a shower, I am without hot water.
I immediately go into crisis mode: I run to the bathroom and manage to get a bidet in before the gas is shut off. There are some things that just CANNOT be washed with icy water.
And now, I wait. I am heating water in a tea kettle to wash myself. It is 2009, in the "Western" world, and I am bathing like my ancestors once did.
Not quite. Realization: to heat my kettle, gas is required to light the stove. (I still haven't had my espresso, so the brain isn't fully functioning yet.)

The only thing that could make this better is a trip to the pastry shop. If I can't prepare breakfast at home, I will start the day off as sweetly as possible, dammit! This kind of rude awakening calls for a sfogliatella.

...I'm home from work. I ended up having a brioche with chocolate chips from my favorite bakery in Via dell'Ariento. Then across the street after work for a glass of Prosecco and some crostini. All was right in the world, as my belly was full and warm. I must point out: one of the best things I've ever eaten and so simple: a soft roll with a pat of good butter and an anchovy. Don't knock it until you've tried it. Just to be sure, I tried it twice today! Brilliant.

A sure way to ruin a good mood is to hop on the 23 bus during lunch hour. To my left, a man rubbing up against me. To my right, the fake fur collar of a tall gentleman tickling my forehead and reeking of stale saliva (I swear, that is the only way I can describe the odor).

To my delight, my gas has been turned on. Now I can have a mediocre shower (this will be a future blog topic).

Wednesday, January 21, 2009


When you're 20, you don't have 30 years of memories fighting for space in your mind. Ever closer to your 32nd birthday, you realize memories begin to soften, and should be archived and protected before they are faded by the light of time.

So, I begin my blog with an old story. My first trip to Italy in 1997. I was 20 years old.

When I think of it now, I laugh and cringe all at once. How could I have been so bold? So scema?

...I have a great idea. I don't speak a word of Italian. I'll throw together a heavy backpack with the essentials: my birkenstocks, a sundress, a sweater, and a couple of items made out of that horrible slinky material that makes up the bulk of my mom's wardrobe (it is supposed to dry quickly).
I will head to Italy with my Rick Steves' book and no hotel reservations. Tanto, Italy is small and I will find my way around. I'll "do" the Cinque Terre on my way to Lucca, where I'll be studying Italian....

I will save the story about my airport departure for another blog. Back when, unfortunately, your ENTIRE family could escort you all the way to the gate!

...On my flight to Rome, I have the good fortune of meeting Sumi, a girl who is on her way to see her sister, Uma, who is studying for a year in Bologna (where many of Italy's great foods originate). Sumi doesn't really want to go to Italy. It seems that she has been put on the plane by her parents- against her will. She is frightened and at the most 18 years old. We make a deal: I hang out with her at the airport while she waits for her sister : Her sister will call and find me a hotel reservation (since she speaks perfect Italian).
Sumi and I wait on a bench, Italians passing by with their cigarettes and their perfect shoes. Uma appears eventually and calls every place I hope to sleep in for under 40,000 Lira. Long story slightly shorter: there is no room at the inns. Rick Steves' recommendations can only accomodate so many people. Uma invites me to sleep in her student apartment and the next thing I know, I'm on a train with the reunited sisters, bound for Bologna...

I remember my first lunch, my first dinner... and my first morning the following day: the first time I woke up in Italy. These will appear in my next blog entry: THE PUFF BALLS.


No Longer Foreign

When you live in a foreign country, it stops feeling foreign after a while. I have decided to start writing about my experiences, important and banal, before they fade from my memory... since Italy is starting to feel like home and America is further away every day.
I no longer notice the strange odors (unless they're really bad), I am no longer enchanted by the oldness of things, the new colors and shapes and textures and light. I now take it for granted. Except for the food. I am wowed by the food on a daily basis. My senses will never tire of the variety of flavors, ingredients, expressions of Italy, that one could not fully experience in a single lifetime.
Hence the name of my blog: EATALIANA. I live here for the food, and I am grateful that it is not only socially acceptable to eat 3 meals a day- but it is common to talk about eating while you eat!
So, bare with me. I will have to tell some stories and chronicle some fond memories, but I will eventually get to the good stuff: the food. In the meantime, I will take you back to my first trip here in 1997... then to my studies in Florence... to 2003 as I experienced the dark side of life while in Italy... 2004 and my rebirth in Florence... 2006 and my "white water rafting" adventure in the Arno River... my annual habit of breaking off relationships just before the holidays... my adventures in the Chianti (coined "Toni Does Chianti" by a good friend)... and finally, my choice to take control of my fate and start my own company... TM