First courses range from salads to soups to meats. Our favorites:
Pappa al Pomodoro (Tuscan tomato and bread soup): You have to suspend your notion of "soup" for this one; the consistency is more like a bowl of oatmeal or grits. This picture looks the closest to what we were usually served -- what one commenter rightly calls "a bowl of red goop." It's pleasure is in its simplicity: Tomatoes. Olive oil. Garlic. Basil. Bread. Salt. That's it. Absolutely heavenly.
Insalata caprese: Again, simple: Slices of fresh tomato (which are freakishly delicious in Italy), slices of fresh mozzarella (buffalo or otherwise), a drizzle of olive oil, salt, pepper, torn basil. Sooo good.
Prosciutto e melone: "Prosciutto" is Italian for ham, but what we're talking here is prosciutto crudo -- dry-cured ham. In the US, you find this at the deli for something like $25 a pound. You don't eat pounds of this, though: Paper-thin slices do the trick.
The north-central region is famous for its prosciutto production. Some of our foodie friends will be horrified to learn that we did not go to the Festival del Prosciutto di Parma while we were there. It was a tough call, but let me assure you that it is quite possible to eat prosciutto on the beach (or anywhere that doesn't involve a map or driving or learning or wearing something other than a swimsuit). I have a twinge of regret about not going to the Museo del Prosciutto di Parma or Museo del Salame (yep, ham and salami museums) because, seriously, could there be a cooler museum?
Anyway, prosciuttos are named for their regions of origin: prosciutto di Parma, prosciutto di San Danielle, etc. Some are sweet, some are really really dry. All are delicious. Prosciutto is rather ubiquitous, but one way to eat it is wrapped around cantaloupe as an appetizer. Salty and sweet. Fabulous.
Lardo: That looks suspiciously like lard, doesn't it? It is. But not in the US sense of rendered and clarified pork fat. Instead, it's pork back fat, cured with salt and spices. I'm sure this will be a tough sell to many of you, but trust me, it was delightful. We visited a town known for its lardo production, the mountaintop town of Colonatta. This link tells you even more about the Slice thinly and serve on toast. Melts in your mouth like butter, with a nice buzz of spice and herb.
After antipasti, the next course in a restaurant will be a small portion of pasta. Various forms of tomato sauces made appearances, as did lots of pesto and of course plain old butter, perhaps with some sage. My favorite ravioli came from the market in Florence -- pumpkin ravioli and potato ravioli. Paired with tomato sauce and pesto (respectively), they were fantastic.
We also really like gnocchi, which are small dumpling-like things made from potato. I had gnocchi with gorgonzola sauce one day -- it was almost too rich. Almost.
An antipasti and a main makes for a fine meal. But why stop there? The "main" in Tuscany is meat. Portions usually assume you have had a course or two before it -- that is, they aren't enormous portions of meat. That is, unless you've have …
Bistecca alla Fiorentina: This is a giant t-bone steak that appears on menus with a price per 100g. But you don't get to say, "I think I'd like 400 g of beef, please." Oh, no. We ended up with about a 1.2 kg steak. What's so good about it? Once again, the simplicity of the preparation: Cook over hot charcoal. Heavily season with salt and pepper. That's it. So, so very good.
Saltimbocca: I got this one day at the market and cooked it at our rental apartment. It's thinly sliced veal with a thin slice of prosciutto and one of cheese inside, dosed with sage. Fry quickly in olive oil, add salt, and it's a little piece of heaven.
Tuscan bread: This isn't necessarily a secondi, but if served bread in a Tuscan restaurant, best to resist until you get your meat course. We went a few days of all trying the bread, and politely pushing it aside. Finally JT thought to Google it. As this NYT article explains, traditional Tuscan bread lacks salt; it's meant to accompany the heavily salted main dishes. We quickly learned to buy pane con sale -- bread with salt -- in the bakeries.
You look at dishes like General Tso's Chicken and think they couldn't possibly eat this in China. Well, they definitely eat pizza in Italy, and we had some good ones. I'm not sure we found pizza nirvana, but we certainly didn't have a bad one. They're always made individual-sized, and the crust is pretty thin. My favorite toppings were spicy sausage or salami, probably because those are so exceptionally good in Italy. I also enjoyed pizze quattro stagioni -- mushrooms, olives, artichokes, and ham. Our favorite pizza came from a tiny little walk-up place in Lido di Pietrasanta. We had pizza on more than half of our 14 days in Italy. Maybe more.
Oh, the gelato. Gelato is basically ice cream, but more dense because it has less air in it, it has a lower percentage of milkfat in it, and for those reasons tends to be more intense. David Lebovitz explains here. My favorite flavors were the dark chocolates, but fruits such as lemon and strawberry were fantastic as well. And: It's EVERYWHERE in Italy.
(You might think I'd also write about tiramisu here. I'm not sure we had any tiramisu of note -- it was often too much like a bowl of whipped cream with some cinnamon on top. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but if you've had stellar tiramisu, well, anything less just won't do.)
Porchetta: Mmm, porchetta. We wish we would have encountered this again because it's is something we'll never make or encounter outside of Italy. Here's the description from the Wikipedia entry: "The body of the pig is gutted, boned, arranged carefully with layers of stuffing, meat, fat, and skin, then rolled, spitted, and roasted, traditionally over wood. Porchetta is usually heavily salted in addition to being stuffed with garlic, rosemary, fennel, or other herbs, often wild."
Sooo good. We got ours at a market one day. I thought it would make good sandwiches to take to the beach, and hoo boy, did it ever. I think we waited all of 45 minutes before saying, "Gee, don't you think it's time for lunch?"
My mother-in-law has said that she rarely cooks pork anymore because they now breed them so lean in the US that the meat has barely any flavor. Well, let me assure you that there are some big fat flavorful pigs in Italy. I'm not sure where they are, because I didn't actually see any live pigs. But the prosciutto, lardo, and porchetta all suggest that they are fed well and enormous, wherever they are.
My most substantial market trip was to the Mercato Centrale in Florence, where I got all the makings for the meal I've mentioned a few times. I didn't really have to cook a thing, other than boiling and frying -- fresh ready-made pastas, fresh sauces, etc. Tomatoes and fresh buffalo mozzarella get you insalata caprese; prosciutto and melone, well, self-explanatory; one vendor had pappa alla pomodoro all ready to go, as well as the pesto and tomato sauces for the pasta; pasta stand had the two kinds of ravioli; a butcher had the saltimboccas all ready to go, complete with toothpicks holding them together. The dessert (chocolatey baked cookie-like goodness) came from a store outside the market but is irrelevant because none of us could touch it after eating all of the above.
Restaurants of note:
Nuti, Borgo San Lorenzo, Florence: Our first dining experience in Florence, and it was delicious! We had a hankering for pizza, and Nuti satisfied. House chianti was the best we had on the entire trip, but we think a big reason for this is because it was slightly chilled. There are two Nutis across the street from each other, but we didn't bother to figure out the difference between the two. The street looks like a tourist trap, and perhaps it is. But we had good food and good service for a good price, both here and at …
Giannino, Florence: This is two doors down from Nuti. The website proclaims the bistecca alla fiorentina to be its specialty, but we didn't have that here. Instead, we thought their pastas were the best we had on the trip -- one was in tomato sauce with red wine and lamb, and another was a divine pesto. We remember having excellent desserts here but can't remember what they were.
Ciro and Sons, Florence: This is where we had the bistecca alla Fiorentina. Everything we had was delicious -- pizza, steak, pasta, etc.
Acqua al Due, Florence: Niece J suggested this place to us. Really good! The nice thing about it is that you can get a sampler of their salads, a pasta sampler, a main course sampler, etc. The attraction, though, was a beef fillet with a blueberry sauce! Very delicious.
Lo Sprocco, Pietrasanta: We walked by this place and knew right away we'd dine here. Why? The giant baskets of salami on the table. They bring you this basket, plus a cutting board and sharp knife, not to mention olives and various other veggie antipasti. Our pasta courses were excellent, too. Mine was formed from pumpkin and ricotta, and was in a butter sauce.
Enoteca Il Pirun, Corniglia: Il Pirun is definitely worth the stop if you're doing the five villages of Cinque Terre. We were hot, tired, and in need of a rest. There was an empty table for us at Il Pirun, so we sat down. In my version of Italian, which is Spanish with hand gestures, I got us two white wines -- turned out to be vermentino. The cold, crisp wine was just what we needed -- and it was absolutely delicious. The raspy voice of Italian bluesman Folco Orselli blasted throughout the small, cozy store. We tried another wine, and then the local limoncino (not to be confused with limoncello). The proprietor makes his own wine, too, and is very generous and friendly.
As always, here are more pictures of food in Italy. I wasn't as diligent as usual with photographing my food.