Monday, December 3, 2012

Eating Well in Florence

Mr Tabubil and I have just returned from three weeks holiday – a week in Holland, so that I might see a bit of his country and meet his family, and two weeks together after that in Italy.  Right now, we're in Florence.

When I lived in Florence, my kitchen was minimal – a half-size sink, a single gas burner of such limited spirit that lightly sautee-ing a handful of fresh vegetables took almost an hour, and a bar fridge too narrow for a paper plate full of leftovers to sit horizontal.  I was obliged to learn how to eat out cheaply and well – which is not an easy thing in a tourist town. 
            There is some extra-ordinarily bad food in Florence. I learned two rules in a terrible hurry:
One - If there are more than two languages on the attractively inexpensive menu, or if the menu on display outside the restaurant is laminated or inside a plastic sleeve, DO NOT GO INSIDE.  You won’t like it.  And your stomach will pay you for it later.
            Second– avoid all of the little shops selling pre-made open-faced sandwiches.  They look as if they’ve been sitting there all week because they have been.  And any of the students at Polimoda who tried them for lunch always ended up regretting it deeply and going home early with a stomach-ache. 

After a couple of weeks of slow cooking and very bad meals, I began to learn my way around the city and find out where real people ate real food, and for a year, I ate like a queen.  And I wanted to show Mr Tabubil Everything.  At mid-day, we found delis in back-streets, where they sliced prosciutto off the hock and cheese off the wheel.  And in the evenings, there were a few little places that I wanted to share with him.  One in particular – a hole-in-the-wall pizza shop.  Pizza that had nothing to do with the pizza I’d known growing up in American suburbia.  For eight years it had been lurking in my back-brain and beckoning in my dreams at night –
And it was still there.
            It was still there, attached to the Osteria Cucina Toscana, on the corners of the Via de Lavatoi and the Via Matteo Palmieri, near the Basilica of Santa Croce.
            It opens a little after seven, but people are lined up outside in the street by six-thirty.  Don’t be deterred – they’re waiting for one of the three tables inside – order takeout and eat your pizza sitting on the stone bench of the small piazza across the corner.
            The same man is still there – a little more rounded around his corners and plumpish about the mid-section, - flipping pizzas every evening from seven until midnight.
            As a pizza, it is very simple – the distilled essential essence of a pizza, perhaps.  A round of elastic dough, splashed with a ladle of fresh-made tomato paste, a fist-size ball of fresh buffala mozzarella, two basil leaves - torn in half and tossed carelessly on top, a caper or two, a splash of olive oil, then three minutes in a wood-fired oven and –
            The magic is in the dough –a rich, round, savory bite, umami-ish even, biscuit-thin at the center, rising high and chewy at the edges, and shot through with sweet air pockets two inches high, and where the melting mozzarella lay, no grease or greasy cheese, just puddles of and milky tomato-laced juice –
            For me – who learned her Pizza in Suburban California – Dominos for takeout, and Round Table for birthday parties and at home, mum’s own special invention, a pizza so over-laden with pizza toppings that it must be eaten in layers, with a spade and shovel, working downward, strata by strata toward the pre-baked supermarket crust –

The discovery of Pizza’s OTHER definition was nothing short of a divine moment.  A revelation.
Mr Tabubil had his Moment, as well.  He ate one bite, and then looked at me deeply, with a face full of betrayal.
          “You know what you’ve done, don’t you?”
I nodded happily.
            “You’ve ruined me for pizza.  Forever, possibly.  I can never go back, can i?”
I shook my head.
            “Now I know why, in all the years I’ve known you, you’ve never ONCE been excited by pizza night.  Damn.”
He stared moodily at the pizza-poem in front of him, and sighed, and took another bite.  And forgot to be rueful, and ordered three more pizzas.
After that, it was difficult to convince Mr Tabubil that there WERE other places that we might eat while we were in Florence.  I can’t say that I tried very hard.


Florence does gelato on every street corner.  And it is very good gelato – even if it is mostly out of the same factory, with the same decorative fruit slices on top of each pastel-tinted mountain – factory-made it might be, it is real Italian gelato and LIGHT years ahead of what you find in Australia, where traditional ice-cream comes in five flavors – pink, white, chocolate, rainbow, and hokey-pokey (white with lumps of tooth-breaking toffee), or even in Chile, where artisanal ice-cream bars of awesome flavor and variety seem to be a source of profound national pride.
            And yet I said ‘BAH’.  And took Mr Tabubil by the hand and dragged him up the Via Isole delle Stinche to the Gelateria Vivoli, where they make their own gelato in the back, and fed him their pear-and-caramel gelato, for starters, just to watch him melt into a happy puddle on the tiled floor, and THEN, we began a sensible five-day exploration of all the flavors that they had with a pear-and-caramel chaser, every time.
            The gelato in front of the Café Gilli in the Piazza Republica isn’t bad either.  But it’s not the Vivoli.

The place – and person – that I’d most hoped to find in Florence was no longer there.  In his place was a travel-agent, and nobody knew where he’d gone.
            In memoriam then, I give you a man who made sandwiches like Fischer plays chess, like Michelangelo painted ceilings, like Paderewski played the piano –
            On the Via del Oriuolo, behind the Duomo, there was once a run-of-the-mill olive oil shop. Its insides were filled up with strings of dangling chianti bottles in wicker baskets and vials of balsamic vinegar at terrible international prices, and at the back, behind all of the tourist tat laid out to keep the uninitiated away, there was Alberto.
            Alberto was an ARTISTE.  I was referred to his sandwiches on my third day in Florence by a vendor of computer equipment of shady provenance, and on the strength of his recommendation, I went around directly to case the joint.  
            At the back of the sandwich shop, I gave the signs and countersigns, and Alberto stood back behind his glass cold-case, staring at me intently, learning my face, and tapping his upper lip.
Eventually, he reached a decision.
            "Beef, I think. Marinated in chianti.  Perhaps some vinegar, a touch of peccorino cheese, and maybe -”
            "Tomato?"  I said, entranced.
            “No!”  Alberto stared at me in horror.  “That would ruin the entire scheme!"
I looked at the glass case of roasted marinated and char-grilled everything that stood between us and tried again.
            "Roasted bell peppers?"   I suggested tentatively.
Alberto cogitated and nodded decisively.  "That would be acceptable."
            I went back regularly for the food and the company.  I remember that there was one day when I was particularly frazzled from arguing with Telecom Italia (and that is a whole book in itself).  I walked into the shop and Alberto took one look at me, drew me into the back of his store and put me into a chair, handed me a newspaper, poured me a glass of wine, and said "Rest."
And left me there for an entire afternoon.

He loathed what he perceived as my lack of culinary adventure (which I saw simply as respecting the value of a great sandwich combination – if it works, why change it?) and one day, when I asked for the usual, he hit the rafters.
            "Tomato and Bell Pepper and Dijon Mustard?  What are you thinking?  I never give that combination!  Never!"
            "You do too.  Yesterday."
            "Something else then?"
Deep cogitation and then the voice of the sandwich oracle spoke.  "Grilled Eggplant."
            "I don't like eggplant."
            "DID YOU HEAR THAT?"  The whole shop was staring.  "I eat everything, Alberto!"  He pitched his voice to a deep falsetto, in imitation of an over-fastidious female. "I eat everything.  Except EGGPLANT, it appears.  FEH!  Tomato, then.  Rucolet, Balsamic Vinegar and Walnut Sauce!  And you'll like it!"
            "No Mustard?"
I received a very dirty look, and Alberto ostentatiously turned his back, wiping his hands fastidiously on his apron.
While his concentration was engaged in slicing the beef, I sidled up to his assistant and whispered.
            "Could you swap the walnut sauce for mustard, please?"
There was a bellow from the cutting block. "I SAID WALNUT!!!"

It was an extremely good sandwich, actually.

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