What’s that you ask? Did I really need that second helping of gelato? Yes. Yes, I did.
My mantra while studying abroad in (read: eating my way through) Italy was simple: “If not now, when?” There’s no time like the present after all, am I right? I was determined to try as much as I could while I was there, and – spoiler alert – I succeeded! Carpe pasta! Seize the pasta!
The beautiful thing about Italy is that each region has its own specialty and style when it comes to food. So, while Americans tend to stereotype and blend it all into one giant pot of fettuccine alfredo and chicken parmigiana, expecting every restaurant north of Naples to have these items, the reality is that this is just not the case. In fact, many dishes that we enjoy here in the U.S. and consider “Italian” are simple fabrications or modifications of other dishes. Regionally, Toscana (Tuscany) is full of vibrant and hearty flavors. People in this area of Italy consider food an art, and from first-hand experience I can attest to their masterpieces.
In the heart of Toscana, you will find its capital, Firenze, known to the English-speaking world as Florence. I spent four glorious months in this Renaissance city, and trust me when I say that the rumors are true: it is a magical place full of beautiful architecture, breathtaking artwork, great shopping, historical landmarks, and most importantly, culinary genius.
You’ll be hard-pressed to find a bad meal in Florence. Food is seasonal, so whatever is grown locally at specific times of the year is what gets served. I happen to be a huge fan of this ideology! That being said, despite the season there are some dishes that are quintessentially Tuscan. Here are a few you have to get your hands on:
- Lampredotto – Alright, I’ll be honest. I wasn’t keen on trying this one. “Cow what?” – my immediate response when the locals tried to explain. Lampredotto is the fourth and final stomach of our good friend, Mr. Cow. Squeamish as it may have made me, I tried it nonetheless. It certainly did not disappoint. Served warm on a spectacular roll that has been dipped in broth, the lampredotto sandwich will make your culinary dreams come true. It will be everything you ever wanted in a sandwich and more—a must-try for this region!
- Bistecca alla Fiorentina – In English, Florentine steak. This one is quite obviously not suitable for vegetarians, I’m afraid. If you like your steak well done, this won’t be for you either. This bistecca is served rare (quite frankly, mooing), and you’ll be expected to eat the entire thing. It’s not for everyone, but it’s certainly worth sharing if you are a meat-eater! In my book, it’s quite delicious. Served with a large glass of red wine and sides of spinach and roasted potatoes, you’ll be in your glory.
- Ribollita – This famous Tuscan soup is a smorgasbord of leftover vegetables, meat, bread, and beans combined and simmered into a hearty pot of deliciousness. Imagine all the flavors of your favorite foods melting together for the ultimate comfort food. Serve with a salt-free slice of traditional Tuscan bread and you’ve got yourself a meal!
Aside from the traditional dishes, my culinary experience in Florence was highlighted with frequent visits to restaurants. Friendly staff, fair prices, and exceptional food are plentiful. Imagine my delight! It’s certainly hard to decipher which were my favorites, but here are two solid recommendations:
- Il Latini – This famous hole-in-the-wall just so happened to be right next door to my school’s entrance. Lucky me! Imagine a rustic décor with dozens of whole, cured prosciutto hanging from the ceiling. With two seating times each night, Il Latini’s dining room is set up family style, meaning you may end up sitting with people you don’t know. Sound scary? It’s not! It’s all part of the experience. The courses are incredible and never-ending. You’ll want to try it all, and make sure you do! Multiple types of antipasti, soup, potatoes, and meat are served as ready, and it is You will leave in a food coma and love every second of it, so come hungry. Wine is served in large, traditional two-liter jugs and put on your table for your drinking pleasure. If being this gluttonous is wrong, I don’t want to be right.
- Gusta Pizza – Brothers from a Southern region of Italy called Calabria opened this delightful spot on the Oltrarno (other side of the Arno River). Now, I’ve had a lot of pizza in my day, but the fact of the matter is that this particular pie completely changed my life. Some might call it a religious experience. Imagine fresh, tangy tomato sauce complimented by whole chunks of homemade, creamy mozzarella cheese on the most perfect crust of all time. Are you salivating yet?
But wait! Aren’t we forgetting something? Dessert, of course! And there are plenty to pick from in Florence, trust me. As one can imagine, though, no semester in Italy would be complete without consuming a disgusting amount of gelato. Yes, I even had it for breakfast (on more than one occasion). No, I don’t regret it. But let’s be clear about something: gelato is not ice cream. Think of gelato as ice cream’s richer, smarter, smoother, more luxurious cousin that you want to know very, very well. In fact, I had a love affair with nocciolosa, a chocolate-hazelnut flavor that is reminiscent of Nutella. Get yourself some!
But while the food itself is delicious, what I always found more fascinating was the culture surrounding it. Italians don’t just love to eat; they love to eat with people they love. Sharing a meal with family, friends, and even strangers is an experience unto itself. Food is a means of gathering together and spending time with others. The Florentines take their time when they eat; no one is in a rush to get from one place to another. Locals do not ‘eat on the go,’ and the concept of ‘take-away’ seems to only exist for the sole purpose of satisfying tourists. I find this refreshing, that people want to sit and enjoy their meal and relish in the moment without worrying about where they need to get to next. It’s a much simpler way to go about your day.
Perhaps that’s the overarching theme here: food is simpler, life is simpler. Food is good, life is good.
Mangiate, amici! Cin cin!
PS: Did you know AIFS Study Abroad has a program in Florence? Click here to learn more!