Saturday, January 28, 2012


I thought I would start posting a traditional Tuscan recipe every so often, in case you would like to know what real Tuscan food is all about.

The first recipe I am going to share with you is called rosticciana.  Rosticciana is a traditional Tuscan dish made with 6 ingredients:  pork ribs, rosemary, garlic, water, salt, and white wine.  It's super easy, but it will take some time before you can eat it.

First thing you must do is cut the pork ribs into sections, about an inch to an inch and a half thick.  Place them into a large frying pan and stick some rosemary branches around them.  Peel  some garlic cloves and put them in the pan, too.

Pour a glass of water over it all, put a lid on it, and cook on low to medium-low heat for about an hour.  Be sure to turn the ribs every so often until the water has completely evaporated.  (If after an hour the water still hasn't evaporated, remove the lid & cook it until the water disappears.)

Increase the heat to medium and sprinkle the ribs with some salt (I use sea salt, personally).

Pour in a glass of white wine (about 6-8 ounces) and let it reduce gently.  Make sure to turn the ribs frequently so that the ribs brown evenly on all sides.

When it's done, serve it with spinaci alla Fiorentina (Florentine style spinach).

What's that?  You don't know how to make spinaci alla Fiorentina??  Argh.  Ok,

Get a bag of spinach.  Get two bags if you're going to be feeding more than one or two people.  Rinse the leaves in water.  (I dump the bag of spinach into a big colander and run cold water over them, then toss them around to get a lot of the water out.)

Pour some olive oil in the bottom of a deep pan.  I don't measure my olive oil, I just pour it.  You want to get just enough in there to coat the bottom of the pan.

Dump the spinach into the pan.

Put a lid on it and cook it over medium heat.

While it's cooking, slice up a couple cloves of garlic.

Check on the spinach.  It won't take too long to cook down.  When it does, sprinkle in some salt and toss in the sliced garlic.

Saute, and when the garlic is's ready to eat!

Buon Appetito!

Sunday, January 22, 2012

La Basilica di Santa Croce

Florence, and all of Italy, is filled with beautiful churches.  The most beautiful church in Florence, in my opinion, is La Basilica di Santa Croce.  The construction of this magnificent house of worship began in 1294, probably by the architect Arnolfo di Cambio, and was built on the site of a smaller church built by the Franciscans about 40 years prior.  The exterior marble facade of the church was built between 1853-1863 by Niccolo Matas.  One thing you may notice right away upon looking at the church is that there is a Star of David inserted into the center gable of the facade.  It may seem a bit strange to see on a Catholic church, however, the placement of this symbol is understood to be a nod to the Jewish religion, of which Matas practiced.

The robe and a segment of the belt worn by St. Francis of Assisi 

The entrance to the church is on the left side, under an arched portico.  The ticket counter is there and you will pay 5 euro to gain entrance (as an adult.  4 euro for children 11-17.  Children under 10 and under are free with paying adult.).  There is a separate entrance for people who wish to enter for prayer and/or confession.  This separate entrance (which is free) leads to a couple of small side chapels, which are gated off from the rest of the church. 

View of the main altar, surrounded by scaffolding
The soaring gothic interior of the nave is impressive.  The main chapel area, around the altar, currently is being restored, so there is a lot of scaffolding that prevents views of that area, but the rest of the church is, thankfully, scaffolding free (at least as of December 2011).

Santa Croce is probably most famous for being the final resting place for many famous Italians.  As you walk along the side aisles of the nave, you will encounter the monuments of some extremely famous people that I know you read about in school.  People such as...

...Galileo Galilei...

...Michelangelo Buonarroti...

...Dante Alighieri....

...Niccolo Machiavelli...

...and Gioachino Rossini (composer of "The Barber of Seville" and "William Tell").

There are many, many other tombs and memorials along the aisles of the church, and there are 200 tombs in the floor of the church.  The oldest of the floor tombs consist simply of a marble slab laid on the floor.  They were designed to be destined to be trampled upon, which symbolizes the return to the earth of all men.  Some, however, are no longer trod upon, since they are cordoned off so as to protect the grave from damage and/or from people tripping over some of the more ornate graves.

What I found fascinating was how old some of those graves are.  One of the oldest dates from 1348 (Biordo Ubertini).  I didn't get a photo of that one, but here's one from 1424: 

You will definitely need a lot of time to walk through Santa Croce.  Every little nook & cranny has something to see.  The many chapels hold beautiful works of art, relics and gorgeous windows.

There is much more to see at Santa Croce than just the church.  There is a museum, housed in what was the monastery that contains many works of art from the church, including paintings, windows and a model of the bell tower.  There are a couple of cloisters on the grounds as well, which are nice quiet places to sit or stroll for awhile.  All of these areas are included in the price of admission.

View of the bell tower from one of the cloisters

Underneath the church is a basement of sorts that used to be a crypt, originally built as a burial site.  Today, it is a memorial chapel, honoring the Florentines who gave their lives in World War I.  The area is quite different from the rest of the church.  The arched ceiling is painted a stark white color and the walls are completely covered with large, black marble slabs, which are engraved with the name of each  of the 3672 men who died in that war. 

Santa Croce is a must-see when you are in Florence.  Allow yourself a couple hours to walk through all of the areas of the church.  As I said before, there is so much detail to be seen.  Frescos, stained glass windows, statuary, paintings, monuments, want to take your time there and not be rushed.  I ended up taking 150 photos while I was there (yep, cameras are allowed, but flash is not permitted) and I could have easily taken 150 more.  

Please remember, when you do visit, that this is a church.  They, like most churches in Italy, require proper attire within the church.  That means shoulders should be covered, ladies!  Some tourists who come in the summer may be wearing tank-tops.  If they don't have a shawl or jacket to cover their shoulders, before entering Santa Croce, they will be given a paper cape to wear.  Some folks may scoff at this, but remember, this is first and foremost a place of worship.  You may be allowed to wear shorts & tank tops at your church in the US, but that is not the culture of Italy.  Recall the phrase "when in Rome, do as the Romans do".  Don't complain, just do it and enjoy the beauty!

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Natale in Italia - Christmas in Italy

I know, I know...Christmas is over.  The Christmas Season ended last Friday with Epiphany.   I know.  But...a lot of folks have been asking me how it was to be in Italy for Christmas, so let's just pretend it's still Christmas for a few minutes, ok?  Besides, Christmas is "the most wonderful time of the year" according to the song made popular by Andy Williams, so who wouldn't want to re-visit for a bit?

The Christmas tree in the Piazza del Duomo, Florence
Christmas is a magical time of the year to me.  I found that it was even more so when I experienced it in Florence.  Christmas in Italy is amazing.  You might not get a white Christmas, but the spirit is definitely alive and well.  Decorations abound.  The first week of December, there was a "Festival of Light" in Florence.  They streets, buildings and bridges were all decked out in beautiful lights.  We made the trip into the historic city center twice to see the sights.  They were gorgeous.

Christmas lights suspended above a street in Florence.

Ponte Vecchio, lit up for the holidays.

Piazza della Repubblica, awash in Christmas lights

The Piazza della Repubblica was a beautiful site.  Lights completely covered one of the buildings.  The carousel was turning, accompanied by light-hearted music and the laughter of children.  There was a market set up in part of the piazza.  Booths with vendors selling cheeses (we bought a fantastic peccorino nero), meats, roasted nuts, small gifts, and...necci.

The necci booth was run by an absolutely adorable elderly couple.  Necci are a type of crepe made with chestnut flour, which is cooked on round, flat, hand-held irons.  The recipe hails from the mountains of Pistoia, a town approximately 30 -35 minutes away from Florence.  We got them con ricotta - with ricotta spread in the middle.  Fabulous!

The Christmas market in Piazza Santa Croce
Christmas markets pop up all over Italy in the month of December.  The biggest and most famous in Florence is the one that comes each year to the Piazza Santa Croce.  Funny enough, this is a German market!  The booths are filled with such treats as apple strudel, pork, sauerkraut, pretzels, and gifts with a German flair - such as Christmas tree ornaments and toys.

A booth at the German market.  Apple Strudel and Pretzels the size of your head!

Presepe (nativity scene) next to Santa Maria del Fiore.
Presepe, nativity scenes, are all over Italy during the Christmas season.  Every church has one.  Some are traditional...

some are...not so traditional.

La Pietra Prende Vita - The Stone Takes Life.  Created by Stefano Innocenti.  (Pistoia)
A presepe made entirely of dried pasta!

A Christmas Eve tradition in Italy is to have fish for Christmas Eve dinner.  In Southern Italy, they have the tradition of "The Feast of the Seven Fishes".  Well, we were in Central Italy, so we only had 3 forms of seafood.  2 different types of fish and a fabulous crustacean.


Christmas Eve Dinner...prior to being roasted.

Christmas Day 2011 was gorgeous.  The sun was brilliant and I think it reached around 50 degrees.

Christmas Day in Florence
We walked around the city in search of Madonnari - street artists who produce gorgeous sidewalk chalk paintings of the Madonna and Bambino.  We only found one in the whole city, but his work was amazing.

We hiked up the hill from the Arno all the way up to San Miniato al Monte as the afternoon drifted into twilight.  The view was magnificent.

View of Florence from San Miniato al Monte.
We closed Christmas Day 2011 by visiting the Piazzale Michelangelo at night.  The views of the city from the Piazzale are absolutely breathtaking at anytime you visit, but on was extra special.

Christmas Tree at Piazzale Michelangelo
My Christmas in Italy was better than I could have imagined.  The country definitely knows how to celebrate. Everyone enjoys the markets, lights, parties.  You see families, lovers, and friends all gathering together to celebrate the season.  It is truly magical.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Food Glorious Food

Napoli style pizza in Florence
Italian food is popular in America.  However, the "Italian Food" that we have in the US is a far cry from what it is in Italy.  Rather, we enjoy "Italian-American" food - most of which is based on southern Italian cuisine.  I think a lot of folks would be shocked that there isn't "spaghetti and meatballs" served up at restaurants in Italy.  No bread served with pasta.  Pasta isn't swimming in gloppy sauces.  Pizza doesn't have a ton of toppings.  Some folks might be upset about this, that their life-long idea of Italian food was false, but me?  Nope.  I absolutely LOVE real Italian food.  LOVE IT.

Just last week, I was enjoying the foods of Italy - more specifically, the foods of Florence and the surrounding Tuscan region.  And, I must say - I really really miss it!  I can try (and have tried) to attempt to re-create some of the dishes I ate while in Florence, but unfortunately, I can't recreate all of them due to the fact that we do not have some of the foods here in the US that they have over in Italy (much to my dismay).

My favorite yogurt brand in the world - YOMO.  Unfortunately, not available in the US.

But I digress.

Let me take you on a little journey of food...

Food from the region of Florence and Tuscany is fairly simple.  Their primary herbs of choice are rosemary, sage and parsley.  Lots of vegetables and bread.  Tuscan bread (pane toscano) is made with no salt, which renders it rather bland tasting.  A lot of folks won't like it, but to me, there is nothing better to go with a meal.  It has a nice crunchy crust and a chewy interior.  It makes for delightful crostini and bruschetta when toasted, as it doesn't compete with the flavors.

Leftover salsa di pomodoro on top of toasted pane toscano 
Seafood and fish is plentiful in Italy, due to the fact that it is mostly surrounded by water.  The variety of seafood available would make your head spin.  Frito misto is a very popular dish and it's quite easy to make.  All it consists of is a variety of seafood and fish, battered and fried in olive oil.

Frito misto with lemon, made at home in Florence.
If you find yourself near the coast, try going to a local trattoria and sampling their fresh catch of the day.  When I was there in April, we hit up a small place a couple kilometers from the sea.  They didn't have a menu, but would cook up whatever they got in fresh that day.

Lunch at a small outdoor trattoria near the sea (April 2011)
Walking down the streets of Florence around lunchtime, you might catch a whiff of the famous Lampredotto. These sandwiches have been around since the 15th century and are unique to the city of Florence.  You can find them sold by street vendors or in little shops throughout the city.  The smell is amazing and the taste is out of this world.  Lampredotto is made from the fourth and final stomach of a young cow.  I know what you're thinking - YUCK!  But, really, you must believe me - this sandwich is extremely tasty!  After having it for the first time just last week, I fell in love with the flavor and now just thinking about it makes my mouth water.  The lampredotto is cooked in a vegetable broth and when finished, is pulled out and sliced very thin before being stacked on a tuscan style bread roll that, when ordered bagnato, is dipped in the cooking broth before the meat is added to the sandwich.  A little sale e pepe (salt and pepper) and it's a cheap, nutritious lunch.

My first lampredotto.  The only photo I have of it, unfortunately.  I was too busy eating it to take a better picture! 

Another delicious dish from Florence is the bistecca alla fiorentina.  This delightful steak is HUGE.  It comes from the tuscan Chianina breed of cow.  The steak is seasoned with salt and pepper and cooked rare to medium-rare.  It is divine.  If you love steak, you will be in seventh heaven with a bistecca.  You can find this dish in many restaurants around Florence, but they are rather pricey and huge.  I would suggest, unless you have the appetite of a ravenous lion, that you get one to share.

Our bistecca fiorentina, before it was cooked.  YUM!

I've already discussed gelato in a previous post, but there are more dolci to be had in Italy!  Stop by a pasticceria and sample some of Italy's delicious pastries.  If you find yourself in Prato, which is just northwest of Florence, stop by Antonio Mattei on via Ricasoli and pick up some of their famous cantucci biscotti or a torta mantovana.

Antonio Mattei - Via Ricasoli, 20 - Prato (photo credit: Simone Cinotti, 2011
Torta Mantovana from Antonio Mattei, Prato

I could honestly write a blog just on the food of Florence and Tuscany.  I've just touched on a small handful of tasty treasures.  There are so many delightful things to eat in that corner of the world, that it would make your head spin.  If you find yourself in Tuscany, or anywhere in Italy...or the world, for that out local foods.  Most of the time, you will not be disappointed!

Buon appetito!

(If anyone would like for me to post some recipes of traditional Tuscan/Florentine dishes, please let me know.  I've got several recipes that have gotten the stamp of approval from my Tuscan and I'd be happy to share them!)