Friday, July 22, 2011

Tuscan Treasures

By the time we got to Tuscany, it had become very easy to find good food. Not necessarily fancy, or even especially unique, but always good. I love pasta any day of the week, so to be where pasta is supposed to be a daily menu item was like heaven. And given that it is usually quite affordable, it became a go-to order for us.
One night in Florence, we ordered canneloni Florentine, which I've always
understood to be a stuffed pasta shell, so we were surprised when it was
more of a crepe, filled with a spinach stuffing and baked in a white sauce.

Osso buco, a traditional dish from Milan, was still delicious when
we had it in Florence as a secondi after the canneloni above.

Roasted rabbit.

This wasn't dinner, in fact, we didn't even actually buy any of this, but I love cheese,
and love seeing these gigantic wheels of delectable parmesagiano reggiano.
 For our last evening in Florence, we selected a casual restaurant which our guidebook described as having a "typical Florentine elegance." I don't usually think of casual and elegant in the same sentence, though it's not unheard of. Simple but delicious fresh food in Tuscany certainly meets the criteria though! So we splurged and both ordered a first and second course. We were stuffed (doggie bags are a no-no) but I was glad we were able to try each of these dishes, and overlooking the shear quantity of food, our choices were otherwise well-balanced as a meal and with each other. I started with the salad of the day: tuna and white-beans, which had a few greens and ample white onions dressed in a lemon and olive oil vinaigrette. The tuna was gorgeous, and a portion larger than what I even would have served for a main dish, but is a bit hidden by the beans in the photo below.

Tuna and white bean salad.
Will started with the pasta of the day,  which was loaded with fresh zucchini and tomatoes. What was so interesting about this is how many of the ingredients were the same as the pasta I ordered, but because of the drastically different shape of the pasta, how different both dishes tasted from each other. The shape of the pasta absolutely interacts different with the sauce, insofar as how much gets in your mouth at one time, and how the liquidy and chunky ingredients are balanced. The mouthfeel of the different shapes and textures of pasta - ridged, smooth, etc. - also play a huge role, so these two pasta dishes made for a fun experiement. We didn't realize how similar the ingredients were when we ordered them, but were glad to do the taste testing on the different pasta.

Stewed tomato and zucchini sauce on rigatoni.

Fresh tomato and zucchini sauce take on entirely different properties
when served over wide, thin, smooth noodles.

Pork scallopini with spinach. My favorite new condiment is balsamic vinegar,
especially on any kind of cooked vegetables. Popeye would be so proud to see us
slurping up this dressed spinach!!

We'd been toting around a bottle of San Gimignano Vernaccia wine for 2 days and finally decided to crack into it over lunch in the lovely park in Cortona at the edge of town which looks out over the mountain side and down to the lake the next valley over. The light, cool white wine was perfect for a mid-day refresher, and this awesome artichoke focaccia filled with tomatoes, fresh mozerrella, and argula made for a memorable picnic.

We we needed another pick-me-up that afternoon after hiking up to the mountain tops and around the backside of the hill on which Cortona rests, we ordered an Aperol Spritzer and "Tuscan Night" cocktail from the most reknowned bartender in Tuscany. Italians don't really drink alcohol without food, so there will always be at least a bowl of olives or crackers served with your drinks. If you order food from the menu, you often miss out on whatever snack they serve, and this bar made a really awesome plate of cold canapes that came with our drinks during happy hour.
The Aperol spritz (above left) is SO refreshing - a dash of sweetened Aperol liquer
which is a mild bitters (and has the bright red color) is topped off with prosecco or
another sparkling white wine and garnished with orange. The canapes consisted of toasts
with cheese and vegetables, crostini with mushroom-onion ragu, and a rolled and sliced omlette.

Can you read the sign? It says Mandorlato, specialty of the house: Marzipan, almonds, sugar, orange, citron. It was a dense (and rather dry) fruitcake, that I was disappointed to not care for at all.

Ricciarelli are cookies we saw all over Tuscany, and made much more delicious with a dip in chocolate, but are a soft yummy cookie made with marzipan which gives them a tender texture and subtle almond flavor.

Cingale is wild boar and they use it everywhere in Tuscany. I'm not a huge sausage fan
(actually I try to avoid it as much as possible) but Will loves it, and this was one of many
we tried throughout the trip. It was my favorite, incorporating pistachios and pine nuts
into the mix, and without too much overpowering garlic.
A giant mortadella (I think they are all this size, but it was the biggest sausage I'd ever seen) which
comes from Bologna, but we saw this one in a shop in Rome.

Ribollita is a classic peasant stew with thousands of different recipes to fit a particular cook
or their garden. It is vegetables and beans with leftover bread stirred in to give it a thick,
hearty texture. I'm disappointed at how unappetizing this photo makes it look because while
it's not supposed to be glamourous, it is really delicious.

Wild boar again, this time as pasta sauce. I have no idea how they made this rich, saucy sauce without a tomato base.

The best ravioli from the entire trip, in Cortona. These freshly made pockets were filled with mild
ground beef and those gorgeous shavings all over the top are truffles. I'm not sure I've had truffles
before - at least not ones this good, and in this generous of a quantity. The entire dish was outstanding.

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