I had vowed to spend 1 week only ordering food with names I did not recognize.
This simple vow spiced up a trip to Florence in February 2008 as I ate my way through traditional Tuscan cuisine at affordable trattorias throughout the city. The most memorable dish came on Valentine’s Day, in the form of a bowl of ribollita. This Tuscan dish translates as ‘reboiled’, I discovered, and has peasant origins. The soup consists of a leftover vegetable or minestrone soup, combined with day-old bread. The result is a hearty, satisfying dish where flavors have had at least a night or two to meld together.
Last week I wrote about the pleasures of traveling to Europe in winter, and this trip to Florence is a perfect example. Winter travel at its best includes sunny, crisp days of endless exploring on foot. The season provides an extra excuse to make lunch and dinner a leisurely affair, encouraging conversation with waiters and local residents. After a meal, I would return to my hotel pleasantly stuffed with traditional cuisine hearing Italian whispers bouncing off walls in narrow alleys. At times I couldn’t remember the last word of English I’d heard.
In winter, I never feel rushed to move from one thing to the next. This might be partially because lines at major attractions barely exist (I walked right up to the ticket booth to see the famous Statue of David) but it’s also because there aren’t other tourists around. Instead of being surrounded by fellow travelers anxious to see the sites, I was surrounded by Florentines going about their daily lives. All of this grocery shopping and routine of errands inspired me to join in: I would take a trip to the post office.
Before stepping foot in the Poste Italiane, I had read about the bureaucracy and red tape that exists across Italy in order to achieve even the smallest tasks. This task was quite small, to purchase stamps to mail a few letters back to the States. Stepping into the post office I was immediately confused by long lines that didn’t seem to budge, a system of taking a number, different waiting areas, and shouting postal workers. I grabbed a number not knowing what else to do, and when my number was eventually called, I found my way to the appropriate counter with the help of a few fellow frazzled customers and after a couple broken Italian sentences, I had my stamps.
After an hour spent watching Florence in microcosm at the Post Office, I went back to wandering. My task for the day was to find a restaurant to return to that evening. It was Valentine’s Day, and although I would be dining with a friend, this seemed as good an excuse as any to seek out a special restaurant. The Italians are very habitual people, and tend to sit down to lunch by 1pm every day. If you’ve ever tried to get a table for lunch at 2:30 or 3pm than you know exactly what I mean – restaurants are open for certain hours and close down between service. This makes lunch time the best time to find a restaurant for dinner.
My criteria was narrow but detailed. I was looking for a casual trattoria with reasonable prices, that displayed a menu in Italian only (some restaurants display menus in six or more languages), that was filled with families eating their midday meal. I spent the next couple hours winding back and forth through the labyrinth of narrow streets between the Post Office and my hotel before stumbling on Trattoria Marione.
The time was around 1:30 and outside an Italian family was kissing and saying goodbye to another neighborhood family just arriving for lunch. The prices looked reasonable, hams were hanging from the ceiling, and every red-checkered table was stuffed with laughing people. Gazing through the window, I knew I had found the location for my Valentine’s Day dinner.
Some people travel to Florence and are disappointed by the food. I couldn’t of had more the opposite experience. From tiny shops where still-warm rolls were stuffed with prosciutto and mozzarella to restaurants where bistecca fiorentina, the traditional steak dish of the city, was so satisfying I actually forgot about pasta for an evening.
Trattoria Marione opened at 7pm and when we arrived around 7:20pm almost every table was taken. I decided to put my adventurous vow of ordering the unknown to the test and only choose unfamiliar dishes. When the bowl of ribollita was placed in front of me, I think I may have audibly sighed with pleasure. Evening temperatures were brisk and the walk to the restaurant left me craving something hot and hearty.
As I devoured spoonful after spoonful my eyes darted around the trattoria: a man behind the counter sliced fresh prosciutto, arranging plates of meat and cheese. Waitresses sauntered by our table carrying steaming dishes; always slow enough for customers to catch a look. Coffee cups and saucers were being stacked in a constant clatter by the espresso machine.
Some travelers have memories of brief love affairs during a Valentine’s Day spent abroad. I have a vivid memory of that steaming bowl of ribollita, in all of its second day goodness.