The Literate Chef

Posts Tagged ‘Florence’

Our Italian Thanksgiving

In General Articles on May 12, 2011 at 12:55 PM

In the fall of 1997, our younger daughter spent a semester abroad in Florence. Missing her greatly after ten weeks, my wife and I flew to Milan on the Sunday before Thanksgiving. Upon landing we took a bus into the central city and caught a train down to Florence, where we had booked ‘a room with a view‘ at the Hotel Pensione Pendini for six nights.

Hotel Pensione Pendini - A Room with a View

Arriving in the city around 6:00pm, after traveling for about 18 hours, we took a taxi from the Santa Maria Novella Railway Station to the Pendini, which is centrally located on the Piazza della Repubblica.

We had been to Florence once before, in the summer of 1970, but for only two days while on a whirlwind tour of Italy. So not only were we thrilled to be seeing our daughter, but looking forward to the prospect of spending a leisurely week exploring the city, its museums: The Uffizi, The Accademia, The Pitti Palace and The Bargello; its churches: The Duomo, Santa Croce, Santa Maria Novella, San Miniato and The Brancacci Chapel; and the surrounding countryside, all without the usual crush of summer tourists.

Our daughter was living in a section of Florence known as Oltrarno, which translates to ‘across the Arno‘, the river that bisects the city. Her apartment on the Via Maggio near the Boboli Gardens was shared with a friend and is a short walk from the Pendini, which is located on the northern side of the Arno River.

During the days that she was in class, my wife and I toured the city. On her days off she joined us. Having her show us around to her favorite spots and translate for us was a treat. It was great for her too, not only because we picked up the tab, but with our rental car, she got see the Tuscan hill towns of San Gimignano and Volterra, which otherwise would have been difficult for her to visit.

Firenze from the Piazzale Michelangelo

In the evenings we had some great meals at restaurants such as: Il Latini, Mama Gina and Trattoria Cammillo. On Thanksgiving Day, which of course is not a holiday in Italy, my wife and I decided to treat our daughter and four other homesick American students doing their ‘semester abroad’, to ‘Thanksgiving Dinner’ at Borgo Antico, a local restaurant which the girls frequented regularly.

Since turkey with all of the Thanksgiving trimmings was not on the menu, I decided on a vegetarian pasta dish consisting of rigatoni, eggplant and black olives. It was excellent and tasted even better with my share of the six bottles of Chianti Riserva that were shared by all. As a matter of fact, the combination of wine, youthful high spirits exhibited by the young ladies and the heady idea of a group of Americans celebrating America’s most traditional holiday in a city that is more than 2,000 years old, dating back to Julius Caesar, was such that I have no recollection of the rest of the meal. I do remember thinking that we, and hopefully our daughter and her friends, would remember this Thanksgiving for the rest of their lives.

Firenze-Oltrano

In attempting to re-create this memorable pasta dish several iterations with the eggplant were necessary. First I added raw eggplant to the tomato-based sauce and discovered that it lacked flavor, so I tried roasting it first and that helped. But I also found that the ½ inch-cubed eggplant pieces were too small, as a result it broke down and almost disappeared as it cooked in the sauce; one inch cubes worked better. Some still broke down, but most retained their shape thus enhancing the combination of pasta, eggplant and olives. Initially, I had used regular sized eggplants but found them to be a little too bitter for my palate. I then experimented with the smaller ‘Italian’ variety and found them to be more to my liking. But if you cannot find them, by all means try the larger sized ones.

Here then is the recipe for my re-creation of that hearty pasta dish whose name on the menu of Borgo Antico also slips my mind. I named it Rigatoni all’ Oltrarno in honor of the section of Firenze in which Borgo Antico is located. I have read that Tuscans have an abiding love of beans, accordingly, they became known in other Italian regions as mangiafagioli, (bean eaters). Lest you think that this is a blog only for the ‘mangiapasta‘, please continue at: Basta Pasta!

Pasta Fagioli or Pasta Fazool?

In General Articles on April 18, 2011 at 2:17 PM

In June 2000, my wife and I along with two other couples, friends of many years with whom we had traveled extensively, spent a glorious week in a rented villa called Solaria, which is located in the Tuscan hilltown of Vagliagli. Vagliagli is a small town about 9 miles north of Siena on the road to Radda in Chianti and Castellina in Chianti, two larger and better-known towns. Each day, we piled into our rented van and explored the numerous hilltowns in the vicinity, beside the two mentioned above, and the city of Siena. These included: Colle di Val d’Elsa, Cortona, Monteriggioni, San Gimignano, Volterra and, of course, Florence (Firenze). We never had a bad meal or bad wine in any one of them and the weather was perfect the entire week.

When the rental was over, one couple went on to Germany and the other returned to the States, while my wife and I took off for Venice by train, where we planned to stay for a full, glorious week. We had been to Venezia on two previous occasions, both for very brief visits. One was in the summer of 1970 on our first trip to Italy, and at that time, we stayed for only two days. The second was even shorter; one bleak wintery day in November 1997, when we took the train up from Florence, where we were visiting our younger daughter during her semester abroad. On that occasion, we left Santa Maria Novella Station on a 5:30 am train and returned there about 1:00 am, having spent only 10 hours in Venice and either on trains or waiting for them the remainder of the time.

Visiting Venice the first time, we fell in love with the La Serenisima and afterwards read extensively both fiction and non-fiction books centered around its people, history and architecture. This longer third visit provided us with the perfect opportunity to explore many of its treasures at a leisurely pace. On one of those excursions, through the alleys of Dorsoduro, we came upon an unexpected treasure which resulted in another favorite family recipe. We had spent the morning at the Peggy Guggenheim Museum, which fronts on the Grand Canal. I had read a review in Gourmet Magazine on a fabulous Venetian seafood restaurant, Antica Trattoria La Furatola located at 2870a Calle Lunga de San Barnaba, Dorsoduro, less than ½ mile from the museum. We were hungry after touring the museum and from the map thought this close by. However, after a frustrating 45 minutes of innumerable twists and turns through alleys and piazzas, crossing and re-crossing canals, we finally came upon the restaurant, only to discover that it was closed for lunch on Wednesdays.

But our disappointment quickly turned to serendipity, as we discovered a tiny, unassuming treasure just down the alley from La Furatola. We had walked right past it earlier but failed to take notice, as we were so focused on finding La Furatola. When we walked through the door of Enoteca Osteria – Sandro and inhaled the aromas emanating from the kitchen, we wondered if it would be a suitable place for lunch. Any hesitation we might have felt was quickly removed by Sandro’s warm welcoming smile. He asked if we would like to sit in the back courtyard, which we welcomed since it was a beautiful sunny, blue sky day. I asked him what smelled so good; he said it was his Pasta Fagioli, which may be known more familiarly as Pasta Fazool!

We shared a bottle of chilled white wine from the Friuli region and I ordered the Pasta Fagioli, while my wife ordered pasta with gorgonzola and zucchini. Sandro’s Pasta Fagioli was unlike any Pasta Fazool I had ever eaten prior to that revelatory day. First, it lacked the tomato base that was such a prevalent ingredient in my mother’s recipe; second, it was redolent with herbs, which seemed to me to be sage and rosemary; and third there was a distinct salted pork flavor, which I thought might be prosciutto. Later, after much experimentation and consulting of several cookbooks (ones which were focused more on Northern Italian style cooking, rather than the Southern Italian style that I had grown up with) I developed my recipe for Pasta e Fagioli alla Veniziana. I hope one day to return to Venice and to thank Sandro for inspiring me to try to develop this version of Pasta Fazoole, which is a favorite meal among our family and friends.

Another big favorite in our home is a pasta dish that I developed after a visit to that ‘famous city by the bay’. Read all about it in: I Found This Dish in San Francisco, High on Russian Hill it Called to Me.

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