EDITOR'S NOTE: Do not read this if you are hungry. I am not responsible for your own behavior after reading about Italian food!
There are very few days left in Italy, and it would be downright rude and even sinful were I not to comment on the food we've discovered in this country over the past two weeks or so.
I am going to comment on a meal that Michele and I had in Firenze, at a fine establishment called the "Trattoria Ponte Vecchio." Many restaurants we've enjoyed in Italy were recommended by friends and colleagues; this one was by Fr. Peter Rocca, c.s.c., the Rector of the Basilica at Notre Dame. After you read this entry, you'll know why Peter recommended it to us!
First, the wine:
Not just any wine. We had read about Tuscany's Brunello wines – our waiter recommended a bottle of Leonardo 2007 Brunello di Montalcino: a full, robust red that complimented beef, cheese, and pasta.
Next, to get the palette jumping, a bowl of fresh cherries:
I had never heard of fruit before the meal. But our server smiled and said, "They are fresh – first crop! Wait until you try with the wine!" He was right... The newly picked fruit and the vintage had this marvelous way of combining and complementing that we had never experienced before.
Now, for ordering:
Our server (the owner himself) was outstanding! He never pushed food on us... Rather, the whole idea was "you try a little of this; trust me, it will be beautiful!" So instead of debating first and second courses and worrying about ending up with more food than we could eat, we simply reveled in our host's ideas. "Not too much!" he would exclaim, his pretty-good English dripping with an Italian accent, "just try all these tastes!"
We call them "appetizers" or "starters." Our server exclaimed with pride that the olive oil he served with his bruschetta was their very own – and he pointed to the vat in the corner of the restaurant where it was stored. Fresh, warm bread, al pomodoro fresco e basilico (with fresh tomatoes and basil), and the family olive oil dripping all around it. Still, of course, sipping on that fabulous Brunello....
Primi piatti (also called the "Main" course):
Michele: Risotto con Ortaggi di Stagione o Funghi Porcini (in this case, it ended up being e funghi)
Risotto is a type of grain, a lot like rice, but more substantial, and way more tasty if it is cooked correctly. This dish was earthy and creamy at the same time. Our waiter tried a little experiment in the kitchen, combining both the fresh, local vegetables and the porcini mushrooms into one amazing, steaming dish of loveliness.
Steve: Fiocchi Ripieni al Pecorino e Pere alla Crema di Robiola e Tartuffo.
"Fiocchi" is a kind of pasta, shaped like the old-fashioned corks on champagne bottles (kind of a cross between ravioli, tortellini, and those little bags of nuts you get as wedding favors). Inside this homemade shell was stuffed a hidden treasure: pear and cheese, which was then topped with a cream and truffle sauce. The amazing thing about this dish: your palate never seemed to tire of it... The last taste was as fabulous as the first.
When we had literally cleaned our first plates with warm bread, our server came out and announced happily "Scarpette! You honor me when I see there is nothing left!" His delight in our love of his cooking was obvious to see... And it made us enjoy an already fabulous meal all the more. (N.B. Our aural interpretation and/or spelling of scarpette may be totally incorrect; this word translates as "shoes." Maybe someone can explain this? Perhaps a colloquial usage?)
Secondi piatti ("Meat" course):
Here, because we didn't want to get too stuffed – and again, at our server's suggestion – "you split!" he exclaimed, "save room for dulce!"
Tagliata di 'Vitellone' su letto di Rucola con Scaglie di Parmigiana
e Verdure Grigliate
This dish (served with a side plate of grilled vegetables) was lean, thinly sliced beef draped over lettuce, with shaved, aged (15 years!) Parmesan next to it. The remarkable thing about the beef: it was served with a wedge of lime, which was more than a garnish. Letting the lime juice drip over the meat brought out an entirely different taste to this second plate.
Once again, our waiter cried out, "Scarpette!" and everyone was having a splendid time!
A slice of Cheesecake and a slice of Strawberry Yogurt Cake (basically like a softer, flavored version of the cheesecake), Frutto di Bosco (mixed berries) sauce, more fresh cherries and slices of pineapple.
This actually wasn't on the menu... It was something the owner just concocted on the spot and put before us. "This is for you!" he said, "because you love our cooking so much!" I actually don't have the Italian for it, because we never saw it on the printed page; it was just an expression of gratitude, found on a plate.
Final thoughts: when you multiply the number of days you've lived times two or three (depending on the number of times you eat a day), how often can you say that a meal is truly memorable? Remembering, in a singular way, one particular meal, is indeed a high honor.
To the owners of the Trattoria Ponte Vecchio, and to many other places over the last weeks as well, we owe a tremendous debt of thanks and joy. They have created for us nights filled with new discoveries – their joy of food and life, the sacred act of eating, of cherishing meals and reveling in the blessing of food and wine. These we will carry with us, far beyond the boundaries of their country, and long after we have left Italy behind.
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