Many years and many pounds ago, I studied abroad in Florence, Italy. The classes I took did nothing for my curriculum; I had no focus on art, or language, or human relationsâ€¦ as a matter of fact, I had no focus at all (I credit my ADHD). I ventured there because my well-traveled uncle told me to one night while gifting me “The Alchemist,” by Paulo Coehlo.
I practically devoured the words in the book, “It’s the possibility of having a dream come true that makes life interesting,” Despite the fact I hadn’t yet nailed down a “dream,” I knew after reading that book that a journey impended my bubble dwelling in my parent’s home.
I worked at a makeup counter during the holidays to earn the funds needed, I learned Italian in my car via Pimsluer CD Lessons, and took counseling to prepare emotionally. With financial and mental prep in tact, I headed to the country that holds my heritage (on my dad’s side. My mom is scattered all over Europe- perhaps she is the spawn of my fleeting attention).
The first night we arrived in Firenze, my roommates and I ate at a restaurant near our apartment. I ordered gnocchi with a gorgonzola cream sauce because I saw it on Food Network once and it looked like glistening diamonds. I don’t remember much about that night (because as Americans, we also ordered a gallon of wine) aside from the moment my mouth touched down on the clouds of creamy heavenâ€¦ and those diamond dumplings became my best friendâ€¦as well as the birth of my dream- to eat Italy.
From that day forward, I found myself not walking to historical sites, but instead searching for the best pasticerria or cafÃ© or gelataria and while on the way to those eateries, I stopped in to see the David (what a stud!) or “The Birth of Venus” (all of Boticielli’s women figures have prehensile toes, like me!) or Giotto’s “Stigmata of St. Francis” (Giotto seemed like a mighty fine chum!). I nibbled my way through the streets of Florence and other cities, exposing the countries most authentic flavors and ultimately exposing my underpanties while busting the zipper of my favorite pair of jeans.
Gelato- I ate if for breakfast dessert, lunch dessert and dinner dessert. If a gelato hat existed, one equivalent to that which holds two beer cans with funnels, I proudly would’ve worn it for the sake of constant satisfaction – that or a gelato I.V. The Pan di Stella flavor at Corona’s Cafe in Florence was my drug and eventually my stomach. Trust me, I tried everywhere and should be an ambassador for gelato and this place had me at “How many scoops?”â€¦Three please, for now.
Panini- “Walk into the central market from the main entrance and walk all the way to the right. If there is not a line at the food joint you turned left and ended up in the wrong place,” my uncle so passionately advised before my departure. I took his advice to stomach and made that trek once or twice a week for the “Panini con salsa verde.” I described this meteor of flavor in a haiku for my creative writing class:
Wet Sloppy pork fat
Lying within soaked bread
And stuck in between my teeth
Ribolita Soup- A peasant dish tenderly simmered with broth, white beans, day old bread soaked to the point of creaminess, and a garnish of freshly shaved parmiggiano and olive oil. Locals recommended this dish at Trattoria Mario right behind the Central Market. The taste is so genuine it warmed my soul.
Farinata- It is a garbanzo bean “flat bread,” if you will. You must travel to the Genoa region for this treat. I did and ate a bakery’s worth of it. While you’re up there, savor the pesto.
Pizza- Napoli. The city is run down, scary and disappointing (unless you fancy porn museums of the ancient kind..Dave Glenn, are you reading?). Yet I will travel there the rest of my life for what is the most radiant expression of pizza in all of Italy. The crust both crispy and chewy, the cheese both light and creamy, the olive oil both pure and succulent- each bite is both a dance and a symphony.
Pastry- You can’t go wrong, unless the pasticierria has photo copied pictures of its menu. Run. In any case, in any placeâ€¦run.
Poor Student Food- Nutella and a knife (or your index finger); canned tuna packed in olive oil; fresh bread, which I would demolish before reaching my apartment; befriend a local who happens to also be your family member (more stories to follow on this). Creativity is easy in Italy because even the packaged items are exquisite.
This boot, this Gucci boot of food is the center of my universe. The lingering textures and flavors still tickle my mouth and dazzle my heartâ€¦One morning after I returned to America, I fell onto the floor into a pool of tears while making myself scrambled eggs. Even with the presence of a yoke, our eggs lacked color and vibrancy when Italian eggs, once scrambled, are orange. I noticed that our balsamic vinegar tasted watered down and our prosciutto contained so much salt that I was forced to drink buckets of water following the consumption of merely five slices. My devastation wore me down and whittled me back into a slim woman.
I hope to soon walk a mile in that boot once again, packing on two calories for each one I burn. Until then, I will relish in places that supply me with like flavors, including Jones for spaghetti and meatballs and Mozza2Go for lasagna. Osteria Boca on Melrose, Cube on La Brea, my nona’s kitchen in Gallup, and Bay Cities on Lincoln all make my digestive track go pitter.
Bon appetito! If you don’t know already, that means “good eats.” Please, if you eat…make it good!