La Cucina Italiana
I recently spent a very cold, very sick (diagnosis: a virus, later rediagnosed as bronchitis) weekend in Paris. The saving grace of my time in France? Visiting Versailles palace, seeing the city from the top of the Eiffel tower and the FOOD!French (and English) breakfasts. Early Friday, our first morning in Paris, my friends and I found a comfortable café for breakfast. Finding such a place was as easy as finding a cloud in the sky — cafés are on each and every corner in Paris. My first breakfast was actually called an English breakfast. This Parisian version came with a ham omelet, croissant and large mug of coffee. The croissant was everything I’d dreamed it would be — crunchy exterior, airy and soft interior, slathered with peach jam and paired perfectly with the very un-Italian-sized cup of Jo. The next morning I experienced a rather chocolaty, French breakfast. En route to the American hospital, I treated myself to a Nutella-filled crepe and a bowl of “corn flakes.” The crepe was perfect and extremely filling, but the cereal was a surprise. I was actually served a bowl of Cocoa Krispies in steaming hot milk. The odd combination worked well, almost like crunchy chocolate oatmeal. Quick and delicious lunches. Paris is a city for long walks, and we divulged in that every day. After touring the Louvre museum Friday, we set off for the Arc de Triomphe — which ended up being an hour-long walk in the light snow. The lengthy journey was made enjoyable by stopping at a street vendor for banana and Nutella crepes. The thin pancake was made fresh and served piping hot, full of melty, chocolate goodness and a whole banana. We ate the crepes out of paper wrappings, taco-style. Saturday’s lunch was an essential Paris experience: a warm, fresh baguette (split between two of us) and pastries from a bakery. My pastry of choice was a citrus treat with a sponge cake interior. We ate our light lunch en route to Versailles, and it kept us full until dinner. Daring and comforting dinners. On my first trip to France, I didn’t think I’d actually be eating French fries, but that’s precisely what I did. Friday’s dinner was at Hippopotamus restaurant, where we were quite in our element (besides the whole barely-speaking-any-French thing). I had one of my favorite meals, regularly enjoyed when in the States: steak, fries and salad. The steak was cooked perfectly, juicy and seasoned well; and the salad actually came with a light oil dressing — an absolute rarity in Italy. For dessert, I enjoyed a large, decadent glass of chocolate mousse. Saturday dinner was the time: We went for the snails. I ordered a plate of six escargots to be split among four of us. The appetizer was served with special utensils for gripping the shells and pulling out the meal. Each snail had a dab of garlic butter, and I was pleasantly surprised to find I actually liked the taste! The escargots were more meaty than slimy, and went perfectly with a crust of baguette. Dinner was a half-chicken smothered in gravy with French fries — very American, actually — and dessert came in the form of gelato, failing to live up to the Italian specialty, but good all the same. And, of course, the macaroons. At 80 cents apiece, the mini sandwich cookies were the absolute best snack of the weekend. I bought five, and each was an amazingly soft but crunchy little masterpiece. The cookies came in pistachio, raspberry, coffee, lemon and chocolate — don’t ask me to pick a favorite!
Vendor along the Thames River selling quiche — small crusty pies of cheese, meats and veggies. All photos by Kelli Fitzpatrick.
This weekend I took a break from the beautiful streets of Florence and its heavy meals of pasta and breads. I traveled with five friends to the equally beautiful, but more modern city of London. England has a bad rep for bad food, but as a foodie, I knew I’d find something great to nosh on. I wasn’t disappointed.
Thursday, we arrived in the city center around midnight. Unlike in Florence, restaurants in London don’t stay open for late-night diners, so we resorted to Burger King! But, let me tell you, a chicken sandwich and fries after 11 hours of traveling tastes like the finest cuisine in the world.
Every morning, we enjoyed a free breakfast at our hostel. I was thrilled to see they supplied a toaster, which is nonexistent in our Florentine apartments; toast must be prepared with butter on the stove. We had a table full of tastes from home: crunchy peanut butter (a rarity in Italy), chocolate spread (like Nutella without the hazelnut — straight chocolate goodness) and multiple kinds of jelly. I paired every breakfast with the English staples of tea and biscuits.
I was able to enjoy another American favorite during my first day in London. While waiting to begin my tour at Harry Potter Studios, a huge HP nerd, obviously, just outside the city, I ordered a pulled pork sandwich for lunch. It was served on crispy bread with a side salad. The oddest part of the meal was the salad dressing — it tasted like straight mayonnaise, and may have been just that.
A weekend in London wouldn’t be complete without fish and chips! Friday night was for trying this greasy classic. The meal was served in a to-go box filled with a huge piece of fried fish, flaky and tender, on top of a pile of greasy, thick-cut fries. I absolutely loved it!
The next day, we were strolling along Thames River, waiting to board the London Eye, when we stumbled upon a market area of food vendors. I spotted a vendor selling quiche — small crusty pies of cheese, meats and veggies — two for five pounds. I chose a cheddar and leek quiche and dove in. The little pie was dense and onion-y, paired well with dessert: From another vendor, I purchased a huge “Snickers” brownie made of chocolate, cookie crumbs and chocolate-covered coffee beans, all dripping in caramel sauce. I couldn’t even finish the mammoth sweet; it was so rich.
A surprising London specialty is Indian food. The city is teeming with Indian restaurants, so Saturday evening we asked our hostel bartender for her recommendation. She pointed us toward a restaurant just down the street, and we were not disappointed. We started the meal with an order of papadum, which is a round, crispy, tortilla-like food served with four kinds of toppings: sweet mango chutney, a creamy yogurt dip, spicy vegetable dip and chopped onions.
For my main course I ordered Chicken Saag (chunks of tender chicken cooked in a sauce consisting of spinach and tomato) and white Jasmine rice. I happily cleared my plate, having to remind myself to slow down as I gobbled up the Indian delicacy. My first Indian meal was definitely a success.
Sunday was our last day in London, and three of us tried a little restaurant off the beaten path. The girls who were with me both ordered a full English breakfast, which looked like a cafeteria tray with multiple dishes — egg, hashbrowns,sausage, ham, French fries, baked beans, mushrooms and a tomato. They both loved it, but it looked like too much food for me after three days of greasy English goodness. I went with a chicken and avocado sandwich with potato leek soup. I became a fan of the leek, a vegetable I’d never tried before this trip.
Lessons learned from my London-eating experience: ask locals for recommendations, and don’t be afraid to go big, while also getting a taste from home, when you get the opportunity!
In Florence, a night out at a great restaurant tends to differ greatly from going out to eat in the U.S. Aside from the Italians’ separate courses (you order a pasta dish and a meat dish, if you’re hungry enough — meat doesn’t always come with a side), there are some other little-known ways an Italian restaurant experience varies from American.
So far in Florence, we’ve been lucky enough to be graced with copious amounts of free wine and liquor. It may be because we are young female Americans or Italians are just amazing people — I think it’s both. A small restaurant in an alley by il Duomo (domed church) gives bottles on bottles of free wine to student customers. We plan to return there soon.
If not free, wine is still very inexpensive in Florence. At the supermarket, good bottles of wine start around 3 euro ($4). Even in restaurants, a half-liter of wine can start around 7 euro ($9.33). Wine is everywhere, it’s inexpensive, and yes, it is delicious — red, white, dry or sweet.
The most un-American thing about Italian restaurants is as follows: YOU DO NOT TIP THE WAITER. There is often a service or seating fee included on a restaurant bill; even if not, tipping is considered inappropriate in Italy. I’ve become so accustomed to not figuring out a tip, I fear I may accidentally stiff many waiters once back in America.
Florentine waiters and waitresses bring out food as it’s prepared. This means once a dish is ready to be served, the customer gets it — there’s no balancing platters of eight meals at a time. Food is usually served very quickly, so I am rarely left waiting for long if my friends get served first.
Speaking of service, I’ve found that Florentine waiters and waitresses never visit the table to ask “Do you need a refill?” or “How’s everything tasting?” throughout the meal. It’s considered rude to interrupt the customers. Water often comes in a big pitcher and wine by the bottle so restaurant goers are kept happy without repetitive visits from the waiter.
Finally, the Florentine “condiments” are a little different from American. Where every table in any given American restaurant has salt, pepper and ketchup ready to use, Italian restaurant tables hold just oil and balsamic for the customary bread that comes before the meal. Extra pinches of salt aren’t needed here — things are cooked just as they need to be.
It’s been just three days since I arrived in Firenze, Italy, and I’ve already learned so much about the small bustling city, the mindblowing food and the kind locals. My plan is to get the most out of the amazing Florentine restaurants during my ﬁrst week here before budgeting myself and preparing my own meals.
A few important things I’ve learned so far about bars, restaurants and food in Italy:
1. “American” bars are fun but not authentic. Directly across the street from my apartment is the Red Garter, an “American” bar that study abroad students frequent. It serves American food (burgers and the like) and has a fantastic karaoke/dance ﬂoor area, but my roommates and I have already agreed to avoid it for a while. Who wants to travel halfway across the world to be around a bunch of Americans eating French fries and drinking beer? Tonight, we explore Italian hotspots.
2. Bars are the best way to start the day. Yes, you read that right — but Italians call bars what we call coffee shops or cafes. Every morning I have started my day with a trip to a bar I pick at random — they’re everywhere! I order a drink and pastry at the counter, where I can stand and eat or sit down for a small fee. The best drink so far is a rich, foamy cappuccino from my ﬁrst morning here. I sipped that while the bar played pumping club music, adorned in disco lights at 10 a.m. It was marvelous.
3. Sparkling water is a sneaky, nasty drink. Italians love their ﬁzzy water, and I failed to read the label of a bottle I grabbed today at lunch. Not until I unscrewed the cap and heard the release of carbonation did I realize my mistake — and what a grave mistake it was. Sparkling water is a bitter drink that is too strange to my American tongue to enjoy, but I gulped it to get my euros worth. I’ll always read the label from now on!
4. A tiny macchiato is more than enough caffeine for 24 hours. I ordered this drink after a lunch of salad and chicken with balsamic sauce. The little mug of espresso and milk was like a kick to the taste buds — I sweetened it with an entire packed of sugar. That shot of caffeine had me shaking within a few hours; I’ll remember to order that when I’m dragging after a long night out, but only then!
5. Italian portion sizes rule. No one in this town is obese or unhealthy, despite the rich foods and overload of carbs, because their portions are perfect. A small cup of gelato is about 1/8 of a cup; such sizes don’t exist in American ice cream shops. At the gelateria we frequent, the largest size is equivalent to an American small. But you only need a tiny bit of the rich, ﬁlling and decadent gelato. Too much would defeat the luxury of the treat.
Keep reading my blog as I explore Florence, Italy and Europe one restaurant at a time.