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Wednesday
Nov222006

tuscan travels

italy.jpg

i’m just back from a short break in italy – pisa and florence to be more precise.

both cities had a wonderfully peaceful, and at times other-worldly, atmosphere. this combined with the slow pace that we adopted meant that my friend jude and i arrived back in london feeling wonderfully refreshed having completely forgotten the pace and speed that our home city demands.

our appetites were sated too. wonderful meals and some successful food shopping saw to that.

we arrived in pisa and were soon out exploring. after several hours and visits to all the main sights (it’s a wonderfully small and manageable city) we stopped for coffee at the pasticceria salza. or rather, jude had coffee (the best of our trip apparently) and i had my first glass of italian wine on italian soil.

supper that night was tuscan, courtesy of the osteria del tinti. this small and unassuming restaurant provided me with one of my favourite dishes of our visit – farro con pesto e vongole (farro is a north tuscan speciality but spelt or barley are acceptable substitutes). in this dish, which resembled a risotto, it had the fresh taste of the sea accompanied by the soft richness of basil and parmesan. i plan to recreate this dish as soon as i can work out how to make a suitably fabulous stock and get my hands on some fresh clams!

other highlights were our starters of tuna carpaccio (served with dried herb flowers and a zingy citrus dressing) and smoked pork with bocconcini (small balls of fresh mozzarella) and radicchio.

in florence we stayed at a fabulous little bed & breakfast - le stanze di santa croce. my decision to stay here was entirely based on a review that praised their breakfasts! and wonderful they were too – organic jams, honey and breads, fabulous ham, salami and cheese all served on beautiful pastel-coloured crockery. and if you needed a particularly large pot of their very strong coffee to get you going it was readily available!

our time in florence was spent sight-seeing and shopping, mostly for food. our spree in the santa croce area and the mercato centrale netted me parmesan, proscuitto, pancetta, salami, pasta, herb mixes, dried mushrooms and several jars of interesting pestos, sauces and vegetables (mushrooms and chillies).

mercado.jpg

a fantastic enoteca (wine bar and shop) that we used for mid-exploration rest and replenishment was le volpi e l’uva. sit outside, or at the bar, and enjoy plates of ham and salamis plus cheese (served with a delicious fruit mustard) that you can wash down with their wonderful wines, mostly sourced from small italian producers.

volpi.jpg

on our first evening we ate at pane et vino. this was a disappointing experience – they lost our e-booking and service was neglectful. however, the food was mostly good, especially a vividly coloured fish soup with cuttlefish, tomato and spinach dumplings.

soup.jpg

i also enjoyed my maccheroni (wide ribbons of pasta) with a richly flavoured (fennel abounded) ragu of duck, pork and beef. a chocolate pudding with mint foam was the main duff note.

our final supper was at garga. this restaurant’s walls are covered with psychedelic and surreal paintings which are the work of the master chef and owner giuliano gargani – garga! the service and atmosphere were similarly flamboyant. our waiter was often spotted dancing as he winked at whichever lady had caught his eye, although preening in the mirror seemed to entertain him as much! the hatch through to the kitchen was visited by customers who shouted in their greetings or was full of staff watching as the dishes were created. a passion for food, and their food more specifically, was exuded by everyone!

and lovely food it was too. we both started with pasta and were overwhelmed by the generosity of the portions. jude had their prize-winning pasta magnifico – a rich concoction of cream, orange and mint (full recipe below) which was not to my taste but pleased her. i had pasta donna karan (apparently she’s a fan of the restaurant) which was spaghetti with squid, orange and tomato and much lighter. i was grateful for this when my main course of calves liver with sage and potatoes arrived. the portion was huge but i ate every scrap – it was fabulous!

and that’s it. we ate well and i have filled spaces in my cupboard and fridge with italian goodies that will, no doubt, bring back memories of our trip when used. and when they’re gone, i can plan another jaunt!

paesta del magnifico alla garga

1 cup whipping cream

2 tablespoons cognac or dry sherry

1 lemon, zested

1 large navel orange, zested

1/2 teaspoon coarse salt

2 tablespoons fresh mint, chopped, about 3 sprigs

12 leaves fresh basil, shredded or torn

1/2 pound linguini, cooked to al dente, or 3/4 pound fresh linguini, cooked to al dente

1/2 cup grated parmigiano-reggiano

in a skillet (frying pan) over medium low heat, heat cream. add cognac or dry sherry, lemon and orange zest and salt. simmer sauce 7 to 10 minutes. add mint and basil to the sauce. toss hot, drained pasta with sauce and grated cheese. transfer to serving dish or dinner plates.

pisa

pasticceria salza – borgo stretto 46

osteria del tinti – vicolla del tinti 26, a tiny street signposted off borgo stretto, just north of pasticceria salsa

florence

le stanze di santa croce - via delle pinzochere 6

mercato centrale – piazza del mercato centrale, 7am-2pm monday-saturday

le volpi e l’uva - piazza di rossi, 1, just south of the ponte vecchio, near palazzo pitti

pane e vino – piazza di castello 3r

garga – via del moro 48

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