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Eating and Drinking Well in Florence
In Florence simply prepared meats, grilled or roasted, are the culinary stars, usually paired with seasonal vegetables like artichokes, porcini, and cannellini beans. Bistecca's big, but there's plenty more that tastes great on the grill.
Traditionalists go for their gustatory pleasures in trattorie and osterie, places where decor is unimportant, placemats are mere paper, and service is often perfunctory. Culinary innovation has come slowly to this town, though some cutting-edge restaurants have been appearing, usually with young chefs who have worked outside Italy. Though some of these places lack charm (many have an international, you-could-be-anywhere feel), their menus offer exciting, updated versions of Tuscan classics.
By American standards, Florentines eat late: 1:30 or 2 is typical for lunch and 9 for dinner. Consuming a primo, secondo, and dolce (first and second course and dessert) is largely a thing of the past, and no one looks askance if you don't order the whole nine yards. For lunch, many Florentines simply grab a panino and a glass of wine at a bar. Those opting for a simple trattoria lunch often order a plate of pasta and dessert.
Stale and Stellar
Florence lacks signature pasta and rice dishes, perhaps because it has raised frugality with bread to culinary craft. Stale bread is the basis for three classic Florentine primi: pappa al pomodoro, ribollita, and panzanella. "Pappa" is made with either fresh or canned tomatoes and that stale bread. Ribollita is a vegetable soup fortified with cavolo nero (sometimes called Tuscan kale in the States), cannellini beans, and thickened with bread. Panzanella, a summertime dish, is reconstituted Tuscan bread combined with tomatoes, cucumber, and basil.
A Classic Antipasto:Crostini di Fegatini
This beloved dish consists of a chicken-liver spread, served warm or at room temperature, on toasted, garlic-rubbed bread. It can be served smooth, like a pâté, or in a rougher spread. It's made by sautéing chicken livers with finely diced carrot and onion, enlivened with the addition of wine, broth, or Marsala reductions, and mashed anchovies and capers.
A Classic Secondo: Bistecca Fiorentina
The town's culinary pride and joy is a thick slab of beef, resembling a T-bone steak, from large white oxen called chianina. The meat's slapped on the grill and served extremely rare, sometimes with a pinch of salt.
It's always seared on both sides, and just barely cooked inside (experts say five minutes per side, and then 15 minutes with the bone sitting perpendicularly on the grill). To ask for it more well done is to incur disdain; most restaurants simply won't serve it any other way but rare.
A Classic Contorno: Cannellini Beans
Simply boiled, they provide the perfect accompaniment to bistecca. The small white beans are best when they go straight from the garden into the pot. They should be anointed with a generous outpouring of Tuscan olive oil; the combination is oddly felicitous, and it goes a long way toward explaining why Tuscans are referred to as mangiafagioli (bean eaters) by other Italians.
A Classic Dolce: Biscotti di Prato
These are sometimes the only dessert on offer, and are more or less an afterthought to the glories that have preceded them. Biscotti means twice-cooked (or, in this case, twice baked). They're hard almond cookies that soften considerably when dipped languidly into vin santo ("holy wine"), a sweet dessert wine, or into a simple caffè.
A Classic Wine: Chianti Classico
This blend from the region just south of Florence relies mainly on the local, hardy Sangiovese grape; it's aged for at least one year before hitting the market. (Riserve—reserves—are aged at least an additional six months.)
Chianti is usually the libation of choice for Florentines, and it pairs magnificently with grilled foods and seasonal vegetables. Traditionalists opt for the younger, fruitier (and usually less expensive) versions often served in straw flasks. You can sample Chianti classico all over town, and buy it in local salumerie (delicatessens)enoteche (wine bars), and supermarkets.
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