Sunday, October 17, 2010

Il cibo italiano: Italian food

There's no question about it: the temptation of delicious food is everywhere in Florence. Most of the time I'm able to resist, due to the cost of buying the food and the fear of gaining back the weight I've worked so hard to lose the past few years. It's a constant battle every day, especially in Florence, where pastry shops, gelato stores, restaurants and kiosks selling specialty foods are so prolific.

There's a pastry shop just next door, with freshly made creations displayed attractively in the windows everyday. I ate gelato often when the weather was warmer, but now that it's cooler, I'm not often tempted. However, with four gelato stores within a block of my apartment, and several along every street block, I can't escape the sight of people eating the stuff wherever I go. There is also a chocolate maker down the street, but I've been able to resist going into the store. Coffee is another Italian staple that I enjoy, but limit myself to buying it only a few times a week. Otherwise, I often fix a decaf version in my apartment.

A popular Florentine pastry is called schiacciatta, which is similar to focaccia. Schiacciare means to crush, so schiacciatta is like a crushed version of focaccia. There are many forms of it, with or without toppings. I like the plain, unsweetened variety most of the time. It's chewy and a little salty. At this time of year a special version of it, called schiacciata con l'uva is popular.

Schiacciata con l'uva is a dessert bread with peasant origins, cooked at the time of harvest festivals by farmers, which contains simple ingredients: bread dough, olive oil, sugar and black grapes. I've tried several versions of it this past week, and the best one, at the best price, is sold in a small shop across the street from me. It's quite delicious!

My meals are pretty simple fare most of the time: cereal or egg for breakfast; salads, cheese, fruit and foccaccia for lunch; chicken and roasted vegetables for dinner. I often make insalata caprese for lunch, with buffalo mozzarella (soft and chewy, made from water buffalo milk in Southern Italy), tomatoes, basil and olive oil. Once a week I prepare store-bought tortellini or ravioli stuffed with ricotta cheese and spinach or pumpkin, and serve it with pesto sauce. I drink wine now and then. Pretty boring, eh?

Unlike most people who travel to Italy, food is not a main focus of my time here. I like to try things, but don't want the expense of eating out nor the probability of gaining weight that comes with enjoying Italian cuisine to the hilt. I'm not a great cook at home, and don't expect to be one here, but I enjoy eating at the homes of my friends and learning about Italian cooking from them.

But I must admit I have my indulgences as well. I often eat cookies with tea in the evening, my favorite is chocolate and hazelnut flavored. Another specialty, cantuccini, is an almond-flavored biscotti that I enjoy on occasion. It is often eaten with a small glass of vin santo, a sweet dessert wine. It would be fun to try a bit of everything, if only...

Harvest time brings many special foods, food festivals (called sagras), and vendors selling their wares. It's chestnut season, and roasted chestnuts are starting to be sold on the streets of Florence. Every small town has some kind of sagra to celebrate the local harvest. I'm hoping to go to a chestnut festival next weekend and a truffle festival soon after. And then there's the Eurochocolate Festival in Perugia this week. Will the temptations never end?

I have a new respect for Mercato Centrale, which I previously panned. I strolled around this huge indoor market today and could see its many attractions: free samples, freshly made pasta, and many prepared foods that you can heat up at home. There are also numerous bins of nuts, spices, dried fruits and long displays of wines, olive oils and balsamic vinegar. Not to mention that this is one of the best places to buy fresh meats, cheeses and fish. It's certainly an important part of the Florence scene.

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