Note: I began this post five days into our trip and never finished it because I was too busy being in Italy and collapsing into bed in a tired heap every day. I’ve opted to leave it in the tense in which it was begun.
Over the past five days in Italy, I have eaten more unexceptional meals than I expected to. (I may have expected everything I ate to be revelatory. It is possible that my expectations were a tad high. That said: Italy, it is not that hard to make a breakfast pastry that contains less sugar than a typical dessert. Seriously. Edible breakfast pastries would earn you back so many points.) However, I have also eaten more meals that have caused me to drop my head into my hands and groan with pleasure than can be reasonably expected in a five-day period. Right now I want to tell you about one of those.
If you ever find yourself in Florence, run like the devil is on your heels and also like your heels are on fire to Trattoria Gabriello at via della Condotta 54r (just above Piazza della Signoria). My parents and I wandered in for dinner because a) one of my mom’s guidebooks said that trattorias are generally your best bet for tasty food, b) the menu looked delicious, and c) the menu was in more Italian than English, which says to me that it’s less likely to cater to tourists. These basically comprise the criteria we used to select 98% of the restaurants we ate at in Italy. I recommend them. When we stuck to them, we ate well.
I don’t normally order terribly creatively in restaurants. I love trying new foods, but I hate paying for or spending someone else’s money on food I don’t like, so I usually go for the most interesting-looking dish available that is made up of ingredients I can expect to enjoy. (I can be picky, especially where texture is concerned. More on that below.) I’ve been trying to order more creatively than I normally would on this trip, though, so I ordered for my starter – and I can get the name right, because I wrote it down carefully! – crostini con lardo di Colonnata, mele di castagno e rosmarino. I had no idea what lardo di Colonnata was, but I found the name intriguing and decided to go for it. When the dish arrived, my dad was able to identify the lardo at a glance because he is a butcher and identifying random parts of animals is his job. In English, it is fatback. Fatback is, as you might expect, the layer of fat off a pig’s back. You might know it as salt pork, which is simply salt-cured fatback. This is what the dish looked like.
I got two toasts, each topped with a piece of lardo di Colonnata which was in turn covered in house-made chestnut honey and sprinkled with pine nuts and finely chopped rosemary.
Flavor-wise, this was among the most interesting and delicious things I ate on the trip. Lardo tastes kind of like bacon – unsurprising, since it comes from the same part of the pig – but without bacon’s smokiness or the aspects of its flavor that can be overwhelming. It was balanced well by the chestnut honey, which is an absolute revelation. Something about the chestnut infusion(? I have no idea how they get chestnut flavour into honey) takes away the cloying sweetness of normal honey, leaving something that’s still recognizable as honey but is different from, and far more delicious than, the regular stuff. Using my pidgin Italian, I was able to discern that they make it in-house and that I could not buy it to take back to America with me. The dish is topped with pine nuts and diced rosemary, both of which are a lovely complement to the honey and the lardo. In terms of flavour, I could eat platters of this stuff. In terms of texture … eeeuuuuggghhhh.
I have a lot of texture issues around food, both positive and negative. The list of food I find delicious but can’t feel in my mouth without near-vomiting is long and distinguished, including among other things tripe, oysters, and scallops. On the other side of the texture fence, including the word “crispy” in the name of a dish will increase the chances of me ordering it by a minimum of 50%. I love crispy food, whether it’s fried or baked or magicked by a wizard. Food that should be crispy but isn’t makes me mad. (In light of this, I bet my post about French fries doesn’t seem so weird anymore.)
Anyway, I love crispy, am uncomfortable with slimy, and don’t like chewy. Lardo occupies the awkward space between slimy and chewy; it is, after all, basically pure fat sliced up nice and served to you on a little piece of bread. As is often the case when I encounter an unpleasant texture, I don’t notice it for the first few bites, but as I work through the dish it begins to assert itself more and more loudly until I have to psych myself up for every bite and get the food down my throat through a complicated chew-swallow maneuver designed to let my mouth feel as little as possible of what I’m eating. This maneuver is worth it because I am totally capable of simultaneously loving every bite of something and finding each bite more repulsive than the last, as was the case with my crostini.
So. Do I recommend these? Yes, strongly. Will I ever eat them again? Only if the alternative is being set on fire.
My dad had a considerably less mixed experience with his starter, a basic tomato bruschetta that I will dream about for the rest of my life and that I ordered and savored with great joy when we returned to Gabriello a few days later.
Bruschetta is one of those dishes that every Italian-American restaurant makes and most of them fuck up spectacularly. Unlike most foods common to Italian-American restaurants, bruschetta is just as common in Italy as it is in the U.S. “Bruschetta” in Italy can refer to many kinds of crostini, but the most common variant is bruschetta di pomodoro, or the tomato bruschetta we eat in the U.S. Basic tomato bruschetta topping consists of tomatoes, garlic, maybe a little bit of diced onion, lots of basil, and olive oil. Needless to say, this is basically a perfect food. These ingredients were made to be together, to blend in the mouth, to exist in perfect harmony. They need no complement other than a nicely toasted, salted-peppered-oiled piece of good bread on which to sit. Italian-American restaurants often do not grasp this. They’ll serve it with balsamic vinegar. They’ll serve it with red wine vinegar. They’ll serve it with parmesan cheese. They won’t use fresh ingredients. The bread won’t be toasted. The list of Italian-American sins against good bruschetta is so long that I almost never order it because it is usually not worth it. That said, I have had good bruschetta many times, most often at the late lamented Minetta Tavern in New York (don’t talk to me about it now, it’s under new ownership and I’m still bitter), and I knows it when I tastes it. I am the Supreme Court and good bruschetta is porn.
Trattoria Gabriello makes the best tomato bruschetta I or my father have ever had.
The best bruschetta in the world.
I can’t tell you quite what made it so perfect. The ingredients were obviously very, very fresh and ripe; the ratio of tomato-to-basil was low; there was a measured ton of garlic; there were no onions. You knew from the first bite that this was the Platonic ideal of bruschetta, that it doesn’t get better than this. I intend to try it at home, using tons of basil and letting it marinate for hours before eating, but I can only hope to approach its deliciousness, not to equal it.
I had an entree. It was tasty. But then I had dessert, and all other thoughts were chased from my mind.
Budino di castagne, or chestnut pudding, is (I am given to understand) something of a regional specialty in Tuscany. I saw it on other menus after eating it at Gabriello, but didn’t get it because I didn’t want to get my heart broke. Their chestnut pudding looks like this.
It is the smoothest and creamiest pudding I have ever had. It is velvety, like the smoothest imaginable nut butter (which I assume it contains). The flavor is chestnutty and slightly creamy and slightly caramel-y, as it is served flan-style with caramel sauce on top. I have no idea how I’d even begin to recreate this at home. There are recipes, but I’d almost rather just pine.
So, that’s three dishes in one meal that rank among the best food I’ve ever eaten. The lardo was fascinating if ultimately troubling, and both the bruschetta and the budino di castagne caused passionate heart palpitations. Pretty good rate for one meal, I feel.
Next up in Sara’s culinary journey through Italy: the Tuscan countryside and what wacky-ass foods are found there. Also, the best sandwich.