I recently uploaded a photo album to Facebook exclusively of food I’ve consumed this semester, mostly during travels. My host mother had one thing to say to that.
“Did you come to Europe for studies, for culture, or to eat?”
She laughed. I laughed. We all laughed, because we all knew the answer. I’m sure you know the answer, too.
Needless to say, two weeks split between Italy and France — primarily Tuscany and Provence — was pure bliss for this foodie. Especially because the trip was with my parents, who pay for things, and thus I could actually dine at actual restaurants instead of my usual scrounging around, with a heavy reliance on street food.
Throughout the trip, the question of where we were going to eat was of the utmost importance. Each meal could be a glorious cultural experience, and a bust would be a waste of a far greater degree than a mediocre one at home. I can’t possibly share every single dinner with you, but I can go into the top 10 highlights.
1) Florentine Steak
It doesn’t really make sense. Bistecca alla Fiorentina is basically a Porterhouse steak, a giant T-bone. Why would it cost 50 euros and why would I call it one of the finest carnivore pleasures I’ve ever had the honor of meeting?
I don’t know what to tell you.
Somehow, this steak proved to be pure, meaty heaven. The porterhouse is grilled, lightly seasoned with salt, pepper and olive oil, and served with Tuscan wine. That’s it. It’s so simple, and yet…
We devoured ours at Ristorante Adriano in Cerreto Guidi. The steaks were split among three, expertly sliced table side, and the bones were nibbled on for hours.
2) Magret of Duck
Whenever I see duck on a menu, my heart flutters. Maybe it’s the memories of my childhood, feeding old breadcrumbs to the ducks at our nearby lagoon, or of my mother bringing home succulent roast duck from Chinatown. More than likely, it’s just because a properly prepared duck breast is so good.
Luckily for me, Provence is a hotbed for the sweet meat, and the French always seem to do it right. Never chewy, never too gamey. The skin always crisp and the fat always rendered.
A couple of standouts were devoured in Montpellier. The photo above was taken in an adorable hole-in-the-wall by the name of La Symphonie. The 15-seater was the definition of intimate, charming and local, with the chef constantly out of the kitchen, and even taking smoking breaks outside with nearby restaurant folk. The breast was perfectly perfect, with tart red currants and pillowy gnocchi. Another gem was at Thym et Romarin, another small, bustling and local spot with an infectious joyousness. Their magret was hearty and rich, slathered in a pear compote, with roasted potatoes, bacon and onions on the side.
This goes without saying. Italy. Gelato. Duh.
I indulged in gelato virtually every day. There were days when I indulged twice, three times, maybe even more. Who really keeps track of gelato intake, anyway?
The best gelato I had in Italy was easily that of San Crispino in Rome. The product is all natural — no preservatives, no artificial coloring, no chemical emulsifiers — and the shops are incredibly sleek and clean. In fact, the goods are hidden from view in stainless steel, unlike so many gelato shops that fluff and stack their ice cream into brightly colored mountains, with fruit accents and flashy signs. At San Crispino, you pick by name, and you experience that name in full.
The signature crema is the most basic Italian ice cream flavor, but enhanced with honey and of absolute perfect consistency. The fruit flavors were absurdly fresh, and obviously filled with real, fresh fruit. The apple was like a dense, creamy version of the best applesauce you’ve ever had, with soft, melt-in-your-mouth chunks.
Again, this is silly to say. Italy. Pasta. Duh. But Italy actually surprised me with how fabulous and creative their pasta could be. We tasted the classics, of course, but we also delved into pastas sauced with exotic spices, or raviolis stuffed with fruit.
A personal favorite: fresh paccheri with salt, pepper, butter, pecorino romano, and dark, dark chocolate. It was a combination that the entire table agreed, surprisingly to some, actually worked. The pepper and chocolate only heighten one another, making for the ultimate sweet-savory dish.
That genius restaurant remained a standout throughout the trip, and that should have been an obvious fact based on photos hanging on the wall of George Clooney dining. In the heart of Siena, Osteria Logge uses organic ingredients in a daily, handwritten Tuscan menu. Everything that night, from the heavenly burrata to the smoky duck carpaccio to the rich lobster gnocchi, was spot on.
The outdoor markets in Tuscany were the stuff of dreams. Only the best of everyone’s favorite products — pig, cheese, wine, olive oil — were on display, for tasting and for the taking.
We splurged many times, and there was really no reason not to. In the States — and elsewhere in Europe — quality cannot be matched, and forget about the price.
I’m still drooling, dreaming about the thick prosciuttos, spicy salamis, salty porchettas, bright wild boar sausages, and of course, all that cheese.
6) Tea salons
Call them frou-frou and overpriced and whatever else you like, tea salons abound in France for good reason. The French can do pastry, and no one can resist an afternoon temptation of fancy tea with a slice of glory.
This, in particular, was to die for. Pistachios were melded into a shortbread-like crust, and then into a bright green pastry cream. Enormous, juicy raspberries were generously piled on top, along with fresh, chopped pistachios, creating a textural experience unlike any other “tart” I’ve tasted.
7) Foie gras
I’m not obsessed with foie gras, but I can definitely appreciate exceptional variations. France is full of exceptional variations.
Foie gras layered with poached pears, spread on buttery toast, then dipped in reduced balsamic.
Another, at La Symphonie, was scented with Moscato. Velvety, yet light and fruity, and all in all, exceptional.
My family never tired of Ribollita, the famous Tuscan soup, and it was revisited frequently. In every restaurant, in every city, the soup varied — thickness, the presentation of the bread, the vegetables. But the flavor, the soul, always remained. Cannellini beans, bread, basic veggies, stewed until hearty and comforting.
Prominently features on many Provencal menus were salads — big, beautiful, luxurious salads. The portions, as starters, were impressive. The accompaniments, more impressive. On one such occasion, my mother took a seafood salad, where perfectly seared scallops, local fish with crispy skin and juicy prawns surrounded a pile of fresh greens. At the same meal, my father opted for a duck salad, where the generously long, thick slices amazed us all.
10) Osteria di Giovanni
I’ve singled out some restaurants already in the context of individual dishes, but L’Osteria di Giovanni really cannot be categorized into any context.
Our night at Giovanni’s was basic absurdity. Nine Americans without a reservation somehow sweet-talked our way into the Florentine restaurant’s wine cellar, which hid our faces from local diners, but not our laughter. Hours passed in that cellar. Four? Five? Who could keep track? We surely couldn’t, not when the wine flowed so easily, and not when our fabulous waiter treated us like royalty.
It felt like we ordered the whole menu. But perhaps that’s just because our waiter allowed us to split our main plates into two — a “special” for our indecisiveness. We indulged to no end: Pear tortellini. Goose carpaccio. Florentine beef stew. Pepper ravioli. Lamb. Rabbit. An onslaught of desserts: Tiramisu. Warm apple cake. Pineapple carpaccio. Chocolate torte. Biscotti dipped in holy wine.
To put it plainly, we were pigs. Happy, gluttonous pigs, who never wanted to leave that wine cellar, who never wanted to leave Italy.