My family and I just got back from a ten-day trip to Rome, Florence, Milan and the Cinque Terra region of the Ligurian coast.
Before we get to the food, let me show you all the things we did other than eat.
We saw this.
And a bunch of things like this.
And several of these.
I knew I should’ve taken better notes but you get the idea. We found ways to kill time between meals. Luckily I had my Rick Steves guidebook with me which turned out to be an indispensable tool for running into other Americans with Rick Steves guidebooks.
(Seriously, if you want a fabulous overview of our entire trip, check out my daughter Emma’s blog post here. Emma inherited my food obsession and has lots of great pics. As the Italians say, the cacio don’t fall far from the pepe.)
Now on to the food!
It seems like half the tables in any given restaurant are drinking Aperol Spritzes (or just “Spritzes”). Aperol tastes something like Campari but is less intense and half the alcohol. Throw some Aperol in a glass with ice, prosecco and a splash of soda and you’ve got the best summertime refresher since Bartles and Jaymes thanked us for our support.
Salumeria Roscioli, Via dei Giubbonari, 21/22, Rome
I first became aware of Roscioli when Mark Vetri, the Philadelphia-based restaurateur, posted about his visit on Instagram during his trip to Italy last winter. Then Andrew Zimmern stopped there on his Travel Channel show to learn how to make spaghetti carbonara. Ok, food gods, I get the hint. I’ll make a reservation. No need to have Guy Fieri tweet that Roscioli is putting out some gangster funkaliciousness on the express train to Flavortown.
The Roscioli family has been in the food business four generations. What started as a bakery has evolved into a combination salumeria, cheese shop, wine bar and restaurant. That history’s a clue to stick with simple dishes like cured meats, cheeses and pastas.
Burrata with black pepper and sun-dried cherry tomatoes
One of the best burratas I’ve ever had. The cream is just so incredibly, well, creamy. The sun-dried tomatoes add welcome hits of sweetness and acidity.
House selection of salumi and cheese
Puts most charcuterie boards to shame. There’s nothing trendy here; these are products with a deep cultural history and a sure hand.
Here’s the carbonara that Zimmern picked to represent Rome. The noodles were perfectly cooked and the pork jowl and black pepper helped cut through the sauce that, to be honest, was a tad gloppy.
Cacio e Pepe
Better than the carbonara is Rosciola’s take on this other Roman classic — cacio e pepe. Such simple, minimal ingredients often taste simple and minimal but here they deftly become more than the sum of their parts.
Pizzarium, Via della Meloria 43, Rome
Pizzarium has become one of Rome’s most celebrated pizzas. It’s owned by Gabriel Bonci who upgraded the city’s traditional rectangular pizza — pizza al taglio — into something extraordinary. Slab-style pizza tends to be heavy and dense but this is anything but. The crust is crispy and light but not at all dry. And the toppings are varied and seasonal but always include potato and tomato.
Pizzarium is in Rome’s great street food tradition. You step up to the counter and order from the sheets on display. There are no seats in the restaurant but there are a couple of counter-height tables outside that you can stand at as well as nearby benches for sitting. It’s also near one of the subway stops for the Vatican Museum, so if you’re taking a tour near lunchtime, it makes a perfect pitstop. Our tour was meeting at 2 pm, so we stopped at Pizzarium when it opened at 11:30 am for a pre-lunch snack. Fantastico.
Now here’s some breaking news. I just read that Pizzarium opened a branch a few days ago in Chicago’s West Loop! With 23 counter seats! As a traditionalist, I have no idea what the world is coming to. And by traditionalist, I mean someone who didn’t know that this place existed three weeks ago and now insists that it stay exactly the way I found it.
The pizza is sold by weight and then cut into pieces for eating.
Hand-cut with scissors
I’ve had potatoes on pizza a few times. Usually they feel heavy and the carb-on-carb vibe just doesn’t work. These feel incredibly organic, the potatoes perfectly cooked so they hold their shape but almost eat like mashed potatoes, which contrasts perfectly with the light and crisp crust.
A classic and familiar tomato and cheese option is another great way to go.
Trattoria Monti, Via di S. Vito 13, Rome
Our favorite restaurant in Rome had to be Tratorria Monti. Go to Netflix and look up Season 4 of the PBS series The Mind of a Chef. Then find the episode in which Gabrielle Hamilton, chef-owner of New York’s Prune, travels to Rome and makes egg-yolk ravioli with Monti’s septuagenerian chef/owner Franca Camerucci. When you see that orange egg yolk oozing from the raviolo you’ll want to be on the next plane.
Tortello d’Uovo (large ravioli stuffed with ricotta, spinach and egg yolk)
This dish didn’t disappoint even with the big build-up from the show. The texture of the pasta and the ratio of pasta to filling were spot on. The beautiful orange egg yolk was cooked just enough to seep out slowly without being too runny. This dish is definitive proof that the Internet didn’t invent oozing yolks.
Like most eggplant parm, good for the first half and then becomes increasingly less interesting. Better to share as a side dish.
Roast Suckling Pig
Terrific pork with crackly skin and moist meat. And potatoes cooked in chicken fat. As Ina Garten would say, what could be bad?
I have a hard time turning down caramel desserts — tarte tatin, creme brulee, flan, salted caramel ice cream. This version of burnt sugar hit the spot.
Trattoria Pandemonio, Via del Leone 50/R, Florence
In Florence, hands-down my favorite meal would have to be at Trattoria Pandemonio. Here’s how Mario Batali described it in an interview earlier this year:
“Giovanna is in the dining room, her husband, Rolando, minds the finely tuned cantina, and their son Cecco is in the kitchen, gently dancing the Florentine saltarello with his classic dishes revisited with a lighter touch. I love his sformatino di melanzane (a sort of soufflé with creamy eggplant), the maccheroncini with sugo della mamma (beef ragù) and anything meaty off the grill. Or the fantastic polpettine di lesso, the meatballs made of leftover boiled beef that are genius comfort food.”
That’s pretty much the way it was. Giovanna, a vibrant woman in her 70s, comes over to the table with her pencil and blank pad of paper. You don’t so much order dinner as discuss it. She agrees with some of your suggestions, questions others, and eventually you arrive at a plan everyone’s happy with. Or mostly happy. Giovanna is still concerned that my daughter Maya hasn’t ordered enough but we assure her that we are all sharers and there will be plenty to go around. Of course, Giovanna checks back several times in the course of the evening to ask how everything is and to encourage people to finish one or two last bites before plates are taken away.
Chicken liver crostini
Not the most attractive antipasto, but very Tuscan and very delicious.
Buffalo Mozzarella and Melon
I have to say, the Tuscan melons are fantastic, sweeter and more cantaloupe-y than many of the varieties around here.
Eggplant “flan” with pecorino cheese
As Mario said, more of a souffle than a flan. Or really a chef-y version of eggplant parm.
Tortellacci with ricotta and pesto in fresh tomato sauce
Delicious ricotta-stuffed pasta even without the oozing egg yolk.
Pasta with Mamma’s Sauce
A perfect plate of comfort food. Having the actual mamma serve it to us put it over the top.
Bistecca alla fiorentina (Steak Florentine)
Always a thick T-bone (or actually a porterhouse). Always sourced from local Chianina cattle. Always grilled to rare. Always delicious.
A tired cliche is reborn when freshly made with fresh mascarpone custard and soft whipped cream
Osteria Santo Spirito, Piazza Santo Spirito 16/R, Florence
Honorable mention for dining in Florence goes to this lovely little restaurant in the Piazza San Spirito. Known for its gnocchi with cheese and truffles, which was indeed very good, the real star was the textbook version of spaghetti alle vongole.
Gnocchi with Cheese and Truffles
Spaghetti alle Vongole
Three days on the Ligurian coast — the birthplace of pesto — will give you your pesto fix for the year. Here are two of my favorite preparations.
Trofie with pesto
Handmade twisted pasta shapes with a similar mouthfeel to spaetzle. The Ligurians achieve an incredible creaminess to their pesto without any cream. The key, I’m told, is to use a blender rather than a food processor, and to first process the nuts and garlic into a paste before adding soaked basil leaves. Anyone with extra basil this summer, please send my way.
Pesto “lasagna” in many restaurants is simply handkerchief pasta tossed with pesto. Now that I’m a pesto expert, I’d say the coarser texture indicates that this pesto was probably made with a food processor rather than a blender.
Italians love fried foods and eating on the street. So these paper cones filled with fried seafood is a natural.
Fresh seafood lightly battered and just out of the fryer. This is actually a stranger who I stopped and asked for a picture. Her other hand was dialing the Italian equivalent of 911.
Our Italian tour guide told us never to get gelato from a place that had the gelato piled high in the freezer cases. It looks pretty but the temperature and texture is all wrong. Instead, only go to places that have the gelato tucked away in metal bins where the elements can be controlled. Here are my favorite gelato places in Rome and Florence that get it right.
Il Gelato di San Crispino, Via della Panetteria 42, Rome
Near the Trevi Fountain, San Crispino absolutely nails the essence of fruit flavors — pear, apricot, melon, peach, banana, etc. I’m sure they nail chocolate and other flavors as well, I just haven’t gotten to them.
Lemon and Apricot gelato
Vivoli, Via dell’Isola delle Stinche 7/r, Florence
Vivoli is my favorite gelato store in the world ever since I was traipsing through Europe after college and was told to go there by my Let’s Go! guidebook (the Rick Steves of the day). I discovered rice gelato, which you don’t find many places and which my kids tell me is an acquired taste. But if you like rice pudding, you’ll love rice gelato. Vivoli makes other amazing flavors as well, like the pear-caramel, fig and chocolate.
Rice gelato outside of Vivoli.
Bologna Food Tour
Finally, no food round-up of our Italian vacation would be complete without a discussion of our nine-hour food tour in the Bologna countryside that everyone agrees was the highlight of our trip (god, I love my family). I’d highly recommend it to anyone in the area. You can find it on the Viator website under the heading “Bologna Food Experience: Factory Visits with Gourmet Lunch and Wine Tasting.”
The tour starts early in the morning because you have to get to the Parmigiano-Reggiano factory by 8 am when the guys are making the cheese.
My wife Sonia giving the cheese a stir. (Just kidding. Actually, the by-products from cheese-making are supposed to be good for your skin and they invited her to do this.)
The cheese wheels then have a nice soak for a few days.
Once in the aging room, each 85 lb cheese wheel gets cleaned and turned every day by a motorized device that goes up and down the aisles. Talk about your short-straw jobs back in the day.
Then off the the balsamic vinegar distillery (if that’s the right word), where I learned (1) I’ve never tasted real balsamic vinegar, (2) it’s pretty good, and (3) it’s not that good that I want to spend $100 for a tiny bottle and use an eye-dropper on my salad.
The prosciutto factory was filled with the intoxicating aroma of curing pork and salt. Are you listening Renuzit?
Then they started cutting samples of prosciutto. This is Rick’s sample #5.
We ended with lunch at an organic restaurant/winery in the hills outside Bologna. They started bringing wine and family-style food and stopped 2 1/2 hours later.
Pasta with ragu
Pasta with truffles
Pasta with pesto
Grilled and roasted vegetables
There was a dessert but even better were fresh figs right off the tree.
Arrivederci, Italia. Until we eat again.