Troy Hightower

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Florentine Food Tour

In Florence, just before Christmas, we had booked a “Traditional Food” tour of the city, and a half-hour before noon, meet our guide, a charming young woman called Paola, as she is scurrying to avoid some pigeons outside the entrance to the Cappelle Medicee, at the rear of Brunelleschi's Basilica di San Lorenzo. A few blocks away is the vast cast-iron and glass Mercato Centrale, originally built in 1874. The market has changed since we last visited a dozen years ago. The ground floor is still meat, fish, salumeria and vegetables, but the entire top deck, which used to be given over to more market vendors, was converted in 2014 into an enormous food hall, with cooked foods of every description, from asparagus risotto to roast chicken to fritto misto to Chianina beef burgers, with hundreds of tables crammed with lunchers. There are also specialty food vendors, an Eataly grocery section, enoteca and a cooking school. One could make a several-hour food tour here alone.

Paola  leads us a crooked path through streets and alleys to our first tasting stop at the Enoteca d'Angelo, where we sample finnochiona salame, four month-old pecorino, and a crostini spread with crema di pomodori sechi, washed down with a glass of Villa Bardini Chianti Classico, made with 100% Sangiovese grape.

It’s raining, so we dodge puddles and the spray of cars in the narrow streets while winding our way to the Trattoria La  Gratella in Via Guelfa. Paola tells us the name means a two-sided wire grill used to encase meat or fish to grill over coals. Tables are filled with workmen in blue shirts and tourists here. We sample local pasta...pici con cavolo nero e pancetta...a thick spaghetti endemic to Florence, with Lacinato kale, also called black cabbage, pancetta and garlic, and for Troy and Paola, tortelli di patate con ragu, potato-filled pasta pillows covered a long simmered meat and tomato sauce. Both are fantastic, very authentic flavors, and accompanied by red vino da casa which runs 2€ a glass.

Over this delicious course young Paola tells us of her recent work in the Amazonas in Ecuador with an NGO, and before that teaching English to children in Bogota Colombia, using her university degree in languages--she speaks her native Italian, Spanish, English (with a charming accent) and some French. She’s currently back home living with her family outside of San Gimingiano, conducting these tours for a time, while trying to decide on her next meaningful life step.

We slog over the wet flagstones back past the Mercato, across the Piazza del Duomo, seat of the cattedrale with its marvelous pink, green and white marble facade, and the Torre del Giotto, down the Borgo degli Albizi to the Piazza di San Pier Maggiore and turn right to Il Coccolo, purveyor of the golf size fried bread balls of the same name. A variety termed scatolotto comes hot from the fryer, which you split and layer with prosciutto and creamy stracchino cheese. Alternatively you can fill the hot dough orbs from counter devices that slot a hollow tube into the coccolo center, and inject the ball with Nutella, crema, or cieligipreserves. This is a unique and delicious Florentine street-treat.

Still dodging umbrellas we head through our local hood, then out via Della Condotta and along via Porta Rossa to arrive at Trattoria Coco Lezzone in via Parioncino—another local traditional place. Here we sample Tuscan traditions papa al pomodorro, tomato and bread soup, drizzled with olive oil, and ribollita which literally means reboiled...cannelloni beans, carrots, onions, celery, kale and day old bread long cooked together to a hearty wintry is said that ribollita originated in the Middle Ages, when the servants gathered up meat-soaked bread trenchers from feudal lords' banquets and boiled them for their own dinners. Both are delicious, but we can only eat a few mouthfuls, which alarms la Signora, who asks if we want something else—but we reassure her that it’s just that we’ve already consumed so much hearty fare on a wintry day, we’re pretty stuffed.

Paola finally leads us through traffic across the Arno on Ponte alla Carraia to the hole In the wall Pasticceria Carraia, where we complete our gourmet tour with crunchy cantucini di Prato and Vin Santo, the traditional cooked sweet wine of Tuscany, and an old favorite.

We take leave of the charming Paola in the Borgo San Jacobo, a full circuit from yesterday and our Hotel Lungarno, and make our way over the Ponte Vecchio, and into the Piazza della Signoria and back to our frescoed piece of renaissance Italy in Vigna Vecchia.

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