Sunday, June 7, 2009

Beefy Countryside or Texas on the Arno

My friend Nina invited me and a guest to dinner in Chianti. We were going to a restaurant that is renowned for its Bisteca Fiorentina, a two inch thick monster T-bone from the huge white Chianina cattle that they grow around here. She was entertaining another friend from the US. Since I don’t have a car and the gimpy knee won’t bend enough to ride safely on my friend Riccardo’s motorcycle, the four of us went down to Nina’s countryside location on the regional bus. The bus route winds along narrow country roads (motorcycle ready!) to the hillside vineyard where she stays with Paolo, her Italian cowboy, winemaker boyfriend. We got off right across the street from the his traditional country villa: big gate, long allee of cypresses, two story squareish, yellow-stuccoed, green shuttered house, probably built in the 19th century. The house needs redecorating, the garden is very bare and view would be spectacular if the overgrown shrubbery were pruned. But it has a lot of potential. Nina chafes at Paolo’s conservative reluctance to change things. We drank his very nice wine under the cypress trees at the front. (Next time: the back side with view!!) Off to the restaurant, but not before I got a brilliant shot of the countryside as the sun set over the Apuan Alps, where the marble comes from.

The name of the restaurant, Da Padellina, means from the frying pan, although I think the steak is cooked on a grill. They bring it to the table for dissection allowing each person to get their choice of doneness, as long as you want it incredibly rare. I got two pieces, one just right, the other too rare for me. I asked for 30 seconds more on the grill but they murdered it. This meat is so tender that even barely cooked it melts in your mouth. I was told that the supplier is Dario Cechini, the famous Rock and Roll butcher from Panzano. In any case, it was wonderful, tender and flavorful, even the part that they overcooked. We drank Paolo’s wine and had salad and fabulous oven roasted potatoes utterly soaked in fabulous olive oil.
When we had finished our meal and were nearly the last people in the place, the owner, a big enthusiast for Dante who had greeted Nina with hugs and kisses, came to our table and began to talk Dante. Riccardo and Paolo knew the comments and then the recitation, of course, because it is a fundamental Italian grade school requirement to learn Dante. He spoke the lines as if he were telling us a recent anecdote. I heard Dante recited in the streets a couple of weeks ago and was charmed but this was quite captivating since it was so intimately directed to us. Very late, we were driven back to Santo Spirito, I with a package of bones for broth.

Monday, June 1, 2009

The Civaie

The portone (big door) to my building is between two businesses: on the right a bar/restaurant now named Cabiria (it was different when I arrived last summer) which serves very nice B quality food – a step up from the C- before – and provides music to a lot of casual drinkers in the later hours. But on the other side is the Civaie Morganti. There is really no direct translation of the word civaie into English but it is a traditional seller of grains and legumes. Giovanni also sells an assortment of spices, olives, oils, garden seeds and, of necessity, a lot of tourist items: baskets, hats, vin santo & cantucci, those cutsie wrapped colored pasta that no Italian would touch. But the original focus was the grain/seed department. He has red, black, and wild rice along side several kinds of Italian risotto style rice, plus several kinds of lentils, even quinoa! I buy things from him whenever I can but as a single person, using a pound of lentils can take a while. We greet each other every day as is the custom here. Even the somewhat inebriated hangers-out say, “buon giorno, signora.”

But the best part of this vendor for me is the atmosphere of tradition that it adds to the piazza with local folks dropping by to chat and the elaborate, gesture filled conversations held either in front of the store or with those locals taking a drop in the outside seating of the restaurant. The talk is always energetic and often boisterous confusing the uninitiated into thinking of disputes, but it’s only Italian enthusiasm.

Giovanni’s store is only one of many traditional vendors in my neighbourhood: there is a frame shop, a shoe maker (very pricey), a pharmacy that originated in 1508, a bakery with some non Tuscan actually good bread, several furniture shops (mostly repair and restoration), a book seller, a candy/pastry shop, at least a dozen tiny grocery stores, and a fiaschetteria, a wine shop that sells bulk wine. You bring the bottles and they fill them up with one of six or seven types – red or white, Brunello or Rosso or what have you - for about 3.50 €. I think it is quite possible to live one’s life here and rarely leave a three block radius. Here’s a link to some of the traditional vendors around Firenze: