Ciao! My Foodie Adventures in Italy

My husband’s work brought us to Florence, Italy. Firenze, in the Toscana region, completely turned my world of what I thought of Italian food upside-down. It’s simple, delicious and after a month, I still didn’t get tired of the cuisine. (Usually, I get tired of the same types of foods after three days!) To live in a country and explore for this long was such a blessing and I know I’m lucky to have been able to do it and spend time with my family. I have to share that my 2-year-old daughter even picked up the word, “Ciao,” and said it to everyone there! Melts my heart!

We stayed at a bed and breakfast, where they had a simple breakfast for us in the mornings and a kitchenette in our room. We could make simple meals, and I was able to prepare my daughter’s favorite food when she wasn’t eating well (chicken soup with rice).

We were within walking distance to the Mercato Centrale (Central Market), a large indoor market with different vendors selling everything from dried fruits, fresh fruits and vegetables, seafood, fresh and dried pasta, porcini mushrooms, cured and fresh meats, and more.

If you are a foodie, this is the place for you. I must have come here a few times a week to buy foods that I would prepare. It was just a couple blocks away from home, so I would even come for little things, like a quick espresso (the market closes at 2pm and Sundays) before heading out to the playground with my daughter, or a porchetta sandwich (my favorite, which I got three times at Nerbone), or some dried strawberries. Even the vendors got to know us and gave me free rice and hot peppers one day when I stopped by. The day before we left, we came to say goodbye and they sent us off with some fresh fruit. If you ever go to Florence, don’t you dare miss out on taking a walk through Mercato Centrale on Via San Lorenzo! And get to know the vendors! It’s so fun to talk to people!

There were many highlights of our trip, but I’ll just talk about a food-related one. My mother-in-law, who joined us for a couple of weeks before her next travel destination, let me take a “me” day. She took care of my little one, and I took the whole day off to take a cooking class. We started off in the Central Market and tried lots of foods like truffle honey, unfiltered olive oil, 30-year-old balsamic vinegar with Parmigianno-reggiano cheese (Yum!), and cantuccinni in vin santo.

I learned so much, even though I went to Mercato Centrale like about 10 times before I actually took the cooking tour. Italians love extra-virgin olive oil and eat it unfiltered, meaning it’s still cloudy, greenish-yellow, and tastes delicious (we bought a few of these bottles to bring back home). And when they eat it, they eat it raw (use regular olive oil for cooking and don’t waste the good stuff). My husband and I got into the practice of drizzling it on our pizzas and pastas (what they do in Tuscany). Don’t worry, the pizzas and pastas in Italy are much lighter than what you’d find in the States!

There’s also no such thing as “Italian” dressing over there – it’s just yummy extra-virgin olive oil, salt, and maybe a little drizzle of balsamic vinegar. Make sure your balsamic vinegar is made from grapes and vinegar — no artificial caramel color — and the longer it’s aged, the better it is, like wine. The 12-year balsamic vinegar was my favorite. It was thick, syrupy and delicious on the Parmiggiano Reggiano we had. I even had some 30-year aged balsamic vinegar on vanilla ice cream at a food tasting in Chianti one weekend. There are just no words how good things are sometimes, so I won’t even try!

We then went to a local restaurant and the chef there taught us how to make our own fresh pasta. I’ve never done it by hand before, and, let me say, this was a workout! It was nice to have the chefs looking over my shoulder to instruct me on the techniques on getting the dough so paper-thin that you have to read a newspaper through it.

We also made bolognese sauce in pappardelle pasta, ravioli in sage-butter, and tiramisu. The bolognese sauce was amazing. A lot of Italian recipes are so simple and this one didn’t even have garlic in it.

I learned so much — and that our idea of Italian food is way off the mark of what it actually is. The chef that led the cooking class, Giovanni, told us no chef in Italy knows how to make Alfredo sauce, there’s no such thing as Mac ‘n’ cheese or chicken parmigiana (it’s originally just made with eggplant), and they don’t put garlic in everything, unlike what Italian food in America might have. No matter how much you think you know, take a cooking class in another country. I almost didn’t but I’m so glad I did. I learned so much and am so excited to employ these new techniques to my cooking in the States.

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Tram Le
Tram Le, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian living in Annapolis. Read her blog, This Veg Life, and follow her on Facebook and Pinterest.