A City Cook in an Italian Kitchen

A City Cook in an Italian Kitchen

We've just returned from Italy where we spent both Christmas and New Year's.  Instead of staying in a hotel we rented an apartment in Florence where we could be comfortable for a long stay and so that I could cook.  The tanked dollar made any Euro-based purchase a shock; even a simple lunch for two in a pizzeria could easily cost $80.  But I didn't cook just to save money.  I also wanted the experience of shopping in the local markets and using ingredients that often don't leave their local region, let alone get imported to the US.

Knowing that my temporary kitchen would be outfitted for an Italian cook, the only tools I brought from my New York kitchen were my string shopping bag, a chef's knife and an instant thermometer.  I was happy to find that my small Italian kitchen had a 4-burner gas cooktop, an electric oven, a roasting pan, a half dozen sauce pans, pots and skillets, salad and serving bowls, wooden spoons, and an Italian home cook's essentials:  cheese grater, colander for draining pasta, food mill, cutting board and bread knife, a mezzaluna, baskets for fruit and bread, and an espresso maker.  There was also pretty china, wine and water glasses, flutes for sparkling wine, and flatware.  Our wonderful rental agent had left mineral water in the refrigerator, a small bottle of olive oil, finely ground coffee for the espresso maker, a full salt shaker, and a welcoming bottle of Chianti. 

Florence's Mercato Centrale

Our apartment was on via Della Bella Donna, a narrow street about half-way between the Duomo and train station, and a ten minute walk to Mercato di San Lorenzo -- more familiarly called the Mercato Centrale -- Florence's main food market.  Housed in a large, two-story metal-framed and shed-like modern building, the Mercato is tucked behind the crammed tourist street market (stacked with leather belts and jackets, scarves and pashminas, and odd souvenirs) that rings Brunelleschi's extraordinary 15th century Church of San Lorenzo. 

The Mercato is open six days a week, plus on Sundays before major holidays like Christmas.  Most of the merchants open early, usually at 7:00 a.m. and close either when they run out of the day's fresh food or about 2:00 p.m. 

The first floor of the noisy and active market has dozens of stalls selling meat, fish, poultry, fresh pasta and bread, each by a specialist.  The upper floor, bright with winter sun streaming in through large Duomo-like windows, is filled with fruit and vegetable merchants called fruttivendoli.  The stars of the Mercato are the "alimentari" that sell cured meats, charcuterie, cheese, wine, olive oils and local specialties like spicy mostarda, dried porcini, and roasted artichokes.  And of course, there's the requisite café where workers and customers can get their fix of morning cappuccino and afternoon espresso.

I headed for Baroni Alimentari which has been run by the Baroni family since 1974.  Today Allesandro and Paola Baroni bring their customers the best of Tuscany from purveyors they know personally and have worked with for decades.  Their long, pristine refrigerated case was stacked with holiday favorites, including more than a dozen Pecorino cheeses of which several were made just days earlier from raw milk.  There was a wall of prosciuttos and culatellos, jars of olives and other preserved fruits and vegetables, salamis -- some spicy, some almost sweet, Tuscan wine, artisanal olive oils and vinegars, salt and spices, and so much more.  Allesandro Baroni teaches his customers about every food that he sells:  he tells you the name of the producer, explains the kind of sheep or goat from which a cheese is made, offers tastes of different hams, explaining how each is cured and where the pigs were raised.  It's as if it's not enough for him to know why his products are so special -- he needs you to know, as well. 

As Allesandro slices the meats and cheeses and packages the oily artichoke hearts and slabs of yeasty foccacia ("buy only if you will eat it today"), Paola helps with wine, olive oil, cans of Mediterranean tuna and anchovies, and salts and spices, while managing the cash register and coaching her young clerk, Carolina, to help the American lady.  On my first visit to Baroni, the day after we arrived in Florence, the shop was quiet and she was able to step away and guide me through the huge Mercato to the best sources for my other Christmas and Boxing Day purchases.  Butchers here can be very specialized and Paola brought me to a poultry expert to buy a whole duck and yet another butcher for pork.  I speak only tourist Italian and few of the Mercato merchants speak English but between my limited vocabulary, Paola's help, and the universal language of food, I managed to successfully place my orders with both butchers.

Facing (Really) Christmas Dinner

On Christmas Day I had a surprise when I unwrapped my duck.  As I peeled back the secure paper wrapping, I was greeted by the duck's head and little feet, removed but included alongside the body.  Eyes wide open, its head attached to the curved and still-feathered neck, and a slightly open pale orange bill.  Yes, this was new for me.  Once I got past the shock, I really wasn't surprised because Italian cuisine is noted for its pride of ingredients, knowing where your food comes from, and a respect for scarcity.  That means every possible part of an animal is eaten.  I had no idea what I was supposed to do with that duck's head or feet but I bet most Italian home cooks would know.

Here's another example of unexpected experiences. When shopping at Baroni I asked Allesandro to guide me to local cheeses that I would never be able to buy in New York.  He suggested a white, creamy sheep's cheese called Il Raveggiolo Delle Crete Senesi which is made from the watery liquid left over from producing sheep's milk ricotta.  This custard-like cheese is spread on bread as we would with butter, drizzled with olive oil and seasoned with salt.  It had a delicate, almost transparent milky flavor and seemed as good an example as I had ever found of food made out of nearly nothing.  It was made from scarcity yet became something special.

So what else did I cook?  I was hampered a bit by the unfamiliar kitchen and lacking some cookware and tools, but I knew the wise route was to keep it simple and be guided by the ingredients instead of recipes.  My Christmas duck was served with wedges of creamy potatoes I had first parcooked in boiling water and then finished stove-top in some of the rendered fat that I had poured off from the duck as it roasted in a 180º C oven (finally, a reason for why we learn algebra -- to translate 350º F to Celsius) until my instant thermometer registered 165º F and the skin was golden and crisp (see our recipe).  I blanched large chunks of baby zucchini served at room temperature with just a glance of olive oil and salt, leaving it as a simple companion to the rich duck and crispy potatoes.  Our Christmas dinner had begun with a plate of local ham and glasses of spumanti.  The wine was a spicy and memorable Castello di Ama Chianti Classico 2004.  And dessert was a wedge of Pecorino drizzled with a spicy, smooth mostarda made from orange preserves, tomato, and pungent, heated mustard.

The next day was Boxing Day, or St. Stephen's Day as the Florentines know it, and for this holiday I planned a meal centered on pork.  Paola's pork butcher at the Mercato didn't have roasts small enough for two so instead he cut two large pork chops, still on the bone, as a single piece and tied them as if it were a mini bone-on roast.  He rubbed it with sage and garlic powder and wrapped it in plastic with instructions to slick it with olive oil and salt just before cooking for one hour at 180º C, adding water at the bottom of the roasting pan.  I second-guessed his instruction (and my translation) with my instant thermometer but he was right:  at a 140º F internal temp, after resting ten minutes the result was faintly pink inside, crusty on the surface, and unlike most U.S. pork, full of flavor. 

I served this with spaghetti that I tossed with grated Pecorino and large pieces of lardo similar to our recipe for Rigatoni alla Grecia (I know -- a lot of pork, but I was experimenting with unfamiliar ingredients like this creamy white lardo which came in large five by ten-inch strips that I could cut into 2-inch squares and render slowly until reduced by half and light gold in color, crispy and cracklin-like).  I also blanched haricots verts and then mixed them with halved, brightly acidic and juicy raw cherry tomatoes and a little olive oil, heaping the combination on top of wide leaves of tender, pale Boston-like lettuce.  We finished with slices of a sweet, musky pear and a little cheese to help finish a very nice Brunello.

The range of ingredients I had to choose from was actually rather narrow because Italians are strict to cook and eat what is local and what is in season.  There were beans, zucchini, artichokes, cauliflower, citrus, pears, some onions, a few tomatoes.  But the satisfaction came from their taste, not variety.  Other meals made during our stay included simply roasted but stunningly flavorful pieces of chicken; platters of cured hams and barely cooked vegetables served with chunks of Florence's local bread which is notable for its lack of salt and shattering crust; bowls of a dark green minestrone soup bought from a neighborhood salumeria to which I added small pasta pieces and grated cheese; slices of veal scallopini that the butcher pounded thin which I pan seared and finished with a squeeze of Sicilian lemons and served with a simple pasta sauce I made with canned tomatoes put through the food mill to liquefy and then cooked with garlic, red pepper flakes and olive oil, reducing and concentrating the flavors.

While it was a joy to cook with the ingredients I found in the Mercato, the challenge and fun was in seeing what I could do with few tools and from trying to shop without fluency -- in recipes, my oven's temperature, or the lingua of the merchants.  I've come home even more resolved to shop in season, to know my merchants, and to cook from the ingredients up. 

And if any of you know what I was supposed to do with that duck head, please tell me.

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