Same same but different

You ever run into an old flame and things are just so different from how they once were that it kind of makes you feel a whole bunch of things? Maybe a little sad, relieved perhaps, mostly nostalgic?

You think about the good times, and remember how sweet they really were at their height, but then you snap back to the present and maybe you notice the former flame’s lost some hair, put on some weight, looks tired or just different. Maybe it’s you, maybe you’ve changed. Either way, it’s not the same and even if the experience of seeing that person is pleasant enough, and you’re ok where you both are in life now, you can’t help but miss how things once were.

IMG_6839Yea, well, that was the experience I had with one of the great loves of my life this week: a sandwich from Antico Noè. When I lived in Florence, Italy, what really does feel like a whole different lifetime ago, I went to Noè more than anywhere else. I tried different things a couple of times but for the most part I got the same panino every time: the # 4, stuffed chicken with prosciutto, mozzarella, sautéed mushrooms and rosé sauce. It was warmed up briefly in a press, wrapped in a couple of napkins and handed over to me by the same hunky Florentine who seemed to never have a day away from the shop.

A few years ago, Antico Noè opened a shop in midtown Manhattan of all places. (Apparently, some enterprising, panini loving Americans bought the rights to  use their name here and promised to keep it as close to the original as possible.) I’ve been a couple of times since they originally opened and always had a decent enough sandwich. This past week, I found myself in midtown and actually on the same street as Noè, so I thought I’d drop in for lunch.

Feeling ever nostalgic and wanting to recapture the magic, I ordered my usual, the # 4. Staring at a mural of Florence and the same painted logo from the original shop while an Italian pop ballad played in the empty shop (I was there later in the afternoon, after the lunch rush), I ate my sandwich alone.

IMG_6840It wasn’t bad, by any means. The bread was warm and had been pressed down just right to squeeze everything together and make it easy to eat. The mozzarella, warm and melted, oozed out in long strands. The mushrooms gave their earthy, subtle flavor and weren’t slimy or wet as the sautéed kind sometimes are. The meat was alright, flavorful enough and a nice contrast to the other ingredients, though anywhere else I probably wouldn’t have ordered stuffed chicken. The rosé sauce, my favorite, was tangy and creamy.

IMG_6841And yet… it wasn’t the same. As far as lunches go, I was satisfied yes, but I wasn’t raving. If I had friends visiting from out of town, I wouldn’t insist that they eat there, they way I do with every single person who’s ever asked me where they should eat in Florence over the last ten years. The ingredients were the same they use in Florence, but not the exact kind I’m sure. I doubt it was the exact type of mozzarella, or the same sauce, and the bread was baked here, not there, which has to make a difference. In fact, I had my sandwich on whole grain, which way back when in Florence, wasn’t even an option.

Then again, maybe it wasn’t even the sandwich. Maybe it was the fact that I was in midtown Manhattan, surrounded by skyscrapers and stressed office employees, I myself being one. Maybe the sandwich just tastes better in a city that’s looked the same since before the Renaissance, when you’re in your early 20s and worried mostly about where you’ll go out that night or where to travel next weekend. It’s likely that it was both.

I’m sure New York’s Noè outpost does just fine. I’ve been there during the lunch rush and business seemed to be thriving. Lots of framed articles and media mentions line the wall when you walk in, and I’m sure Instagram has no shortage of dedications from people who studied abroad and then came back to try and relive their Florentine lunches.

But for me it felt too different. Not bad, not good, just different. And since I’d like to keep the memory of that sandwich I loved so very much all those years ago exactly as it was, I think I’ll just hold out on Noè and the # 4 till the next time I’m back in Florence, whenever that might be.

The things I miss

Sometimes (though I should point out definitely not always) I really miss Florence. I miss lots of things about it, but it should go without saying that hands down, I miss the food the most. But I live in New York, after all, where there are precisely 30 million italian restaurants, markets, wine bars and gourmet shops, so most things, whether it be bomboloni, pici al limone or a good piece of  schiacciata aren’t all that hard to find.

HOWEVER, and this is about to be a big however (hence the all caps), I have yet to find crostoni that come close to the perfection of those at  Fuori Porta, just outside the old city walls, and that gives me the worst pangs of longing for Florence. They’re just that good.

During my recent visit to Italy, I put lunch at Fuori Porta on my list of things that had to get done while I was there. The beau and I went one afternoon, and just like I had remembered, the crostoni were amazing. So good I could cry… if I wasn’t busy stuffing my face.

Walnut, honey and brie crostone, I missed you SO much!

Crostoni are basically just large slices of bread, topped with cheese (which at Fuori Porta, can be either mozzarella, Brie, pecorino, or gorgonzola) and other topping combinations including meats, veggies, or nuts. They’re popped in the oven so that the cheese melts and everything gets warm, and you as the eater, basically have your mind blown. My favorite combo, and the one I got most recently when I was there, was Brie with walnuts and honey.  Each bite is simultaenously gooey and cheesey, crunchy, sweet and savory. I think I could eat one every day for the rest of my life and never not love it.

Prosciutto and mushrooms under a blanket of melted pecorino. SO. FREAKIN.’ GOOD.

Flaneur on the other hand went with a more savory combination of pecorino, prosciutto cotto  and mushrooms. While I preferred mine, his was pretty damn good too. Really, most things covered in thick, melted cheese are bound to be good, but this crostone, with its earthy, sweet mushrooms and salty-sweet prosciutto (the sweeter cooked kind, not the cured variety) was really phenomenal.

Yea I miss crossing the Ponte Vecchio at night, the view of the Duomo from Piazzale Michelangiolo, and being able to visit The Birth of Venus at the Uffizi, but let’s get real, I really, really miss those crostoni.

An old tradition in my old neighborhood

Il Lampredottaio of Sant’Ambrogio

When I lived in Florence a few years ago, my apartment was a stone’s throw away from what is apparently one of the best places in town to get one of the most Florentine foods around, lampredotto. I never went because 1. while I’m not opposed to offal, eating the cow’s fourth stomach wasn’t really high on my must-eat list, and 2. I always just figured that I would get around to it at some later point. But when I left and moved to New York, I did so without ever trying the famous local street meat.

Last week though, during  my vacay in Italy, I went back to my old stomping grounds and finally made it to the famous lampredottaio (i.e. the lampredotto vendor) of Sant’ Ambrogio.

Panino al lampredotto, an old Florentine tradition

So what’s the cow’s fourth stomach (cause yes, they have four) like, you ask? Well, it’s not exactly pretty. With its greyish brown color (before being cooked, which it is, in a broth of onions, tomatoes and other ingredients) and its wrinkly, floppy texture, it definitely doesn’t get points for being aesthetically pleasing. But once it’s cooked, plopped on to a warm, toasty roll and dressed with a healthy drizzle of salsa verde (a tangy, flavorful sauce made of garlic, parsley, and olive oil) and a few fat drops of spicy sauce, the lampredotto panino is actually not half bad. It’s interesting. It has a slightly off-putting texture at first but the deeper you chomp into the heart of the sandwich, where all the juices and flavors have collected, it actually gets pretty good.

Had I tried it when it was just a few steps away from my apartment I don’t think it would have necessarily become my neighborhood go-to but I liked it enough to be glad I finally stopped to try it.

For another post on the Florentine street meat from a great blogger who really knows what she’s talking about, check this out. Buon appetito!

Gelato, that’s amore!

I just came back from Italy, where I spent a week in and around Florence with my boyfriend, visiting his family and friends, taking daytrips, carboloading and through it all… SWEATING, cause dear sweet Madonna and Child, it was HOT. Like, really hot. Like, totally socially acceptable to eat gelato every day, sometimes twice, kind of hot.

Below, the highlights reel of my love fest with gelato, which I thank for saving me from heat stroke:

Il Sorriso

Outside of Florence’s tourist-clogged center was Il Sorriso, where the BF and I stopped one day on our way to lunch at his sister’s house. Because we really were on our way to eat lunch, he suggested we split a cup instead of each getting our own. I relented, though I’m not usually into this kind of thing. We got stracciatella, probably the best I ever had, with thick, chunky pieces of chocolate throughout it,  and cremino alla Nutella, which was a creamy, chocolate, Nutella swirled bunch of awesomeness.

Badiani

On a different day we went to one of Flaneur’s old favorites, also outside of the center, called Badiani. Though it’s a gelateria/ pasticceria combo with some pretty amazing looking baked treats, their main draw is the gelato, especially the Buontalenti flavor which they hold a registered trademark for. On the left is my cup of Millefoglie gelato (named after the Italian pastries made with dozens of layers of delicate, crispy thin layers of dough and thick, custardy pastry cream) and more cremino (this time without Nutella, but still chocolatey and rich). On the right is the BF’s cup of pistachio (a nutty, creamy blend) and the house star, Buontalenti, a buttery, rich mixture of cream, custard, and all that is good in this world.

Gelateria dei Neri

While strolling around downtown in Florence’s historic center one day (and by strolling you should know that I mean wondering at what point the skin on my body was going to start bubbling and blistering from the unbearable heat) we stopped at Gelateria dei Neri (no website, because that kind of technological nonsense just hasn’t fully caught on yet in Italy).  They had a big selection, with lots of really refreshing looking fruit choices, but I’m always a cream/chocolate girl, so I went with cassata siciliana (a traditional Sicilian dessert cake made with candied fruits and nuts, and a mix of sweet ricotta and the heaven they stuff cannoli with) and a ricotta and figs blend, which was velvety and sweet, with jammy chunks of figs swirled in. The beau got an always delicious combination of rich, bittersweet dark chocolate  and bright, creamy coconut.

I could almost not hate the suffocating heat of summer if I had all this gelato to keep me going. Say what you will about Italians, but man, do they know what they’re doing with this stuff.

Granita for one, please

Gelato's great but I'll have a granita di mandorle, thanks

I’m now approaching week 2 of having an ocean between my boyfriend and I, and let me tell you, it sucks. No way around it. Beyond all the obvious reasons, I hate that he’s gone because of all the awesome food I know he’s eating in Italy without me.

I was in a particular funk the other day on my way home from work when I decided to make a pit stop to cheer myself up. When I lived in Florence, one of my favorite places for an afternoon snack was Grom, a gelato shop I didn’t realize was international until I moved to New York and saw it in Greenwich village. I was originally really excited about until I saw their outrageous prices, but on this particular day, I said to hell with it.

Now yes, their gelato is pretty damn good, but my favorite thing to get (the only one I ever get, really) is something else: the granita siciliana, a creamy, frosty treat (originally from Sicily, hence the name) similar to a slushy but infinitely better. It has a thicker, more coarse texture, and none of the wateriness. You get a spoon, not a straw, and with it, nothing but sweet, refreshing deliciousness.

It’s available in different flavors, but I’m not even sure what they are because I always get the same one: mandorle, or almonds. It’s sweet in a milky, nutty way that feels natural and not sugary. And because it’s subtly grainy but still icy cool, it’s really one of the best things to cool down with.

The beau might have Florence, but I at least still have my granita di mandorle. And that’ll just have to be enough to hold me over.

Pasta perfection

 


Spaghetti alla vigliacca

 

Everything happens for a reason. However, I did not purposely leave the dress I was supposed to wear to the wedding hanging in the closet at my boyfriend’s house so that we would have a reason to go back to Florence and then have lunch while we were there. Really. I didn’t. It just worked out that way.

So there we were, driving back toward Florence from Lucca. Yes, we needed to time everything so that we could be back in time to get ready for the wedding but there were other pressing matters at hand.

“So, uh, where should we eat lunch?”

Deciding that we would rather avoid the nightmare that is driving and parking in the center of Florence, we instead opted for a place just outside of the center, i.e. where I’d be sure to be the only American around.

We had been to Caffe Dogali before, usually on lazy weekend afternoons when we’d wake up late with growling stomachs. It’s a small osteria and bar near the stadium, part tobacco shop and sandwich counter inside with a small dining room in the back and a little square of outdoor seating in the front.

Though lots of people around us (namely awkward looking Italian teens with identical shoes and bad hair) were eating delicious looking panini made with giant pieces of gold-colored focaccia, we both wanted pasta. Continue reading

Wine isn’t the only good thing to come from grapes

A few weeks ago when the news of me going to Italy for my boyfriend’s sister’s wedding became official, one of the first thoughts to rush through my head (and consequently get voiced in an email shortly thereafter) was, “Ooooh! I wonder if I’ll make it in time for some schiacciata all’uva?”

 

Schiacciata all'uva

 

Continue reading

“Reunited and it feels so good”

I just came back from a whirlwind weekend trip to Italy. (I know what you’re thinking. Who goes to Italy for the weekend? It was for a wedding, alright? Jeez.) But it wasn’t all about celebrating other people’s love. I was there to see a  couple of my own loves, too. Yes, I’m mainly talking about my boyfriend who’s been flaneuring around Italy while I’ve been in California, but more specifically as it relates to this blog, I was there for something else, my all-time favorite sandwich: the #15 from Antico Noè, served by my all-time favorite, muscly armed panino maker, Luca. ::sigh::

My favorite sandwich of all time, the #15 at Antico Noè

Flaneur and I only had a couple of hours to spend in Florence before having to be elsewhere for wedding festivities, so the million dollar question was where to eat lunch. Now, really, this isn’t a fun question to be asked. I could name 20 places I wanted to have lunch in it. New places, old places, panino places, sit-down places, gelato places (yes, gelato can be lunch), the choices were endless. But since I knew convincing Flaneur to have more than one lunch in the course of a couple of hours wasn’t going to be likely, I had to go with the one place I hold nearest and dearest to my fat little heart: Antico Noè. Continue reading

If you can’t be in Florence, make Florence come to you

Last week, as people celebrated Mardi Gras and the end of the Carnival period before the beginning of Lent, I had a brief moment of panic.

Oh no! I’m missing frittelle di riso this year!

Frittelle, sugar dusted rice fritters, had been my favorite Carnival-time Tuscan treat. When I realized that this year I wouldn’t be a few minutes away from the nearest bakery selling them I was struck with nostalgia for my days in Florence. They were available at most bakeries and cafes around the city, from about February till April, but my favorite ones were found just a couple of blocks up on the street I lived on. And now, with an ocean between us, I’d have to miss them.

But wait! Why don’t I just make them?

So I Googled a recipe, translated it and recruited Flaneur, my very own in-house Tuscan, to help me make this favorite Italian fried treat of mine.

First, we cooked 500 grams of rice in 1 liter of milk, adding a cinnamon stick, a pinch of salt and grated lemon peel. When the rice had absorbed all the milk, we took it off the heat and let it cool, at which point we added 2 shots of brandy (recipe said rum but I figured brandy would do), three egg yolks, three tablespoons of flour, and 20 grams of baking soda. Lastly we added 3 beaten egg whites. (Note: beating egg whites with just a fork is NOT fun.)

Rice mix ready for frying.

We let the rice mix sit for 15 minutes and in the meantime got the oil for frying ready. We used a standard pot filled with a few inches worth of canola oil. Once 15 minutes had passed and the oil was hot (you can tell because it starts to make hissing, popping noises) we spooned out golfball-sized chunks of rice and threw them in the oil.

Takin' a dip in the hot oil.

We left the rice balls in the oil until they were a warm, golden brown, before taking them out and replacing them with new ones. They were pretty oily so we set them on paper towels to soak some of the oil out.

Oily now, delicious later.

Finally, once they were all out of the oil, we sprinkled them with confectioner’s sugar and sat down to enjoy our fresh, homemade frittelle di riso.

Ta da!

I’ll be completely honest, our technique could use a tweak here or there but in the end, our frittelle were delicious just the same and maybe even more enjoyable since we made them ourselves.

You can’t go wrong with something fried and sprinkled with sugar.

In the meantime…

During my last days in Florence, my dear camera met an untimely end. Well, no, I’m sure it lives on in the life of whatever lucky bastard found it at the bar where I lost it, but things between the camera and me definitely ended that night. Fittingly enough, it was my going away party. Goodbye, Florence. Goodbye, camera.

Antico Noe’s #4

Fast forward to three months later, and I still haven’t replaced it. And seeing as how having a camera with which to take pictures with and then post on this very blog is crucial, I have nothing new to offer on this new blog of mine.

That being said, I’m recycling something I previously wrote and posting it here. Just until I get a new camera, which should be soon, I’ve promised myself.

This first piece is something I wrote while still living in Florence, for my roommate’s website about student life in the city. I then reused it for a writing contest my sister told me about and it came in 26th place (which makes me wonder how many entries there were). Regardless, you might find it entertaining if you want to know more about  secret bakeries.

The second piece is something I wrote for the same writing contest. It’s a guide to panini in Florence. It came in at the very unimpressive 63rd place in the contest, but hey, I had fun writing it. If for no other reason than reminiscing about sandwiches in Florence.