Posts tagged Florence

Artichokes for the Choke

When a fruit or vegetable is in season in Italy, you know it. It takes center stage in every type of dish, from the simplest antipasto to the richest, boldest entree. Depending on the time of year, I could be talking about zucchini, tomatoes, or mushrooms. I just happened to get lucky last week. I was visiting Florence during artichoke season.

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Can you believe it? I couldn’t. The sun was shining, the air smelled of springtime, and my favorite vegetable—carciofo in Italian—was absolutely everywhere. From fried artichoke hearts to whole globes stuffed with breadcrumbs, I have never encountered one I didn’t adore.

I started noticing the ubiquitous choke at my hotel’s restaurant. As I perused the menu on the first night, I realized that almost every other dish contained some sort of artichoke option. Among the appetizers were listed both an artichoke tart and grilled octopus with artichokes and citrus fruit. The secondi included a beef tagliata with an artichoke salad, and sea bass with artichokes, olives, and sun-dried tomatoes. Although they all sounded amazing, I felt like having pasta. I turned to the primi and chose the spaghetti al “macco” di carciofi, which translates to spaghetti with a sort of pureed artichoke sauce.

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A perfectly cooked mound of al dente pasta coated with a creamy, smooth sauce of concentrated artichoke delight was placed in front of me. Rich yet light at the same time, this was possibly the best dish I encountered during my trip. I ate it two nights in a row before I forced myself to consider other items on the menu.

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At lunch one day I was confronted with another choke-based meal, this time in a risotto. For a few moments I wondered if I was going too crazy for carciofi, but I couldn’t resist them. Whole, tender artichoke hearts cooked with firm Arborio rice created a simple and satisfying mid-day treat. It wasn’t perfect—in fact, it was slightly too salty—but the creamy chokes still did themselves proud.

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For my last meal in Florence I seriously considered getting that amazing spaghetti for the third time. In the end I decided to branch out to the secondi and try the beef tagliata with the artichoke salad. This time, the chokes were served raw and dressed simply with vinegar, acting as a crisp, refreshing accent to the rather rare fillet of beef that I received. 

I’m still thinking back to the intense artichoke-related joy I experienced last week. As has been said before and seen here, Italians know the true meaning of eating locally and seasonally. It’s kind of ironic that I had to fly to Italy to experience it, but I was more than up to the task. For my carciofi I’d do almost anything.

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A Stroll through the Mercato Centrale

Ciao, tutti! I’m finally back from my quick trip to Italy—Florence, to be exact. Although I was working most of the time, I did have a few free hours here and there. During one of these periods I decided to visit Florence’s Mercato Centrale. Located in a two-floor, nineteenth-century cast iron building near San Lorenzo, this amazing array of Italian food stalls is known as the best food market in the city. Over the course of a few hours I strolled around and around, up and down, trying to take it all in.

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As I walked through the halls of the ground floor, I immediately noticed the piles of fresh produce at several different stands. From cabbage to radicchio, artichokes to squash, seasonality was on full display. The cold temperature inside kept everything fresh, and I was also impressed by the clean, pristine hallways of the market.

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Although my eyes first turned to the vibrant fruits and vegetables, a more thorough investigation of the ground floor revealed an assortment of vendors selling fresh and prepared foods. Baskets of dried porcini mushrooms peeked from between rows of olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and wine. Fresh bread rested behind glass display cases, away from eager hands. Every time I turned a corner I encountered something I wanted to eat.

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Panzerotti, ravioli, cappellacci—all of these fresh pastas stuffed with ingredients such as nuts, cheese, spinach, and mushrooms called to me, as did the gnocchi and gnudi, while I lingered by their display cases. Without my own kitchen in Florence all I could do was look and imagine how they would taste. I settled on three bags of dried, spaghetti-like pici instead, mentally planning a special pasta dinner back in Brooklyn.

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I’m usually not a fan of dried fruit, but I couldn’t shy away from the colorful array I encountered during my tour. Kiwi, mango, papaya, melon, and apricot varieties kept me satisfied during the rest of the week at work, whenever my stomach grumbled and I was hours away from a meal.

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Also on the ground floor were the butchers. Some butcher stands simply focused on conventional cuts of poultry, lamb, and beef. Others offered tripe and additional types of offal, and even more adventurous products such as pigs’ feet. Dressed in white coats and wielding huge knives, the butchers chopped and sliced at their wares for the bustling crowd. Every part of the animal was for sale; nothing went to waste. Chickens were left with their necks and feet intact, so there was no mistaking that the meat had come from an actual animal.

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Rounding out my tour of the first floor were the cheese and cured meat vendors. Huge chunks of parmigiano-reggiano, prosciutto, and different types of salumi beckoned me from all corners, and I finally bought some salamina cinghiale (wild boar salami) for Jim. I quickly walked past the few fish mongers located together at one end of the building, trying to avoid the smell of fresh fish in the morning.

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A short climb up the iron staircase to the sprawling second floor revealed more produce and herbs. Towers of citrus, greens, and other vegetables mingled with sun-dried tomatoes, salted capers, and dried herbs such as basil, rosemary, and parsley. Since I couldn’t buy any of the fresh produce I just admired the first zucchini of the season and marveled at the varieties of squash, apples, and lettuce.

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After a few laps around the building I had worked up quite an appetite. I returned downstairs to the ground floor and joined the long line at a crowded stand called Nerbone, where I picked up a porchetta sandwich (4€).  It didn’t look like much—just a few slices of pork slapped into a roll—but oh my, was it wonderful. The soft, juicy meat nestled into a crispy roll quickly disappeared as I eagerly finished my sandwich. It was the perfect way to end my stroll of Florence’s Mercato Centrale. 

Mercato Centrale, open Monday through Saturday from 7 am to 2 pm, near San Lorenzo on Via dell’Ariento in Florence, Italy.

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