Italian food – upon my return from a 10-day trip to Florence and Milan, Italy, it’s the first thing I’m asked about, and I find myself a bit tongue-tied. Or perhaps it’s hard to speak because my mouth is full, of the sugared-dusted breakfast cookies, salty capers, and rich espresso that I brought back with me, in my attempt to prolong the feelings of vacation, adventure, exploration, growth, and friendship.
The food was beautiful, but I’ll let the photos communicate that. The setting I had the pleasure of eating it in was beautiful, and the photos can’t even begin to do it justice.
Landscapes of distant mountains competed for my attention with sweeping rooftop views of centuries-old architecture. Cobblestone streets, and the tight, uneven walkways that spilled pedestrians into the Florentine streets, were a challenge to drag my oversized suitcase across, but provided a romantic backdrop for late dinners on the square, made complete by a shared bottle of Chianti.
The first restaurant meal in a foreign city isn’t always the most elaborate or memorable – you’re hungry, travel-weary, and fighting off jetlag, forcing yourself to stay on your feet, to get onto the local schedule. But the bottled water is cold and refreshing, the wine is local, and a plate of cheeses, local meats, and garnishes can never disappoint.
Whether you’ve committed to wine and cheese or a new flavor of gelato every day of your trip, or prefer to sample a little taste of everything the country has to offer, Italy will indulge your taste buds. Espresso rules the coffee shops, where you can try a cornetto, the Italian cousin to the Austrian kipferl and the French croissant, a “little horn” of pastry dough.
After a long day of sightseeing, climbing to the rooftops of cathedrals, then entering their dark interiors, to gaze in admiration at towering walls of stained class and golden sculptures, we were hungry. A pair of old, dear friends, Italian locals who I’d met during my graduate school days, escorted me and my travel companions, also dear friends of over 20 years. They took us for pizza! We ate our fill!
Enjoying a simple pie, of cheese, fresh basil and tomato, full of flavor, with a hand-tossed crust, I was sorry to leave any behind. But after raising a glass of locally brewed amber, my favorite of the craft beers, we were off to explore historic fortresses, expansive public parks, and the bohemian arts districts.
In downtown Milan, where the most fashionable Italian locals live, work and play, we stumbled into an upscale dining experience. At 8:30 pm, fresh out of showers that rinsed the grime of the day from our sweaty, sun-worn bodies, we cleaned up okay. On our arrival at a small restaurant tucked away on a side street, we were told that the nearly empty restaurant was already booked. Puzzled, an inspection revealed “Reserved” signs on almost every table.
Room was made for us, and the Italian waiter took very good care of us, despite our failure to order the way the diners at the surrounding tables did – in shared courses: rounds of appetizers, abundant salads, first and second courses, of house-made pasta, gnocchi, hearty meat dishes, and delicate seafood.
We had great seats for our dinner and a show, as we watched the restaurant fill up with large groups of Italian businessmen, elegant couples, and groups of stylish young women. The whole experience was a happy accident, and we were pleased that we’d decided to head back out into the city, rather than collapse into a bottle of wine at the apartment.
On a daytrip to Bergamo, arriving by train from Milan, we were treated to a tour of the city by a lifelong local, who was a foreign exchange student in my former lifetime. Her tour didn’t end with the architecture and history of the old city, but took us up to the top of the city, by way of a funicular ride, cable traction pulling us slowly up a steep, inclined slope.
Our reward was the view, from the balcony of a restaurant reserved for special occasions, and recommendations of the best Italian pastas to indulge in, and the perfect local wine pairings.
There’s a gelato shop on every block in Italy, or so it seems, but I did not inherit my father’s love of ice cream. What stopped me in my tracks, on a hot July day, was a corner Popsicle stand, where I selected tart raspberry.
We had to eat fast, as the cool treat threatened to melt, coating our fingers in sticky, sugary sweetness. It was the perfect accompaniment to our stroll along the canals of the Navigli district of Milan, before boarding a small boat that would alternate between Italian and English, explaining the history of the area. I hung my head out over the side of the boat, seeking a slight breeze.
Lake Como treated us to trendy cocktails, made with lemon and rose liquors, enjoyed with a view of the water and the mountains. It was our last day in Italy, and a day well spent, with another train ride (which brought us to our 6th or 7th), the last of our shopping, and less time on our feet than we’d experienced in days! It was refreshing! It was beautiful! It was the perfect sendoff, and a beckoning for us to return, and continue our exploration of this rich food culture.
To stay in an Airbnb, in a small apartment, in the heart of the city, makes you feel a little bit like a local, There were mornings that began with making our own espresso, and munching on a light breakfast of fruit, pastries and indulgent chocolate, in the small apartment kitchen.
There were evenings of shopping at the most highly recommended groceries, to load up on supplies, creating our own spreads, of cheese and salami boards, salads tossed with tomato, olives and capers, and pasta smothered in fresh pesto.
There was a lot of red wine, with an occasional spilled glass, but prices were more than affordable for the common Italian table wine, Chianti. We bought bread baked fresh that day, and ate local peaches, sweet and juicy. We learned how to navigate the trendy downtown markets, three or four stories high, and later picked up an ingredient or two at a small convenience mart.
Most importantly, as we ate, we laughed. We told stories, and we sighed with contentment, or we sat back and just enjoyed the view. We snapped a few photos, making mental notes, and soaking in as much of the culture as possible.
We build relationships around food; we celebrate friendships around food. We raise a glass of the local Italian Spritz (a tad bitter), and share a bottle of wine. We break bread and we end the day with an espresso and dessert.
Even the food on the (many) train rides was the cause of celebration!
Join me on my next (Italian) adventure,