I’ve always felt a certain affinity to Italy. I’m not sure why or how this connection started, we never travelled there on holidays or have any Italian blood in the family. Despite this, I switched my football allegiance from Man Utd to Juventus before my 10th birthday and never looked back. As a child I loved watching Italian football on Channel 4 every Sunday morning and Juventus always stood out. I can’t remember getting much grief in school for my decision, after all everybody supported a team from a foreign country, they just all happened to be English! The more I watched and loved the football, the more I read about and studied Italy, and as I got older, I began to travel there and immerse myself in the language and culture. It would be true to say that I have quite a romantic view of Italy and la dolce vita. In 2012 Ali and I spent our first holiday together exploring the ancient city of Rome. Since then, we returned to Rome and have spent time in Florence, Pisa, Bologna and Turin. We even spent a year learning Italian and for a brief period, we were seriously considering moving there!
For one reason or another, Italy feels like a second home to me.
My parents are kind and generous souls. Three years ago they took in two lunatics, two lovable lunatics. Officially they are my foster brothers, unofficially they are my brothers (at 7 & 10, my much YOUNGER brothers). Having the boys 24/7 means we get to spend little time together as a family the way we used to and so now, instead of buying us gifts at Christmas, my parents bring Shane and I away for a few days around Easter. The first year we went to Rome, last year to Barcelona and this year we visited Florence and Bologna – two for the price of one. Ali and I met my parents, Shane and his girlfriend Caoimhe at the airport early on the Tuesday morning…..wait, STOP! It would be far too easy to give you a run down of everything we did but who wants to read that? Let’s just skip to the food – that’s why we’re here after all!
For me there are two great cuisines in the world: Italian and Non-Italian. It certainly isn’t a popular belief but it’s how I feel and I stand by it. Italy has so many regional cuisines that it’s quite difficult to group them all in to one, I’ll just say that we sampled two absolute beauties – Tuscan and Emilia-Romagna(n). Prosciutto di Parma is just one of hundreds of cured (raw) hams in Italy. For me the Tuscan varieties are a little saltier, with a slightly firmer texture. Consequently the clever Tuscans make the majority of their breads without salt. To you and me this means don’t even dream of eating bread on it’s own in Florence – it will be a miserable affair. Instead drape it with slices of Prosciutto and Tuscan Pecorino (not Pecorino Romano) and enjoy one of the greatest things you’ll ever eat. Failing that, sprinkle a little salt on top and a generous pouring of extra-virgin olive oil.
On our first evening in Florence I had the most wonderful dessert. Torta di Nonna (Grandmother’s Tart) is a pastry tart filled with lemon-infused creme patisserie. I didn’t have this, I had Torta di Nonno (Grandfather’s Tart) which although similar, contains an unholy amount of chocolate in the filling. As we were leaving the restaurant I asked the waiter for the recipe. He introduced me to the owner who explained that as it is a traditional Tuscan tart, they don’t have a recipe, they just make it! He did however, kindly explain the baking process and I am currently perfecting the recipe and technique – adding a few extra inches around the waistline in the process!
The Mercato Centrale in Florence is breathtaking, especially for a foodie like me. Rows of grocers, butchers, fishmongers and bakers selling the freshest produce you can buy. I love to cook when we’re abroad and I planned to cook dinner Thursday evening for my family. Ali and I got up early and walked the 500 metres from our apartment to the market to get ingredients for dinner and breakfast for everyone. The dinner buying went well. Plenty of herbs and linguine were joined by extra-virgin olive oil, tomatoes and fish – namely grey sea mullet, mussels and cuttlefish. We picked up punnets of ripe strawberries and a little balsamic vinegar. So far so good, well under budget and delighted that all the merchants understood my Italian! We went to the bread stall for some Ciabatta and spotted the perfect breakfast – a cross between a croissant and bread. They looked so delicious, we bought one with chocolate and one with raisins. It turned out they cost €14 each! €28 on pastries for breakfast. Was it worth it? Yes, they were magnificent. My three course dinner of Bruschetta with Cherry Tomatoes and Basil, Seafood Linguine and Baked Strawberries with Balsamic Vinegar went down a treat with the family, it’s great to be able to get quality ingredients so easily and so affordable. We had a great night eating and drinking plenty of Italian beer and Prosecco, ending with a few games of pool in our stunning apartment.
Florence wasn’t all good however, we did have one disappointing meal. After a wild goose chase to find a restaurant recommended by our Airbnb-ist, we settled for a place close by. It turned out to be a horrendous decision. Shane and I decided to share a Bistecca Fiorentina and as two connoisseurs of fine meat we ordered it rare. I would’ve preferred to order it blue but sometimes compromise is necessary. It wouldn’t have mattered anyway, as what we got was a cut up steak on a stone with not a hint of pink or flavour in sight. Poor form Florence. Shane and Ali adore Tiramisu (if it’s on the menu, they order it!) but sadly this wasn’t up to scratch either. A bad night all round.
After the fun of Florence we took the Frecce, Italy’s high speed train, to Bologna. It took just 35 minutes. La Grassa or ‘The Fat One’ certainly lives up to its billing. Home to the classic Bolognese Sauce (or Ragu), Bologna is also the capital of the region that produces Parmesan Cheese, Parma Ham and Balsamic Vinegar. It is to Italian food what Bordeaux is to French wine – everything. We ate like Kings and Queens while we were there. I had a wonderful Wild Boar Sausage Ragu and a delicious Wild Rabbit Ravioli from Eataly. Arriving on a Friday was a stroke of good fortune as the city came alive at night. The streets were filled with locals out enjoying glasses of wine and enough cured meat to make a vegan run to the hills. It was a great atmosphere and we happily partook in a few glasses too. Saturday was our last day and the main street of Bologna was closed to traffic. Locals and tourists alike were out and about enjoying live music on the streets, along with more wine and Prosciutto. I made sure to make a return trip to Simoni, one of the best salumeria in the city. It’s well worth a visit, the staff are friendly, informative and speak good English.
All too soon, the flight home to dreary Dublin beckoned but not before I stocked up on Pancetta, Coppa di Parma, Salami and Nduja (a spicy spreadable pork sausage). I look forward to returning to Italy soon, maybe to the South next time, uncharted territory for me.