168. Mangia Bene

Food is always going to be a centerpiece of any trip to Italy.

Future chefs learning their trade at the Central Market in Florence

Now that everyone has watched Stanley Tucci’s series, it is old news that Italian cuisine ranges far beyond the red-sauce dishes that form the foundation of Italian-American cooking. Tucci showcases the distinction between regions, demonstrating that there are items ubiquitous in one town, and unheard of in another ten miles away. So we were delighted to be traveling to three different cities on this trip, each with its own specialties, to see for ourselves.


As a general rule, for reasons based in economics and preference, meat plays a minor role in Italian cooking, as a garnish in a sauce rather than a big hunk on a plate. Bistecca fiorentina is a notable exception, a gigantic thick t-bone steak, lightly grilled. We are not normally big meat-eaters, but Ben has always been eager to try it, so when in Florence, we headed to Antica Trattoria da Tito, a lively place popular with tourists and natives alike. The only option available was two-and-a half-pounds, and was to be cooked to their specifications, not ours.

A sign on the wall, aimed at you-know-who
At home, we would have had leftovers for a week.

At this same restaurant, we started our meal with ribollita, a Tuscan soup made with vegetable scraps, white beans, and stale bread, and a prime example of cucina povera, or food of the poor. This was much more our speed.

You know you’ve made ribollita right when you can stand a spoon up in it.

Part of the fun at Antica Trattoria is that the walls are covered with graffiti by its customers. Of course, we had to participate. I wrote “Philly” and our names. On seeing that, the Italian man at the next table cried out, “Rocky Balboa!”

Can you pick out the celebrity signature?


We were delighted to have the chance to experience the brand-new Mercato Centrale at the Milan train station. It’s similar to what we think of as a food court, but with offerings far beyond what you’d find at an American mall.

In Milan, rice is much more a part of the regular cuisine than in other parts of the country. Think risotto. We particularly enjoyed this variation that we picked up, a kind of risotto cake stuffed with ham and cheese.

A great picnic lunch for the train ride to Firenze

Change comes slowly in Italy, especially in the food department, where the way your mamma and nonna made something is how God wants it to be. That said, besides the McDonald’s and Burger Kings, there are a surprising number of outlets for kebobs, sushi, poke and Mexican cuisine. There are now many visitors and residents from China, and this stand at the Mercato — as well as a growing number of restaurants — reflect that.

When introducing a new food like potstickers, best to hook it to something familiar and call it “Chinese ravioli.”


I always take multiple Michelin stickers as a good sign.

When in Rome, we always try to include dinner at our favorite restaurant, La Campana, recommended to us years ago by Hansjakob Werlen, a Swarthmore College German professor who is also a leader of the American chapter of the Slow Food movement. Having recently celebrated its 500th anniversary, it claims to be the oldest restaurant in Rome, and to have served Caravaggio when he was in town. It’s a simple trattoria, featuring characteristic Roman dishes at reasonable prices.

Ben was finally able to have the cacio e pepe he was craving. It’s a traditional Roman dish of just pasta, cracked pepper and Pecorino Romano cheese.

When we were there on a Saturday night, Ben’s phone clocked the decibel level at 85 — just below “danger” — due to the joyful noise of the large groups of friends and extended families enjoying a meal together.


One thought on “168. Mangia Bene

  1. Thoroughly enjoy your blog. Took notes this time. The T-bone looked perfectly cooked, but 2 and 1/2 pounds? Yikes! Still, I’d give it a go.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s