Florence is a “foodie” town – if we’re talking Italian food. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE Italian food (a huge part of the draw here). And there will be many more posts to come about all of its deliciousness (we’ve started the arduous task of searching out the best pizza). But once in a while, I just gotta have something different. I have been surprised that (unlike Bologna), it is really hard to find decent foreign food here. So, I have been on a quest to discover hidden restaurants and source ingredients. Today I share with you some of what I have discovered:
Asian food – as there are quite a large number of Chinese immigrants here, there are numerous Chinese “rosticceria.” From what we have tried, the food is cheap and tasty, though not of the spicy-Szechuan variety we like. It also seems that Italians don’t really frequent these places (one explained to me they are rumored to be dirty – which leaves me wondering if this is true, or a prejudice…). As for other Asian food, it is almost completely lacking. There is not a single Thai or Vietnamese restaurant – not one! And these are two of my all time favorite cuisines. There are a few “Japanese” places though most of them don’t look at all Japanese. We went to one very popular sushi buffet – Pingusto Sushi Wok. It was not bad – the sushi comes out on a rotating belt and if you stand close enough to where the chefs are launching the plates, you can sometimes snag plates of whole sashimi. The choices are very limited, (no unagi or umi; very limited tuna), but for 10 euros at lunch, it’s worth a visit. I did stumble upon what looks to be (here’s hoping) a traditional Japanese ramen house (all the writing is in Japanese). It wasn’t open when I saw it, but I know we’ll be trying it soon. There is one “fusion” restaurant – Buddakan – which we have not yet tried – the menu has something that looks like pad thai and something else that looks like Korean bulkogi - will let you know. So, if you want Asian food, here’s the best discovery in Florence – Vivi Market. They have lots of imported foods, mostly Asian. I was able to get authentic green curry paste, bamboo shoots, etc. (pictured below) and create my own green curry chicken (after 2 other stops for the chicken and veggies [hour+ walk total]) – it was extremely close to what I get at Thai II back in Albuquerque! (They also have “American” groceries, which appear limited to all varieties of Duncan Hines cake mixes and frostings, as well as 2 brands of peanut butter I have never seen and am pretty sure are not American). There is also a lady at Sant’ Ambrogio market among the produce vendors who sells Asian ingredients – have gotten jasmine rice and ginger from her.
Indian food - so far we have discovered two Indian restaurants (actually, I think the two Indian restaurants). Neither of them have a buffet, which is interesting, because everywhere else we’ve been in the world (including Kyoto) has these. However, we did try one of the restaurants and it was delicious (and the naan was fresh made on the spot). We had the “fixed menu” for lunch an it tasted authentic to us (of course, we’ve never been to India, so “authentic” is relative).
“Mexican” food - okay, this one is a real sticking point. We’re from New Mexico, so we love all varieties of Mexican food (real Mexican, New Mexican, Tex-Mex). There seems to be no Mexican food here. There is one restaurant, Tijuanas, but the menu looks incredibly expensive, and an American I spoke with (from California, so she should know) said that it is not authentic, but a touristy thing. There is a brand of “Mexican” food in all the grocery stores, and I was mistakenly excited when I saw it – “Casa Fiesta” (pictured below). If you read the tiny print carefully you will discover that it is produced by a Swedish company (I know – what??!!!). I have no idea how you make flour and water taste like absolutely nothing, but that’s what the tortillas in my fajita experiment tasted like (other than that, I got pretty close, though I cheated by having sent some salsas in our boxes). I have never made my own tortillas of any kind, but since Vivi Market had masa, I have decided to give making corn tortillas a go. (If you ever come visit and want to bring a present….). The one ingredient that it seems I will never find here is cilantro.
American food – I am not really sure what this category is, but there are supposedly a few “American” restaurants, which we have not tried (there are also two Irish pubs). There is a McDonald’s and a Burger King (which, I admit, we did try). Burger King sells beer and all sorts of stuff you’d never see on a menu in the States, but the burgers taste exactly like you’d expect, or actually better (disclaimer – those who know me know I wouldn’t be caught eating at Burger King in the States, but, 1) Steve really wanted a burger and 2) here I consider it part of my culinary-cultural exploration). As for groceries, as I mentioned, you can find cake mix and peanut butter; the grocery stores actually have these cute tiny jars of Skippy for about 4 euros (hint for present number two). There is also a fine food store, Pegna, in which I spotted a big round of cheddar cheese (they also carry English teas and some of the Fauchon line of foods from France).
Other - there is a Kosher Market and “deli.” The market part is cool – I bought some matzo meal there so I can make matzo ball soup once the weather changes. But the deli – oh my – this has been my biggest culinary let-down. We had passed this place during ferie and saw “pastrami sandwich” on the menu (which is in English), so we were all excited and knew we had to go back and try it. I am looking at all of this as an adventure, but I’m only human – when I saw the nice kid pull out pre-packaged turkey loaf and a bun from a freezer bag, my heart sank. Wow, was it bad – not only because it didn’t even resemble a pastrami sandwich (I have the one from Katz or Carnegie Deli in N.Y. in my mind), but because it was just bad. Lesson learned.
A ubiquitous (and luckily delicious) food here is “doner kebab.” Now, when you think “kebab,” you may think food on a stick. But think closer to a gyro instead. There are little Middle-Eastern places all over town that have a big spit of slow-roasted meat (chicken? turkey? other?) (pictured below) and serve very delicious and cheap sandwiches and wraps (meat, plus veggies and chile and yogurt sauces; some have falafel; also pictured below). I think kebab are actually the “fast food” of Italy (and all of Europe for that matter).
These are a few of my culinary discoveries (and non-discoveries) so far – if you live here, please post a comment if you have your own finds to share!