Florence, Food, Fresh made pasta, Italy 2014

The Florence Journals: My morning at the Mercato Centrale (Central Market Square)

This cool, crisp autumn morning is fresh and clean following yesterday’s rain. Colors seem more vivid in the sunlight and I am in the mood for a walk. It’s supposed to rain again this afternoon. I head to the central market past the Duomo. There are stands selling leather goods and souvenirs outside. I walk through them to calls of “bella biondi” (beautiful blonde) from the salesmen trying to hawk their wares. I am too easily enthralled by the beautiful scarves, the smell of the leather handbags, the Firenze Universita’ sweatshirts, the woven bracelets, the masks. Tourist shopping will have to wait for another day. Today I want to shop at the fresh food market.


I am told that here the food is organic. That those who run the stands are selling produce from their personal farms or from collaboratives. I am told that they have made the pasta and baked the bread themselves. I love the notion of purchasing fresh food from those who grow and cultivate it. I walk the entire ground floor first taking in the sights. The room is a huge, open warehouse. Some merchants have very well appointed and designed stands. Others have rough hewn tables laid out with food in a seemingly haphazard fashion. There are stands which sell bottled fresh olive oils and balsamic vinegars who entice me with invitations to taste. There is a fresh pasta stand where in a glassed in area behind the display counter, workers in aprons, hair nets, and gloves, make pasta from scratch.


There are fresh fruit and vegetables vendors, some run by well dressed women and men, others by those who look like they came straight from the fields. There are prepackaged items. There are butchers who both display their prized cuts of meat or cut something for the client’s desired specifications. Each merchant has her or his own approach to displaying their goods; each stand has its own personality.  The way customers are greeted varies as well. Some merchants are effusive and friendly, inviting me in. Others talk with friends and family and during a break in conversation, take care of customers. Still others are hard to reach, hard to purchase from. I feel as if I am interrupting them by trying to buy their products. This market also seems to be a social venue for the merchants. I am delighted to shop here. It reminds me of shopping at the markets in Kazan, Tatarstan, Russia.

After walking the full market, I walk again, deciding what I want to purchase and from whom. I purchase tagliatelli from the fresh pasta stand. The woman behind the counter taking off her gloves to fill a small bag with pasta for me using her bare hand. I purchase cherry tomatoes from a friendly grocer and lemons from an old man with smiling eyes.


I purchase bread from a young woman who responds with confidence when I ask her what bread she thinks is the most delicious.



As I am preparing to leave, I am stopped in my tracks by the sweet smell of ripe peaches. My mouth waters and I turn back. A smiling man gestures toward me with a plate filled with juicy peach slices I can’t resist. The peach is warm, soft, juicy, delicious. I buy two. My rule here is to buy only what I can eat in a day or so (also only what I can carry as I walk everywhere and have to be able to schlep it up the hill to my apartment). I am satisfied with my purchases for today. The market is open until 2 pm daily. I will be back.

I head back toward the Duomo in search of a coffee shop where I can enjoy a cappuccino and a crescent. It has started to rain again. Perhaps I will find an indoor café for now.

Florence, Food, Fresh made pasta, Italy 2014, JT Caffe'

The Florence Journals: On the JT Caffe’ in Florence, My Favorite Hangout

About 2 weeks into my Florence adventure, I met someone I should have known years ago, Bob Blesse, the retired Director of the Black Rock Press and Professor of Art at the University of Nevada, Reno where I taught for 21 years. Bob had heard about a new cafe in Florence and invited me to meet him, along with his wife Vicki Davies, for aperitivo (appetizers and drinks) at what was to become one of my favorite spots in Florence, the JT Caffe’.

Bob Blesse outside the JT Caffe

Bob Blesse enjoying aperitivo at JT Caffe’

Located on Piazza Pitti, directly across from the Palace at numbers 32-33R, the JT Caffe’ opened in April, 2014, the brain child of fashion designer Jennifer Tattanelli, the daughter of an American photographer (some of her photos adorn the walls) and an Italian artisan leather designer. Her delightful boutique CASINI FIRENZE, which started as an expansion of her father’s artisan leather work business and now includes Jennifer’s head to toe designs, is located right next door. http://www.jennifertattanelli.it/.  While Bob, Vicki and I had a delightful time that evening, I had no idea how much I would come to love the JT Caffe’.

The JT Caffe’ was built over the top of a 700 year old street with overlooking terraces. Jennifer incorporated the street, covered by a glass viewing window, and the brick terraces into a very modern fusion of steel, couches, pillows, fireplaces, and delicious food.

inside view with floor and ceiling


The front of the house

The delicious food is the product of the loving hands and amazing skill of Chef Marzia. Her specialty is fresh made pasta which she makes from scratch several times throughout the day. Their menu changes regularly based on what is fresh and available and everything I have tried is delicious.

with Chef Marzia and Marco

Chef Marzia, Marco, a waiter who specializes in food and wine pairings, dessert, cappuccino, and me

with Caterina

With the delightful Caterina, waitress extraordinaire, who is expert on the menu and fluent in 4 languages. She always has suggestions for what I might try next.

Whether you come for breakfast, lunch, aperitivo, or full dinner, the food is guaranteed to delight your palate as the friendly and helpful staff make you feel at home.

Some of my favorites:

breakfast crescent and cappucino

For breakfast – Crescent with nutella and fresh fruit and a cappuccino

chicken liver pate

For an appetizer – Chicken liver pate’, cucumber and fennel slices, olives, and spiced olive oil – I did not know I liked chicken liver pate’. I DO! At least theirs.

beef pasta

Spaghetti with beef and spinach

stuffed pasta

Cappellacci stuffed with Gorgonzola cheese and spinach, topped with sage butter

chocolate tart and cappucino

Desserts: Chocolate torte and cappuccino – Chocolate – need I say more – You may have noticed that each cup of cappuccino has a different look. Each person who prepares it here has their own signature style. All are very tasty, but, of course, I’m partial to the one with chocolate laced through it. 


Tiramisu – I should note that I am not generally a fan of tiramisu. I just don’t like the coffee flavor. But Caterina talked me into trying it. Light, a gentle flavor, delicious!

They are also known for their vanilla gelato and balsamic vinegar. I would never have thought to pair vinegar and ice cream. It is amazing! Tart, tangy, sweet, a delight to the tongue.

Should you make it to Florence, the walk to the “Oltrarno” the other side of the Ponte Vecchio (the bridge over the Arno River famous for gold merchants) from the Duomo and Piazza Signoria is well worth your time to visit this Florentine gem. A gentle, flat, 15 minute walk from the Duomo, the JT Caffe’ will not disappoint.

Florence, Food, Fresh made pasta, Perfect food, Reflections, Sabbatical

Exploring the Tuscan Countryside – Part 1 Update: On Fresh Ravioli and Perfect Food

I just had the ravioli (just cheeses as noted in my prior post with a bit of nutmeg in the mix) that I’d purchased from Maccheroni e raviuoli in San Casciano on Monday. For me, good food can be almost a religious experience. Prior to today, though, I have had one truly transcendent food experience.

The year we lived in Russia, we spent quite a bit of the time in late spring, early summer at our “family’s” dacha (summer house in the country). They had an amazing garden and my favorite thing was to pick and eat fresh, ripe raspberries warmed by the sun. On one particular afternoon, after swimming in the Volga River, I picked some raspberries and brought them into the house. Normally I would have shared them immediately with whoever was around. On this afternoon, our Babushka smiled at me and told me to wait. She asked me to pick more, told me she would be back shortly, then left the house with a jar and a bag.

I did as requested and filled another pot with fresh raspberries. When I returned to the house, she still wasn’t back. Grozvater (grandfather in German) gestured for me to wait. I put the raspberries on the table and went into the other room to lie down on the bed, relax, and read until Babushka came back.  I ended up falling asleep. Some time later, I awoke to Babushka’s voice whispering in the kitchen. I stretched, got up and walked into the room.

Babushka turned to the counter and picked up her small jar, now full of what I can only describe as a white, buttery looking substance. She put some berries in a bowl for me, topped them with the buttery substance, and handed me the bowl and a large spoon, a broad smile on her face. As it turns out the buttery substance was fresh, village smetana (sour cream). To call it sour cream, given what we call sour cream in the states,  especially the packaged kind we get in grocery stores (the only kind I’ve ever had) is probably a crime. It was thick, smooth, creamy and flavorful. The sourness was not too strong, making it the perfect pairing with the sweet raspberries. I put the first bite in my mouth and savored the flavors, distinct, then blending on  my tongue. It was, without doubt, the most delicious food I had ever tasted. The memory of that first bite and all those that followed stick with me almost two decades later. I don’t know if you’ve ever had this experience, but in that moment, on that particular day, I realized that I could die content. My children were with me, happy and well loved, we had enjoyed a delightful morning, and I had eaten the perfect food. Life was perfect.

Today I had another transcendent food experience. It might not stay in my memory as the smetana and raspberries have. It might not be the memory of another perfect day, but it was delicious. At the pasta shop, the pasta maker told me to keep the pasta for a day or two in the refrigerator to let the flavors mix, but to eat it within three days. He recommended serving it with melted butter, fresh chopped sage, salt and pepper, sauteed briefly in a pan. I was then to put the ravioli in the pan and coat each side with the sage butter mixture.

I have a confession to make here. I am not traditionally a fan of sage. I find it to be harsh and overbearing. It tends to dominate any food I’ve ever tasted it in, so I was not sure I’d like it. As a backup, I sauteed some garlic and tomatoes in olive oil, added chopped basil, red pepper, and a bit of salt. I thought I was good to go. I’d try the sage butter, but there was no way I was going to waste this ravioli if I didn’t like it. I was prepared. I was also 100% wrong. That second sauce is in a small bowl in my refrigerator to be used at another time.

I melted the butter in a small pan (less than 2/3rds of a teaspoon), diced up two fresh sage leaves that the proprietress of the eco-agriculture saffron farm (more on her and there in a later post) had given me for just this purpose, sprinkled with fresh ground pink Himalayan salt (it was in my cupboard), and black pepper. When the butter released the sage aroma, I knew it was ready. I carefully drained each ravioli individually as it rose to the top of the boiling water, and dropped it gently into the butter, coating both sides.

sage ravioli

The aroma of the sage was heady, but not overpowering. Tentatively, I took a bite. Mmmmmmm… The pasta was a perfectly cooked al dente (slightly chewy), the cheesy filling firm and warm. The sage butter aromatic and flavorful. The best part, all the flavors melded together to create perfection on my tongue. The sage butter was the ideal savory complement to the slight sweetness of the nutmeg enhanced cheeses, which held their own quite well in the trio of flavors delighting my palate. I am pleasingly satisfied.

While today is not (yet) as epic as that late spring day in Russia, it has promise, promise that I must now go to meet. I wish you all a great day! Caio for now!

Eataly, Florence, Food, Fresh made pasta, Italy 2014, Reflections, Sabbatical, Slow food movement, Tuscany

Exploring the Tuscan Countryside – Part 1: San Casciano – Fresh Pasta & the Slow Food Movement


Ok, I have a confession to make. I love food! I love shopping for it, preparing it, cooking it. Most of all, I love savoring it. I LOVE to eat good, tasty, high quality food. I have found that in Italy in abundance. Fortunately I walk all the time, so I haven’t put on any weight. In fact, I’m getting a lot stronger. I live on a hill and access is through steps or a steep street. I walk, a lot! That said, my diet is full of fresh fruit and vegetables, a bit of beef and chicken, some pasta and some bread (less of each than you might expect). I also love organic raspberry jam. I mean I LOVE it! And fresh cheeses. I have no idea what kinds they are, but I LOVE them, older, harder cheeses and younger, softer cheeses. I don’t seem to be much of a fan of goat cheese here, but cheeses made of cows’ milk are heavenly. Oh, and I love Italian wines, especially reds, although I am warming up to whites made of vernaccia grapes, delicious, but little known outside of Italy at the moment. I foresee this changing quickly. I now know the differences between Chianti, Chianti Classico, and Super Tuscans (more on those later).

So, in my quest for food and drink, I took my first excursion into the Tuscan countryside on September 15, in honor of my sister Kathy’s birthday (which was the 14th) and because I thought it was time for an adventure outside the amazing city of Florence. With Grape Tours, I took this trip into the Tuscan countryside and I met all the people whose photos you see on their site: http://www.foodtourintuscany.com.


Specifically we toured the chianti and vernaccia grape regions outside Florence. There were seven of us in our group guided by Kimberly, an Amsterdam native, who grew up in Chicago, IL and moved to Italy five years ago (although she spent 3 of those years in Singapore running a restaurant with her Italian husband). He now has a restaurant a bit farther South in Italy which I hope to visit. She is a sommelier. My traveling companions were a couple celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary from Minnesota who now live in New Jersey, a couple from New York on their honeymoon, and a couple from England on an adventure, as well as your intrepid narrator.

It was an amazing adventure including fresh pasta making, a tour of a winery and olive oil press, lunch at an eco-agriculture farm that grows saffron (!!!) and has a delightful bed and breakfast, a visit to historic San Gimignano where we had free time to walk the ancient streets and sample gelato from the shop that has been named “Best gelato in the world” for 8 of the last 10 years (according to our guide), and a truffle hunt with amazing truffle dogs (I’m smitten!) in the forest. (Sadly, we didn’t find any truffles.)

I think the thing that impressed me the most was the commitment to the “Slow Food” movement and eating locally, organically, and healthily that everyone we saw supported. I, personally, wasn’t familiar with the “Slow Food” movement, so I asked a lot of questions. It seems to be about eating locally, a zero carbon footprint, organic, non-pesticide, non-GMO food, and taking the time to savor what you eat. I’m in! To learn more, there are a number of relevant articles here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/news/slow-food-movement/. A grocery store dedicated to the philosophy of healthy, local eating called Eataly was started in Italy . There are now 27 Eataly stores worldwide, 10 in Italy, including Florence, 13 in Japan, 1 in Dubai, 1 in Turkey, and 1 in Chicago and New York. Find out more here. http://www.eataly.com/global/. You can also purchase their products online through http://www.eataly.com/ which seems to fly in the face of the zero carbon footprint, eat locally philosophy they were built on, but there you go.

My next several blog posts will cover all I learned about these regions of Tuscany, wine and olive oil, organic food, saffron, and truffles. Today, I’ll talk about homemade pasta in San Casciano.

Homemade pasta in San Casciano – The first stop on our adventure was San Casciano, a hilltop village, 17.6 kilometers (10.9 miles) and a 27 minute drive (or 30 minute bus ride) from Florence. San Casciano was bombed repeatedly during WWII, so very little of the ancient architecture remains except small segments of the city wall. It is also Machiavelli’s birthplace and the site where he wrote The Prince after being exiled from Florence when the Medici family lost power in 1512.

We were here not for Machiavelli, but rather to observe a family run, from scratch, pasta shop that serves the region. Called Maccheroni e raviuoli (macaroni and ravioli), the shop is run by a mother, father, and son with one shop assistant.

793 790

They make fresh pasta throughout the day by hand and with the support of small mixing, blending, cutting and stuffing machines. They are known for their tasty desserts (Mama’s speciality) and their ravioli and homemade sauces which are popular with restaurants and families throughout the region.

After a demonstration on preparing pasta dough, slicing various types of pasta, and setting a machine to stuff fresh ravioli, I purchased some “gnudi” (literally without clothes – nude). These are the stuffing inside ravioli made of buffalo mozzarella, ricotta, and parmesan cheeses, eggs, nutmeg (the secret ingredient), and salt and pepper rolled into balls. You can add other finely cut ingredients like spinach, tomatoes, peppers, basil, sage, etc. as desired, but be careful of the moisture content. (These ingredients will likely sound familiar to anyone who makes stuffed pasta or lasagna.) To cook, you simply put the gnudi in boiling, lightly salted water until they float (just a couple minutes). After cooking them for dinner, I sprinkled mine with a bit of salt and pepper and they were delicious.


I also purchased some of the ravioli we had watched being made. The pasta makers recommended that I hold it in the frig for a day or two before eating it as the flavor is “better, more mixed”. I’ll try that today! They recommended it with salt, pepper, butter and fresh sage. I picked up some fresh sage at the eco-agricultural saffron farm we visited later in the day (more on that in a later post). I’m to melt the butter in a pan, add chopped sage, saute for a moment, then add the pasta, mix it together and salt and pepper to taste. I’ll let you know!

As with gnudi, fresh pasta should be cooked only until it floats for a lovely al dente texture. Dried pasta takes longer because it is being rehydrated as it cooks (I’d never thought of that.). For regular pasta, fusilli, rigatoni, spaghetti, fettucine, etc., the pasta makers recommend 40% semolina flour, 60% farina (all purpose flour), and 5 eggs per kilo (2.2 pounds) of pasta dough. You will likely need to add a touch of water (less than 1/4 cup – add by tablespoons) to get it to the initial crumbly consistency you desire (30% humidity according to our host – I have no idea what 30% humidity is like, but did understand crumbly texture that binds together when you squeeze some in your hand). They don’t put salt in the pasta dough. You can add that to the water as you’re cooking. For stuffed pasta, you want a firmer dough so they recommend 50% semolina, 50% farina, and 7 eggs per kilo.  (Again, you will likely need to add a bit of water – up to ¼ cup to get the texture crumbly, but able to bind.) After cutting the pasta in desired shapes, they sprinkle the pasta with rice flour so that it doesn’t stick together.

Pasta tips: Fresh pasta is good in the frig for up to 5 days, stuffed pasta for 3. Fresh, dried pasta is best within 7 days. You can, of course, also freeze fresh pasta.

In my next post, we’ll discuss wine and olive oil. Caio!