It seems that periodic trips to Florence, Italy are becoming markers of my life's major turning points. On this recent visit to Florence, memories of a large and menacing pile of dog-eared math flashcards pervaded my memories and pointedly marked the stage of life I was in years ago. I was in those elementary and middle school years and consumed with managing kids' school work, organizing curriculums, packing lunches (often dinners too), and carpooling hours a day cute little bun headed ballerinas to and from the dance studio.
|Prepping, Packing...Suitcase for one as this Momma is about to step on another of life's stepping stones
On this trip, it hit me like a tidal wave that child #2 is racing to the finish line of his senior year of high school. The last trip to Florence was as escape from the routine of life and the stresses of parenting. It was request, a plea rather, to roam the streets alone, untethered by all of the paraphernalia that accompanies family trips. One of the daily activities I yearned to escape from on the last trip to Florence, Italy was the dreaded menacing stack of math flash cards that stared my son and I down each and every day. On this recent trip to Florence, those stacks and stacks of math flashcards flipped and twirled and stacked and spewed in a flutter of repetitive memory in my mind...like a stream of consciousness reminding me that we made it...through those elementary school years. There are so many memories I would like to cradle in my hands, take a deep breath and softly breathe them in again in order to re-experience their joys and cuteness...
...but no, not the seemingly endless math flashcard morning memories. NOT those...
That last trip to Florence represented a much needed escape from those lopsided piles of tedious task work which manifested themselves in horrid math flash cards.
|Upper Left: Sfoglia pastry from Pasticceria Sieni Upper Right: Vestri traditional Chocolate shop
Lower Left: Vestri Chocolate and Gelato shop
My son struggled daily with math flashcards in his younger years. This was painful for us at the time but is a non issue today. Life continuously reminds me that each of my children was meant to mature at their very own pace. It was and is a pace that really has to little to do with their longer term academic capabilities. Today, his mind can calculate the tip in a restaurant or figure out the tax on an item much quicker than I can perform this task. He tells me a enjoys... ENJOYS... mental math now and thinks of it as a game.
But, back then, we had our meager pile of correct flashcards and nearby, our much taller pile of jeering incorrect flashcards. Day after day, we would painstakingly go through these piles until just the sight of them on the table taunting and provoking him made my stomach turn over. Perhaps the repetitive daily grind of learning sums is why he can add so well today, but during those earlier years, it was a repetitive chore that left him and this Mom so frustrated.
|Scenes from Mercato Centrale in Florence, Italy
Such daily routines seem to mark my former stage of motherhood the last time I fled untethered to the cobblestoned streets of beautiful and romantic Florence, Italy. On this most recent trip, other memories of that former self rekindled as well, such as driving, driving, and more driving to and from ballet classes, ballet auditions, and endless Nutcracker rehearsals...accompanied by the ritual of packing up meals...over stuffing quilted Vera Bradley dance bags filled with a half dozen pairs of raggedy pointe shoes, and all with carefully stitched on silk ribbons. The bottom of the bag was peppered with bent and warbly bobby pins and padded with crumpled up paper schedules listing more and more rehearsals to fit into the bulging weekly schedule.
It may not come across in this current stream of whininess, but I indeed loved all of those days. I look back fondly at the fun we had through all the chaos. But, I am certainly also not far enough away from those days to sugar coat them and forget how tough they were...never a moment to breathe, feeling raggedy all the time, knowing there was no slow down mode, no escape button to press from the repetitive motions of motherhood and child rearing.
But every moment and minute of the role of parenting was worth it and I would repeat it over again with my kids in a heart beat. For once these kids enter the world, there is no turning back. There should never be any turning back.
Now #1 is staring down her Jr year of college and #2 is poised to embark on his college years in the fall.
How did this happen? Did I do my best? Did we make it through the tough times?
Well, it happened gradually. No, I most certainly didn't do my best. Mistakes, as plentiful as confetti falling and fluttering down on a passing parade, streamed one after the other in just as colorful and in disarray as those tiny ripped up bits of paper. Are there any parents that think they did their best? I've never heard one parent friend of mine feel like their best was achieved. Not one. Parenting is hard. It is punctuated daily with phrases like "...oh, I shouldn't have said that...or...I should have said this..."
So when Toni of Taste Florence food tours offered to host me on one of her dreamy walking tours of romantic Florence, I realized that I was unencumbered by all of those daily tethers of my role as Mom. I realized that for the first time in 21 years, I could fairly easily accept this proposition! I can honestly say that most of the time, I had little idea that my role as Mom would shift and change through the various stages of motherhood. I often felt strapped into a crazy roller coaster ride and there was no way of getting off! I really thought I would be carpooling and packing lunches forever!
At this stage, however, I feel ready to peek around the corner and to chase after my own dreams once again.
Taste Florence is a walking food tour that centers around tasting the best foods that this historic city has to offer.
Those memory bubbles floating above my head kept haunting me. The realization that my life is going to completely change in the next year is causing me to panic in certain moments but then to feel sheer curiosity about my future in other moments.
I reached into the air, popped each of those memory bubbles of monster math flashcards as well as memory bubbles of streams of sewing endless pointe shoe ribbons...packed my one suitcase, and with feelings of unfamiliar abandon flew to Florence, Italy.
After all, my job of mothering may be coming to a close...but someone has to walk the streets of histories cities like Florence and carefully taste the succulent morsels on offer, photograph them and then return home to chronicle each tasty delight.
Toni, or Antoinette “Toni’’ Mazzaglia, as her full name rolls like velvet off the tongue, was our guide for a food tour experience in Florence, Italy that rivals any food tour that I have had the pleasure to enjoy. Having Italian grandparents, American born Toni was reintroduced to her Italian roots as a study abroad student there. She found she just couldn't resist the lure to come back to Italy over and over again.
|Upper Right: Toni from Taste Florence Walking Food Tour in Florence, Italy
I loved the intimate feeling of the size of our group. We were five. We didn't have to shuffle along in a large group that pointed out to all of the locals that we are tourists on parade. Because many of the artisanal food shops were small, we could easily fit inside and listen comfortably to Toni's endless knowledge of the food we were sampling without getting in the way of shoppers.
Toni is instantly likable. Her passion for knowledge about the sourcing of items like wine, balsamic vinegar, olive oil, and cheeses were so impressive. Her quest to constantly understand Italian flavors and delve into the historic nature of her own Italian food heritage is wonderfully evident listening to her speak. It was the captivating allure of the food history of her grand parents that kept her staying in Italy longer and longer until her knowledge spilled over into leading food tours to others so she could share her growing wealth of discoveries.
As Toni learned more about the beauty of her Italian food heritage, she looked around the tourist-centric Florence and worried that the true flavors of Italian foods were not being represented well. In an article for the Boston.com she says, “I realized that visitors are walking around, they’re starving, and they think that these scary pieces of pizza and dried sandwiches are what Italians eat,’’ says Mazzaglia. “That’s just a sin for someone who visits Italy, when one of the greatest masterpieces here is the food.’’
So I decided to follow Toni's observations and leave many of the grand museums aside on this trip. Instead, through Taste Florence food tour, I embarked on a culinary journey to understand Italy through its other great masterpiece: Italian cuisine.
|Scenes from Mercato Centrale
My insatiable curiosity about people is one of the delights of a food tour. After minutes of meeting Toni, I was impressed with her endless knowledge of the city, her warm relationship with artisan bakers, and her complete familiarity with Florence's food markets. Not only is she so capable of leading a group of newly formed strangers together on a food odyssey but she will leave everyone teary eyed and thankful at the end of it because of her passion for food culture and food history.
Florence is such a walkable city. Just enough miles can be covered in a day to easily burn off all of the delectable indulgences the city offers in abundance. Our walking tour started off on the charming little back street Via Saint Antonino, just a stone's throw from the bustling market stalls that encircle the biggest food market in Florence, the Mercato Centrale, or Central Market.
We were an intimate group of five which included Antonio, the owner of Castello delle Serre, a stunning castle minutes outside of Sienna, Italy and Antonio's cousin and head chef for the castle. Our group's fifth member was the charming and effervescent Lisa, the owner of an interior design firm in California called Just Add Color.
|Top Left and Top Right: Casa Del Vino in Florence
Bottom Left: Piazza Saint Michelangelo
Because food tours bring together people who have a heightened awareness of food culture, there is never a lack of bonding that takes place...usually it happens instantaneously. Previous food tours in Istanbul, Morocco, and Bali are exchanged among one another in rapid fire conversation... as foodie experiences surrounding glorious food moments are shared among like minded souls.
We started off the tour meeting at an old butcher and salumi shop called Norcineria. This cozy authentic butcher shop is a certain stop of Florentine gourmands. A “norcineria” is a place dedicated to the processing and sale of all kinds of products made from pork meat. Hanging from the roof you will find the famous Italian hams, like Prosciutto di Parma and Prosciutto Toscano. At a norcineria you can find, taste and buy all the best Tuscan cold cuts like finocchiona, soprassata and colonnata lard. We sampled paper thin slices of prosciutti and salumi as Toni patiently explained to us which regions of the country are known for particular flavors.
|The essence of Italian diversity and attention to detail
|Top Left: Fresh Pasta making along Mercato Centrale
Top Right: Merchants busy at the many Mercato Centrale food stalls
The daily market stalls that fill this area of Florence, bordered by Via dell Ariento to the west and Via dell Rosina to the east, were bustling and setting up shop for the day. We followed Toni as she led us around the corner from the butcher shop. A tiny little Italian woman with a bright floral head scarf was busily sweeping the stoop of her shop front. She stopped for a moment to chat with the next shop owner as they surveyed what the market day had in store for them.
|Signs of approaching Carnivale dotting the city of Florence
|Top Right: Toni, from Taste Florence food tour pouring us our first taste of Italian Prosecco
Toni led us toward a tantalizing aroma of baked goods wafting out of one of the shop doors. We entered the historic pastry and bread making shop, or Pasticceria, owned by Ivana Bruschi called The Forno Canapa. A man with a little white cap and a crinkly smiley face was wheeling silver trays of fresh dough to the back ovens. As the mounds of proofing dough waited their turn, he hefted the big oven doors open and slid his long wooden spatula under the beautifully cooked loaves of bread to take them out of the ovens. Ivana, the owner of the bakery, wrapped elegantly in her beautiful fur coat, had just arrived to the bakery. She graciously offered us tempting bites of savory stuffed flat bread morsels to sample.
The smells coming from the ovens permeated the tiny little bakery and we each stood waiting and sniffing the beautifully perfumed air to see what Toni would offer to us next. We sampled soft warm bread stuffed with sausage and stracchino (a type of cow's milk cheese). The name of the cheese derives from the Lombard word "stracch", meaning "tired". It is said that the milk, from tired cows coming down in the fall from the alpine pastures, is richer in fats and more acidic. According to legend, these qualities were discovered in the milk of these cows as they were moved seasonally up and down the Alps to different pastures. It is believed the milk of such cows gives the cheese its characteristic flavors.
Another savory pastry we sampled is called Coccoli which was stuffed with velvety soft mozzarella and tomatoes. These are a popular street food in Florence and can be picked up in many bakery shops.
For a sweet sampling, we bit into little round balls of Budino di Riso. These were one of the favorites of the group and we ended up eating these soft little rice balls several more times during the trip. Quite unassuming looking with a subtle sweetness, they appear to be somewhat along the lines of unglazed donut holes found in the U.S. But the inside is a chewy rice mixture. Somehow a rice ball doesn't sound like it would be that appetizing but it was truly delicious.
We walked up and down the busy market streets. I adore the market stalls in Florence. The voices of the vendors, many from Bangladesh, who run stalls along the sidewalk, call out for us to try on leather gloves or feel soft cashmere scarves. I still wear my carefully selected scarves and shawls picked up from my last trip to Florence. The colorful stalls surround the Central Food Market and both work in tandem to create a lovely brisk city market. With eyes squinted and using my imagination, I try to get a glimpse of what Florence may have looked like years ago when traders swapped exotic goods and spices brought in to the locals from far away parts of Europe. Gorgeous leather satchels, beautifully colored scarves, and all manner of knick-knacks caught my eye as we made our way through the narrow little streets and up the grand steps of Florence's indoor market, Mercato Centrale.
Mercato Centrale is nothing short of amazing and is a draw for foodies from all over the world. Butchers move carefully through the market with entire cuts of pig shanks slung over their shoulders. They wield huge sharpened knives and deftly carve the day's slices of bistecca Florentine for waiting customers. A hubbub of activity is pervasive as everyone claps shoulders and seems to know everyone around. Small empty cups of espresso litter the countertops. As if on cue, the shops begin their orchestral humming, one after another, seemingly in harmony with each other.
A most delicious stop in Mercato Centrale was the historic Nerbone food stall. Nerbonne has been around the market since 1872 and is very popular with locals and tourists alike. Toni showed us how to order at the counter and then we sat down at communal tables. We sampled succulent beef brisket on little kaiser rolls. The sandwiches come with a side of salsa verde and salsa piccante and are even more delicious when dipped in a little side of hot broth.
We continued moving through the bustling Mercato Centrale sampling such goodness as Tuscan Olive Oils, Pecorni Cheese, Prosciutto and Finocchiona. Days after the tour ended, I returned several times to this bulging market to savor each stall and try to grasp the complex production rituals of olive oils, red wines, and balsamic vinaigrettes.
The Mercato Centrale has changed pretty drastically from my last visit there. On the tour, we learned that a revitalization program has been underway to reengage the neighborhood by completely renovating the second floor of the market of this important historic location. As explained on their website, Mercato Centrale not only "revives an area of the city left deserted for many years, but fulfils an extremely relevant and necessary goal: to bring people back to a highly important and vibrant piece of Florence’s old centre, with traditional shops that give food artisans centre stage."
The indoor market, flanked by outdoor stalls filled with all manner of Italian clothing and jewelry, contain bread and confectionary, fresh fish, fried food and rissoles, fruit and vegetables, meats and salamis, buffalo mozzarella, cheeses, chocolate and ice cream, fresh pasta, wines, lampredotto and sandwich stalls. All of the shops are run by artisanal traders who share a passion for their craft.
It was at the next stop, Casa Del Vino, an Enoteche (or wine bar) that we nestled around small wooden tables to listen to Toni passionately explain to us the history and production methods behind Italian red wines as well as Italian balsamic vinegars.
|Bottom Left: Ivana Bruschi, owner of The Forno Canapa bakery shop in Florence, Italy
As I tried hard to listen attentively to the quality control processes behind these ancient traditional methods of getting the best flavors out of Italian grapes, my eyes kept wandering to the locals coming in and out of the Casa del Vino Enoteche. In watching these locals on their lunch break, sidled up to the bar so comfortably, I could see the true Italian appreciation for taste, tradition, and flavor at play right in front of me.
Conversation among the locals at the bar never stopped flowing. Hands never stopped gesturing. If there was a pause, it was to stop and savor a sip from a glass of ruby red wine or to lovingly chew small morsels of cheese drizzled with balsamic vinegar.
I listened as Toni described to us the vinegars that come from Modena, Italy. Italians continue to use tried and true ancient traditions to make the best balsamic vinegars in the world that come from a small village near Modena where producers have been family owned since the 1800's.
As we tried to discern for ourselves the intricate differences between flavors of balsamic vinegar, we learned that the climate of Modena as well as a region called Reggio Emilia are perfect for balsamic vinegar production.
The drastic temperature change between the hot summer and the cold winter enables the grape must to ferment and mature under ideal conditions according to traditional methods. This tradition is handed down from one generation to the next.
Toni's knowledge of the history of balsamic vinegar only made me want to know more and more about this bottled goodness. If we understood correctly, balsamic vinegar is made from Lambrusco and Trebbiano grapes and is a balance of sweet and sour flavors.
The balsamic vinegar, subjected to the summer heat and winter cold, is moved annually into another barrel to acquire the different essences of the wood. This operation happens during winter when the balsamic vinegar is “sleeping” because the low temperatures stop the fermentation. The vinegar is transferred from the bigger barrel into a smaller barrel. This process is called Travasi. Italian law prohibits balsamic vinegar producers from claiming the vinegar is “aged.” Vinegar is referred to by the number of travasi, not the number of years it has been in the barrel.
The wine bar, La Casa del Vino, was an enchanting place for a wine tasting stop. Tall dark wood shelving was filled with dusty bottles of aging red wines. A beautiful marble bar was lined with bowls of cherry tomatoes where sandwiches were being cut from thick chewy bread and lined with creamy mozzarella.
We sat tucked into the corner, listening to Toni but also watching the locals fill up the remaining tables and then line up at the bar for their luncheon fill. A chalk board above the bar was scribbled with a list of house specials such as cherry tomatoes with burrata (a creamy mozzarella) and fresh anchovies. Along with our red wine, we sampled fresh crostini with chicken liver paté.
One of our final stops was certainly deserving of the grand finalé of the Taste Florence food tour. At this point, the conversation among our cozy group flowed ceaselessly. It would seem to passersby as if we were old friends traveling through Italy together as we all made our way under the shadow of the Duomo, around Piazza Giovani and up the Via del Corso towards the family owned chocolate and gelato shop, Vestri
For over thirty years, Vestri chocolate shop has been creating specialty chocolates from the fruit, "kawkaw" as it is called in the Mexican and Central American languages. They transform it into succulent smooth chocolates that sell in their beautiful store in Florence. What intrigued me was, in order to ensure quality cocoa seeds, the Vestri family decided to buy a cocoa plantation in the Dominican Republic.
|Street scenes of food markets in Florence, Italy
Toni was explaining the family's story to us as she casually handed us each a small cup of thick warm hot chocolate. Time as well as conversation ceased among the group after that first sip. We all crowded together and looked down at our little cups as if trying to make sense out of the thick, rich, layered flavors we had each just experienced. Never had I tasted any hot chocolate drink so indulgent and complex.
I was so intrigued about the dedication of this family to producing first rate organic chocolate, I visited their website where I discovered a delightful video that follows the family to their plant in the Dominican Republic. Here is a link that will entertain anyone looking for further information on cocoa bean farming as well as chocolate production:
|Early morning quiet on the streets of Florence, Italy
It is with heartfelt thanks to Taste Florence for this amazing walking tour sampling the delights of Italian cuisine. Toni gave each us a list of some of her favorite restaurants in the city. Of the thousands of restaurants available to choose from, this list was enormously helpful to Patrick and me.
|Florence, Italy at sunset
At the end of this article, I've listed some of the memorable visits on Taste Florence tour as well as some of our favorite restaurants that we tried from the list. Dare I say that I am spoiled behind repair because I can hardly imagine traveling to new destinations without uncovering the delights of other walking tours that canvas cities in order to bring out the best food tastes as well as delightful accompanying stories that it seems only food tours can deliver.
Having people come together from all over the world with a shared love of food, an enthusiastic guide whose passion shines through, and the romantic images of Florence passing by make for just about the most perfect stepping stone for this Momma to transition into new territories if not in other countries...at least in her home kitchen!
|View from the Piazza Michaelangelo overlooking all of Florence
Information about Taste Florence
|Sunset from the Ponte Vecchio bridge in Florence, Italy
Favorite Food Tour stops:
1. Forno Canapa pastry and bread shop:
Via dell'Ariento, 21/r, 50123 Firenze, Italy
+39 055 214249
2. Mercato Centrale:
Piazza del Mercato Centrale 4, 50100 Florence Italy, Santa Maria Novella
3. Casa del Vino:
Via dell'Ariento, 16
4. Vestri Chocolate Shop
Borgo degli Albizi, 11
Favorite Restaurants in Florence in order of preference:
1. Santo Bevitore
Via di Santo Spirito, 64/66
Via delle Oche, 15
3. 4 Leoni