Sunday, April 26, 2009

Il Latini

On a small side street on your way to the bridges that connect Florence to its Tuscan countryside, you will find a slice of heaven here on Earth.  I can't believe I lived all my life without tasting the immense pleasure that is the cuisine of Il Latini.

My genius friend and fellow blogger at Piccante Dolce had the great privilege of once living in this gem of a city, so naturally I asked for some suggestions of where to eat.  Let's be honest, that's my first question when I'm planning to go anywhere.  You can call me obsessed if you'd like, but I want to explore other worlds through food.  Doesn't that sound more fun than a museum? (I did go to several of those too.)

Jen gave me a great list of restaurants and sites, but something about Il Latini jumped off the page and into my brain.  I saved it for my last full meal in Florence and what a finale it provided!  When I arrived casually strolling up to the restaurant for lunch, I noticed about 35-40 people were waiting outside of it.  I must be in the right place, I thought.  Immediately followed by panic, Oh no!  Do they only take reservations?

Side Note:  In Florence, several restaurants take reservations only.  The restaurants are usually small and often it is difficult to secure a reservation for dining out unless you've made it weeks in advance for some of the more sought after less touristy places.  My hotel wasn't exactly great at securing reservations either, so I thought that maybe Il Latini and I would never meet.

I waited with the others, hoping against hope that I too could take part.  Then, they opened the doors, and shattered my dreams.  A man with a piece of paper in his hands began checking off names.  I knew that this was the end...

I sighed a deep sigh and walked around the area for about 15 minutes trying to find some comparable fare but nothing even came close to what was drawing the mob of hungry patrons. Something inside me told me to go back to the restaurant and at least ask if I could wait a couple of hours.  I went back; the mob had disappeared, now being satisfied by slices of salami and ham.

Scusi?  Inglese?  Which was the most overused phrase of my trip by far. The waiter spoke English.  Sigh of relief number one.  Do you have any room for me?  Sola?  Of course, he said. Of course!  I sat at a table with eight chairs, all of them full but one.  That was my chair in the corner, across from a delightful local who very clearly loved two things: food and talking.  Next to me and next to him, a lovely couple from Venice. Everyone spoke Italian, as expected, and I listened politely understanding a good 40% of what was being said.  The waiter spoke to me in English (I guess I was easy to spot among the true Italians) and I ordered a caprese salad and a fillet of beef, senza glutine (GF.)  

The gentleman across from me kept gesturing to everything he was eating trying to get me to have some, which in half Italian, half-Spanish I tried to explain I couldn't eat most of what he was eating.  He began to understand, then shoved the large bottle of red table wine towards me, and my journey to greatness continued.  

Two glasses in, my caprese arrived, fresh and bright and delicious, as a caprese should be.

While each piece of mozzarella dissolved on my tongue, I really gave the restaurant a good look.  It was warm and full of people, the bustling waitstaff running frenetically with plates of sliced meats and cheeses and bowls of pasta. Locals who clearly dined here regularly playfully yelled at the staff and the owners from across the room, getting the same banter returned to them.  I was in a large room full of boisterous strangers, but I felt like I was with family.  

That's when the Florentine Steak that my neighbor ordered arrived.  I actually gasped.  It was probably the size of a grown man's torso, and it was about 5 inches thick.  Up until that day, when I saw the special Florentine steak ordered at other restaurants, sure a large steak came out, but nothing like the cow that was spilling over one of the largest plates I've ever seen. After my gasp, my neighbor laughed and introduced herself.  Lo and behold, she spoke the inglese. She was very nice, very thin and ate her huge 1/2 of the steak with triumphant aplomb. Oh Europe, I don't think I would ever see someone that thin back in California dig into that steak. That person would be sucking on lettuce...

She told me about her life and her travels, every now and then the gentleman would chime in, in Italian of course, and we would all speak (me in English, he in Italian) and all sort of understand each other.  And with another glass of wine, we may just have understood.

Four glasses in and my steak arrives; it's huge.  It's probably the largest steak I've ever ordered; how many ounces was it anyways?  These are things Italians don't bother themselves with. 

Manga my stomach growled.  And I did.  I manga-ed the hell out of that steak. It was cooked about rare to medium rare, which normally I would never order, but I like to try food as it's typically prepared when I go to other places.  It was delicious.  With every bite, the steak wasn't even disappearing.  I had to take breaks folks.  Me, take breaks.  That's when the waiter put down a bowl of roasted potatoes for me.  Oh g-d, I get those too?  On a steak break, I tried a potato. Now reader, there was nothing in that potato except butter, oil, salt and parsley, but that was the best damned potato I have EVER had.  Simple, robust, flavorful and something I will dream about for years to come. 
I think I need a new camera.  Focus anyone?

Alternating the steak and potato and sometimes combining the two, I was in an edible marathon.  Maybe another glass of wine would help?  That's when the gentleman across from me got his steak.  The same Florentine steak my neighbor was sharing was his alone.  I was floored.  I had just seen him eat 3 courses previously.  How in the world was this thin, older man going to eat that entire cow too?  Impossible I thought, until I saw it with my own eyes.
I finally made it through my own meal, savoring the lingering dancing on my tongue as I swallowed the very last bite.  

My new Italian buddy across from me finished his steak the same time and proceeded to take matters into his own hands by ordering all four of us coffees and after meal spirits.  Yes, this is where I cheated and had a tiny cup of espresso.  I miss coffee and tea so much; that might be my least favorite thing about trying to keep to low-oxalate foods.  That and the potatoes were a bit of a cheat.  Come on; I'm on vacation here!

When I eventually left the restaurant, I was glowing, happy and full.  I had even made friends with the owner too.  He gave me the two kisses and told me to enjoy my last day as if we had known each other for years.  Three hours later, I left that restaurant with friends and a new perspective on life.  I love Italians. I love their appetite for food, their appetite for life and the love that they bring in their hearts and share with everyone they meet.  Some may say, you spent three hours of your last day in Florence eating?  But I say those people don't understand, may never understand, until they experience the simple elegance and warmth that engulfs you when eating in Florence.  Or that may just be the wine talking ;)

For the best meal of your life, go to Il Latini, via dei Palchetti, 6/R, tel: +39055210916, email:

Friday, April 17, 2009

My Blogger Went To Italy And All I Got Was This Stupid Post

Buon Giorgno!  Yes it's true; I went to Italy.  Florence to be exact.  And I loved many if not almost all of my moments there with the exception of accidentally buying an unnecessary leather jacket. But I digress.  I wanted to tell you that I once had a great fear, dear reader.  A fear that Italian food was all pasta.  A really irrational, illogical pasta thought process that was most likely cultivated from only ordering the pasta dishes at the Olive Garden when I was a little girl. In fact, I now find Italian and especially Tuscan cuisine to be extremely friendly to the gluten-free diner.  I had one of the best meals of my life in Florence.  

To the Italians (and several nationalities really) food is an experience.  It is a joyful celebration of the robust nature and fragile splendor that is life, all presented perfectly on a plate or in a wine glass.  I myself never like how Americans are an eat on the go people.  An I'll just grab a bite in between my work and some more work people.  To me, food has always been special.  A delight.  Not to be rushed.  I want to eat how I live, savouring each moment/bite.

Unfortunately I don't often get to practice what I preach (I usually have to eat and run) but I was allowed to linger in Italy.  Some of my meals while I was in town lasted 2 or 3 hours.  No, I did not order 10 courses.  On the contrary, I often ordered wine, a main meal and occasionally a light dessert.  But with several restaurants doing family style seating and me traveling alone, I got to meet new people at every dining experience.  I was privileged to be introduced to a new dish while getting introduced to someone else's life.  Funny enough, I met a lot of people from California.  Go figure.  I go to Italy and meet people from my own state!  

All in all it was a fantastic experience, eating in Florence.  I hope to do it again, sometime very soon.  I will be posting about some of my favorite food experiences while I was there.  After all, I didn't take pictures at all of my meals like some crazed foodie for nothing!

And a note to all you allergic travelers:  there is hope.  If they'll love you in Italy, they'll love you other places too ;)

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

I Love Lucille Ball Tart

Hello one and all, and welcome to the pie party.  This month's You Want Pies With That challenge was to bake a Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous Pie as dictated by the ever amazing Natashya & Jacque.  The rules consist of "making a special pie based on someone famous.  Or you can pretend you're making it for them."  And it can be anyone famous, past or present. Anyone.  
A-N-Y-O-N-E.  The guidelines were so freeing, I found them daunting. Sometimes I just need rules y'all.  Though I must say, in everyday life, not a big fan of rules in general.  I'm a big fan of rule breakers.  Of singular sensations. Of women who break the mold.  Like comedians who weren't afraid to make a statement or be themselves.  Like- oh my goodness I'm going to make a pie for Lucille Ball!  Except I can't find an American pie plate in the UK. I'm going to make a tart for Lucille Ball!

See how my thought process works?

Thus a post is born in honor of one of the most famous women in American popular culture.  A woman who impacted thousands of people from all walks of life across generations and locations. Whenever I watch I Love Lucy or the Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour, I laugh uncontrollably.  Could I possibly make a tart that could give that much joy to others?  Oh Lucy, I sure hope I did you proud!

First, let's start with an ingredient that also is a singular and distinctly recognizable American fruit: the cranberry.  Tart with tons of personality, these little suckers always evoke an emotional reaction.  And they're little "balls." Like her last name.  Get it?  Okay, I know...

It's All-American, spicy, flavorful and robust; all things that remind me of the comic genius herself.  Plus the red coloring is an homage to her red hair.  Yeah, it's true, her hair was more orange, but I have peach jam as an ingredient for that.  But hey, the first show was in black and white, so if you don't say anything about it not being the right red, I won't either.  Either way, it's a stunning hue for the table.

I Love Lucille Ball Tart

1 baked GF shortbread tart crust as seen here
2 cups whole cranberries, fresh or thawed frozen
1/4 cup pressed fruit juice of choice (I used a mix of raspberry, apple, grape)
8 tbs of no sugar added peach jam (the better part of a 10 oz jar)
2 tbs sugar
1/2 tsp spice mix

How pretty is that?!  Makes me all proud *sniff *tear
All those little Lucille Balls...

Set aside prepared tart crust to cool.
In a medium saucepan, heat the juice and cranberries together until a gentle rolling boil.
Keeping mixing the juice and berries so that the berries don't settle and burn.
When the berries start to break down and look more like a gelatinous goo, add the jam, sugar and spice.
Simmer or low boil while continuously mixing for several minutes until properly incorporated.
Remove cranberry filling from heat and pour unto cooling tart crust.
Spread evenly and bake at 250-300 degrees F for 5-10 minutes.
Watch carefully to make sure the crust isn't burning!  If it starts to burn, shut the oven off and let the tart sit in there.

**A technical note about the tart.  It's a tart tart.  If you do not like a little sour with your sweet, you might want to add 1-2 more tbs of sugar or serve with vanilla bean ice cream.  Also, if you're weird with textures, be aware that I love whole cranberries: skins, seeds, and pulp!  If you only like jellied cranberries, this might not be your bag kid.

Quick & Easy Side: Parmesan Zucchini "Casserole"

I'm not the swiftest emu in the midst so it took me about a week of reading menus in the UK to realize that a zucchini was otherwise known as a courgette here.  It's an extremely dignified sounding vegetable isn't it: courgette.  Since le courgette is le cheap and le easy to prep, I chose to make a delicious side with it do accompany my Q&E Chicken With Garlic and White Wine.

As most bad habits go, my lack of measuring when tossing together dishes is probably the worst habit to have when blogging about food.  Please forgive me reader; I'm sure you can eyeball this one though.  This dish is beyond quick & easy; it's downright done in the blink of an eye.

Parmesan Zucchini "Casserole"

5 medium zucchinis, washed and sliced into circles
about .4 oz parmesan cheese
olive oil
dried oregano
sea salt
fresh cracked black pepper

Preheat oven to 250 degrees F.
Layer a row of zucchini in either a square or round casserole dish.
Sprinkle with oregano, salt, pepper and oil.
Repeat layer and instead of sprinkling oil, sprinkle cheese this time.
Repeat alternating layers until the dish is full of beautiful zucchini rows.
Bake for 15-20 minutes covered (if you like a stiffer zucchini, bake for 10-15 minutes)
Remove cover and bake for 5 minutes more.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Quick & Easy: Chicken With Garlic & White Wine

Do you like your men like you like your chicken ladies? I for one wouldn't use quick & easy as a qualification for my dream man, but if he was holding this damned good chicken in his hands he might just pass go and collect 200 dollars. Enough with the crazy talk eh? Okay let's get down to it. In this ever depressing economic climate, everyone is turning to quick, easy and cheap home cooked meals. Lucky for me, I've never gotten paid very much and so I'm used to cooking on a budget. Also unlucky for me, my work day has always lasted somewhere in between 10 to 14 hours. Yeah. Sounds fun doesn't it?

Well fun or no fun, it's certainly prepared me to make easy dishes that I can crank out on Sundays and enjoy for dinner and/or lunches all week long. This system works for me because I don't usually become bored with the same dish every day. I recognize that I'm a rare breed though, because most people on the fifth day of same dish would say something like, "Oh goody! I get to have ____ again!" This is one time where being blah actually ends up being a time saver folks. Consider it. But only if you're single like me. If you're cooking for significant others or kids, I have a feeling their faces wouldn't even fake a smile on day three of the weekly dish.

Anyhow, I ended up making this chicken on a Monday night because Sunday had run away from me. It's so easy that you will have the patience to cook it on a manic Monday. Trust me, you don't need a complicated recipe or long ingredient list to satisfy your palate.

Q&E Chicken With Garlic & White Wine
(stay tuned for the yummy zucchini recipe shown with it)

4 tsp of crushed garlic paste (organic jarred or in tube)
8 boneless, skinless chicken breast steaks
sea salt
olive oil
4 splashes of white wine

Generously grease a large skillet with olive oil and put over medium heat.
Lay out the breast steaks, painting each side with crushed garlic paste to taste. I like garlic, so I lay it on.
Add 4 breast steaks to the skillet, turning over every 5 minutes until cooked through.
Add a splash of white wine & sea salt **Be careful! Wine has alcohol (duh) and will bubble up when added to hot oil and pan.
Turn the chicken over in the bubbling wine, making sure to coat.
Simmer a couple minutes to incorporate and remove.
Repeat the process with the other 4 steaks.

The chicken turned out extremely tender and flavorful; you would have never guessed it was a haphazard attempt at using whatever was in the refrigerator. You CAN make dinner quick, easy, cheap and yummy! I'll make it a habit to now post many Q&E recipes for all you working stiffs out there. Especially you Dream Man. What do you mean you can't cook, Dream Man? You just have to practice.