When in doubt, add more olive oil

Just days after a rare snowstorm held us hostage in Rome, the same snowstorm shut down Geneva. Determined to meet my brother Nate in Florence for the weekend, I hiked an hour through the snow to the airport, anxiously passing by the crowd of passengers sipping free hot chocolate in the waiting area – an apology from the airport for canceling every flight that day – before walking onto my plane, the first to leave the tarmac. Florence, ho!

The tiny Florence (Firenze) airport is located just 5km outside the city center, with a regular shuttle dropping travelers at the main train station in just 20 minutes. From there, it was a 5 minute walk to Soggiorno Oblivium, a simple but comfortable hostel in the heart of the city, where Nate was waiting to celebrate our victory over the snow. Our celebration was to take place at Cacio, Vino, Trallalla (Cheese, Wine, Trallalla), a cozy cafe recommended by Tripadvisor.

The day’s earlier snow had turned to a cold rain that was forecasted to continue throughout the weekend, so we decided we might as well venture into the drizzle for a pre-dinner glimpse of the magnificent Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore. Also known as Il Duomo di Firenze, the mesmerizing structure was inspired by Rome’s Pantheon. The Florentines designed the cathedral based on the acient Roman’s architecture, including an impressive domed roof, but had no idea how to actually build a dome. After constructing the base over a period of 100 years, they became desperate for a solution and opened a competition for the city’s residents. They were so desperate that the winner, Brunelleschi, who had no architectural training, was allowed to proceed using a secret design never seen by the judges. Yet, it has withstood the test of time and still caused us to gasp out loud when it came into view. The colored marble and bold patterns were striking, not to mention the intricate scenes adorning the facade and the “Gates of Paradise” bronze doors. But perhaps the most impressive feature was the sheer magnitude of the structure. The size of half a football field at it’s base, every time we thought it had ended we rounded another corner to find an entirely new section of the building ahead of us.

After completing a full lap, we wandered through the immaculate streets,  the wet stone glowing with a golden hue under the streetlamps, to the Palazzo Vecchio, now the town hall, and Piazza della Signoria, the real heart of Florence’s political history.  We stopped briefly to admire the replica of Michelangelo’s David, placed outside the Palazzo Vecchio as a symbol of the Republic’s defiance of the tyrannical Medici, along with a small adjacent gallery of marble statues. Nearby, we paid our respects to il Porcellino (“the little pig”), a bronze boar sitting by the Mercato Nuovo who brings good luck when visitors rub his snout and tongue and put a coin in his mouth. Superstition holds that if the water washes the coin from his mouth into the grate below, you’ll have good luck and be sure to return to Florence.

Just around the corner, we entered the tiny Cacio, Vino, Trallalla. We sat down at one of the four small tables and ordered a glass of Prosecco from the only, yet very delightful, waiter, a Florence native with a great combination of goofiness and intensity when it came to food. Glancing at the menu, we immediately noticed that almost every dish was served with a layer of truffles on top – how could we go wrong? We ordered the hot goat cheese with berries and truffles as a starter, followed by the pulled pork with chestnut cream, white beans and truffles (an old family recipe), and the meatloaf with orange sauce and truffles, also a family recipe invented to celebrate a birth.  Our waiter expertly selected a glass of wine to pair with each course, all from intriguing grape varietals we had never heard of. For dessert, there were more truffles: a caramelized pear cake with chocolate and cream, covered in a dusting of sliced truffle. Feeling ready to explode, this turned out to be a good warm up for the next day: eight hours of cooking and eating hearty Tuscan cuisine at Tenuta di Capezzana. IMG_6516IMG_6517fullsizeoutput_8f1bIMG_6630IMG_6524In the morning, our hostel sent us to a café down the street for breakfast where we lined our stomachs with pastries, coffee, and juice. Then we caught a taxi to the Tuscan hills for an all-day private cooking course at Capezzana, an esteemed wine estate owned by Count Ugo Contini Bonacossi and his wife, Lisa, in Carmignano, about 45 minute outside of Florence. The hills were still covered in the previous day’s snow, making for an exciting ascent up the steep three mile driveway. It was clear that our taxi driver had never driven in snow before, but after much back-sliding and backseat coaching, we arrived at the ancient farmhouse. The villa at Capezzana, built in the 16th century for a member of the Medici family, is typical of the region, with pale yellow stucco walls and a red tile roof. Even under gray skies, the view from the driveway was stunning, with clouds settled in all the nooks and crannies of the snow-covered hilly vineyards.IMG_6599fullsizeoutput_8f30IMG_6548

Now alone on the empty street, we knocked on a huge wooden door and waited. Moments later, a different wooden door opened and a head popped out – Sharon, an American who had lived in town for 9 years, welcomed us and explained that she would be our translator and guide for the day. She let us in and led us through a series of bare cold rooms into and into a warm Italian kitchen – a traditional open kitchen with a large marble table and crackling log fire. This was where most of our day would be spent with Patrizio Cirri, the family chef presiding over the kitchen for 30 years.

The table was already piled high with ingredients – bowls of dark green dinosaur kale, purple artichokes, ground beef, chicken livers, minced vegetables, pears, and various herbs and spices covered the marble. Patrizio, a tall, bald, charismatic Florentine with a serious passion for food, greeted us warmly and wasted no time in getting to work. We quickly learned that the key to most great Italian recipes is about 10 times the amount of olive oil actually listed in the recipe, and the same goes for wine.  Capezzana makes their own award-winning wines and vin santo and a fresh spicy olive oil, and they used them liberally in all their recipes.

The day turned out to be half participation, half demonstration. Patrizio had a massive feast planned with little room for us to slow him down, so we were strategically alternated between cooking and eating. Our first task was to skin pears and cut the bottoms off, so that they would stand on their own in a pot. They were then covered with 3 entire bottles of good red wine (apparently it’s a crime to cook with a wine that you would not also want to drink), a pound of sugar, and ground cinnamon, and set to slow cook (poach) for a few hours while the sauce caramelized and we worked on the rest of the courses. We watched Patrizio sautée numerous pots of onions, garlic, celery and carrots before adding in various meats and wines to the dishes, a constant pot of homemade beef broth simmering in the background for occasional moistening.  Our first course was signalled when Patrizio placed a wire rack of bread over the fire, and soon we were sipping our first glass of wine, a delicious chardonnay, paired with a velvety chicken liver spread on fire roasted toast.

Next, we minced fresh rosemary, sage, and garlic and added sea salt in a 1:1 ratio for a seasoned salt that can be kept for weeks in a jar and sprinkled on everything. Then it was time for the roast pork loin. Holes were poked into the soft meat and stuffed with rosemary and garlic before it was wrapped in more fresh rosemary sprigs tied and doused in olive oil. The pan was set in the oven to bake, along with a pan of parboiled potatoes also covered in olive oil. Meanwhile, we were on to our second course: fried artichokes. The key is to peel and soak the artichokes in lemon water to get rid of the bitter flavor, before dipping them in a rice and wheat flour batter and flash frying them. The artichokes were paired with another perfect white wine, making it a serious challenge to save room for the actual lunch.

Then it was our turn to make tagliatelle.  Eggs were dumped into volcano-shaped mound of wheat and semolina flour heaped on the cool marble table, along with a healthy dose of olive oil and salt, and mixed by hand to form a dough. We took turns kneading until we got the approval from Patricio, then learned to thread the dough through a simple metal pasta rolling machine, eventually ribboning it into beautiful noodles. Patricio seemed to have gotten hungry while he waited, and spontaneously decided to make us gnocchi as a bonus – by the time our noodles were ready, he had boiled and riced potatoes and was mixing them with an egg and small amount of flour, parmesan and nutmeg, then chopping them into gnocchi.  He tossed these in fresh butter and sage, and served them immediately. With more wine, of course.

The final touches were a cauliflower gratin, tossing the tagliatelle in a meat ragu, and whipping up a grappa-marscapone topping for our poached pears. No longer hungry but somehow still excited for lunch, we sat down at the formal dining table that had been set for us in the next room by another burning wood stove. We were joined by two new diners, including the granddaughter of the countess. Lunch was a lively and heavy ordeal, with red wines to match each course and a vin santo for dessert. Everything was excellent, and despite my stomach groaning in pain, I could have eaten more.fullsizeoutput_8f34.jpegIMG_6563IMG_6560IMG_6570IMG_6583IMG_6567IMG_6588IMG_6566IMG_6591

Lunch was followed by a tour of the grounds, including the wine cellar where entire shelves of bottles dating back to 1925 were waiting to be opened on special occasions. During World War II, the cellar was sealed behind fake walls, preserving both the wine and the family art collection, now on display in the Uffizi. The next building over housed an olive oil press. The press is open to anyone from the village who wants to convert their olives into brilliant green oil. Once pressed, neighbors rent one of the large earthen jugs lined up in the room next door for storage throughout the year. Finally, we headed to the shop to select a few souvenirs before climbing into our taxi back to Florence.

IMG_6606IMG_6601IMG_6621IMG_6622Saturday dawned grey, cold and wet. Luckily, this did not affect the morning’s plans for a tour of the Uffizi. Surprisingly, there was no line and barely any crowd, and I spent the morning drifting peacefully between the vast collections of masterpieces, including Boticcelli’s Birth of Venus and Da Vinci’s incredible unfinished Adoration of the Maggi. Still raining hard at lunchtime, we ducked into the recently renovated Mercato Centrale, a decadent indoor marketplace full of wholesale produce and local food vendors, including a relatively new second floor devoted entirely to artisanal food stands. We joined the queue at a particularly popular stand dishing out Lampredotto, Florence’s famous specialty made of slow-cooked cows’ fourth stomach. It was surprisingly tender and flavorful, much more reminiscent of pulled pork than my notions of internal organs.

We had tickets to the Academia in the afternoon, where Michelangelo’s original David is the main attraction. Again, the museum was not crowded and we easily made our way to the foot of the towering lifelike scuplture, so much grander in person than in pictures. Afterwards we grabbed gelato at My Sugar, winner of the 2016 Florence Gelato Festival, and spent the remainder of the afternoon exploring Florence’s vintage shops, Italy’s answer to thrift stores. While both thrift and vintage stores sell used clothing, Italian vintage stores are in a league of their own, with unbelievably affordable treasures ranging from Gucci shoes to Armani coats, and a huge selection of handmade leather bags, gloves, and furs. We came away with significatly upgraded wardrobes, finally feeling a little less conspicuous when standing next to the Romans and Florentines.IMG_6647fullsizeoutput_8f3dIMG_6662fullsizeoutput_8f57fullsizeoutput_8f40fullsizeoutput_8f49IMG_6668IMG_6671fullsizeoutput_8f50IMG_6697

On our way home we passed La Menagere, a super hip, trendy space set in an old brick building with bare, exposed brick walls and plants galore thanks to the in-house florist shop. The building also houses a coffee shop, bar,and café serving huge slices of dense cakes, fresh juices, and fancy spritz cocktails. We decided to forego dinner, instead trading it for an enormous slice of carrot cake. Then it was time to send Nate off the Rome for an early morning flight.IMG_6684IMG_6686

The sun finally broke through on Sunday, revealing an entirely different city.  Streets no longer clogged with umbrellas, the mood was light as tourists and locals alike poured into the alleyways to take advantage of the beautiful weather. I decided to go for a jog among the throngs of boisterous locals taking their regular weekend stroll on a forested five mile dirt trail stretching along the banks of the Arno. Jogging back into town, I grabbed another lampredotto panini (this time with salsa verde and truffles) and hiked up to the quiet Bardini Gardens, a somewhat hidden gem located high above the city. Peering over the terrace, I took in the beautiful panoramic view of Florence spread out below, a sea of red roofs nestled in the mountains. On my way out I took a few minutes to explore the interesting museum that also shares the property, showcasing a colorful Pinocchio display dedicated to Carlo Lorenzini, author of Le Avventure di Pinocchio, and a Florentine by birth.fullsizeoutput_8f6afullsizeoutput_8f66.jpegfullsizeoutput_8f6cfullsizeoutput_8f6efullsizeoutput_8f75fullsizeoutput_8f77IMG_6788

With evening setting in quickly, it was time to bid this gorgeous city adieu and catch my flight back to Geneva. I had one last stop to make on my way out: leaving in true Italian style, I headed for the bus with my new vintage duffle bag in one hand, a cone of Gelateria dei Neri pistachio ricotta and dark chocolate brown sugar gelato in the other.                       IMG_6793

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