Arno River, Firenze, Italia

Arno River, Firenze, Italia

Monday, November 1, 2010

A carousel of cuisine.

October 23, 2010.

Due to Jared’s late arrival, dinner was postponed until 9:30pm that first night.  It might seem late according to American standards, but most Italians are horrified at our six o’clock supper schedule in comparison to their late eating habits.  La Giostra even accepts reservations up to half past ten most nights.  And, coupled with the classic four course Italian meal, social outings over a meal can last late into the night.  Jared and I didn’t reenter into the fresh cold streets of Florence until a quarter past midnight.  I was very much surprised how the time peacefully passed over wine and exceptionally cooked Italian cuisine. 

La Giostra is difficult to find, even though it is only a few blocks from the well-known Florence Cathedral.  It is meant for travelers, not the common tourist, for “the tourist finds, but the traveler looks for.”

It is located in an old storage garage for the carousel of Piazza di Ciompi (the nearby square of antique markets and old men reading newspapers).  Large arches and a curved ceiling, indicative of its past purpose, house beautiful lights that seem to glitter in a imaginative way.  The idea of a carousel fits well with its décor, fantastical and a bit dreamlike.  Warm yellow light and deep rich burgundy reds of brick and wood play with the candles and their reflection on rows of wine bottles along the wall.  The room wraps you in warmth, and the low lighting (especially in combination with the wine) finishes this feeling of comfort and familiarity.

Notice the rounded ceiling.

Yet the food is not just “comfortable,” it is exquisite.  Jared and I were surprised course after course. 

Upon arrival, complimentary champagne was delivered with the food and wine menus.  And once we made our choices, a complimentary antipasti (appetizer) of tomato bruschetta and grilled vegetables was placed before us. 

This starter course was followed by our primi piatti:  a healthy portion of Ravioli di Pecorino toscano e pere William's.  For both of us.

And we didn’t order the same dish by chance.  Back in March, our first date, in person (set aside the classic Skype dates), was at Romeo’s Café in Miami, where we indulged in a six course Italian influenced meal (there was no menu, the chef took inventive liberties to create something tailored to our preferences.)  And take a guess—the second course was pear and cheese ravioli.  I still remember our expressions, eyes open wide, in awe of the combination.  Now, here in Italy together, another date, the same dish, perhaps a touch more authentic.  It was perfect.

Choosing the third course, our secondi piatti, was a bit more difficult.  The menu, presented in Italian, was a maze of romantically foreign words, with a few familiar phrases scattered throughout.

It’s like trying to explain Heinz ketchup to a visitor.  You might be able to describe the base of ketchup, the mixture of tomatoes, vinegar, and spices.  Yet how do you explain the adjacent word “Heinz.”  It just isn’t any ketchup, it’s “Heinz” ketchup, which introduces another world of flavors, that is, in a way, indescribable.  Or perhaps Hershey’s chocolate.  I can translate chocolate to cioccolato.  Yet I would stumble at Hershey’s, because this word brings with it it’s own distinct trademark of flavors.  And those flavors I cannot truly translate.  So I am left staring at a menu.  I can depict meats and vegetables: pomodori (tomatoes) e patate (potatoes) e tartufo (truffles) e vitella (veal), but I stumble at those capitalized descriptions: all Genovese, di Chianina, alla Normanna, alla Toscana, all Florentina.  How can one explain to me, a foreigner, a core part of their Italian cuisine.

So I order blindly “Pollastra con verdure alla Florentina,” chicken with vegetables according to my simple and direct translation.  Yet “alla Florentina” was a mystery.  How would I receive this seemingly simple combination?  And even now, I can’t describe it, just like I can’t explain away Heinz and Hershey’s.  “Alla Florentina”—you must try it to understand.

We hesitated over dessert.  Something sweet is always a perfect endcap to a bottle of white wine and rich food, yet, the menu language barrier was a problem.  Guessing randomly once is fine.  But choosing a dessert, your last “taste” memory, capriciously is not always the best.  Our waiter (possibly more a busboy than a waiter) suggested gelato di riso con lampone.  A tall fluted glass arrived, layered with raspberries and creamy gelato mixed with chewy rice.  It might sound strange, but the texture with the sweetness cut by the more savory fruit was perfect.  I wish I could return to steal just one more bite. 

We declined the offered cappuccinos (at midnight, coffee is dangerous—an active contradiction to the anticipation of sleep), and gathered our belongings to leave.

I never call for taxis in Florence; I walk everywhere and anywhere.  But the sleepy and warm environment created by the restaurant was so harshly jolted by the cold breeze and cool moonlight that I started to waver, picturing a warm car delivering us to slighter cooler apartment in a matter of minutes.  Yet, we took advantage of the cold to shatter the cozy feeling and pull ourselves back to reality as we huddled against the biting air and began the half hour walk home.

And unfortunately, we still had to pack our bags for an early morning train to Rome at six.

Pecorino and cheese ravioli.

Quiet table in the back.

Jared's third course: prawns.

A beautiful evening, a carousel of cuisine and wine.

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