I have a strong bond with Italy, and just the thought of going back makes me feel excited. This trip was even more special because I will have the best companion ever, my sister. We have been planning this holiday for months and, to be honest, all we could think about was all the pizza, pasta and wine we are going to eat and drink.
This, however, made me think about the first time I travelled to Italy with S over Easter holidays, years ago. And in all honesty, I have to say that travelling with a local can cause a brutal collision with your tourist expectations.
Let me put you into context; I love pizza, in case of doubt I would always choose to have pizza, and what excited me the most about going to Milan for the first time was that I was finally going to eat a real Italian pizza in Italy. To me, it was like meeting Micky Mouse in Disneyland; all I could do during the 2-hour-flight from London to Malpensa was daydreaming about it.
And you may think, Italy, pizza... it is pretty obvious that I was going to eat tons of them, right?
The truth is… I only managed to eat one pizza. That’s it. Only one miserable pizza, because I was so pushy that one night eventually we took a pizza… for delivery, not even in a proper Italian restaurant! Outrageous.
You may wonder, how is that possible?
Well, there is a reason behind. If you think about it, the concept of Italy as a whole, unified country is quite recent if we compare it to other countries, as they were independent states until 1870. If we add the fact that certain regions where under the rule of foreign governments, – such as Piedmont and Lombardy, which were part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, or Sicily, under the wing of the Spanish, not to mention Venice, which had been an empire itself for hundreds of years – we can understand that this has shaped many diverse and different cultures within the Italian peninsula.
Opposite to what we may assume, in some occasions, culture and traditions may be distant from the marketed “Italian model” we all know.
Going back to my story, my greatest culture shock appeared when I went to have lunch to a trattoria with S’s family. The little information I got from them was that the trattoria had traditional products from the area and typical dishes. At the time, I, a Spanish foreigner with a tourist mind-set thought: ‘typical dishes… home baked pizza with local products, pasta with local products and nice local wine. Bring it on!’
What could possibly go wrong?
Well, to begin with, the fact that we were having lunch at 12 wasn’t my cup of tea but I could give in, because I was going to eat real Italian pizza with local products -or at least that's what I expected.
However, something terrible happened when I read the menu: there was no pasta nor pizza. In fact, my tourist mindset couldn’t recognise any of the dishes they were offering. For me it was the BIGGEST SHOCK EVER. How could a trattoria not have pizza nor pasta?
Trying to digest the shock, my mind went into denial, so I asked –again– to S, who gently asked the waiter, who gently answered: ‘qua solo riso’ (Here only rice). In fact, had I paid more attention to the landscape and done some research (which I thoroughly recommend if you travel abroad), I would have discovered that northern Italy is full of rice fields. Ignorant me. Not surprisingly, local dishes involved rice, and local products were much more meat-derived products such as sausages and cold meat, than vegetables or any mouthwatering filled pasta.
Marta 0 - Northern Italy culture 1
Ultimately, what I learned from this very first trip to Italy is that you can’t follow cultural stereotypes if you really want to discover the places you are travelling to. I could have easily gone to eat pizza or pasta dishes for tourists, and ignore the incredible culinary jewels of Piedmont, such as the famous aperitivo –or apericena, which was born in Torino in 1876. This is for me the greatest culinary ritual ever conceived: From 18.00 you can order a drink (usually Campari or a sweeter Aperol Spritz) and eat as much as you want, all included in the price. This made me easily forget the longed pizza and pasta and ever since, aperitivo is my favourite thing from this part of Italy.
There will be the time when I go to Rome or Naples and get the real Roman and Neapolitan pizza, and I know that I will enjoy every single bite of it. However, this time was Florence and I was more than ready to discover the incredible culinary jewels of the region.
Forget the Duomo, dive in a fresh, homemade pasta dish
To be honest, we were more driven by the culinary side of the trip than the sightseeing, and each day of our trip we plan our tourist route according to the restaurants we wanted to go. In terms of travelling, B and I are made of the same essence, so we would rather enjoy the experience of a nice meal than visiting touristic attractions. Clearly, restaurants are our touristic attractions.
Our meeting point was Milan, where we stayed overnight and spent half a day before getting our Frecciarossa to Florence that evening. As we only had a few hours stop in Milan, I decided to take B to enjoy the sun (and a spritz) to the Aperol Bar, located right next to the Duomo. Even though it is not cheap, and obviously very touristy, the experience to me is worthwhile. What a nicer way of enjoying the February rays of sun having a spritz contemplating the Duomo savouring some great homemade crisps? Well, had we had more time available we would have headed towards La Naviglia area and enjoy the canal views, which is also worth visiting.
Even though Milan was a toccata e fuga (touch and go), we still had our real trip: Florence. And we needed to eat well in order to endure the rest of the journey, so after such great aperitivo we headed to Pasta d'autore, not far away from the Duomo but far enough to enjoy good, homemade pasta for a great price, highly recommended if you want to stay away from the typical places.
Once set and ready, we headed towards Stazione Centrale and got on our train. It took us 1 hour 45 minute-journey in the fast Frecciarossa -the high speed train branch from the Italian national railway Trenitalia- to arrive at Santa Maria Novella station, and obviously, we were hungry again. Luckily Federico, our AirBnB host, gave us many restaurant tips and after leaving our things secured in the apartment we run to get our dinner.
Despite my true intentions to enjoy more the local food, we were craving pizza and this time, I have to say it was incredible, as the place is run by a Neapolitan family. One of the best signs of a good pizza place is that there are not many options to choose from in the menu. We kept to the basics and ordered two margheritas which tasted like heaven on our first cold Florentine night.
The following days we had our own culinary tour around Florence, and none of the restaurants disappointed us. However, I didn't have the chance to taste one of the most typical Florentine dishes though: the bistecca alla fiorentina, a Flingstones-like steak which could be the heaven of every meat-lover. Our delicate stomachs lead us onto a more ‘veggy-friendly’ path and due to this reason, one of the days we chose to have breakfast lunch at Libreria Brac, a vegetarian restaurant which happens to be a book shop too.
You may think, 'what are you doing eating at a vegetarian restaurant in Florence?' well, that is because we haven't been there yet. Although the place is not easy to spot, it gets fully booked everyday at lunch and dinner times, so I strongly recommend to book a table or get there by midday, to be able to seat near the counter. Based on homemade pasta and fresh ingredients, they have the perfect combination to enjoy an unconventional meal in Florence.
I consider myself one of those people who avoids queues for any touristic attraction, and this time was no different. If you combine this with the freezing cold wind, so typical from this season, we only had two options left: either walking around to warm up, or to stay warm in a place. Nonetheless, one day we pushed ourselves to queue up for a very good reason -which didn’t involve any museum: l'Antico Vinaio. They are famous for their sandwiches, and I have to tell you, you may wait a good hour queue but it is worth every minute. One of the best signs was that we were surrounded by Italians, and not many tourists dared to wait for that long for a sandwich.
As a final statement, the culinary experience is an added value which makes me feel as if I were sharing a bite of their culture; to me, that is where I find the magic of a city, besides the possible architectonic and cultural wonders of the city. From a practical point of view, you won’t ever get tired of a city, as the more you visit it, the more places you can discover. From a cultural point of view, food reflects the culture and society of a place, therefore discovering what a city has to offer in culinary terms is digging deep from the surface of the touristic attractions because it is an experience that stays with you forever, and to me, that is priceless.