It has been nearly three months since we returned from our honeymoon in Italy. (And the book has been out for nearly two months?!) Life continues to amaze us with its pace. Tonight, the Chef and I stood behind a table at Palace Ballroom, for hours, surrounded by some of the best chefs and writers of Seattle. I signed books, and the Chef scooped out portions of gluten-free macaroni and cheese, and then shaved slices of black truffle on top.
I’m pretty sure we sold some books on the basis of those bites alone.
The smell of black truffles melting into rice pasta and four kinds of cheese? It reminded us both of being in Italy. And on the way home, we started talking about our day in Florence.
And then I remembered that I had never shared with you, dear readers, our extraordinary day with Judy Witts-Francini. My god, she was so kind, and the day so memorable, that I just can’t let this year end without showing you photos of our experience.
(Plus, it looks like our camera needs a professional cleaning, so no new photos for a few days.)
One early morning — before 5 am — we left our apartment at Brigolante and stumbled into a waiting cab. We were headed toward the train station, to climb aboard an express train from Assisi to Florence. The Chef slept most of the train ride, but I stayed awake to watch the green hills of Umbria slide into the slightly drier land of Tuscany.
I had only been to Florence one time before, alone. For three days, I had wandered the streets, clambering up the steps of the Duomo, eating smoked mozzarella cheese, and watching mimes make fun of all the passersby. This time, I left the train station with my hand in the Chef’s.
The moment you start walking in Florence, you notice something: this city is incredibly fashionable. Leather bags polished to a high gleam are offered for sale on nearly every street corner. Young women ride bikes to work wearing slit skirts and stiletto heels, often while talking on the cell phone. And even children must be clothed in the proper, haughty attire.
But also in Florence, it seems, food flourishes everywhere, at reasonable rates and in humble abodes. These lentils and beans, in various vivid hues, were offered for sale in bulk bags at the hardware store.
Here is what still resonates for us about Italy, in our mouths and minds. No one is really a foodie there. The moniker is not necessary. Everyone reveres food. We didn’t see junk food or convenience food, at all. Everyone seems to eat well, and slowly. Passions abound. No one is indifferent when it comes to food. And if you talk about great ingredients, and the best way to braise beef, no one thinks you are being elitist. They simply join in the conversation.
As Judy said, when someone asked her why the food tastes so much better in Italy than it does in most other places, “You can get anything want in America, but the ingredients just don’t taste as good.” No hormones or antibiotics in the food. Chicken goes bad fast, in a day or two.
It’s about the best ingredients. Not the most expensive — the freshest. Most of the food we ate in Italy was simple in preparation. It doesn’t have to be complicated.
“Spend more time shopping and less time cooking,” Judy said.
And who is this Judy, you may be wondering?
This is the inimitable Judy WItts-Francini, better known as the woman who runs Divina Cucina. Garrulous and passionate, knowledgeable and kind under a flinty exterior, full of hearty laughs — this woman leaves an indelible impression.
You see that face? You want to see it in person.
If you ever go to Florence, you can do what we did on our honeymoon. Book a class with Judy. She has a snug little apartment across the street from the Mercato Centrale, where a handful of people gather around her table. Judy greets you with her book of recipes from the Central Market, which she has spent years gathering and writing. Luckily, she left plenty of pages for notes in the back. You’ll need them.
Descend the stairs to the streets of Florence and wander through this food-loving mecca, with Judy by your side.
The Mercato Centrale is an equal mix of tourist attraction and real food lover’s grocery store. It’s a little like Pike Place Market that way, except with far better prosciutto and balsamic vinegar.
Judy led us from one stand to another, allowing us to sample bloomy cheeses, slices of Parma ham, truffle salts, and fruity olive oils that slither over the sides of your tongue like a sweet stream in spring.
We met a Sicilian chef with a wizened face and black-dyed hair, standing command at the corner shop of the market. Her two sons work with her, her granddaughter waits tables, and they have all been at it for years. Everyone in the class ate little bites, one after the other, sighing and softly speaking together, our voices hushed by the taste of the food. As we left, one of the sons slipped me a little sliver of crispy roast porchetta. I could have eaten that and been happy for the rest of the tour.
But there was more. We walked past a man hand-rolling Tuscan cigars, a wine merchant where you leave money and go back later for green bottles filled with house wine, and more meat than I could ever write about here.
And as you can see from the photo above, the butchers in the Mercato Centrale certainly don’t try to hide where meat comes from. Here, we buy our chicken in boneless, skinless blobs, wrapped in plastic. In Italy, you know that it’s really a rooster you’ll be cooking.
But there is plenty of shiny, perfect-polished food, too. Look at this marzipan, shining from a store window.
The best part of the tour — as is always true for me — was meeting the people who made our food. Everyone I meet who works in food? Good, good people.
Look at that face, for gosh sakes. Don’t you want to meet her?
(And in case you’re wondering, that is a regular bakery we stopped in. I couldn’t eat anything there, but it sure smelled good.)
And there were baskets of recently dried porcini mushrooms. Everywhere, funghi. Oh, yes. Just imagine how great mushroom soup would taste made of these.
After an hour and a half of being in the market, I turned to the Chef and saw this look on his face.
We were all astonished.
(And we had just been in the meat locker of Judy’s favorite butcher, where the Chef saw entire sides of cow curing. He could barely contain himself.)
We revived him with a shot of espresso. We all needed one.
I loved watching this older man lining up little cups — dozens of posters of Italian soccer players lining the wall behind him — and pouring that thick, viscous liquid into them a few moments later.
(I miss Italian coffee.)
After a couple of hours, our bellies filled with bites of great food and bags of vinegars and oils to take home, we made our way back to Judy’s apartment.
And then it was time to cook.
There were seared pork shoulder chops with the Tuscan herb mix (rosemary, sage, garlic, and salt) and fennel pollen, deglazed with vin santo.
Truffle salad with black rice, chickpeas, chili peppers, and cherry tomatoes.
Great cheeses, like Tonino.
Real vanilla panna cotta with fresh berries.
And this: stewed artichokes with orange rind, orange juice, and cherry tomatoes.
We didn’t just eat. We all cooked, together. We gathered in Judy’s little square kitchen and put our hands in the food. (The book in which I took notes is splattered with oil and garlic, pork juice, and almond flour.
Here, we are making ricciarelli, little almond flour cookies. I love that flurry of hands.
Oh, and by the way, if you’re wondering, everything we made and ate was gluten-free. Judy arranged the day so that I could eat everything.
I was more grateful than I could say that day.
Look how beautiful those berries are. I love the way the light dapples upon them.
And again, look how simple it is. Fresh and in season. Eating gluten-free like this? It never feels like deprivation.
After six hours, the class finished. We could eat no more. We could learn no more, for the moment. Judy is such a fount of knowledge, expressed in such an earthy, hilarious way, that you never feel bombarded. When you put your hands in the food with her, you feel like it’s all possible.
But the Chef, who has been cooking professionally for the past twenty years, came away reeling, filled with ideas for food in the future. (some of it he has been making at the restaurant ever since.)
We were especially lucky. Since Judy and I know each other through blogging, she took me and the Chef out to some of her favorite places in Florence. This is Cantinato dei Verrazano, which I mentioned in my first piece on our honeymoon. A chickpea crepe (which they called Cecina in Florence), filled with prosciutto, roasted, and topped with truffle butter. I wanted to eat everything in the place, but my belly couldn’t fit one more bite in.
Well, until we went to GROM, and I ate fig and chocolate gelato.
At least we walked a lot that day.
The restaurants of Florence dazzled us. But truly, the best food we ate all day was the morsels we prepared with Judy, in her well-worn kitchen, and ate at the table with everyone else, sun gleaming upon the plates.
This is what the day felt like.
So if you are going to Florence, be sure to register for one of Judy’s classes. I’m sure she’d love to feed you.
You’ll be thinking of the experience months later, as we were tonight.
This recipe comes directly from Judy, in her words, from the blog post she wrote about our visit. Rather than adapting it, I want you to see her way. Her language, and the way she writes her recipes, is so much her own, and so Italian…
By the way, the Chef is not included in this recipe.
“Pretend you are Italian and in the kitchen with me, no cookbooks, no measuring cups, just friends hanging out. Here is what we made.
First cook Riso Venere:
(I use Italian Antica Pila Vecia,from the Ferron family)
Boil the rice in plenty of salted water until tender, 30–40 minutes.
In a large saucepan, cover the bottom of the pot with extra virgin olive oil.
Add sliced garlic and some crushed chili peppers and heat the pan.
When the garlic begins to sizzle, add cherry tomatoes, sliced in half and raise the heat. Sprinkle with salt to taste.
Add some basil leaves, just torn with your hands.
Drain a can of chickpeas, and rinse them off. Add to the pan.
Add the drained Riso Venere (forbidden rice)
Stir well to mix all the ingredients.
Add a whole jar (30 grams) of sliced truffles and the liquid in the jar.
Stir and serve!”