Cameras flash. Mouths drop open, and silence falls over a small group of tourists standing in awe before one of Italy’s oldest works of art — a wall of cured meats.
A beastly aroma fills the air. Legs of prosciutto and strings of salami form a canopy inside the old Norcineria, a meat and salami shop in the heart of Florence. An impassioned guide serves up delicious tidbits of gastro-history along with a selection of dried ham, a food dating back to the Romans. And from the first savory bite of finocchiona, a fennel-and-pork salami, the shop is transformed into a food museum, where tourists thrill at eating the art.
Tuscan food: It ranks up there with Michelangelo’s David as a reason for travelers to flock to Florence. But getting a taste of a culinary masterpiece requires more than just stumbling out of a gallery and into the nearest trattoria. Tourists expecting to randomly discover a gourmet cafe often learn the hard way that bad food happens, even in Italy.
Real Tuscan cuisine is “better than the best sex you’ve ever had,” according to Antoinette “Toni” Mazzaglia, founder of Taste Florence, a gastronomic excursion that she created in 2008 to introduce tourists to authentic Tuscan cuisine. During the four-hour food crawl, Mazzaglia peppers guests with tidbits of culinary history and woos them with tasty treats at wine shops, bakeries, chocolate makers, gelaterias and market stalls. Her vast knowledge of wine-making and food culture, combined with her exuberant personality, make Taste Florence less of a gourmet crash course than an act of performance art.
TASTE BUDS ON ALERT
A friend and I meet up with the American expatriate at the city’s outdoor San Lorenzo market at around 10 a.m., with my taste buds raring to go. We follow her through a maze of leather goods to the nearby, nearly hidden indoor Central Market. Seizing the morning, Mazzaglia, 35, pierces the emporium’s calm with a cascade of animated Italian and laughter.
“Ciao, Toni!” a cacophony of voices welcomes her as she seats me and my friend on a pair of stools in front of Nerbone, a rectangular, green kitchen. The comfort-food institution has served Florentines since 1872, and to beat the long lines of locals that form there every day, Mazzaglia claims real estate early.
“Smell that?” she asks, inhaling deeply. “That’s the boiled beef sandwiches.”
Spinning around, she flies to the counter to collect our first conquest, bollito di manzo. Minutes later, she presents us with freshly baked rolls piled with thin folds of pink brisket, complemented with a layer of salsa verde and a dash of salsa picante. The flavors and textures meld in a complicated love story — herby, tender, fiery and strong.
After this hearty start, we stop by a pasta stall to watch workers cut fresh strands of golden linguine and pappardelle. Then we slowly wind through the market past troughs of sundried tomatoes, garlic and peppers, to a fruit stand where we cleanse our palates with figs in preparation for a deep dive into cheese and balsamic vinegar.
Perini Gastronomia, a gourmet market shop stocked wall-to-wall with wine, olive oil and balsamic vinegar, provides the backdrop for our next gastronomic invasion. Mazzaglia serves us a glass of Chianti while the shopkeeper prepares a cutting board with three rows of crostini toscani, Italian bread topped with truffle butter, tomato chutney and chicken liver pate. My friend and I moan between bites and do what Mazzaglia dubs the “yummy food boogie,” an eyes-closed, raise-the-roof jig.
The two of us are still swooning over the crostini when another board arrives, bearing slices of aged pecorino, or sheep’s cheese, bathed in truffle-infused honey, as well as chunks of parmigiano-reggiano drizzled with balsamic vinegar. The pecorino bite unites earthy with sweet, while the parmigiano number pits fruity against tangy, finishing with a subtle kick at the back of the throat.
“That’s the neck-gasm,” Mazzaglia laughs.
She explains that traditional balsamic vinegar, not to be confused with what we Americans put on our salads, contains no wine vinegar; it’s a complicated syrup aged for at least 12 years in small barrels and verified by a European consortium. A small bottle of the luxury dressing costs between about $85 and $200 — or more — depending on how long it has been aged, and Florentines pour it over everything from steak to gelato. In addition to tasting the expensive traditional variety, we sip a plethora of more affordable hybrid balsamics and ponder their subtle undertones. Raisins? Dates? Oh yeah, it’s made from grapes.
Mazzaglia, who keeps a bottle of balsamic vinegar in her purse, fell in love with Italian food and wine in 2002 while studying in Florence with the University of North Carolina. She became a fixture at the Central Market, grocery shopping and befriending chefs and shopkeepers.
“When I told my dad that I was moving to Italy, he said, ‘You can’t move to a country because the food is good.’ And I said, ‘What else do you do three times a day besides pee?’ ” she jokes. “I’m going to spend the rest of my life eating, and I’m going to do it right.”
For a decade, she has honed her knowledge by giving wine tours, living at a winery and studying at the Association of Italian Sommeliers. Taste Florence developed as a response to wine tourists complaining about the city’s food. She realized that the problem wasn’t finding a good restaurant for dinner but knowing where to eat quality breakfast, lunch and snacks.
“They were eating slices of pizza, stale sandwiches, bad gelato and waffles, which aren’t even Italian,” she says.
She advises guests to step out of their comfort zone when ordering in restaurants, meaning no pizza or spaghetti Bolognese. She also warns them to run from any place that looks like a cafeteria, as well as gelaterias displaying mountains of gelato with figures of “Bart Simpson surfing on top.” Quality gelato is made daily in small quantities with fresh, not frozen, ingredients, she explains.
Today, Mazzaglia’s foodies trade Bart Simpson and waffles for such fan favorites as baccal, or salted cod, a traditional dish of Italians who live away from the coast. As we approach her preferred fishmonger, our last stop at the Central Market, Florentine folk music booms and a tattooed man dances from a mound of iced fish to a flour-covered counter to a basket sizzling in oil. Between sips of red wine, he lifts a medley of baccal and calamari out of the fryer and onto a paper plate for us to share. He pairs cheerful white wine and fresh lemons with our lightly crisped seafood, which leaves us licking our fingers. Well fortified, we hit Florence’s back streets shortly after noon.
For another two hours, we thrill over hybrid Super Tuscan wines at Coquinarius wine bar, squeal over freshly baked pastries at Forno bakery, and chill over creamy gelato at Perche No!, a name that sums up our tasting ethos: Why Not!
At Coquinarius, a cozy alcove just steps from Florence’s Duomo cathedral, we settle in for our own religious experience. The tasting begins on a sophisticated note, with Bianca, a crisp, clean white wine that the owners of Coquinarius make from Vermentino and Viognier grapes. We gradually progress to darker, heavier wines. And as we sip a bold Chianti Reserve, Mazzaglia saturates us with information about wine-making and grapes, like the Sangiovese and Trebbiano varieties that make up Chianti.
We end our lesson in a flirtier fashion than we began it, toasting with Lambrusco Cantina Della Volta di Christian Bellei 2009, an exotic sparkling red. After this baptism-by-vino, my companion and I decide that we’re nearly fully fledged Florentines, but luckily, we still have more to eat and learn.
Feeling slightly buzzed, we reintroduce food to our systems with fresh pastries from artisan baker Forno. At this family cafe, around the corner from the Basilica di San Lorenzo, a woman in a paper hat serves up magical deep-fried dough balls. The two-bite snack looks like a beignet without sugar but tastes like a summer carnival, with a puffed pillow surrounding a red garden tomato and a sliver of fresh mozzarella cheese. I gobble my ball while standing inside the narrow bakery and suddenly find myself in a vortex of cheek kisses between Mazzaglia and the bakers.
As we move on, each place brings us closer to Tuscan nirvana, but in my mind, one sacrament remains: gelato.
And purity prevails at Perche No!, a gelateria a block from the Piazza della Repubblica that has been whipping up fresh batches of cream and sugar since 1939. Mazzaglia warns us that shops all over the city make mass-produced gelato using artificial powders and emulsifiers, not like the real fruit and dairy that goes into the creations at Perche No! Inside the small, unassuming gelateria, I delight in a medley of decadent flavors, including rose, pistachio, honey and sesame, and cream and black cherries. It takes all the self-control I can muster not to down each silky scoop in its entirety, but I remind myself that the name of the tour is Taste Florence, not Devour Florence.
Sitting at a table outside Vestri, a chocolate maker a short walk from the Duomo that’s known for growing its own cocoa, I silently thank myself for having saved some room as Mazzaglia presents us with the crowning masterpiece of the day: a flight of handmade pralines. Flavor combinations of chocolate and chili and coffee and hazelnut send our endorphins soaring, but nothing could prepare us for the splendor of the ganache infused with Earl Grey tea.
Chewing and nodding in unspoken approval, we find there’s only one appropriate response — the yummy food boogie.