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.