The Rules of Gastronomic Engagement
By Arthur Kozlovski, Florence University of the Arts
Italy’s gastronomic success is world-renowned for its simplicity, sticking to its strict slow foods philosophy. However, the rewarding products of Tuscany’s rich cuisine may not come so easily to foreigners; not every restaurant offers the best quality of food, not every market vendor sells the best produce. I have comprised a guide of basic advice for a newcomer in Florence that is based on Tuscan philosophies of food, helping one to avoid tourist traps and the wasting of money, leading to magnificent discoveries of Florence’s treasured cuisine.
- Leave English for the States, not for the menus
Avoid menus that have English translations, for they obviously attract tourists, providing mediocre dishes at a hefty price. Instead, spend a few minutes researching the local cuisine, write down the names of the dishes or local products1, and head out in search of restaurants that feature the recipes. Be on the look out for places filled with Italian locals (hint: they don’t dine by landmarks like the Duomo or the Uffizi).
- Google is a research tool, not a food critic.
Most foreigners will look up things like “The Best Places to Eat in Florence” before heading out for their next meal, viewing links that feature a guidebook’s ad campaign or a restaurant’s personal review on their venue. Avoid doing this, or you’ll end up in a den of tourists who will eventually be disappointed by the food and atmosphere they have been referred to via internet. Try getting lost in the city and find a small unheard-of tavern, or hop into a bar, cafe or library to ask the locals for some advice on where and what to eat. After all, the locals are notorious for their appreciation of food culture, constantly enjoying social meals with family and friends.
- Know your neighborhood, know your produce.
Because Italy offers an array of specialty shops, be sure to travel within your quarter to discover the best prices on different foods2. Additionally, know when to buy certain produce, for the focus on slow foods in Italy affects the prices of market goods, providing the cheapest and freshest crops during peak seasons3.
- He who offers first gives the worst
Rule of thumb: Don’t settle for the first vendor. They thrive off of the fact that they are the first sellers that customers will experience, often luring you over with their charming attitude and smiles. Don’t be fooled by this, for a glimpse at the prices displayed three tables down will have you fleeing towards cheaper products in a matter of seconds.
- The cheapest gets… cheaper
Italians are known for its social attitude, especially in the markets. Once you have found the cheapest produce provider, be sure to visit them often, sparking a conversation and exchanging a smile every time you are in the area. Respect brings respect, and good manners are rewarded. Loyalty at the competitive markets is often embraced with discounts and extra goodies, so be sure to bring your best attitude when shopping.
- Keep it simple; less is more
An ancient philosophy highly respected by the Italians, even from Leonardo’s own mouth, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” Italian cooking relies a lot on the use of very little, and is geared towards feeding large amounts of people (especially family) in an efficient manner. Take this idea into consideration when cooking, for a bold flavor only needs a few well-paired ingredients.
- Success begins with spice
Know your spices, know your spices, KNOW YOUR SPICES; this is what separates the amateur home cooks from the professionals. Spices are ultimately responsible for the aromatic, taste, and visual properties of your dish. Understand how to use spices (i.e., rosemary for pork to bring out the freshness of the meat), and when to pair them together. A traditional Florentine spice (used for many meats and starches) combines sage, rosemary, garlic, and salt. Keep a small spice guidebook in the kitchen next to your little jars of ingredients, and experiment whenever you are cooking for yourself, referring back to the notes for advice.
Age brings wisdom, and precious goods
- The antiquated treasures of Italy go beyond the Renaissance arts, applying to products such as wine, cheese, and vinegar. The aging of these products improves the overall quality, adding special characteristics depending on the length of maturity. For cooking, it is vital to understand the properties of these three commodities, for they significantly impact the results of recipes. Keep a record of the products you buy, including the ages and resulting flavors, for it can be referred to for future recipes.
Adhering to these simple wisdoms will bring one closer to discovering the beauties of Tuscan cuisine and culture. Whether you are looking for a special local dish, or attempting to cook at your abode, consider this guide as a secret recipe for a delightful gastronomic experience of Florence.
1 A guide on traditional Tuscan products and recipes:
2 Understanding local specialty shops, refer to:
3 How to select the best produce: http://www.flonthego.com/2012/gourmet/03-15/tis-the-season-for-fresh-produce/