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Italian Marathon of Pasta - Part II

We pick up our pasta marathon on the back stretch having just arrived in Firenze (Florence) full and tired. Tyler still looking for a salad and Rob, still along for the ride, as we continue the pasta journey of my dreams and the others

possible trepidation.

Florence is a place I lived over twenty years ago and has bittersweet memories for me. The city is basically a giant museum, and because of that fact it is filled with tourists. The Central Mercado has gone upscale and in addition to produce, meat and fish features a large food court restaurant complex on the upper level. In addition to some local fare, there are vendors from Rome, Southern Italy, Sicily and even burgers, asian bao and sushi. I'm not sure if I am crazy about this change, the market still has some good traditional food options downstairs, but the upstairs is less traditional and was extremely crowded on a weekday even before the summer tourist crush.

Florence is also home to a couple dozen US satellite college campuses and thus filled with a young international crowd that might be there more to have fun than to learn, and of course are always buzzing around on scooters like a bunch of annoying gnats. We stayed outside the city center in a more quiet residential neighborhood and it seemed to suit us better. As much as I love and am fascinated by Rome, Florence and Venice, these three places are better off visited once for a couple days only to get yourself off to the countryside or any other less visited city to really experience the beauty of the real Italy.

Our first dinner in Tuscany was at a neighborhood spot outside the crazy tourist zone. I do love Tuscan pasta, but the real specialties here are things like the rustic soups (ribollita, pappa al pomodoro), grilled meats, wild game and the ultimate bistecca alla Fiorentina.

Pici with pancettaa


Pici is a typical Tuscan pasta that's kind of like a thick spaghetti. In the countryside they are often handmade and are closer to our casarecce, but longer. Unfortunately cinghale, or wild boar my favorite pici partner was not is season so we settled for pancetta. This dish wasn't bad, but just not super exciting.

rigatoni with pheasant sauce

A better dish was rigatoni with a pheasant sauce, prepared like the cinghale sauce I like so much. It was rustic and super satisfying. We enjoyed a couple bottles of top quality Chianti with our meal, with the star of the show that was yet to come - a glorious bistecca alle Fiorentina. I'm all for a good steak every now and then, but the Fiorentina is really something special and a site to behold. This was no exception and we couldn't tackle it between four of us. It's not just the massive size, but it's usually about 2 inches thick too. Rob was the big winner and got to gnaw on the bone.

Tally - 19 Pasta Bistecca alle Fiorentina Interlude


Day six will be known as the day Tyler finds his salad, but it wasn't supposed to happen. We started the day with our bellies still reeling a bit after eating a copious quantity of steak and drove to the countryside. Our first stop was to visit my old stomping grounds Isole e Olena where I worked and learned truly how to make wine twenty years ago. The owner, and legendary winemaker, Paolo DiMarchi was out of town so I was able to give a self tour and show the crew where worked so long ago, even though it felt just like yesterday.

Our next stop was the town of Panzano where we visited the shop of Dario, probably most famous butcher in the world. Twenty years ago I visited Dario's shop a couple times and he was only famous in his town of about 500 people. Now it seems the entire town is a shrine to Dario with multiple businesses owned by him and even a gift shop that sells stuffed toy bistecca alla fiorentina toys alongside the dry aged real ones that hang in the back. I was tempted, but didn't buy either of them.

We had lunch in a 1000 year old castle that belonged to Giovanni da Verrazzano, the Italian explorer that was the first to expore the Atlantic coast of North America including allegedly the Hudson Bay. The castle is now home to a large winery and they fed us a very large lunch with plenty of wine and our 20th pasta dish.

That evening we had a reservation at the one fancy type place we planned to visit on the entire trip. A friend recommended it and we drove an hour to get to this place up in the his on the opposite side of Florence. When we arrived the place was closed and a young kid with crutches, suffering from a typical scooter accident, told us we were out of luck. It was a huge bummer since we had a written reservation, but we had to soldier on. This place I will not be recommending.

Meats and cheese - Pasta pomodoro - Pasta with sugo cinghale.

Not sure where to go found a little place that we refer to as the Italian Denny's. It was kind of like an upscale truckstop and I doubt a tourist wad been there in a long time, if ever. The crowd were trades people all getting off work. The food was incredibly inexpensive and very handmade and really nothing like a Denny's. In comparison to the other more charming places we visited it was decidedly less charming and the prices were about the same or less than Denny's. The big news however was Tyler found the Loch Ness monster of Italy, a regular green salad. I think he smiled the entire time he wolfed it down, Rob and I got one too to build some salad camaraderie. Of course we also got pasta, a quite good version of pasta with Cinghale.

Tally - 21 Pasta



On the seventh day we did not rest, matter of fact it was our longest day of the trip with about five hours of driving. We visited two wineries in storied Montalcino and what might be the best pasta factory on the planet (Maybe some day Etto). As we got close to Montalcino we had one of those aw Fu&%$&*! moments. Rob realized the keys to our AIRBNB were still in his pocket. We had already been on the road two hours and were late for our first winery visit.

Right now, I am nominating Sara Rossi from Padelletti winery for sainthood. As we concluded our amazing visit I told her about or little problem with the key. There are not key cards in Italy but like four inch 1/2 pound skeleton keys that were probably made by a blacksmith like 200 years ago. How you wouldn't notice you had this still in your pocket is another story? Sara offered to drive it back to Florence two hours away and said she could tie it in to a visit to her brother who works a hospital. I offered to pay expenses or shipping, but of course she refused. Sara Rossi, you are our hero!

We then visited another winery and the dream of a pasta factory in the hills of Montalcino. The family grows their own heirloom grains right outside the door of the factory that looked like this:

Mulino Val d'Orcia grains

After we finished drooling we took a tour of a perfect small pasta factory. It was extremely inspiring. They actually host visitors both on this property and their castle (of course) where we bought this fun pasta snack.

pasta chips

After this visit we drove another couple hours to the agritourismo where we stayed for the night dropped our bags and of course headed out for more pasta. We ended up in a rather fancy, but inexpensive restaurant on the banks of Lake Bolsena. It was clear to me that this was another place where very few tourists ever go. The staff spoke little to no English and the only thing the server could tell me about the fish in the lake fish pasta was that it was from the lake. I have no idea what it was, but it was easily one of the best fish pastas I've ever had. The frutti di mare wasn't bad either. The simple marinara was OK, but the place clearly excelled with sea or lake food.

Casarecce with lake fish - Fettucine with marinara - Casarecce with frutti di mare

Tally - 25 Pasta



On the last day we stopped at a little town that I've wanted to visit for quite a while. Civita di Bagnorgio is what's referred to in Italy as a "dead town" citta morta. We call it a ghost town, here - it's a place where no one really lives anymore. The only way to get there is via footbridge that small vehicles also use to shuttle supplies. I'm also afraid to tell anyone about, because it's one of those amazing places that I'm sure will be wall to wall tourists soon, but early in the morning we pretty much had it to ourselves and the few cats that live there. My words won't do it justice, but I highly suggest you visit soon and please don't tell too many people about it. It's about an hour and a half north of Rome and based on the enormous visitor center they are building it won't be a secret for long.

Rigatoni Amatriciana - Photo at Civita di Bagnoregio -Spaghetti alla Gricia

Rome was or last stop which is often the case on my trips to Italy. We checked into the FCO airport Hilton - ducked into the airport for our covid tests. All negative, I could have stayed a couple more days, but I guess not. We took a taxi to Rome for our last pasta of the trip. We were on a hunt for the best classic Pasta alla Gricia. A taxi driver gave us one recommendation, but then a wine shop said that's more of a place for pizza. I know the best place in the world for this dish, but it's gotta be full since it's Friday night. We begged him to call and explained we own a pasta factory in California yadda yadda. He was able to get us in at 9:30, so we went to a bar a couple blocks away in what was a very sketchy neighborhood from appearances and tried our best to act cool and fit in. When we got to the restaurant the interior was beautiful, but the food and service was even better. We had the best artichoke I've ever had in my life and a very good rigatoni Amatriciana. The spaghetti alla Gricia, however was perfect and I'd say would have to be the best in the world as far as I know. The chef at the end spent time with us and even downed a grappa shot with us. We called him the Pasta Jedi Master. He brought out some pasta to show us the quality.

chef serving pasta

The next morning we flew home tired, full and happy. Rob met his pasta Jedi master, Tyler found a unicorn green salad in Italy and I only gained three pounds (I swear it was from the airport food). On the drive home Rob said to me, after this trip, I'm know I'm going to be eating a lot more pasta and Tyler even had a little pasta on his salad on our first day back to work in Paso. I was so proud and knew the trip and all the hard work had paid off.

Tally - 27 Pasta

A true marathon was complete.

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Theo Owen
Jul 16

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