Culinary travel has many wonderful benefits. You get to experience a place through its delicious food and drink, while the essence of its past, present, and future unfolds on your palate. There's no better way to learn about a people's history and culture than through the food that defines them.
This is surely as true in Italy as anywhere else in the world. There are no meal times in Italy. Restaurants are full from dawn until well after dusk. Meals are not confined to North America's three square meals a day. Between breakfast and lunch? Time for a snack. Between lunch and dinner? Why not squeeze in coffee and a pastry at a cafe! And every meal is an orgy of courses. A couple of times in Italy I made the mistake of ordering a single dish when I sat down in a restaurant. A personal pizza for lunch or perhaps a bowl of pasta.
"Are you serious?" asks the waiter. "You don't want to insult the chefs..."
Lunch and dinner routinely consist of 5 or 6 courses of which you must partake to experience the essence of Italian cooking.
At one stop I had a Nonna bringing me bowl after bowl of fresh-made pasta with pomodoro sauce until I thought I would burst. I finally convinced her I'd had enough and then she started to bring out the MAIN COURSE!
However, for me, the beauty of the food in Italy is not its incredible quantity, but rather the sheer simplicity of Italian cooking. Use the best ingredients and let them speak for themselves. Pizza with fresh tomato sauce and a few strategically placed pieces of buffalo mozzarella. Magnificent. Pasta with fresh crushed tomatoes and olive oil. Superb. Where North American restaurants serve heavy, salty, dishes with aioli, drizzle, creme sauces, Italian restaurants serve up dishes made with a handful of simple, pure ingredients that burst with freshness, flavour, and life. Local and seasonal is not a movement in Italy. It is a way of life.
This way of life is on display most clearly in the Italian Osterias. Where a Ristorante is a more formal sit-down restaurant, an Osteria is like stepping into a family's dining room. Humble decorations allow the focus to be on good cheer, and great food.
My first sojourn into an osteria was in Florence at the marvelous L'Osteria di Giovanni, tucked away on the modest via del Moro that could almost be mistaken as an alleyway. When you step inside you feel like you are in a different time and place entirely. A family home on a Tuscan hillside seems like a more appropriate home to the warm confines of the osteria. The entranceway is deceiving as it hardly gives a hint to the size of the entire eatery. With four connected dining rooms there is ample seating yet each feels just the right size and capacity to feel homey and inviting.
The menu is full of old and new Florentine dishes, and everything is always based on local and seasonal offerings. Packed with offerings of various appetizers, grilled meats, salads, and soups there is something for everyone and most definitely worthwhile of sampling as many dishes as you have room for.
Their Farro and Cannelini Bean Soup is Italian cooking at its finest. Homey. Comforting. Hearty.
It's the perfect example of a dish perfected over three generations of Florentine osteria owners. The staff circle and chat comfortably with diners, and like a family dining room they are friendly, welcoming, and jovial. The ambience and the food combined into a dining experience I won't soon forget.
Here's my own Canadian take on this fabulous soup. Throw the ingredients in the slow cooker in the morning and cozy up to an Italian inspired dinner that will have you pining for the Italian countryside.
Slow Cooker White Kidney Bean and Barley Soup
1 540ml can white kidney beans, drained
1 cup dry pearled barley
300 grams stew beef
1 onion, diced
6 cloves garlic, smashed and peeled
3 carrots, coarsely chopped
3 ribs celery, coarsely chopped
10 cups chicken broth
Salt and pepper, to taste
200 gram can peeled tomatoes
Simply place all ingredients in slow cooker and allow to cook 8 to 10 hours on low heat.