“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.
Out of the comfort zone
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 baccalà, 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 baccalà 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.