Despite Italian food being the most popular foreign food in this country, it is fashionable to say that we don't have any real Italian restaurants here. As it turns out, in Italy it is also fashionable to say that there are no real Italian restaurants left.
Unfortunately, there is truth on both sides of the ocean. The most Italian of all restaurants, the Tuscan trattoria, is an endangered species.
My first visit to such a rare and wonderful restaurant was nearly a decade ago, when I arrived in Florence tired, lonely and wishing for something familiar or even friendly. On a recommendation, I stood in line for lunch at Da Fagiole, and once inside learned how much you could feel at home in a totally foreign place. The host greeted me like a cousin who had just arrived for a family reunion, found me an elbow-to-elbow seat at a long table, and poured me wine from the large bottle in the middle of the table. There was no question of my seeing a menu or ordering; he just brought me what he knew I should have. It was all warm, it was all rich with earthy flavors, it was all wonderful. And after lunch he showed me how to dip the hard, crunchy almond cookies into my glass of sweet vin santo, which I did until the afternoon was half gone and I was half woozy from the wine.
It was the kind of Italian restaurant I had imagined was on every corner in Florence, but as it turned out there are only a handful left. I still didn't appreciate the rarity a few nights later when I went to Sostanza, and again found long tables that made it impossible not to be friendly. This time the large food platters bore steaks, the giant two-inch-thick meaty T-bones that taste better in Florence than anywhere else, blackened over a wood fire and deep red inside. I'll never forget the taste, nor do I expect to ever find a duplicate elsewhere in the world.
When I recently returned to Italy, I had the good luck to find Il Latini, one more close-knit, convivial dining room of long tables filled with huge platters of food and monumental bottles of chianti. Again menus were irrelevant. Here, too, garlic doubtlessly was brought in by the truckload, the floor was covered with sawdust, and salamis hung from the ceiling alternating with braids of garlic and red onions. But this time I was taught how rare my luck was.
Il Latini has been a trattoria for 20 years, before that a wine shop, but orginally a stable. Now it is one of a mere half-dozen remaining Tuscan trattorias, said Giovanni Certaldo, son of the original owner and now the manager.
At such restaurants, "It is out of place to talk about business," he explained. "Here they talk and joke and let you taste the wine. They don't keep track of how much wine anybody drinks." Such restaurants are family run and serve traditional food that is simply the best products of the countryside with very little done to them.
Lunch began with fried zucchini flowers, as crisp as potato chips but considerably lighter. Baskets of rough unsalted crusty, chewy Tuscan bread alternated with thick white plates of prosciutto that tasted as if it might melt on your tongue. Next were soups, but soups as thick as stews and made from the most simple of ingredients: farina, beans, cornmeal or that Tuscan bread, flavored with chunks of fresh tomatoes or dark leafy greens and plenty of garlic. Not liquid soups, but pastes so thick they kept their shape on the spoon, they were simply seasoned with salt, pepper and dribbles of intense green olive oil. These heavy uncomplicated soups, said Certaldo, are "Tuscanissimo."
The steaks had already run out, but Certaldo explained what makes the Florentine steaks special. They are from Chianina beef, "a big white beast" that never moves out of its stall. The steers are two meters tall, and the steaks are cut two inches thick, thus weighing at least two pounds; the filet itself is bigger than an American T-bone. They are aged a minimum of 20 days, trimmed of all fat, then cooked over wood that is sprinkled with salt to tamp the flames, until the texture of the meat feels the same as the base of your thumb. The meat is salted when it is half cooked, then peppered after it is cooked. It is smoky, crusty, juicy and has a strong meaty flavor. It is uniquely Florentine.
But instead, we made do with roasts of veal, pork, rabbit and chicken, crusty and perfumed with rosemary and (of course) garlic. The meats were cooked just short of falling apart, moistened only by their pan juices and reeking with savory aromas. The rabbit was delectably juicy and rich, stuffed with whole branches of rosemary, and the pork was as pale and sweet as our milk-fed veal; the veal was darker. Like the lamb in Italy, the chicken was cooked to what we might consider excess.
Another day the meal might include pasta or beans. In any case, it would center on meat in heroic portions.
And to finish, there would be those almond cookies and vin santo giving excuse to linger through the afternoon.
A Florentine trattoria serves food by the platterful and wine by the giant flask. The owner seems to measure his success -- but not his bill -- by how much you eat; his happiness -- but not his profit -- by how much you drink.
Unfortunately, they are just not exportable, these restaurants. The Tuscan bread that not only mops up the juices on your plate but also forms the basis of Tuscan soups is made nowhere else. That dark green olive oil to sprinkle on the bread or to slick those biting wild salad greens is an enormous luxury elsewhere in the world. That salty, silken prosciutto and that peppered salami studded with cubes of fat that begin the meal are not only hard to find, but the best seem not to get exported at all. And that rotund, garrulous owner in his shirtsleeves or woolly sweater would certainly be more concerned with portion control and taxes once he left his neighborhood. Or he would probably wind up putting goat cheese on his pizza. Tabletalk
*American pizza has hit Europe. Right off the Champs Elyse'es is the Parisian version of a Chicago pizza restaurant, complete with happy hour (frozen daiquiris, margaritas and Bloody Marys made with jus de legumes) and football on the television.
In case you have been at a loss for words in defining airline meals, Robert Del Grande, chef-owner of Cafe Annie in Texas, calls it "unidentified flying food."
*On the move is the chef of The Golden Door, Michel Stroot. But he isn't moving far from that glamorous Escondido, Calif., spa, just down the way to a new spa in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., to be called Cal-a-Vie. IL LATINI'S PAPPE POMODORO (8 to 10 servings)
A traditional Tuscan soup, this is nearly a paste, so thick it drips slowly from a spoon. It is not to everyone's taste. The success of this recipe depends on the earthy quality of the bread and full-flavored green olive oil. With the right ingredients, it is a tribute to simplicity.
1 pound crusty, chewy Italian or other peasant bread without preservatives
3/4 pound tomatoes, peeled, seeded and roughly chopped
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for serving
Salt and pepper to taste
4 whole cloves garlic, flattened with a knife handle
2 teaspoons basil, fresh if possible
Combine all ingredients in a soup pot and add enough water just to cover. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, for 2 hours. If more water is necessary, add just enough so the soup is thick enough to fall slowly from a spoon. If soup is too thin, let it sit off heat to absorb the extra water. Whisk soup with a wire whip and serve immediately in shallow bowls, drizzling a little olive oil onto each serving.