DOUBLE TAKE

In a somewhat undiscovered part of northern Tuscany … in what would be Honoka’a, if Tuscany were the Big Island of Hawaii … is the Mugello Valley. Italians know it for the Autodromo … tourists for the designer outlet mall … locals for its dairy products (this area being one of the few regions where grapes take a back seat to another white beverage. Milk.). Even further off the beaten track is the village of Vicchio. It is famous for being the birthplace of Giotto, a painter from the late Middle Ages renowned as being able to draw a perfect circle. (I had little appreciation of this period of art history …. spending all my time at L’Accademia gazing, mesmerized, at the David … until recently. The flat faces and golden halos have much more interest now that I’ve visited several of the churches and museums here, and understand that style.)

In downtown Vicchio is Piazzo Giotto, with an eponymous statute in the center. A church sits among the stores and cafes, along with a trattoria owned by a husband and wife. Per Bacco, where Mirco greets and seats … Elisabetta stirs and sautes.

David and I sat at a small table in the piazza. It was a hot evening when eating less was more appealing than more … we decided to share courses. And drink white wine. Riesling. I know I know … not normally our choice. A 2016 Monsupello. But the northeastern border of Italy and Austria has changed back and forth over the years, and this version from the now Italian side was minerally and crisp, not sweet.

We started with pici cacio e pepe con guanciale … chubby, semi-long pasta done Roman-style, plus pork fat. The pasta was chewy goodness (I think you know by now that I like toothsome pasta), partnered with pecorino and pepper and pork fat. What’s not to like?

Next, since we’d already had our minimum daily requirement of porcine products, we decided on chicken. Well, galletto … rooster … pressed under a brick. (I’m not sure if it’s a literal brick wrapped in foil or a figurative one … I use the frying pan/full teapot method.) I know I know … not normally our choice, so boring and unoriginal, but Italian poultry definitely has good flavor and a nice texture. The whole bird was split and perfectly cooked … crispy and brown skin, moist flesh. Cubes of roasted potatoes shared the plate. They didn’t need any garlic or rosemary to be flavorful. I don’t know what type of potatoes Italians plant, but they always seem to be good. We’re glad spuds have been a part of our garden for a few years.

As we ate, Mirco mentioned there was a Festa over the weekend. That explained the young man wandering around in a Medieval tunic … though I’m not sure what Festa his buddies in basketball singlets were celebrating.

And for dessert, we had chocolate tart with pear jam. I had thought it would be like a pie, with the jam spread on top … but it was better. There was the wedge of chocolate cake, delicious and rich by itself, and a dollop of pear jam on the side. I like it when foods are separated on my plate, so I can mix and match my own flavors. Those who wanted chocolate and pear ate both (David!) … those of us who wanted just chocolate ate chocolate (me!).

David had an espresso. I don’t like coffee after a meal, and was happy to savor the chocolate lingering on my palate.

Simple and good and flavorful … we headed home, content.

That weekend, we decided to go with our friend, Petra, to the Festa Etnica. The three of us have been there before, walking around the various booths with colorful silk scarves and intricate handmade jewelry and exotic-wood bowls and aromatic candles and the ubiquitous booths … rather, food trucks … that are at every Festa in every town, beer and candy. We usually have some street food from the grill … sitting at picnic tables, eating on plastic plates and trying to cut a piece of beef or pork or sausage with a plastic knife, eating over-salted roasted potatoes, drinking weak wine that tastes of the plastic tube that delivered it to our plastic cup. But tonight, we wanted a nice dinner. And Mirco had a table outside so we could have dinner at Per Bacco.

We were not disappointed.

Bistecca is pure Tuscan, heart and soul. I don’t know which came first … this dish or the famous butter-soft leather. The meal usually starts with some pomp, as the owner brings a raw steak out for inspection and approval. Size matters. Mirco announced the weight … we nodded. Having it cooked blood rare … al sangue … blu  is a must. As my dad would tell a waiter, Have the chef walk the cow through the kitchen quickly.

Petra and I decided to have some prosciutto while we waited. Nicely trimmed of fat, it was a sweet beginning to our meal. David had a local classic … tortelli stuffed with potato, and sauced with a hearty meat ragu. A worthy indulgence.

Of course we ordered red wine, one that Petra knew … a 2014 Rinnegato, it was an IGT that was new to us. Full-bodied and tannic, with a deep purple color, it paired perfectly with the steak.

The bistecca arrived … again with fanfare. Sitting on a platter, Micro placed it on the cutting board and sliced thick, oh so juicy pieces … still red-pink, but warm. And fragrant. And tender, so the steak knife glided with each cut. Bite and sip, bite and sip. A lovely Tuscan evening, watching everyone wander here and there at the Festa.

For dessert, David opted for another classic … tiramisu. It arrived with three spoons. Mirko knew [wink]. A creamy delight, the texture of the ladyfingers remained as the espresso-infused cookies dissolved onto your tongue mixing with the mascarpone … and a thick dusting of cocoa, bitter cocoa, on top making the perfect final tasting note.

Then, to our surprise, Mirco brought out a bottle of pear liqueur. Francois Peyrot … Poire Williams & Cognac, read the label. Oh my, oh my … the pear beautifully and beguilingly masked the alcohol. I’m not one who usually has more than a couple of sips of high octane digestivi. Ha! Digestivi … that’s what the Italians call it, but I use the term loosely. I don’t know if it helps food move through your system … or just thoughts through your brain. This pear liqueur was too good. It was a lovely ending to a delicious dinner.

Per Bacco, Vicchio (FI).

BISCOTTI … CANTUCCI

The all cookies in Italy are called biscotti. These … cantucci or biscotti di Prato (or ziewback) … are classically made with almonds or fennel/anise seeds or small chocolate chips. They are not dipped in chocolate … but I when I do get bold, I dip the whole side so there is dark chocolate in every bite.

1-1/2 cup sugar
4 eggs
¼ cup olive oil
2 tsp. vanilla extract
5 cups flour
2 tsp. baking soda
Pinch of salt
Mix-Ins …pick one or more … for a total of 1-½ cup
* 3/4 cup cocoa powder
* Chocolate chips or chunks
* Chopped walnuts … almonds … hazelnuts … macadamia nuts
* Raisins … chopped figs … chopped dates … candied ginger
* 1 Tbl. cinnamon … ginger … clove … nutmeg
* 1 oz. (2 Tbl.) coffee or espresso powder
* 1 oz. (2 Tbl.) fennel or anise seeds
* Grated orange or lemon peel

- Preheat oven to 325°F (160° C). Line 2 cookie sheets with silpats.
- In large bowl, combine sugar, eggs, oil and vanilla. Blend in cocoa, if using it.
- Stir in flour, baking soda and salt.
- Add mix-ins (if dough is too dry, especially if using cocoa, add 1–2 tablespoons water).
- With hands, form dough into 4 to 6 logs, depending on length, approx. 3 inches wide and 1 inch high. Place on cookie sheets.
- Bake 15–20 minutes until slightly firm to touch.
- When cool enough to handle, transfer to cutting board. Slice each log on the diagonal into pieces about 1/2 inches wide.
- Return slices to cookie sheets, bottoms down, staggering each row so the cut surfaces are overlapping only slightly to keep the cookies upright.
- Bake for 5–10 minutes for a softer texture … or 10–15 minutes for classic crunchy/firm.
Makes 50 or more cookies.
Enjoy!