Edible Patriotism

By Rick Steves

After a day in Florence, I climb directly to the roof garden of my hotel where, if I stand up, the bell towers and domes are higher than the TV antennas. Beyond the city walls, in a misty Leonardo terrarium, the cyprus-stubbled hills of Tuscany cradle the city.

My friend Manfredo summons me to dinner and directs me to a big chair at the antique table. Diana, his girlfriend, sets a big glass plate of bruschetta in front of me. Each slice of toast looks like a little brown ship — a toothpick mast flying a garlic clove — sailing over its oily deck. We hungrily destroy the tidy flotilla. Ripping off a mast and rubbing the sail on the crusty deck, I say, "My family eats bruschetta at home. But we all agree it's best in Italy."

Manfredo says, "Real bruschetta needs real Tuscan bread. This is made with only flour, water, and yeast. No salt. It is great today. Hard like rock tomorrow."

Diana says, "Because the bread gets old quickly, in Tuscany there are many dishes made with yesterday's bread."

In unison, they labor through a short list as if it were long: "Minestrone di pane, ribollita, pappa al pomodoro."

Manfredo explains, "Ribollita is for the poor. You cook and always stir together beans, cabbage, carrots, onions, old bread, and olive oil for at least two hours... very filling. It is not good with fresh bread."

Passing Diana the bowl of parmesan cheese, Manfredo says, "My sister was born in Florida — I know, strange because most people die there."

Manfredo picks up his knife, eying the lasagna on the big plate in front of him. "In America, a restaurant is not looking for what is good food. What is good is what sells." He sticks his knife through two steamy inches of lasagna. "Real lasagna is only this thick. In USA they make it twice this thick," he says, flipping another serving on top, "and they fill it with mozzarella." As he says, "There is no mozzarella in lasagna," Diana chuckles in agreement.

After a swig of wine, Manfredo continues, "If you go to an American restaurant and say the food is bad, you get a coupon for a free meal. More bad food. If you say the food is bad in a restaurant in Italy, you get kicked out. To get free food here, it is vice versa — you say 'This is the best beefsteak I ever eat.' Chef will then say, 'You must try the dessert.' You say 'Oh no.' He says, 'Here. Please. Take it for free.'"

Diana says, "In a real Italian restaurant when you complain, the chef will tell you, 'I cooked this as a boy the way my grandmother cooked this.' It cannot be wrong."

I ask, "What do you think about French food?"

Manfredo, peppering a puddle of oil on a small plate, responds, "With the French there are two things great: their wine and their art. Since the time of Napoleon, they think only of their wine and their art. In the south they are like the Italians. From Paris and north, they are so proud they are boring."

Tearing off a piece of bread and ram-rodding it into oil, Diana says, "For me, the French cheese, it is the Italian cheese with mold. If we have cheese that doesn't sell, it gets moldy. After some days, it is perfect for the French."

Raising my glass of wine I offer a toast to Italian food. "To cuisine Italia."

Manfredo follows that, saying magnanimously, "To bacon and eggs." We all agree that American breakfasts were unbeatable.

"Omelets, hashbrowns," Manfredo reminisces with a rueful grin. "On my last visit to New York, I gain four kilos in three weeks."

Raising our glasses filled with fine vino rosso we all say, "To American breakfasts."