Category Archives: Travel Log

Stories from my travels.

Eating Notes from a Recent Visit to Florence

Tortino with artichokes and white truffles at Buca dell'Orafo

Tortino with artichokes and white truffles at Buca dell’Orafo

If I add it up, I think I’ve spent about a full year’s worth of time in Florence over the last 20 years or so. About six months of that time I must have spent eating. And Florence’s food offerings still charm me with old favorites and new finds. In town a few weeks ago to give a keynote address at the conference Florence: A City of Many Appetites, on the 500th anniversary of the publication of Machiavelli’s The Prince, I was able satiate my own appetites between panels and presentations in a few of my favorite haunts.

First, a few notes on trends spotted on this visit:

Seasonal persimmon gelato at Vestri

Seasonal persimmon gelato at Vestri

Likely due to the economic realities of Italy right now and the outsize success of a few popular holes in the wall, panini shops have taken hold of Florence like cupcake shops in Manhattan. There used to be a few famous places—my favorites were Nerbone in the Mercato Centrale, I Fratellini, by the Duomo, and Antica Noe near the gelateria Vestri—but now you see one on every block. What is sad is that only a few are busy. One, All’Antico Vinaio, is so busy it must be the inspiration for everyone’s hope. Everyone presumes that those that are the busiest must have the best sandwiches and the freshest ingredients. But you really never know. The popular are just the ones most written about.

Also new to me this trip are the glass boxes outside ristorantes and caffès on historic piazzas, which seem to have replaced tents to protect “outdoor” tables and chairs. Especially at night, these illuminated cubes seem like elegant cages in which to view gesticulating Italians having a good time. These see-through cubes may have been a function of the season (we were visiting in November), but sitting inside any of them on the warm, sunny days we were fortunate to have was not appealing.


Buca dell’Orafo
Via dei Girolami, 28r
Tel. +39-055 213619
This is my favorite restaurant in town. Maybe my favorite restaurant in Italy. Nate’s, too. It’s right near the Ponte Vecchio, in a covered alleyway that leads to the Uffizi. It’s an old place, but locals I know wouldn’t go near it because of the location—too touristy—until a gastronomically trustworthy friend insisted. The restaurant, run by Giordano Monni, is tiny and attracts mainly a local crowd. Totally seasonal, classic and creative Tuscan dishes are all prepared with care, most better than anywhere else I’ve had them. From the fritto misto of vegetables to the bistecca alla fiorentina, to the pastas, the soups, and desserts, everything I’ve ordered (which is just about everything) has been great. Other favorites include the tortino (omelet), which is sometimes made with porcini, sometimes artichokes, white truffles in season. The tortino’s delicious flavor and creamy texture defy its few basic ingredients, eggs, olive oil, salt, vegetables. If your are a fan of anchovies, order the classic Jewish Italian dish of plump, anchovies, grilled bread and butter. The pastas are all perfect. Gnudi (ricotta dumplings in browned butter with sage) were excellent, gnocchi were light and delicate. And the secondi are all deeply satisfying, particularly the signature gropa scalopata (layers of rare grilled beef with pecorino, black pepper, fried herbs and olive oil). Desserts, a chocolate cake or a poached pear, are also lovely. And get a bowl of bocconcini Dai Dai, little bites of vanilla semi freddo covered in chocolate and hand wrapped in paper from an artisanal gelateria in a small town not far away. We went to Buca dell’Orafo twice in four days and were sorry we didn’t go more.

All’Antico Vinaio di Firenze
Via de’ Neri, 65
Tel. +39-055 2382723
We finally broke down and got on line with 25 or 30 others to try this, the most popular panini shop in Florence. You will know this place when you arrive because there is always a line and crowds of people crouching on the street eating oversized sandwiches. (Nate called it “the Artichoke Pizza of Florence.” I think it may be more like Magnolia Café.) The hordes come because this former hole in the wall has received a lot of Trip Advisor recommendations (the most in the world, in fact) and because they won a televised street food competition. And honestly, it’s pretty good. They stuff salumi or porchetta sliced to order into warm schiacciata (Tuscan focaccia) and condiment it with spreads of artichoke or eggplant or cheese, and top it with marinated eggplant, sliced tomatoes, and whatever else you want. For five euros the oversized sandwiches are a deal, even if the wait is taxing. Pour your own wine, honor system, two euros for all you can drink.

Club del Gusto
Via De’ Neri, 50/r
Tel. +39-348 0903142
Funny to be recommending this tiny tripe restaurant that’s across the street from All’Antica Vinaio (see above). We went in looking for a quick plate of pasta, assuming that a tripe shop would really only cater to locals, which it does. And the pastas, made to order by the owner, who chops the garlic and squishes the tomatoes once he hears what you are having, are very satisfying. (To me, it’s like the Shopsin’s of Florence.) Rigatoni with pancetta and pecorino were perfectly satisfying. The meatballs in tomato sauce obviously home made and delicious. The surprise is that the primi and secondi are all about five euros apiece. A satisfying lunch for ten euros is a surprise anywhere. That we enjoyed so much is even more shocking. Note, that the exemplary Gelateria dei Neri is just down the street.

Via dei Macci, 85r
Tel. +39-055 241076
Ganzo is an unusual restaurant. Actually, it’s not really a restaurant. It’s a classroom and a private gourmet club run by the students of the Apicius International School of Hospitality. It’s open for brunch and special dinners and aperitivi for members (anyone can become a member) and there’s usually something interesting going on. It’s run by the students, overseen by their professional chef/instructors, who are being graded while they work and learn. There’s a beautiful outdoor lounge area, and some lovely other sitting environments. Stop by and do your part for hospitality education.


Hotel Continentale
Rooftop Bar
Vicolo dell’Oro, 6R
Tel. +39-055 27262
Located at the base of the Ponte Vecchio, this outdoor, rooftop lounge has become our favorite place in Florence for cocktails. It’s atop the boutique Continentale hotel, part of the Ferragamo family’s chain. Even the elevator ride is entertaining. An iPad allows you to take selfies on the way up or you can change the ambient music. On the roof the setting is white and chic, the views of Palazzo Vecchio, the Oltrarno, and Brunelleschi’s dome are amazing. The soundtrack is chill. And the drinks are good. The aperitivi snacks used to be more substantial, but this time all we got was a big bowl of olives. Still, a perfect respite, day or night.

Four Season FirenzeAtrium Bar
Borgo Pinti, 99
Tel. +39-055 26261
The Four Seasons has raised the bar, almost too high, that is, too stiff, perhaps, for a sophisticated hospitality environment in Florence. Previously, you had to take a taxi ride up to Villa San Michele if you wanted such a formal setting for a drink. This is just a 10-minute walk from the duomo. It’s not full of Florentines, but it is full of beauty. During the day, the atrium let’s in gorgeous light, and the gardens of the hotel are magnificent. The whole thing is very grown up, piano music, and all, and the cocktails and snacks are, too. The hotel has a Michelin-starred fine dining restaurant, too, that’s very good, but pricey.


Borgo degli Albizi, 11r
Tel. +39-055 2340374
No trip to Florence for me is complete without a stop in this chocolate shop cum gelateria. Signore Vestri is a master. Each gelato is superb, with the chocolate-based ones bordering on sublime. Chocolate mint, chocolate cinnamon, chocolate orange, and chocolate chili (which has a pleasant kick in the aftertaste), are like eating the frozen center of fine truffles. Pistachio is “Wow!” A friend I led there once commented, “It’s so perfect, it seems French.”

Via Borgo Degli Abizi, 46/r
Tel. +39-055 0118039
There is plenty of good gelato in Florence (Carabè, Gelateria dei Neri, Badiani, Grom, Cantina del Gelato). Like Grom, the new Rivareno is part of a national chain. Also like Grom, the quality is excellent. Of particular note is the pleasingly chewy texture of their gelato. Don’t let the sterile space turn you off. Their dark chocolate is like frozen chocolate pudding. Just down the street from Vestri, it pains me to have to divide my allegiances, but they are both really good.


Caffè Libertà
Piazza della Libertà, 26
Tel. +39-055 474978
This is my favorite caffè in Florence, where you’ll find my favorite pastries in town. It’s a little off the beaten path, north of the center, on the Piazza Libertà, but I think it’s worth the trip, and I always go for one breakfast, at least, and hopefully two. Daily life unfolds in this caffè as you sit under the arcade and watch elegantly dressed women in high heels pull up on their bicycles to grab a cappuccino and a pastry on their way to work alongside workmen taking a break from a nearby construction job. And the pastries and salati (mostly panini) are, I think, the best in the city. Don’t miss the sfoglia, a glazed puff pastry turnover filled with vanilla pastry cream, or sweetened ricotta, or chocolate, or chocolate and pear, that may be the best puff pastry thingamagig I’ve ever had. The Florentine classic budino di riso (rice custard tart) is the best I’ve found in town, too They have decent coffee, too. A great place to sit and watch the real city unfold. And they are open (and very busy) on Sundays.

Via Guelfa, 116
Tel. +39-055 2658135
Like Ganzo, this jewelbox of a pasticceria is operated by students of the Apicius International School of Hospitality. It’s overseen by pastry chef Simone de Castro, and the quality and beauty of the offerings, not to mention the environment, are on par with the best in town. Maybe better.

One final note, this trip I was intrigued by a new, expensively renovated place near Santa Croce called Cucina Torciacoda. It turned out to be only one month old and not one but five separate food operations in one: a pizzeria, an osteria, a ristorante, a gelateria, and a shop. It  clearly cost a fortune to remodel, and I thought we should check it out. We had lunch in the Osteria. DON’T. It was horrible and will forever go down in history as the only time I’ve been served pasta in Italy that was inedible. Gloppy and disgusting. We regretted we wasted an entire meal time.


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Some Food Highlights from My Recent Trip to Paris

Just back from France and up early from jet lag, so I thought I’d jot down some of the culinary highlights of the trip. We had about 4 days in Paris that bookended a week in the Dordogne. I did most of the cooking in the Dordogne, as we were staying in a beautiful home overlooking the valley with not one but two kitchens. Shopping in French country markets, cooking for a group of food lovers is really paradise for me. But not much to share, besides a few recipes it would be hard to repeat.

With only a few days, in Paris we wandered the streets like fish swimming from food source to food source. The first night we arrived in Paris we were back in the ample, accommodating and very reasonable Hotel de Sèvres, in a great location on the left bank (1 block from La Grand Epicerie at the Bon Marché, which I always visit no matter where I’m staying). On the way home from the Périgord, we spent two nights in a lovely apartment through AirBNB  in the 3rd arrondissement, on the border of the 11th. It was a great location in the center of a dynamic neighborhood, teaming with new, creative shops, designers, galleries, restaurants and food shops. I’d highly recommend it. We enjoyed exploring what seemed to us to be the Brooklyn of Paris, with all the excitement and style, and within walking distance to the Louvre and almost everything y0u want to see.

Some trends we noted were les cupcakes sont arrivés, mon dieu!. Baby choux creams have taken over the pastry shops, and with too much fondant and soggy pâte à choux, they weren’t very good (I prefer them in Japan). There’s been a slew of  one-item stores that have opened up selling jams, olive oils, teas, and other specialties. Despite France’s recession, Paris seemed lively and dynamic. We had a great, delicious time, comme d’habitude. 

My recommendations appear after the mosaic of photos.

Restaurant Jadis
208 rue de la croix Nivert, 75015
A charming bistrot which reaches back into French culinary traditions to present a contemporary and very satisfying meal. (Nate’s first frogs’ legs were enjoyed here.) It’s a little out of the way, but worth the trek. It’s so off the beaten path the owner asked how we found it. (Thanks for the tip Art of Eating.) We were glad we did.

6 rue Bailleul, 75001
Daniel Rose is an American chef working in Paris who has created a sensation for his simple, elegant, satisfying, seasonal cooking at Spring. His newer location has a whopping 40 seats, so you stand a chance of getting it. It is convenient, just off the Rue du Rivoli, and worth a visit.

La Chambre Aux Confitures
60 rue du Vielle Temple, 75003
We stumbled into this shop because of the crowd that was standing around tasting jams. Just 2 years old, this shop was fun and exciting. The flavors of jams and honeys and chutneys and chocolats fondants was staggering. You can taste them all, box them up and give them as gifts. Although there is and always will be a special place in my heart for Christine Ferber, Lise Bienaimé has created something noteworthy.

La République Pâtissière
57 rue de Saintonge, 75003
Another shop we wandered into, this is actually a pastry cooperative, a retail space shared by four creative, young pastry chefs, who also share a production kitchen in another location. The four are B[n]S Kitchen, L’Angelique, Mademoisselle Proust, and Choo. The shop was lovely, as was the staff. Pretty tasty stuff, too. Particularly surprised by how delicious the mustard collection of macarons was (violet moutarde de Brive, Coleman’s and wasabi flavors).

16 rue Elzévir, 75003
Another stumble-on, this beautiful, faux-marble chocolate and sweet shop drew us in. Though we didn’t totally love all the chocolates, we did love the baked goods, which included a palet de chocolat and palet dames (together, like a black and white cookie, only better) , a superb financier au chocolate, and a picture-perfect and delicious brioche (which we brought home with us.)

La Grande Epicerie de Bon Marché
28 rue de Sèvres, 75007
I always come here when I’m in Paris to check out the selection of items from around the country and around the world. They also have the best price on Christine Ferber’s jams, though the selection of flavors is somewhat limited.

Pierre Hermé
72 rue Bonaparte, 75006
Even though we did a taste test this time with like items from Ladurée, and some of Hermé’s lost, I still love this shop and manage to arrive there somehow at least once a day (sometimes that’s because Nate is navigating). His current “fetish” this time was St. Honoré, and we had classique, chocolate, and lemon, which we loved.

Marché des Enfants Rouges
39 rue de Bretagne, 75003
A fun, covered market with cheap and delicious ethnic eats (Tunisian, Lebanese, Asian) and shops. It was great to walk through. Young, trendy clientele. Hope to come back with more time to explore more. There’s a lovely Provencal olive oil shop there, too, that had some great oils and other products.

Marché Bastille Richard Lenoir
Boulevard Richard Lenoir, 75001
Sunday mornings it’s a must to go to this lively street market, considered the largest in Paris, with a terrific selection of produce of all kinds, from meats and cheeses, to vegetables, fish, Italian items, and specialties from southwest France. The seafood at Lorenzo (at the top of the market) is unmatched in quality. Since most restaurants are closed Sunday nights, we picked up a superb picnic and made dinner ourselves.

5 rue Villedo, 75001
Coffee’s third wave has hit Paris in this charming shop in the vicinity of the Bourse. It feels a lot like Brooklyn or Portland in there, only the style of the staff and guests is a little better. The slow pace is the same. And the coffee is excellent. We never managed to get to The Broken Arm in our neighborhood when it was open, but we had high hopes for it, too. Next time, for sure.


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I’m Not Bluffing: The Inn at Palmetto Bluff in Bon Appétit

photo 1 How happy was I to be asked to write about the Inn at Palmetto Bluff for the current issue of Bon Appétit, which ranks seventh on the magazine’s list of the country’s best resorts for food lovers? You can read the Bon App report here. The image that appeared was of the resort’s annual Music to Your Mouth Festival. What’s missing, though, are photos of the incredible food you can enjoy in that amazing setting. Here’s a slide show of images I took during a visit last year. Of course, to really know how delicious the food is and how beautiful the place is, you’ll just have to go experience it for yourself.



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Pride & Gastro-Chauvinism in the Global Kitchen

This piece was written for the program at Terroir 7, a symposium on food and hospitality in Toronto. It was the topic of a panel I organized with Montreal Gazette critic Lesley Chesterman, Guardian critic and World’s 50 Best co-founder Joe Warwick from England, Toronto chef Tobey Nemeth of Edulis, and husband-and-wife restaurateurs Rae Bernamoff and Noah Bernamoff of Mile End in NYC. The panel and the subject were reported on by Ann Hui in the Globe & Mail.

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The panel at Terroir Symposium 7. From left, Rae Bernamoff, Noah Bernamoff, Tobey Nemeth, Joe Warwick and Lesley Chesterman. Photo by Kate Krader (@kkrader) of Food & Wine.

In the increasingly global world of gastronomy, chefs criss-cross continents like rock stars on tour. As manufactured destinations, Las Vegas and Dubai welcome outposts of famous chefs to help them establish food cultures they can call their “own.” But even cities with dynamic restaurant scenes have become landing pads for gourmet globetrotters building empires of fine-dineries that stretch around the world.

From one perspective, the arrival of an acclaimed chef from another city can validate the local food culture. So important on the world’s dining map is this place or that, an epicurean empire can’t be complete without an opening here or there. But from another perspective, the arrival of a famous chef in town to lay down restaurant roots can smack of culinary patronization.

In the midst of a trend toward local ingredients, how are diners to view the arrival of foreign chefs on the local scene?

In an interview with Food & Wine magazine, French critic François Simon of Le Figaro famously called out the ever-expanding Alain Ducasse, describing the celebrated French chef as “a sleek atomizer—spritzing his brand over you from a plane on his way to New York or Hong Kong.” But long before Ducasse, French chefs found their way abroad, to Japan most notably, a place with an incredibly rich and discerning food culture. None of those chefs lost their luster. In fact, having a deal in Japan came to be a mark of success for certain practitioners of the Nouvelle Cuisine.

Of late, Toronto has received the attention of two famed chefs from New York City, the beloved reactionary Asian-fusion chef David Chang, whose Momofuku empire practically doubled in size with the opening of three restaurants and a cocktail lounge in the new Shangri-La downtown, and Daniel Boulud, who brought his beloved Café Boulud from the Upper East Side of Manhattan to the new Four Seasons flagship in Yorkville.

Whether you think these are the greatest restaurants the city has ever seen—as critic Chris Nuttall-Smith deemed Momofuku Shoto in his review for the Globe & Mail—or you think they have a lot of improving to do—as critic Amy Pataki concluded about Café Boulud in her review for the Toronto Star—the question of how to feel about these newcomers is complex.

Toronto’s longtime love affair with New York City complicates matters further. Writing on her blog for Montreal”s Gazette, critic Lesley Chesterman weighed in decisively, “Did it really take a chef based in New York who was handed millions to play with to put the Toronto restaurant scene ‘back on the map?’…To me, the idea…is an embarrassment.”

How do you view these events? An embarrassment or evidence of having arrived on the culinary map? Don’t decide until you hear me, Chesterman, and our other special guests discuss this topic during what is sure to be a fascinating panel conversation.

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Some of the Best Food I Ate in 2012

Every holiday season we poll James Beard Foundation staff for the best dishes they enjoyed during the year to write a post on the Foundation’s blog Delights & Prejudices. In anticipation, I keep a running list on my iPhone. I am fortunate to be able to enjoy plenty of delicious food. Too much, really. More than can fit on any list, in fact, and only one or two ever make it onto the composite JBF post. Funnily, this is the first year I realized that I could write my own list and publish it on my blog. Duh! The process is wholly unscientific. On the one hand, you can presume that if I actually remembered to pull out my phone and record something I ate, it truly stood out. But it’s possible I was simply eating alone or bored at the table and therefore had time to jot down it down. I know there are wonderful things that were set before me that are missing from this list.


This beautiful fish dish from Radio in Copenhagen didn’t find it’s way onto the list. It was certainly delicious, but I didn’t write down the details.

Where’s lunch at Le Bernardin? The Cochon 555 Competition? My dinners at Torrisi and Daniel and Blanca and Northern Spy and Brushtroke and Eleven Madison Park? Anything from my memorable meals in Copenhagen? The bread from Bien Cuit? The soft pretzels from Stork’s? The food at our wedding and on our honeymoon, especially dinner at Frenchie? The delicious things Laurent Gras cooked in the studio for our ebook and in our kitchen at home? I must have enjoyed the company or the wine too much to take notes.

One note of apology for the varying quality of the photos, all of which I took. In an attempt to be as unobtrusive as possible on other guests, I don’t use a flash in the dining room. As the sun sets, so does the quality of my images.

Onto 2013…


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The Difficulty of Translating Japanese Food for Americans

So, I’m sitting here at the CIA Greystone after 2 days of their Worlds of Flavor conference on Japanese food, and I’m puzzled by what the takeaway will be for most people in the audience. Certainly, Japan is an inspiration for chefs around the world. This is as true today as it was in the 1960s, when the Japanese approach to dining inspired the Nouvelle Cuisine in France. Every time I hear of an innovation from the wildly creative Spanish chefs or the impressively local Nordic chefs, I can’t help but think, “Yeah, that’s interesting, but have you been to Japan?”

Still, I wonder if it wouldn’t be more useful for the evolution of American food culture if this were a conference about Japanese eating, rather than Japanese cooking, and if accordingly, the room were full of diners instead of cooks. I can’t help but think that it is American diners who need to learn how to eat, rather than American chefs who need to learn how to cook. Our chefs have proven time and again they are as good as the best in the world.

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We have seen some of the most respected Japanese chefs demonstrating the extreme attention to detail and pursuit of simplicity that are the hallmarks of Japanese cuisine. (Sometimes their demeanor and the simultaneously translation makes it feel like I’m in the middle of a Japanese episode of Iron Chef.) This morning I watched famed chef Kunio Tokuoka of Kyoto’s Michelin 3-star Kitcho salt chicken wings to remove their aku or “impurities” before Continue reading


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Where Has the Time Gone?

This isn't me, but it's how I've been feeling lately when I look at my email inbox.

Okay, so I’m a lousy blogger. It’s not for lack of wanting to comment on things I see and taste, or because I don’t want to keep people up to date on the goings on in the food world and in other worlds and in my underslept, overfed mind. It’s just that life has gotten away from me. A summer of travel (to Japan, to Vermont, to Toronto, well, Orangeville really, to Maine, to Copenhagen, to San Francisco) has made me fall behind on work and emails and all sorts of planning and projects. If I owe you an answer to something, please don’t take it personally. I’m working my way through the back log.

I had built a week into my flight schedules in August to catch up, and then I got called to be a judge on a new series on Food Network that took up a good 20 hours of each day for about a week, and then I was off to Maine from the show’s set. I would tell you all about my fascinating and exciting entry into the world of reality food television, but according to a nondisclosure agreement I signed, that would set me back a fine of $100,000. And believe me, it isn’t that interesting. You’ll have to wait to see for yourself when it airs next May. Divulging the details of a guest spot I taped on a special that will air around Thanksgiving could cost me $1,000,000, so you won’t be hearing about that either (but you won’t have to wait as long to see it). These TV people take their secrecy very seriously.

Anyway, one project I was working on that I can share is a review of The Foie Gras Wars by Mark Caro that I wrote for Gastronomica. Although the book came out last year and I think I wrote the review at least a year ago, it’s in the current issue. Its timing couldn’t be better because I am busy making travel plans with friends for a week at a stunningly beautiful, historic house in France we are renting over the Thanksgiving holiday. It’s in the Dordogne, sometimes called Périgord Nord, but known more widely as “foie gras country.” By November it will also be “truffle country,” and when those two countries come together, you know there is going to be one delicious feast. Okay, so we’ll be the sort of Pilgrims who will be eating duck instead of turkey, but we will certainly all be thankful.

I can also tell you about a few things I am doing that you can actually come to see and/or participate in. On September 23, Continue reading

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