Well, my trip got a little too busy for on-the-road blogging, but I'm back home and settled again in San Francisco. I have a ton of photos from my trip and lots to report on. I'll keep going right where I left off, which is our arrival in Florence.
Some quick background - my dad spent a full month in Florence back in 2007 in a supposed attempt to learn Italian and take some cooking lessons. Based on his Italian after he got back, it was clearly more of a eat + relax trip, like most vacations. Still, he was able to sample a ton of different restaurants there, and thus took the lead on choosing our food for this part of the trip.
We wanted to start out with a typical Tuscan meal, and settled on Il Guscio, a small restaurant on the south side of the Arno. My dad had a couple of good meals there on his last trip. It's a simple neighborhood joint with sparse decor and little fanfare, and it's also a decent ways out of the tourist zone. My dad also remembered remarkable values for Tuscan wines here from his last trip - on this night, we had a delicious Percarlo for what he deemed was a steal.
We started with this mixed seafood appetizer. Apologies for the focus - didn't get a great pic of this. All of them were pretty solid, but I liked the shrimp/scallop-flavored sformato the most. At €13, the plate was a little expensive compared to the rest of the meal. We only got one portion of this to share between us, because it was pasta that was really on our minds...
Now that my dad was with us and we had 3 whole people eating together, we began an ambitious habit of ordering ridiculous amounts of food. The truth is, we constantly ran into menus with too many things we wanted to try. Standard practice became appetizers to share, then 4 pastas to split among the 3 of us, then a main dish each.
First up at Il Guscio was this simple risotto with porcinis, executed just about perfectly. I've professed my love for porcinis on this blog many many times, and the chunks in this risotto were more than generous. To me, risotto is all about cooking to the right al dente and correctly balancing the liquid - two things that somehow go wrong more than you'd expect in America. No such problems here.
Trabaccolara is a seafood sauce of humble origins, using unsold fresh fish left from a fisherman's catch. The name comes from the type of boats they used in northern Tuscany. Again, the spaghetti was perfect al dente, and the sauce had a strong sea flavor from several different kinds of fish which stayed unidentified. Slightly over-salted, but still delicious.
My dad claims Il Guscio was the first place he ever tried maltagliati, and this dish was the main reason he wanted to come back. Maltagliati, which is basically the scraps and weird shapes leftover from cutting sheets of pasta, has since grown at least slightly in popularity. I've seen it here and there on menus back home.
This version was truly excellent. The thick, shellfish-y sauce clung beautifully to the haphazard sheets of pasta, and the zucchini flowers were a perfect veggie complement. Absolutely worth returning for.
We tried to get away initially with just sharing 3 pastas, but when we saw a dish of this modified vongole heading to another table, we simply had to try it. The dish is basically a standard vongole with an Asian twist - you can't really see the ginger, but you could definitely taste it. Our most frequent complaint about vongoles is that they are somehow always too watery, but this one was just right. Great execution and an interesting twist.
Of course, we were eager to try the famous bistecca alla fiorentina, a staple of the Tuscan menu. Most of Italy isn't really known for beef, but in Florence, beef reigns supreme. The porterhouse-like bistecca is produced from Chianina cows, a pure white Italian breed known for the biggest cows in the world. They're generally meatier and heartier than the famous Japanese cows, and have a strong flavor as opposed to intense marbling. Seeing chunks of uncut bistecca at the butcher is pretty impressive - they're freaking ginormous.
At Il Guscio, Geoff and I shared this relatively modest portion. The steak had a nice fiery crust from the grill, and the meat itself was tender and flavorful. It was a very satisfying piece of meat indeed. Also worth mentioning is that the side of roasted (maybe also fried?) potatoes was absolutely delicious. This would become a trend - it turns out the often bland-looking side of potatoes is usually awesome in Tuscany. Who knew.
I had a pretty unremarkable gelato for dessert which I forgot to photograph. Overall though, we were very happy with this first Florence dinner. I must say again that the pastas were all great, and at €10 an amazing value as well. The service was friendly and efficient. The owner had a very welcoming attitude, and was clearly genuinely happy to practice his English and serve some local food to us obvious tourists. Il Guscio is a very solid choice for a hearty Tuscan meal.