pastry, pastry, everywhere…

What’s a girl to do?

Everywhere I look, there are pastry shops. And not just pastry shops. Italian pastry shops. French pastries I can walk by and admire for their beauty and all, but Italian pastries, oh the pastacciotte and sfogliadelle and babas and sfincis and cannolis. Oh, it’s just so unfair that calories consumed on vacation you can bring back to the states on your thighs, but grappa, not so much.

I was surprised, walking around Rome, how few pastry shops and bakeries I saw. I always thought it was odd (and not a little distressing) that there are no real Italian bakeries in Seattle (yes, they have ones that call themselves Italian, but then the only Italianish pastries they have are ever cannoli and tiramisu and I just need more variety in my life), and so you can imagine that by the time I got here, I was more than a little chomping at the bit for some good bakery items. But Rome, or at least the parts of it I walked through, seemed to be pastry-free zones. And this disappointed me.

Florence, on the other hand, is a pastry Mecca. There are tons of little bakeries with good varieties of biscotti and cookies and pastries as well as bread and panini. They tempt me. They call my name. Actually, they sing my name, not unlike the sirens, irresistable and charming and oh-so seductive. And it’s not like I can just say, “sorry, it’s the middle of the day and I just had lunch, so no thanks.” These are Italian pastries we’re talking about. The gold-standard of desserts in their native environment. You don’t just walk by them callously unless you’ve no heart, no soul, no appreciation of…

Excuse me. I get a little worked up about this sort of thing.

But you need to take into consideration that when I leave here, it’s not like I’m going home to Jersey. Who knows how long it might be before I can have a proper pastry again. They don’t ship well and I can’t bake. So I might need to stock up. Think of me as the Noah of sweets.

This afternoon, torta della nonna. Crumbly, buttery shortbready base, not too sweet, with a thin layer of ricotta custard sporting just the hint of lemony-ness, a smattering of toasted pignolis, a sprinkle of powdered sugar. Grandma’s cake, is what it means. God bless the grandma who invented it, is what I say.

Yesterday, I had some biscotti with pignolis. I love pignolis. And then last night I gave in to the call of some tiramisu. I know the next ones that will claim their place on my midsection are probably going to be these cookies that they call pescatores, which seem to be loaded with raisins and pignolis. And probably, sometime not long after that, I’ll break down and go for the good old clam shells–my beloved sfogliadelle, the mother of all pastries.

And it’s not like I have been starving myself between desserts, either. Though today, I think I earned my lunch.

I went to the Academia dell’Arte to see the David. Which has really big hands, by the way. Freakishly big hands. And then to Santa Croce, which is much smaller than the Duomo, but still very pretty, and inside quite a bit more lovely. It was cold today. Cold enough, in fact, that it’s snowing as we speak. I was planning on crossing the river and finding a nice place for lunch. I crossed the river, and was heading in the direction of where I thought a nice lunch in a warm spot could be had when another of those sirens lured me into her trap–though this time it wasn’t the sweets, but stairs. As I’ve said, I have developed this need to climb practically every set of stairs I come upon, especially when they are outside and I don’t know where they lead to. So I did, and at the top of the stairs was this windy road heading up the hill that I couldn’t not follow, and by the time I had decided that I’d probably gone far enough and should head back before I froze completely through I looked up and saw a castle way up at the top of the hill and over some. The inner dialogue that then occurred went something like this:

Paulette: Ooh, a castle!
Paulette: Uhm, have you noticed it’s freezing?
Paulette: Well, yeah, but it’s a castle. I like castles.
Paulette: Right. Castles are cool. But it’s like 2 outside. Can we please go find somewhere warm now?
Paulette: No, I wanna see the castle.
Paulette: Ugh! You’re impossible. You know that?
Paulette: Hey, it’s not like I ever get to spot a castle and just drive to it, let alone walk to it. Be a sport.

And so I went up. And up. And up. And then, I got to the top, and, well, I’m not sure I was still technically in Florence any more. I think my map ended about three miles before this point. I had one of those, “I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore, Toto” moments.

And I didn’t quite make it to my castle because the gates at the bottom of the entrance were shut tight. So, I started walking back to Florence, and when I got down as far as the Via Gallileo, took a turn so that I wasn’t just retracing my steps and could walk along the ridge up there looking down on the city. Which was gorgeous. And offered no protection whatsoever from the wind.

At some point, I came upon an area during this walk, let’s say about half an hour after getting onto Via Gallileo, when I spotted some stairs going into a woods near a church. Now, you’d have thought I would have learned my lesson by now, but then you’d be expecting a lot more from me than is entirely reasonable. Of course I climbed them, and then followed the path around the church walls. You could hear the wind in the trees and it was so pretty and serene, and at the back of the church there was a great view of the Tuscan countryside and I fell in love with it.

There’s a great line in A Room with a View, that goes something along the lines of “Miss Honeychurch, Charlotte, Miss Lavish, the Reverend Mr Beebe, Mr Emerson and George drive out to see a view. Italians drive them.” Well, Italians did not drive Ms Mckay and her metaphorical terrier to this view, but I’ll say it was rather on equal with the one from that great scene where George kisses Lucy in the meadow. Oh Tuscany.

And then back to the road, the ridge, the wind. Another thirty minutes or so and I found myself at a hotel with a nice-looking restaurant perched in such a way that I could look down on the city–the Duomo, the Arno, and everything. More importantly, it occurred to me that a nice hotel with a restaurant would have heat, and as my pancreas was now frozen solid, and the original plan had been to have lunch about two and a half hours earlier, I thought this might not be such a bad idea.

The place was fairly empty. Three tables occupied, but it was almost three in the afternoon. I can’t say I was super hungry, but I wanted something warm. Immediately upon being seated I was brought a glass of prosecco, and an urn-like thing with a light, moussy pate and some toast to spread it on. That was a nice touch.

The menu looked nice, if a little fancy. I went for the appetizer of bacala and potato mousse, sort of like the brandade de morue I made for Christmas, served with crispy artichoke slices. And for pasta I had house made pappardelle in a duck ragout. They were both great, but the pasta dish was just absolutely outstanding. And warming. Just the slightest rosemary flavor to it, earthy and not heavy. And I was seated right near the window so I had a perfect view of the whole city.

I finished with an espresso, and then my waiter brought me a glass of limoncello, saying that was from him. I sipped it slowly until I felt thawed enough to brave outside again.

And now it’s sort of snowing. My current dream is to find a ten-foot tall space heater and hug it tightly. Failing that, I might just leave this Internet cafe and head straight for the nearest purveyor of babas. Mmm….babas…

5 thoughts on “pastry, pastry, everywhere…”

  1. How lucky we are to have your travel tales, Paulette. Keep up the hard work of reveling in all that bella Italia has to offer…

  2. Ah, Paullette! I’ve got no right envying you as it wasn’t but three weeks ago that we were in Tuscany, but reading this makes me weep with envy.

  3. Mmmm, Paulette, your words bring me back. Some of best pastries I had in Europe were in Florence. I particularly remember the chewy ones dripping with nuts and candied fruit. We lived on them and pate and bread for days. I was naive to think that any of this food would last long enough to share with friends back in Seattle.

    You draw a lovely sketch.

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