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Trattoria 4 Leoni, Florence, Italy, tasted on March 20, 2004 — On a small piazza in the middle of Florence that looks like it's straight out of a movie set, sits Trattoria 4 Leoni. Don't ask to me explain the weird numerological naming as I don't get it and I don't speak enough Italian to have asked. Luckily, math is not a requirement to enjoy the food there. Before I dive in, I should say that Italy really is an incredible place. Much like Japan (in my experience) the bar for food is simply higher. The number of restaurants we ate at that we'd love to return to were numerous. Trattoria 4 Leoni was definitely one of them.

Dinner peaks in Florence between 9:30 and 11pm. We arrived on this night at 10pm, right in the middle of the action. We sat down to a few slices of the almost comically horrible Florentine bread. I don't know whether this is apocryphal or not, but the story I heard is that at some point in not too recent history salt was an incredibly expensive commodity in this region of Italy. The locals had to bake their bread without it. And when salt became as common as... well... salt, nobody bothered to put it back in their bread. The result? Bread so devoid of flavor it's like a black hole eliminating flavor anywhere it can find it in the universe. I've never eaten cardboard, but I would imagine this isn't so dissimilar. You may wonder how a meal starting with such horrible bread can turn out so great. The truth is that the bread is a just a function of the region. This was clear as we had bread like this almost everywhere we went. On to the good stuff.

First up was Crostini Misti, an assortment of crostini. The tomato was bursting with flavor, oil, and freshness though the bread was a touch soggy. The mushrooms had a nice oiliness as well. And the ground beef had a livery quality (in a good way) and was savory and juicy. A neat butter replacement in my opinion. Next up was the Prosciutto. The saltiness built slowly and the strong cool freshness of the mozzarella was a perfect backdrop.

We followed up the prosciutto with Involtino di Melanzane - eggplant and ricotta. The eggplant itself was somewhat flavorless but was saved by the ricotta which was supple and subtle with a slight tanginess and a bunch of warm flavors. It was cool how the olive oil snaked through the the dish. These were all just warm-ups for the pasta. Let me take a moment to explain my obsession with pasta. It's amazing to me how something as simple as a noodle and sauce can taste so incredible when every variable is just so. When the pasta has a fresh quality and is cooked just perfectly - not too soft, not too hard. The sauce is hot and chock full of clean, fresh, and distinct flavors. The combination is served at the exact perfect moment when the temperature and textures are perfect, and I'm happy.

OK. First was Fiocchetti di Pere Con Salsa di Taleggio e Asparagi - asparagus pasta. The sauce was silky and creamy and the pasta had a surprise filling - sweet pear. Strigoli al Pomodoro Piccante. "Worm" pasta with tomato sauce! So simple, fresh, and delicious. The slight kick combined with the slitheriness of the pasta makes it special. Simple and special. I could eat this every day of my life. And finally we had Risotto alla Zucca Gialla e Gorgonzola - saffron risotto. It was gentle, creamy, and slightly cheesy with good flavor. That said, it was slightly boring.

For our post-pasta dishes we started off with Baccalà alla Fiorentina. It was soft with a subtle flavor. Nice. The tomato could be a bit brighter. The grilled chicken was a favorite for me and Alex. It was savory, juicy and with a grilled flavor that enhanced the perfect seasoning. Yummy! The veal chop was excellent as well. I really love all the Florentine grilled items. And they're always served with lemon. Another great thing about Florence. And finally we had the Veal with balsamic vinegar. It was very good and drippingly juicy.

Peyman put forth a theory that the bread was designed only to be eaten in partnership with other foods - like mopping up the juice from the veal with balsamic. In the interest of a full evaluation and investigation I tried out Peyman's theory... he was wrong. The bread still sucked. I could have mopped up the juice with cardboard and not been able to tell the difference. The water policy however was great. Unpretentious pitchers, always filled.

For dessert we started with the pecorino. It was quite good. But it would have been better  had they not run out of truffle honey. [Insert sadness here.] Cheese Cake Fatto da Noi - cheesecake with chocolate was so very incredible. It was made of a light ricotta and covered with a bittersweet chocolate. It was kind of a mound of slightly sweet air and cheese covered in a chocolate drizzle. The crumbly cakey base/crust was great for texture and a different kind of sweetness. Delicious. I was so in love with the cheesecake I almost didn't try the pear cake and the tiramisu. Rest assured I managed to get at least one bite of each and they were good as well.

Bottom line, Italy is full of simple pleasures. This meal was a like a mini-representation of our eating so far during our trip. A higher baseline of quality than many other places on the globe, and a regular rhythm of simple and exquisite pleasures. I can taste it now.











Tastingmenu is focused on superlative restaurant experiences from two perspectives: behind the plate and behind the stove. Tastingmenu is written by Hillel (professional eater) and Dana (up-and-coming professional chef) in Seattle, Washington.

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  Garlic has long been credited with providing and prolonging physical strength and was fed to Egyptian slaves building the giant pyramids. Throughout the centuries, its medicinal claims have included cures for toothaches, consumption, open wounds and evil demons. A member of the lily family, garlic is a cousin to leeks, chives, onions and shallots. The edible bulb or "head" grows beneath the ground. This bulb is made up of sections called cloves, each encased in its own parchmentlike membrane. Today's major garlic suppliers include the United States (mainly California, Texas and Louisiana), France, Spain, Italy and Mexico. There are three major types of garlic available in the United States: the white-skinned, strongly flavored American garlic; the Mexican and Italian garlic, both of which have mauve-colored skins and a somewhat milder flavor; and the Paul Bunyanesque, white-skinned elephant garlic (which is not a true garlic, but a relative of the leek), the most mildly flavored of the three. Depending on the variety, cloves of American, Mexican and Italian garlic can range from 1/2 to 1 1/2 inches in length. Elephant garlic (grown mainly in California) has bulbs the size of a small grapefruit, with huge cloves averaging 1 ounce each. It can be purchased through mail order and in some gourmet markets. Green garlic, available occasionally in specialty produce markets, is young garlic before it begins to form cloves. It resembles a baby leek, with a long green top and white bulb, sometimes tinged with pink. The flavor of a baby plant is much softer than that of mature garlic. Fresh garlic is available year-round. Purchase firm, plump bulbs with dry skins. Avoid heads with soft or shriveled cloves, and those stored in the refrigerated section of the produce department. Store fresh garlic in an open container (away from other foods) in a cool, dark place. Properly stored, unbroken bulbs can be kept up to 8 weeks, though they will begin to dry out toward the end of that time. Once broken from the bulb, individual cloves will keep from 3 to 10 days. Garlic is usually peeled before use in recipes. Among the exceptions are roasted garlic bulbs and the famous dish, "chicken with 40 cloves of garlic," in which unpeeled garlic cloves are baked with chicken in a broth until they become sweet and butter-soft. Crushing, chopping, pressing or pureeing garlic releases more of its essential oils and provides a sharper, more assertive flavor than slicing or leaving it whole. Garlic is readily available in forms other than fresh. Dehydrated garlic flakes (sometimes referred to as instant garlic) are slices or bits of garlic that must be reconstituted before using (unless added to a liquid-based dish, such as soup or stew). When dehydrated garlic flakes are ground, the result is garlic powder. Garlic salt is garlic powder blended with salt and a moisture-absorbing agent. Garlic extract and garlic juice are derived from pressed garlic cloves. Though all of these products are convenient, they're a poor flavor substitute for the less expensive, readily available and easy-to-store fresh garlic. One unfortunate side effect of garlic is that, because its essential oils permeate the lung tissue, it remains with the body long after it's been consumed, affecting breath and even skin odor. Chewing chlorophyll tablets or fresh parsley is helpful but, unfortunately, modern-day science has yet to find the perfect antidote for residual garlic odor.  

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