Often during the winter, I’ve traveled to Italy, especially Tuscany. In my opinion, it’s the ideal time to visit. The weather can be cold and rainy, but it also chases away many of the crowds. Besides, much of Tuscany’s history and art can be appreciated indoors.
My favorite Tuscan destination is Florence, and my preferred hotel is the Palazzo Alfieri (“Alfieri Palace”). Named after the 18th-century Italian playwright and poet Vittorio Alfieri, it sits downtown near the Arno River, around a five-minute walk from the famous Uffizi gallery (home of Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus” and other masterpieces).
Among the many day trips from the city center are excursions to the nearby Chianti Classico grape-growing region. One of my favorite wineries there is Casa Emma, where the Bucalossi family has preserved the historical features of an organically producing wine estate. Along with many of their other wines, the Bucalossis’ Chianti is delightful, particularly when paired with tastings of olive oil, balsamic vinegar, cheese, salami, prosciutto and bruschetta.
Back in Florence, my go-to eatery remains Ristorante Mamma Gina, across the river and another five-minute walk from the hotel. In addition to its fresh pasta selections, I have discovered Mamma Gina’s remarkable soups. I have two favorites—ribollita and Tuscan bean. Both are exquisitely flavorful and robust, equally comforting in cooler weather.
Ribollita literally means “re-boiled.” It originated as a strategy for leftovers, including stale bread and vegetables that had already been cooked. Next month: More tempting destinations in Italy, and my secrets for Tuscan bean soup.
I’d also like to welcome Dehoff’s Market in Redwood City as the new sponsor of our food column. Last month, Chris Dehoff contributed his family’s traditional instructions for a standing rib roast to our holiday recipes. We’re grateful to Chris and Dehoff’s for their support!
3 cups chicken stock
1/4 cup olive oil, plus more for drizzling on the bread
1 yellow onion, chopped
1 carrot, peeled and diced
4 ounces pancetta, chopped
2 cloves peeled garlic, 1 minced and 1 whole
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 15-ounce can diced tomatoes
1 15-ounce can cannellini beans, drained
1 pound frozen spinach, thawed and squeezed dry
1 tablespoon herbes de Provence
(you can substitute 2 teaspoons each of dried thyme and dried savory,
plus 1 teaspoon dried marjoram and 1 teaspoon dried lavender)
1 bay leaf
1 3-inch Parmesan cheese rind (just the rind, not chunks of cheese)
Grated Parmesan, for serving
4 to 6 ciabatta rolls, sliced in halves
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
- Heat the oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add onion, carrot, pancetta, minced garlic, salt and pepper. Cook until onion and minced garlic are golden and pancetta is crisp, about 7 minutes. Add tomato paste and stir it until it dissolves. Add tomatoes and stir, scraping bottom of pan with wooden spoon to release all the brown bits. Add spinach, beans, herbs, stock, bay leaf and Parmesan rind. Bring soup to boil, reduce heat and simmer for 30 minutes.
- Drizzle ciabatta halves with olive oil and toast in the oven until they’re golden-brown, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat and rub tops with the whole garlic clove. Place toasts in serving bowls and ladle soup over toasts. Sprinkle soup with Parmesan and serve immediately.