For Filipinos traveling to Europe, the transition from Spain to Italy may not be as pronounced as that between a Mediterranean country and a Northern European one. It seemed and felt to us that our Italian leg was an extension of our prior nine-day trip through Spain. The rolling “r’s” of the Spanish and Italian languages, the churches, the plazas or piazzas, the tomatoes and garlic—they’re all so familiar and comforting for us Filipinos.
However, to regard Italy and Spain as “the same” is a terrible and simplistic conclusion. We recognize that Italy has always been a unique and enchanting destination. In fact, tourism in Italy began as early as the 17th century thanks to its rich art, cuisine, culture, fashion, and fascinating history. European aristocrats would go on what was called the “Grand Tour,” an itinerary that included Rome and Florence, among other Mediterranean cities, to immerse themselves in the architecture, cultural heritage, and art of the region. Centuries later, we were embarking on our own more humble “Grand Tour” of Italy’s noblest cities, Rome and Florence.
Caput Mundi: Rome, Italy
The cool weather, the winding, cobblestoned streets, the soaring church facades, the ubiquitous “SPQR”—Rome is like a living and breathing museum, inhabited by a fashionable citizenry and visited by an average of 10 million tourists last year. The Italian capital is where Italians, pilgrims, and tourists converge, and it packs 28 centuries of history, art, and gastronomy.
A trip to Rome almost requires you to do a ton of things: see the Pope, toss coins into the Fontana de Trevi, marvel at the Sistine Chapel, take pictures of the Coliseum, eat gelato—the list is endless!
For me and my friends, first on our list, however cliché as it may sound, was to eat pizza and pasta. We were lucky our apartment was located near La Sapienza University, and thus were surrounded by affordable eateries brimming with young crowds.
We had our first Roman meal at Cantina e Cucina, a hip restaurant along Via del Governo Vecchio, a stone’s throw from Piazza Navona. The restaurant was packed with young locals and efficiently staffed by—you guessed it—Filipinos! We kicked off our Roman holiday with an Aperol spritz followed by authentic carbonara, al dente pasta with guanciale, egg, and pecorino, as well as Bolognese ragu with a hefty meatball. Slices of mortadella and pizza with salami paired well with the pastas.
Coming from Spain, we found the nightlife in Rome much tamer than that in the Iberian peninsula. On our second night, we walked almost aimlessly in the dim and quiet Trastevere area, and just before giving up, we finally found the place where we hoped to enjoy an indulgent Italian meal: Le Mani in Pasta.
The osteria did not disappoint.
Starting off our meal was mixed shrimps, clams, and mussels in white wine with butter, garlic, and chili, and fresh, delicate mozzarella di bufala or buffalo mozzarella. The pastas we ordered— carbonara and penne arrabiata—were excellent. But the true highlight of the evening was the white truffle pasta. As our Cuban waiter shaved hefty amounts of “the diamond of the kitchen” over the al dente noodles, we could smell its pungent but heavenly scent as paper thin slivers of the trufa bianca melted graciously. Bottles of medium-bodied Montepulciano paired excellently with our savory orders.
Rome is a city of ancient monuments, Baroque shrines, and glorious history. And although not all the sites are near one another, walking was a pleasurable activity as I was treated to a myriad of gelaterias, fountains, and churches that might have a Caravaggio altarpiece or a Michelangelo sculpture.
The birthplace of the Renaissance: Florence
Mea culpa! It was as if we committed a sin when we did Florence in a day. But it was better than not visiting the birthplace of the Renaissance. We were also quite amazed with our own stamina as we covered most of the major sites in approximately 11 hours.
A comfortable two-hour, high-speed Italo train ride took us from Rome to Florence and the first thing we did was have a heavy brunch at the spic-and-span Mercato Centrale di San Lorenzo.
Housed in a glass and cast iron edifice from 1874, the Mercato Centrale di San Lorenzo underwent a major renovation a handful of years ago and it is now a convenient stop which tempts you to linger and hang out for hours. The ground floor is composed of shops selling raw ingredients as well as delis and artisan souvenir stores. On the first floor, however, you can order from the well-curated selection of gourmet concessionaires who buy their ingredients from the market. Although there is a wide variety of Italian and Tuscan dishes, you can also find some other cuisines being served in this multifunction area.
The dining space on the first floor is an airy, modern, and brightly-lit expanse that also features an information counter, a wine shop for the Chianti Classico Consortium, and Cucina Lorenzo de’ Medici, a cooking school that defines experiential dining.
For our midday visit, classics were in order: porchetta (that wasn’t crispy, so lechon won that day), trippa alla fiorentina (which was basically callos), and pizza Margherita. It was also our first time to try soppressata Toscana, salami composed of pig’s head and other leftovers from the pig. It was delicious, fatty, and a true revelation.
After brunch, we headed out to check the Duomo, Piazza della Signoria, and Gallerie degli Uffizi. With hefty servings of Da Vinci, Caravaggio, and Botticelli, among other great masters, we proceeded to Ponte Santa Trinità from where we viewed the Ponte Vecchio and crossed over to the less touristy area of Oltrarno.
Walking through small streets teeming with artisan shops, we found our way to Palazzo Pitti and Boboli Gardens. The Pitti’s spartan façade hides treasures, from Raphael’s iconic Granduca Madonna to Titian’s Mary Magdalene—the palace can satiate any art lover’s hunger.
With all the walking we did, it made sense to have a heavy dinner, and in unison, we all decided it should be bistecca alla fiorentina. Our restaurant of choice was All’Antico Ristoro Cambi, founded in 1950 by Bruno Cambi, the current owner’s father.
Formerly called Fiaschetteria Cambi, the restaurant was a bottega where wine (“fiasco” shares Cambi), cold cuts, sandwiches, anchovies, and tuna were served. “In the late 80’s, the place became a trattoria, serving Florentine typical dishes, like tripe, lampredotto, ribollita, pappa al pomodoro, ham and finocchiona, and the Florentine steak, which is probably one of the most popular in the city,” shared Cambi.
And so, a hefty kilo of beef graced our table momentarily. Flavored only with salt, the charred top layer and the pinkish meat were sights too difficult to simply behold—and the steak was gone in a jiffy. What characterizes the uniqueness of bistecca alla fiorentina is the cooking technique employed by the chefs who prepare it.
“Our menu hasn’t changed that much in the last 20 to 30 years and our purpose is to continue this way. Even if there is a hard competition in Florence with hundreds of recently opened trattorie and restaurants, offering bigger tables, wider selections and whatnot, we are trying to remain the same: same menu, same food, same stool, same small table because we believe in our heritage,” explained Cambi.
As we made our way back to the Sta. Maria Novella train station to catch the last train to Rome, our scoops of gelato were the sweet counterpoints to our savory day in the irresistible and charming capital of the Tuscan region.
We ended our trip to Italy with a cup of exquisite cappuccino at the iconic Sant’ Eustachio Il Caffè, plus a half-day marathon of walking to nearby sites: the Pantheon, the Church of Il Gesù (the mother church of the Jesuits), and Piazza Navona.
Italy left us craving for more of the bel paese, an enchanting, boot-shaped country blessed with natural beauty, fantastic art, and glorious gastronomy.
Cantina e Cucina, Via del Governo Vecchio, 87, Rome Le Mani in Pasta, Via dei Genovesi, 37, Rome Mercato Centrale di San Lorenzo, Piazza del Mercato Centrale, Via dell’ Ariento, Firenze All’Antico Ristoro Cambi, Via S Onofrio, 1R, Firenze, anticoristorodicambi.it
Photos by Joaquín Carlos U. de Jesús