The Best Thing I Ever Ate: Florence Edition
My favorite holiday is Thanksgiving. Not because of family, and not because of football. It’s the food. I know Thanksgiving is really, deep down in it’s calendar soul, about giving thanks, but this is America, and we know what it’s really about – gorging yourself. The food is what makes Thanksgiving the thing that I’m most thankful for on the third Thursday of turkey month each fall.
My favorite channel on the TV is the Food Network. Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives; Good Eats; and The Best Thing I Ever Ate are some of the greatest programs on television. Some of my favorite websites are Roadfood.com and EatYourWorld.com – both sites about food and traveling. You may not know this about me, but I have a secret list of “Best Sandwiches I Ever Ate” and another one of “Greatest Meals I’ve Had on the Road.”
Very simply, I love to eat.
My favorite part of planning a trip is finding out what to eat in each place we’re visiting. Here’s my mindset: when I have friends or family come visit the Chicago area from out of town, I make it a point to take them to get great Chicago food that they can’t get in Atlanta, Kansas City, or New York. I take them to Portillo’s for Italian Beef and Chicago style hot dogs. I take them to Gino’s East or Lou Malnatti’s for great deep dish pizza (you can keep the Pizzeria Uno and the Giordano’s – I can’t stand those two places). I’re taken friends to Harry Caray’s in Chicago for Chicken Vesuvio, to Paradise Pup in DesPlaines for the second best burger on the planet, and I’ll take them to Nick and Vito’s for the greatest thin crust pizza ever made. Those are Chicago. Food is as important to traveling and understanding places as seeing famous landmarks or meeting foreign people.
That’s why I was really excited to go to Florence, Italy. I didn’t go there to eat Olive Garden (that’s our creation), I didn’t go there to eat pizza (that’s Naples), and I didn’t go there to eat spaghetti or lasagna (that’s from southern Italy). I went there to eat Arista, a roasted pork dish that is very popular in Florence.
The word arista comes from the Greek word aristos, which means “best.” By best they mean if you eat something, then five years later decide to write a blog post about it and spend a few minutes searching Google images for a picture that reminds you of what you ate, you start drooling so uncontrollably and craving that food so madly that you stop searching Google Images and open up a tab for Priceline.com to see if you can get a good Christmas time deal to fly to Florence and eat there again. That name comes from some Greek holy men that visited Florence in 1430, were served some Tuscan (Tuscany is a region in northern Italy) style pork roast and called it “aristos.” The name stuck.
Also, around 1435 those Greek guys had an uncontrollable urge to go back to Florence for more pork.
Arista isn’t made like any pork roast I’ve seen here at home. It’s made from a pork tenderloin marinated in a combination of rosemary, sage, and garlic, along with some other stuff. I tried my best to figure out the ingredients, but that would have required less time stuffing face, and I was not okay with taking an eating pause just to worry about silly things like ingredients. What I do know is that the roast was skewered and cooked over a rotisserie, keeping the inside moist and juicy, but the outside cooks to this crisp crust that I believe may be the material Heaven is made out of.
During our time in Florence, Mr. Doerr and I found arista almost by accident. Of course I do my research, and I have a list of regional foods that I’d like to experience in each place I visit, but arista seemed like something we’d have for dinner, not during one of the quick lunches that we usually try to have on a TAP trip.
We were in the center of Florence, and our tour director, Anna, had just set us free to find some lunch, do some souvenir shopping, and see whatever sites we wanted to see. We had a few hours, but we didn’t want to spend all that time in a restaurant when there are so many amazing things to do and see in Florence. Mr. Doerr, the ten (or so) students that were with us, and I crossed shopping off the agenda, instead focusing our time on eating and seeing as much as we could. We stopped in a little sidewalk cafe, spotting some sandwiches in their window, figuring we could scarf down some awesome Italian bread, ham, and cheese while we perused our map and made plans for the rest of free time.
That’s when I saw it. Arista.
It was the special of the day, so I knew what I wanted. I was only able to convince two of the 8th grade boys to order it too. Everyone else was content with a sandwich. They soon regretted that sorry, sorry choice.
O! M! G! The crust that’d formed on the outside of the roast was crisp and delicious. The garlic gave it just a little bit of zang (which is an awesome thing) when you bit into it. The inside was so tender, so juicy, and so full of flavor that I actually took a break in the middle of typing this sentence to see if Hotwire.com has better deals than the other sites I checked.
On the side were these cubed potatoes that were crunchy on the outside, but mushy-smooshy in the middle. Coated in olive oil, garlic, and rosemary, they were probably the best side dish I’ve ever had. Next to that – peas. Normally I wouldn’t get excited about peas, but I’m pretty sure these were magic peas or something. They were about twice the size of normal peas, bright green, and almost popped in your mouth like little flavor balloons as you ate them. Swimming in the juice from the pork roast, the peas were unbelievably good.
The entire meal, Mr. Doerr stared at my food while quietly munching on his ham sandwich, silently regretting his lunch decision. I would have been nice and shared, but… well… I didn’t want to.
The next day we were still in Florence. We’d spent so much time on the bus and at the hotel the night before talking about our incredible meal that when free time for lunch came up again almost twice as many kids wanted to come with us. The owner of the restaurant actually remembered us, and was so thrilled when I told him that I’d loved his food so much that I’d brought more people back with me that day that he gave me my meal for free.
I don’t suppose I need to tell you what I ordered, do I?
Alright, I will.
You see, the roast pork was so crispy and flavorful on the outside that it was like a taste of paradise. Then, when you bit down into the meat the juices inside were like an edible firework of deliciousness… Now I’m just being mean, aren’t I?
Still, some people didn’t succumb to the power of arista. Only about half of us ordered the Pork Platter of the Gods. The rest regretted that very quickly and wished they could re-order. I don’t know what’s wrong with some people.
The Leaning Tower, along with the rest of Pisa, was on our itinerary for the following day, but guess what town we got back to just in time for lunch. Yup – Aristaville. Oops, I mean Florence. Fate gave the non-believers one more chance to be Aristrinated into our growing Cult of Porkitude.
Did we dare go to the same restaurant for a third day in a row. We did. This time the owner gave free meals to everyone who was there with us the first day. This time there were nearly twenty-five of us. This time everyone ordered arista.
Come to think of it, I think most of those people are still friends of mine on Facebook. Maybe Expedia.com has a better deal for groups. Anyone want to come with?