The number one rule for any self-respecting gastronome traveling abroad: either go alone or with other like-minded eaters. Leave the picky or otherwise unadventurous at home.
My meals in Venice, the first of several Italian cities and I would visit with a group of friends, were mainly evenings at cicchetti bars that served snacks of fried seafood caught from the surrounding waters. It’s an ideal style of eating for socializing, standing around chatting between toothpick-skewered bites and sips of wine. Although I love these friends dearly, they simply did not care to seek out new food experiences. My travel companions were content with lunches of Salade Niçoise (in Venice?) and never questioned the grape varietals of the house wines.
After a week in Venice I longed for a proper sit-down dinner, complete with forks and knives, and a meal I envisioned as quintessential Italian: pasta. I convinced a friend to break away from the bunch and head south to Florence with me. During our first night in town, after settling into our hotel, we ventured out in search of a trattoria. On a quiet, narrow and winding cobblestone street, we spotted what appeared to be a restaurant with great potential. The menu was in Italian and Italian only. There was no large tour bus parked nearby, spitting out streams of loud, hungry tourists. Instead we found a cozy, warmly lit room, humming with convivial laughter and conversation, a mix of aromas wafting from the kitchen, and a welcoming proprietor willing to seat two American girls with no reservations.
“Vorrèi il migliore, vòstro favorito,” I shyly mumbled to the server. Somehow he managed to understand my broken Italian, a request for the best, his favorite dish on the menu. Fifteen minutes later, we were presented with beggars’ purses. Small square sheets of pasta were cinched into upright purses, secured neatly with bright green blanched chives. Inside, a filling of cubed poached pears, cooked al dente, firm enough to hold their shape, but tender enough to mirror the texture of the pasta, which acted as a canvas for the rich and pungent flavors of a gorgonzola sauce. Just a touch was used to moisten the pears on the inside of the purses, while a light coating of sauce was drizzled on the outside. Sweet, salty and savory-all in one bite. Years later, I still reminisce about that meal.
All it takes is one great meal to win the heart of a formerly indifferent eater. Allow me to amend rule number one: travel with those with potential to convert. Seeing my friend delight in this meal was almost as memorable as the meal itself.