This summer has been anything but pleasant.
I know you might be thinking “hey but you’re in Italy, what right do you have to complain.” Point taken but this August 2017, I actually really can – the NYTimes have settled on the name “Lucifer” to explain the phenomenon across Southern Europe. Temperatures have topped 103-105 for a week straight last week in Florence and we only have one portable air-conditioner that I might actually consider asking to be my sister-wife. Due to the oppressive heat and humidity, we tend to remain indoors for most of the day which in turn makes us slightly antisocial until nightfall.
When it comes to food, I unfortunately still have an appetite, but I am sticking to eating foods that don’t require turning on the oven. Even Nico has accepted “ice” as a valid food group.
For those of you who are looking for what to eat and drink in Italy during the summer, hopefully this list will serve as a mini-guide to just some of the options out there. Obviously there are much more I could have included, let me know what you would have added in the comments.
Food [Because You Can’t Just Eat Gelato, Or Can you?]
A dish said to have been named by Giuseppe Cipriani after Venetian painter Vittore Carpaccio at the iconic “Harry’s Bar” in Venice, carpaccio is a raw or semi-raw thinly-sliced cut of beef or fish, typically marinated with slices of lemon, olive oil, and topped with rucola or parmigiana cheese. I love it because it requires me to not have to turn on the stove and it is a relatively cheap choice even when bought directly at your local butcher in Italy (ask them to slice it thin!). I prefer to marinate it in a little lemon juice, salt and pepper and capers for a few hours in the fridge but add olive oil and perhaps mustard before serving. You can top with whatever else you fancy that day. The importance here is the quality of the meat.
Prosciutto e Melone
A dish that you often find in the antipasto – appetizer section of any menu, I had no idea before moving to Italy that fresh melon and salty prosciutto was a bigger love story than Romeo and Juliet. Slice up your ripe melon or scoop out balls and wrap with high-quality prosciutto to make the perfect dinner starter when once again, you have no desire to turn on that stove. I get it, I really do.
If you want to know more about the origins of this dish in Italy, there is an interesting article by La Cucina Italiana that suspects it origins might date back as far as 2nd century A.D. by a doctor who was conceived that this dish successfully comprised the necessary elements of the time: fire, air, earth and water. Bravo Galeno.
The simplest of dishes, yet one of the most satisfying, the Insalata Caprese literally flies the flag for all Italian salads. The dish hails from the sunny island of Capri, a place that I got to explore this past Easter and yes, enjoyed my fair share of caprese salad (you must eat at Michel’angelo restaurant while there). The key when a dish is as simple as this, is to have the best ingredients on hand. Summer-ripened Italian tomatoes, mozzarella di bufala and fragrant basil, make sure to hand on hand a good quality EVOO to drizzle over your masterpiece and sprinkle with salt and pepper.
Vegetables all ways, for all days
This might not be uniquely Italian however ever since I moved here, I can absolutely understand the eye-rolls Italians give when people assume all they eat is pizza and pasta, or in Florence, huge steaks. Instead we live in a vegetable-rich culture where eating seasonally reigns kind and in the summer, we often just eat veggies as our main course because they are easy to prepare in advance. In fact one of my favorite places in the city is Carduccio in the Oltrarno, an organic eatery serving up gourmet salads, and fresh juices along with local produce from a farm in Tuscany. Or go for the “insulate tiepida” a warm summer salad of green beans, potatoes, and summer truffles, where Gabriele makes salads sexy again, at B.O.r.G.O on Borgo San Frediano 145r. This place is a gem.
I love anything marinated or grilled with zucchini and eggplant often being the main stars for their abundance and affordability. One of my favorite food writers Rachel Roddy has a few antipasti recipes making vegetables sexy again right here. Alternatively one of my favorite dishes is made with cannolini white beans, tuna, thinly-sliced red onions and capers. Drizzled with extra virgin olive oil, mingled with a few fresh herbs and voila, a filling, delicious summer lunch.
I could see my family in Texas grimacing at this edition to the list and I sort of get it but if I’m honest, I really don’t, not after 10 years of living in Italy. Truth talk, octopus is damn delicious, when it is done right and the consistency doesn’t resemble tire rubber, it can be one of the most enticing dishes for both winter and summer. I’ll be honest, I have yet to make this at home, there is this recipe by Jul’s Kitchen which involves cooking the octopus in a pressure cooker and served with olives and pine nuts.
Panzanella – bread is never to be wasted
You might be surprised that in Florence a few of its most iconic dishes are bread-based, lending to the cucina povera or “poor kitchen” of Italy’s past when nothing was put to waste. Stale bread was always a key ingredient in Italian cuisine and panzanella is a nice summer salad made from stale bread, cucumbers, tomatoes, onions and fresh basil – here’s one handy recipe from Curious Appetite, and if you want to get creative, this clam version from Emiko Davies is inspiring me to expand my shell-fish prowess.
Drinks and Dessert [Nico’s Favorite]
Gelato – yes, you can have it for lunch, breakfast, dinner, a snack, second dinner
The one element on this list that honestly needs no introduction. Gelato is a favorite wherever you are in Italy and I admit that I often have enjoyed it for lunch during this summer’s heatwave. While gelato is omnipresent in cities all over Italy, it isn’t always homemade and many times I spot tourists holding massive cones of crap around the Ponte Vecchio. Avoid huge piles of colorful gelato on the main streets of Florence and seek out true artisan places instead.
Italian Soft Drinks: Chinotto and Gazzosa
You might have spotted these bottles of soft drinks that are beloved by Italians and are certainly worth trying if you want to feel like a local. Chinotto is made from the juice of the fruit of the myrtle-leaved orange tree and has a bittersweet taste that I’m not a huge fan of, whereas Gazzosa is more my style, a lighter sweeter drink made with water, sugar and Amalfi lemon. For centuries, gazzosa was a typical drink made by leaving the liquid to ferment in the sun (a bit like my own family’s tradition of “sun tea” in Texas), where as the one in the elegant bottle is obviously commercial. There are more soft drinks worth knowing that are 100% Italian so I suggest checking out this handy list to see what else you might want to try.
Caffè con ghiaccio : Espresso with Almond Milk
I had my first “caffè con ghiaccio” (coffee with ice) with almond milk when on a press tour discovering Salento. I remember sitting at a bar in Lecce cooling off with a refreshing glass and basically realized this was summer heaven for caffeine lovers. My life hasn’t been the same since. As I always quite fascinated with the history of such beverages, it comes to no surprise that this is less of a native Italian drink but more likely something that originated in Asia and South America before making it to the Mediterranean shores (you can read more about it in this excellent article by Gambero Rosso).
Curious about where you can try it in Florence? Besides making it at home (easy), I like the ones served at Todo Modo bookshop on Via dei Fossi and Ditta Artigianale.
Granita – even better when you marry it with a brioche
I’ll never forget the best granita of my life. It was my birthday two year’s ago, Nico and I were on a road-trip through wild Calabria and hopped on a boat to the Aeolian islands off the coast of Sicily. After swimming in black sand beaches I needed to cool off with something cold before I fainted, it was so incredibly hot. To my luck, the magic of a Sicilian iced granita – a semi-frozen dessert/breakfast/lunch was the answer of my dreams that day and I won’t forget it since. It is made with water/ice, fresh fruit and sugar pureed into a simple syrup. My favorite is made with caffè and served in a big fat brioche, the best gift any girl could receive.
Where to go in Florence for granita
- Gelateria Carabè, Via Ricasoli, 60/R.
- Il Procopio, Via Pietra Piana, 60/red.
- Arà is Sicilia, Via degli Alfani, 127.
- Il Re Gelato, Viale Filippo Strozzi.
- Sangelato, Via Marco Minghetti, 17.
Peaches in white wine is mighty fine
Soaked in white wine (or red!) make peaches even more delightful, especially when you infuse a bit of mint and top everything with gelato and perhaps some cookie crumbles. I’ve made this many a time for dinner guests in Florence and it proves to be a consistent (and scarily easy) winner. Get the recipe on Italy Magazine here.
Limoncello – the adult lemonade
If you’ve visited Italy, you’ve probably tried a shot of after-dinner limoncello. Tangy and sweet, it also packs quite a punch when you need your digestive skills to kick in after a heavy meal. Surprisingly, if you have patience, limoncello is very very easy to make at home. The key is to get really good, organic lemons. My friend Shannon of Osteria della Enoteca shared her key recipe with me here. I also recommend trying your own infusions, limoncello tastes great with lavender any other herbal delights.
It doesn’t officially taste like summer until I’ve had my first aperol spritz outdoors. A blend of prosecco, aperol or campari, a little soda water and garnished with an orange slice. You’ll find this to be a popular option during aperitivo hour, especially for those who like something a little lighter.
History trails the spritz back to the Austro-Hungarian empire and specially what is now the Veneto region of Italy (remember Italy as a country is a relatively “new” thing). Whether you prefer yours with aperol and campari (I’m an aperol gal myself), it is a bit like tasting sunshine. Ok, that was a tad cheesy but you get me right?
Affogato al Caffè
If you were going to drown me anything, please make it coffee. One lovely Italian dessert is called exactly that, affogato al caffe, imagine cream gelato topped with Italian espresso and if you’re feeling fancy, topped with some roasted, chopped hazelnuts (I tried this in Puglia). Super easy to make, Italicana Kitchen has a recipe you can follow here.
The hipster pick: Cold brew with coconut milk or tonic water
Not exactly Italian but a drink I personally love to order in Florence is cold brew over ice with coconut milk. For those new to “cold brew” it is a type of coffee infused at either cold, or room-temperature conditions. It kind of reminds me of growing up in Texas and making “sun tea” (a hell of a lot less hipster) on our back porch.
When it comes to cold brew with the added addition of coconut milk, I get mine at Ditta Artigianale on Via dello Sprone.
Alternatively you could get a cold brew, served with tonic water which is a little bit strange on your tongue at first but soon is quite refreshing. My pick on where to drink it, Ditta Artigianale or Cafe Piansa on Via Gioberti.
Bellini – Keeping it peachy this summer
As you know in Italy, they like to keep it seasonal as much as possible. This applies to fresh fruit and veg and even summer drinks like the peachy bellini that is awesome as long as it is made with actual fresh white peach puree, prosecco and maybe topped with a little mint (my personal addition). It is said to have been invented at Harry’s Bar in Venice in 1948 and we haven’t looked back since. You can get the recipe here.
Caffe Shakerato – The James Bond of espresso drinks
I like my coffee shaken not stirred. The James Bond of cold coffee drinks is most definitely the cool caffe shakerato, espresso shaken with ice with a little added simply syrup (or not) served in a chill glass. I used to think that Italians were resigned to boiling hot days with no cold coffee until I discovered this magical, and very easy to replicate at home concoction. You can find at most coffee bars all over Italy, just specify whether or not you want sugar added or not.