I thought I was immune to the lure of Italian food because I was on a mission, absolutely passionate to a single focus: a one-track pilgrimage through the streets of Venice, Florence, Rome and Naples in search of the true essence of espresso coffee. I was on the hunt for that perfect, can-only-get-it-in-Italy espresso everyone always mythologizes, the unicorn of the caffeinated free world.
I also thought I was immune to Italian food because before I step foot in the country, I hadn’t eaten pasta in nearly two years. Afraid of carbs, afraid of olive oil, afraid of cheese—I had only very recently started to squirm out of the leg-irons of disordered eating, a misery which had kept me on a steady diet of boiled vegetables and coffee (and a daily 11-mile run) for the better part of minus 60 pounds.
The notion of visiting a country where the streets are practically paved with good bread and al dente noodles was a great test of self and recovery. It was a show of trust in and love for myself. I was ready, and I knew could do it.
Plus, when would I have time to think about food in between all those miraculous G-d shots of espresso? Certainly not I.
With that in mind, one of the best things I decided to do on this trip—in addition to trying to limit my caffeine intake to a perfectly reasonable 16 to 18 shots of espresso a day—was to eat exclusively at vegetarian restaurants. Not out of self-flagellation, though I realize there are probably few places in Europe where it’s easier to find plant-based food even in the most mainstream trattoria; rather, I wanted to go where few tourists dare tread, where English menus were unheard of, and where the ingredients would be so fresh as to practically still be alive.
Venice was a nice introduction to the culture and the cuisine of Italy, kind of like how Disney World is a nice introduction to the culture and cuisine of the United States. Italy-lite, I guess: Tourist shops, tourist restaurants, tourists asking other tourists for directions because everyone’s a tourist. Everything printed in English and Japanese; coffee shops advertising “American sizes” and “American breakfast.” The food highlight of my time there was an uninspired dish of curried carrots (because Italians are known for their curry), and a plate of limp and lukewarm grilled eggplant.
“Oh, no,” I thought. “What have I gotten myself into?” I crouched outside the warm glow of the cheesy but popular restaurants, coveting the living hell out of everybody’s meatballs.
But then I went to Florence, and all that changed.
Photo by Meister