Feasting like a Florentine

One right, two lefts, one right, then two more lefts. These are the directions the clerk gives me in Italian when we are done marveling at Michelangelo's David and ready for lunch. We are in pursuit of Trattoria Mario in Central Florence. It serves authentic Tuscan meals in a humble cavernous dining room that's easy to miss among flashier tourist-oriented restaurants. 

We are fortunate to arrive just as they're opening. My husband, Kurt, ten-year-old Kai, and I are seated at a table with an elderly Italian man. The place is so popular that it's communal dining to get as many patrons fed as possible. A pair of young American men is matched with two women about their age.  

There's a mix of tourists and locals. The tourists are the ones photographing their bisteccas alla Fiorentina before devouring them. This hefty T-bone steak is grilled and at two to three pounds, robust enough to feed a carload of soccer players.  

No menus are distributed. We must read the list of dishes taped onto the wall with crudely-translated English phrases. I am already acquainted with some typical Tuscan dishes, so I know right away that I want to try the ribollita soup and panzanella salad. Kai opts for spaghetti alla Bolognese. Kurt, enduring a gluten-free diet, nevertheless steals bites from us when he's finished his roast beef.    

I sample the bread, but it's bland and lacking salt. Oh, well, more room for the ribollita - a thick bean, bread and vegetable soup. Over the next few days around Florence, we are served basket upon basket of this tasteless bread and I'm perplexed. At an eclectic restaurant a few nights later, I overhear the waiter explain this mystery: in the Middle Ages, salt was heavily taxed, so Tuscan bakers made bread without it. Even as the tax situation changed, the foolish tradition continued. Which left me pining for the heavenly focaccia made by Dena at the Italian bakery near my house in Ventura. 

Our luncheon companion speaks no English, so it's a ripe opportunity to practice my Italian. Years of classes, flashcards, and lessons from a private tutor are finally paying off! The fellow lives near the Ponte Vecchio, he tells me. So of course, I ask him if he had to endure the devastating flood of the Arno River in 1966. "Si, si," he tells me as he proceeds to eat an entire bowl of ribolitta, a steak, some salt-less bread, and a side of roasted potatoes. I don't get many details, owing to his appetite  

This man, Mr. Ponte Vecchio, let's call him, is a regular at Trattoria Mario and he is teased mercilessly by the tall blonde waiter. The word "stronzo" is flung between them. Turd! I had just learned this word from an unorthodox phrase book called Wicked Italian for the Traveler. Also among its pages: Vada via che sa di aglio -- Buzz off, garlic breath. 

When I'm in line for the bathroom - occupied by Mr. Ponte Vecchio - the waiter berates the old fella, telling him to go home to use the "bagno". Then, he pulls his ear playfully. "Maleducato," I say to the waiter. Such bad manners! What's the point of learning Italian, if you can't join in the fun? 

Back in the dining room, I ask for the bill. All of the sudden, a plate crashes onto the floor in the kitchen. The wait staff and the locals applaud. At our table, we smile at each other. All those right turns and left turns have not only led us to great Tuscan food, but to a place where the Italian love for life and merriment is alive and well.