I strayed from my usual routine this summer. Instead of vacationing or leading a culinary tour through Sicily as I attempt to do each summer, I decided to venture into parts unfamiliar to me. I decided that my new destination would be Tuscany.
Although we spent quite a bit of time visiting many cities and small towns in that region -- Siena, The Cinque Terra, Pisa and Montepulciano -- we spent the bulk of our time in Florence.
I stayed with friends who own a B&B in the heart of the city, and I was a stone's throw away from some of the most incredible art, music and food that Florence has to offer. Landmarks such as the Duomo, Ponte Vecchio and the Uffizi were literally in their front and backyard. The art and architecture were so breathtaking, that at times I felt as if I were dreaming.
I could wax poetically about the beauty, the art and many other aspects of the culture, but as usual, for me, it was all about the food. Crostini di fegatini, tripa alla Fiorentina and ribollita were foods I had only read about or had eaten Americanized versions, and they paled in com
parison to the real thing. For three weeks I lived in culinary heaven.
But there was one aspect of the food and culture of the Florentines that really had an impact on me: the aperitivo. It is the Florentine version of a happy hour, but here in the states we don't even come close. In many bars and restaurants around Florence, an incredible variety of food is offered to you for the price of one drink. It can include as few as six dishes to as many as 20 different interchangeable items, such as Tuscan rice salads, various crostini, pastas, olive salads and other delicately prepared dishes.
As we were sitting at our outdoor table sipping a locally produced prosecco and nibbling on Florentine delights, I started thinking about our farmers market here in Bradenton and the types of dishes I could prepare, similar to the ones we were eating in Florence using locally grown and produced foods.
Because of that experience, here in Bradenton we are very excited to be bringing our own version of aperitivo to Ortygia on Wednesdays starting in November. This Saturday, I am the featured "Chef at the Market" in downtown Bradenton from 10 a.m. until 11:30 a.m., showing you how to prepare one of the dishes I will be serving at Ortygia when you attend our aperitivo. Ciao.
Zucchine sott' olio
2-3 zucchini washed and dried
1/2 cup sunflower oil
4 cloves garlic cut into thin slivers
Red wine vinegar to taste
Fresh basil or mint
Extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper
Thinly slice zucchini on the bias or in rounds if you prefer. Heat half of the sunflower oil in a frying pan on medium heat. When oil is hot, add one layer of zucchini in frying pan. Do not overlap. Add about 4 slivers of the garlic. When the zucchini is golden (about 3 minutes) turn over and cook for one more minute. Drain on paper towels.
Pull out the garlic when golden and caramelized, before it turns brown and bitter. Place the cooked zucchini in a small glass or ceramic loaf pan in one layer. Add salt and pepper to taste, some of the caramelized garlic, a bit of chopped or torn mint or basil, and a sprinkle of vinegar. Repeat process (add sunflower oil as needed) layer by layer until all the zucchini is done. Top the last layer with the garlic, herbs and vinegar and finish with a few sprinkles of olive oil.
Cover and place in fridge for at least 3 hours or overnight. Take out of fridge for at least one hour before serving. Invert onto serving platter.
Serves about 4 as an appetizer.
Serve with fresh, crusty Italian bread and a glass of red wine. Buon appetito.
Chef Gaetano Cannata, owner of Ortygia Restaurant in Bradenton's Village of the Arts, can be reached at email@example.com.