I would imagine that many foodies have some kind of a light-bulb moment regarding food. This is the type of moment when their palate is sent into highly elevated orbit and they therefore become more adventurous in their food choices. One of these instances that comes to mine is Anthony Bourdain’s first experience with an oyster while on a family trip to France when he was a kid. Oysters changed everything for Bourdain. Pear pasta changed everything for me.
I was a little older than Bourdain when I experienced my own gastronomic awakening: I8, to be exact. Before this moment, I thought meat and fruit was a disgusting combination and whoever came up with it needed to be seriously checked out. I was never one to eat anything made of figs or pair that odd fruit with cheese. Sweet and savory just didn’t mix in my book: fruit and meat, fruit and cheese, fruit in any dinner entree that was mostly salty. But apparently Europe has the power to completely alter one’s taste buds.
I first went to Trattoria Quattro Leoni with my mom and Kim Sweely in September of 2006 when I was studying in Florence. My friend Brooke was in Florence for the semester and told us that we could not leave Florence without going there. She recommended that we get a tortellini-like pasta filled with pears in a cheese sauce with asparagus. I could hardly entertain the thought of eating something like that, so I stuck with a grilled chicken and arugula salad (clearly, I was not a vegetarian yet). It was delicious and I knew I would be back.
About a month into my trip, my grandparents came to visit. The three of us were lucky to be able to share things like climbing to the top of Giotto’s bell tower, visiting Michelangelo’s tomb in Santa Croce, and stepping out of culinary comfort zones. I took them to Lizzy’s favorite restaurant, Acqua al 2, known for it’s blueberry steak. This steak is comprised of filet mignon drowining in a rich, deep purple blueberry sauce on a bright, white plate. It’s quite a sight, yet I have to say that I was not a fan. The following day, I took Grandmama to Quattro Leoni for lunch and decided to be bold and try this apparently divine pear pasta Brooke had recommended. All I can remember is that it was delicious and I began to understand these weird flavor pairings. The impression of this pear pasta haunted me for three years and a half.
It was last January when the appreciation of this dish came to full fruition. I returned to Florence for a 3-week language orientation with my abroad program, AIFS. We were lucky enough to live in a hotel with a great kitchen for three weeks, but my friends and I decided to treat ourselves to a night out for Brenna’s 21st birthday, which conveniently landed halfway through our stay in Florence. My friends knew I had spent time in Florence before and considered me the authority on the language and place to eat. I was under pressure to deliver. Naturally, I thought of Quattro Leoni: inexpensive but upscale cuisine, able to accommodate a party of 16, and authentically Italian in the food and location (a tiny piazza in Oltrarno).
To say the least, Quattro Leoni did not disappoint. The 16 of us had our own room, which was clutch considering how many liters of wine we consumed. Somehow, Brenna, Dana, Ariel, Carly, Caitlin, and I ended up at the same table. All six of us ordered the pear pasta, or “fiocchetti alle pere con salsa di taleggio e asparagi.” We passionately devoured every fiocchetto (Italian singular) with awe-inspiring admiration which warranted a few tears. Ariel said she was so full she was going to puke, and Carly jovially offered to eat her vomit if she did so. (Nothing of the sort happened).
On my trip to Florence this past July, I took my cousin Ani there for our last dinner in Italy. Needless to say, it was just as delicious as I remembered it and I licked my plate clean.
If Food Network’s show “The Best Thing I Ever Ate” goes internationally and does a pasta special on Italy, I will be on that episode singing the dish’s praises. The al dente pasta is filled with super sweet pears and a cheese combination that has a potato-like consistency. It swims in a thick and creamy white cheese sauce with blanched asparagus tips adding a burst of color to the plate. This meal is certainly magical.