Inzimino: bold & beautiful


We've been serving this classic Florentine dish for years, and it's one of the most perennially popular things on our menu. It's a weird, wild dish and one that is strangely addictive; in fact, one of our out-of-town customers regularly orders three servings whenever he can get to us, and he gobbles them blissfully, one after the other.

The origin of the word zimino (in zimino meaning "in a sauce of zimino", hence inzimino), as with that of so many foods, lies somewhere far back in the dusty recesses of history. Under murky layers that evoke the not-so-far-away Arab world, the exotic scent of cumin (cimino in outmoded Italian parlance), or even the unleavened bread of the Jews (azzimo), the word's etymology has been the subject of some debate. The most general consensus is that zimino is of Arabic origin—samin or zamin meaning "fat, fleshy"—and is linked to the concept of a fatty or rich condiment or sauce. Moreover, the traditionally liberal use of spinach in this dish also points East, to Persia, wherein lies the august ancestry of this beloved and nourishing leafy green. 

Though the precise etymology may evade our grasp, we know that the recipe itself is very old, traces of which go back at least as far as 1300. Inzimino was a classic piatto povero, or poor man's dish, one that made up for its lack of silk-purse ingredients by beefing up with vegetables and bread. Originally the dish was scattered with bits of salted, dried fish such as baccalà (salt cod; Florence being land-locked, after all)—a cheap ingredient that packed a whole lot of flavor punch and stretched to help fill many bellies at a time. The fish's strong flavor demanded an equally muscular sauce in order to achieve the proper balance; clearly something even the most impoverished medieval Florentine was unwilling to forego. And so, with characteristic Tuscan ingenuity, a richly layered and zesty sauce was born, for which the Arab word zamin was adopted and Italianized over time.

Other versions in other regions have since evolved: in Liguria, Sardinia and even Corsica. Some with chick peas instead of calamari (or totani, or seppie); or some with swiss chard instead of spinach—and they are all worthy of our praise. But the classic, über-Florentine recipe remains that of squid simmered at length in umido, a rich stew of tender squid, abundant spinach and red wine along with a bit of tomato, to be sopped up with toasted, garlic-rubbed Tuscan bread. It's a bold, inky dish—as wine-dark as Homer's Aegean—lusty and redolent of both earth and sea. Exactly the kind of thing a famished, humble laborer in the age of Petrarch would tuck into, and feel himself a richer man for having eaten it.

—Elizabeth Petrosian





5 & 5 (cinque e cinque): the street food classic of Livorno

Every time I sit down to write about Italian food, my research unceremoniously chucks me down a rabbit hole and I stumble out the other end, a drunken Alice, into an impossibly raucous, ancient and labyrinthine paese delle meraviglie. Surely Italy possesses the lion's share of history: feuding city-states, warring republics, teeming ports flush with Far Eastern vice, savage families, greed-steeped consiglieri, nefarious popes, festering plagues, exploding volcanoes. Her scientists and philosophers deftly probed the dominion of God while her artists littered the centuries with jaw-popping masterpieces. She presented the learned and civilized men of the world with an ermine-cloaked Latin and flung a far more richly-loomed vernacular on the groundlings. Her voice soars above the mutterings of other nations in spectacular song, her operas transform the dull ceaseless drone of human comedy into a sweet and sublime music. All of this from a country more or less the size of California—why, the lifespan of an entire continent appears to have been crammed into the confines of its diminutive borders.

A case in point is the story behind the Tuscan port town of Livorno and its classic two-nickel sandwich, the 5 e 5 (cinque e cinque, or five-and-five). It is made of a thin chick pea flour cake called torta di ceci—or simply torta—in Livorno (it's called cecina in Tuscany's Versilia, farinata in Ligurian Genoa, and socca in not-far-away Nice). The torta comes nestled in either focaccia—also called schiaccia in Livorno—or pane francese, a French-style roll, and nowadays is usually offered with melanzane sotto pesto, which in Livorno means eggplant marinated in abundant olive oil, parsley, garlic and chili pepper. The sandwich's unusual moniker came about in the 1950's, when hungry and frugal Livornese could get 5 lire's worth of torta to tuck into a 5 lire roll, making for a nourishing snack or light meal. It became expedient to flick a couple of nickels over the counter and simply say "Gimme five-and-five!"

The torta is traditionally and ideally baked in a shallow copper pan, or tortiera, in a wood-burning oven, enhancing the flour's natural smokiness. The batter, made of chick pea flour, olive oil and salt, ferments for hours beforehand and gets cooked at high heat in order to crisp nicely on top and bottom while remaining soft in the middle. The oven-hot cake then gets dusted with abundant cracked black pepper before it's served on its own or betrothed to a piece of bread: simple and nourishing. Ask any denizen of Livorno where to get the best 5 & 5 and the response will invariably be, "Va' da Gagarin, dé !" A hole in the wall near the old port, Torteria Gagarin is an institution.

But if we really want to understand what makes this sandwich tick, we need to delve into the torta's origins: how did the savory little wonder come into being? As legend has it, the torta was born in 1284 out of the Battle of Meloria, a naval skirmish in the Ligurian sea between warring factions in the Genovese-Pisan War.

The Pisan fleet was destroyed and their surviving sailors taken prisoner on a Genovese galleon. While trying to get back to port, the ship was caught in a fierce tempest that raged for days and days. Provisions ran perilously low. At the mercy of the storm-tossed sea, the ship rocked wildly and took on water; sacks of chick peas spilled their contents, a barrel of olive oil broke open, and the whole lot mixed with salty sea water, becoming essentially a fetid purée that continued to macerate in the hold. Finally, hunger gnawing at their ribs, the Genovese were reduced to eating the rather unappetizing mess. The Pisan prisoners, however, pigheadedly refused*.

Once the sea was calm, the slop was spread out in the sun to dry and it turned into something rather palatable: a sort of crisp chick pea flat bread, and the Genovese sailors gobbled it happily. Back on land in Genoa, it wasn't long before the recipe was perfected and—with perfect irony—baptized as l'oro di Pisa (the gold of Pisa).

All of which brings up another vital organ in the seething belly of the Bel Paese: rivalry. In Italy, apparently, once you've established who your enemies are they're your enemies for a lifetime. Hundreds of lifetimes. These rivalries are hard-wired into Italian DNA and manifest themselves to this day, usually in the form of good-natured ribbing but sometimes—particularly when it comes to soccer—in more crossbow-and-mace fashion. Genoa and Pisa—as we've seen—harbor an ancient animosity toward one another. Ditto Florence and Siena. But undoubtedly the most famous ongoing rivalry in the whole of the peninsula is the one between Tuscany's Livorno and Pisa. To the Livornese, Pisa is a moldering backwater of bungling half-wits whose buckets keep coming up from the Intelligence Well bone-head dry. Pisa ain't exactly singing Livorno's praises, either.

 Livorno graffitti

Livorno graffitti

But Livorno has built this rivalry into a monument of brilliant, outrageous, dialect-riddled piss-taking: the ferociously satirical journal called Il Vernacoliere. For example, right after the Chernobyl disaster its headline read: "First effects of the radioactive cloud: a clever Pisan has been born." Below are some other examples of headlines that leave Pisans—and politicians and popes—much the worse for wear (my rough translations are underneath).

See what I mean about a rabbit hole? History and enmity aside, the 5 & 5 is a seriously good sandwich. We used to serve it when we were open for lunch, and now offer the simple chick pea torta in season layered with melanzane sotto pesto. Just a 5 rather than a 5 & 5—but still utterly delicious.

A big grazie to our longtime customer and friend, über-Livornese Manuel Cantone (aka Mano), for pestering us ceaselessly to bring his beloved hometown nosh to Portland way back when we had our food cart. We've been serving it ever since, in some form or other, much to the delight of everyone who tastes it—a fact of which he constantly reminds us.

— Elizabeth Petrosian

* Of course, a dyed-in-the-wool Livornese would say the Pisan sailors simply refused to eat, idiotically preferring death by starvation—though a few Pisans less wouldn't be such a bad thing.


Crespelle alla Fiorentina: Catherine de' Medici & the great crêpes debate

The origins of foods and recipes are often the subject of heated nationalistic argument. I won't go as far as to say that wars have been fought over who has the right to call puff pastry their own, but who knows? Swarthy men with fiery tempers working long hours on their feet over smoking pots, knives in hand—the concept probably isn't too farfetched.

Sometimes benign and good-natured, sometimes bloody and fomented, the rivalry between Italy and France has been there for centuries. So when an alliance between the two was born by way of the marriage of Florentine lass Caterina de' Medici and teenage King Henry II of France in 1533, it proved a fertile field for cross-cultural pollination.

Compared to Medici-bankrolled Florence, 16th century France was practically a backwater. Or so it seemed to young Catherine who possessed a sophisticated palate and—eyeing the natives' trencher-and-shank cookery askance—brought her own culinary posse to the French court. This included several pastry chefs, a gelato-maestro, three cooks from the Tuscany's Mugello region, among others. She brought the fork with her, too, no doubt having been scandalized by the French mode of hacking at victuals with knives or tearing at them with hands and incisors.

One of the delicacies she introduced to the French was the Tuscan salsa colla or colletta (colla = "glue"), which was a sauce of milk tinged with meat broth and spices and used to bind flavors together in various dishes. This sauce essentially became the Frenchified velouté and later dropped its carnivorous guise altogether, becoming the creamy white marvel of chemistry that was re-christened béchamel in honor of one Marquis Louis de Béchameil (by all appearances a useless fop who didn't know a ladle from a riding crop or a scullery from a hole in the ground). By the strange, circuitous routes of history, this delicate, delightful sauce has long since made its way back to the Bel Paese—sporting a French accent, as it were—and is there called besciamella. It's the glorious glue that snakes between layers of lasagne in Emilia-Romagna, and locks spinach-and-ricotta-filled crêpes in a lover's embrace in Florence's own crespelle alla fiorentina.

And speaking of crêpes, it seems Catherine brought those to the great Gallic palooza, too. French or Italian, the word's origins come from the Latin crispus, meaning rolled or curled, and from the more modern Italian crespo ("kinked, creased"; a word with which I was unfortunately made all too familiar by my Florentine hairdresser). Now I know you're probably thinking that crêpes are as French as Louis Malle and a bright blue pack of Gauloises, but ask any Italian and he'll tell you evenly and with no trace of rancor whatsoever that the French are full of sh** and crespelle belong to the Boot. In the 5th century, long before Catherine threw off her stays in the Louvre and contemplated her new home, legend has it that an alarmed Pope Gelasius—seeing the thronged French pilgrims newly-arrived in Rome, hungry for both bread and redemption—had cartloads of flour and eggs brought in and voilà! A future vehicle for Nutella was born.

But regardless of which flag you care to fly over this piece of culinary terroir, we can probably all agree that a crêpe—whoops, strike that—crespella by any other name would taste as sweet.

You'll find crespelle alla fiorentina as a frequent special at Burrasca during the winter months; it's warming and comforting and absolutely delicious.

—Elizabeth Petrosian

Peposo: the dish behind the Duomo

 Image credit: Ron Reznick:

Image credit: Ron Reznick:

What do Florence's Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral (aka the Duomo) and a hearty Tuscan dish of stewed beef, the peposo alla fornacina dell'Impruneta, have in common? Read on.

Once upon a time, in Impruneta—that rolled-up-sleeve sort of town that insinuates itself into the vineyard-strewn hills just south of the Tuscan capital and which, since at least 1098, is famous for its rich clay soil and the terracotta it produces—a group of rough-hewn, bestubbled laborers in the brick furnaces were hard at it, hunger licking at their insides like flames, and, as Italians throughout history are wont to do, discussing their options for lunch.

{Though our protagonists may be medieval men, you can bet that the Tuscan they were talking differed little from that of today. Get a group of contemporary toscanacci together and you'll hear much the same speech: those aspirated, throaty c's that sound like a bellows in the hands of an over-enthusiastic chambermaid; the muscular cadences and roughly-chopped syntax, spiced up with good-natured ribaldry and liberally seasoned with blasphemous-yet-benign oaths and abundant raucous laughter}

Eventually, the foreman—a pragmatic, no-nonsense sort of fellow in charge of loading the hot kilns that spit forth their bounty of red tiles, bricks and orci (earthenware pots)—wipes the sweat from his brow with an oily rag and calls over an errand boy. Handing the lad a few coins, he barks, "Fetch some beef. The cheapest you can find." Cattle—particularly the ancient, revered race known as Chianina—being plentiful in Tuscany, this was an easy enough task. And while the nobler cuts were earmarked for those with plenty of florins in their pouches, the poor-man's cuts, such as muscolo, were within a laborer's reach.

The boy presently returned with a good quantity of meat. It had been abundantly seasoned with pepper so it'd keep, and the foreman added even more (hence the name peposo, deriving from pepe [pepper], meaning a peppery dish). He cut it into small chunks with a crude pocketknife and threw it into a large terracotta pot. Knowing the sinewy beef would need to cook at length in order to soften into something less resembling hide and more forgiving to medieval dental work, he grabbed a full flask of the ubiquitous red wine—Impruneta being in Chianti country, after all—and up-ended its entire contents into the pot. He then placed the pot just inside the maw of the roaring furnace, where the heat was mellower, and left it there to slow-cook for hours.

 Terra cotta urns, or  orci , of Impruneta

Terra cotta urns, or orci, of Impruneta

Later, when the scent of the simmering meat had become almost too much to bear with any pretense of fortitude, and fatigue made them stoop like willows in the rain, the men dragged the pot from the kiln's mouth like an unwilling molar and hunkered down around it, reaching in with great chunks of bread and scooping the meat up into their mouths. That heretofore tough cut of cow now yielded to their hunger like an impatient virgin; it was butter-soft and dripping with a velvety, wine-dark sauce which their rustic bread soaked up like perfect absolution. They washed it down with still more wine, clapped the foreman on the back, and were satisfied. And from this auspicious beginning the humble peposo of Impruneta was to go on to achieve something very grand, indeed.


Brunelleschi's dilemma

In 1420, when scaffolding enshrouded the Basilica of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence and the great cupola was under construction, the workers—perhaps understandably—tended to blow off the steam that comes from sweating over such a colossus of engineering by climbing down to take their meals and disappearing for what was, to Brunelleschi, a rather alarming amount of time into the rough-and-tumble osterie hidden in the sinuous alleys nearby. They would come back thoroughly soused, mount the scaffolding unsteadily, sing bawdily, and recommence their work with visibly diminished dexterity. The brilliant architect hit upon a solution: since the four million-odd terracotta bricks used in the dome's construction were being fired round-the-clock and brought in daily from the kilns at Impruneta, he ordered a continuous supply of generous potfuls of peposo and had them delivered along with the brick shipments and hoisted up onto the scaffolds, together with countless loaves of bread and a carefully rationed (and watered down) quantity of vino. The men thus lunched under their boss's watchful eye, high above the teeming city, leaving Florence's taverns to the riffraff.

And so it was that the rich red earth of Impruneta helped nourish Brunelleschi's vision, just as the peposo—born of Impruneta's kilns—nourished the men who would help him realize it.

 Peposo at Burrasca. Brunelleschi would be pleased.

Peposo at Burrasca. Brunelleschi would be pleased.

Our peposo is served as it often is these days in Tuscany: with polenta. It's a wonderfully warming and deeply comforting dish, perfect for winter. Come see us and taste for yourself the savory foundation upon which Florence's incomparable Duomo was built; there's no telling what fabulous things you'll accomplish with a bellyful of the stuff.

—Elizabeth Petrosian