Ah, Firenze. My family indulged in a hot summertime week in Florence, eating gelato many times per day, drinking many Negroni cocktails, luxuriating in short, dark espressos, and swimming in our hotel’s rooftop pool. We stayed at the Grand Hotel Minerva, on the Piazza Santa Maria Novella, in the heart of historic Florence. We were close to the Duomo and the Ponte Vecchio (lovingly photographed here by master photographer Dave).

I went to Florence with my young child, knowing that I could not indulge in the typical 10pm Tuscan dinnertime. Instead, we enjoyed aperitivo hours, after strolling in the heat, looking up at the many church towers. Every neighborhood seemed to be named after the ancient church that towered in its piazza. There never seemed to be enough cool relief from the temperatures. We’d sit at an outdoor café, sweating, while we snacked on some salumi toscani, for which my young child acquired quite a taste. Tuscans love their salty and strong-flavored cured meats: prosciutto toscano, pancetta, salame toscano, finocchiona, soppressata, cinta senese salumi, prosciutto e salame di cinghiale.

I went to Florence looking for certain key foods. Crostini misti is an assortment of four toasts, topped with liver pâté, chopped tomato, artichoke spread, and sometimes mushrooms. Perfect aperitivo fare. Panzanella is the bread salad, with cucumbers, peppers, and tomatoes, tossed with olive oil and red wine vinegar.

Bistecca alla Fiorentina is a thick slab of T-bone steak, grilled until barely rare and served with only salt and olive oil. Schiacciata is a rectangle of salty, golden, focaccia-like bread. Limoncello is a lemon liqueur from the Amalfi coast, served ice cold.

Each day, we made sure to try yet another flavor of gelato. The Festival del Gelato, at Via del Corso 75r -- not far from our hotel -- offered 50 flavors.

We’d peer through the glass, fathoming all those tastes.

We enjoyed riverside cocktails and a fabulous complimentary buffet at Noir, at Lungarno Corsini 12r. Situated right there at the Arno River, we could watch the sun slowly set. Drinkers leaned against the short wall of the bridge, chatting, flirting, harmless. I paid 9 euros for a Negroni, and got all I could eat from the hot/cold buffet: pastas, farro, cold cuts, cheeses, bread, pickles, orecchiette with olives, bowties, radishes, onions, tomatoes. We had a lot of fun at this place.

We had a great dinner and great service at Trattoria Cibreo, at Via dei Macci 122r. It was as delicious and innovative as we had hoped. And it was fine for my young child to eat there as well.

On another night, we ate at an outside table at Quattro Leoni, at Piazza della Passera, Via Vellutini 1r. We enjoyed the Chianti, crostini, gnocchi with arugula/rocket pesto, baccala with potatoes and tomatoes, Vin Santo and cookies.

San Lorenzo is Florence’s main market area, best known for its church and its huge food hall. The church is also called San Lorenzo, and is the city’s oldest existing religious institution, founded in 393.

Mercato Centrale, open Monday-Saturday, 7am-2pm, is Europe’s largest covered food hall, built in 1874, with an upper floor added in 1980. Entrances are on the piazza and from Via del Ariento.

Kiosks selling meats, fish, cheese, and baked goods are downstairs; fruits and vegetables are upstairs. Even in the oppressive heat, we managed to walk through the market, marveling at all the items.

The Santa Croce neighborhood, based around a 13th-century church, is a lively mix of traditional shops and bars that survived the 1966 flood, plus some very good new places, especially around the Mercato di Sant’Ambroggio.

Santa Croce is an impressive Gothic church, whose construction began in 1294 by the Franciscans.

It includes cycles of frescoes from the 14th century, by Giotto and Gaddi, as well as monuments to illustrious Italians such as Michelangelo and Galileo.

The Mercato di Sant’Ambroggio, open Monday-Saturday, 7am-2pm, is smaller and tattier than Mercato Centrale. I bought bottles of olive oil, bottles of Limoncello, heart-shaped pasta.

My great personal triumph was in securing a lunch reservation at Da Delfina, which required us to drive for an uncomfortable amount of time in a cab (an hour?), at an uncomfortably warm temperature (not enough air conditioning), in order to reach the outer town of Artimino. The restaurant was set on a hilltop, amidst vineyards, olive groves and hummingbirds.

Barbara Fairchild, the editor of Bön Appetit magazine, made sure to name Da Delfina as her favorite restaurant in the world, in her editorial published right before my trip to Tuscany. She said, “The terrace of this restaurant, in a medieval hamlet less than half an hour north of Florence, overlooks the Tuscan countryside. Nothing could be better — except the superb food from veteran chef and owner Carlo Cioni.”

Not many people were there for lunch, which was fine for us. It was quiet at our table on that terrace. A canopy tried to shelter us from the heat, but to no real avail.

The wonderful chef, who spoke little English, came out to us and tried his best to describe his food. See photos of his restaurant, from his Web site.

We absorbed the food, the wine, the heat. We were wowed by the fields and the sky and the hush all around us. Once we paid our bill, Chef Carlo called a cab for us, and then he left. He and his one waitress and his kitchen staff did actually leave the premises, I guess to go take a nap before dinner service that night.

And so we were very alone, standing near the deserted roadside, waiting for that cab. “What if no one ever comes?” I dared to fear.

Eventually, the car arrived. We dealt with our language barriers, then took the lengthy, hot drive back to Piazza Santa Maria Novella, with our tasty memories in tact.

As an homage to Chef Carlo and to my trip to Florence, I’ve since prepared one of the recipes from Da Delfina. “Rabbit with Olives and Pine Nuts (Coniglio con Olive e Pinoli)” was printed in a cookbook called Florence: Authentic Recipes Celebrating the Foods of the World, by Lori de Mori (recipe below).

Have you ever cooked rabbit? This was my first time, and it was a great triumph. I used my valuable Dutch oven and a 2007 Pinot Grigio.

Rabbit with Olives and Pine Nuts
(Coniglio con Olive e Pinoli)
West of Florence, in the hills of Artimino, the restaurant Da Delfina serves exceptional versions of local standards, such as this herbed rabbit.
Makes 4 servings

1 rabbit, about 3 1/2 lbs., cut into 8 serving pieces
6 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
2 yellow onions, finely chopped
2 celery stalks, finely chopped
1 large carrot, peeled and finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 Tbsp. finely chopped fresh rosemary
1 Tbsp. finely chopped fresh sage
1 Tbsp. finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
2 bay leaves
1 cup dry white wine
1 cup pine nuts
3/4 cup brine-cured pitted black olives
Salt and freshly ground pepper

Rinse the rabbit pieces. Pat dry with paper towels. In a large, heavy-bottomed frying pan over medium heat, warm 3 Tbsp. of the olive oil. Lay the rabbit pieces in a single layer in the pan and cook, using kitchen tongs to turn them, until lightly browned on all sides, about 10 minutes.  Transfer the rabbit to a plate.

Add the remaining 3 Tbsp. oil to the same pan over medium heat. Add the onions, celery, carrot, garlic, rosemary, sage, parsley, and bay leaves and cook, stirring frequently, until the vegetables are fragrant and tender, about 10 minutes.

Reduce the heat to medium-low, return the rabbit to the pan, and pour in the wine.  Cook, stirring and turning the pieces occasionally and adding a bit of water to the pan if it is drying out, until the rabbit pieces are almost tender when pierced with a fork, about 1 hour.

Add 1/2 cup water, the pine nuts, and the olives and stir well.  Continue cooking until the rabbit has soaked up most of the liquid, about 20 minutes longer.  Season with salt and pepper.

Divide the rabbit pieces among warmed individual plates. Top with the pine nuts, olives, and vegetables. Serve at once.

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I was prompted toward this recipe once I discovered the accessibility of frozen rabbit at my Food Coop. It was a bit expensive, I suppose, but I definitely don’t prepare this all the time. I cut up the rabbit with scissors and tore it apart with my hands. I cooked the pieces for 12 minutes, until browned. After adding the wine to the vegetables and the rabbit, I covered and cooked for 40 minutes, before adding 1 1/2 cups water. At the end of cooking, the great combined smells of olives and rabbit and simmering stewiness were fabulous. I added 1 tsp. salt and 1/4 tsp. black pepper to the mix.

What does rabbit taste like? It’s a unique meat -- not like chicken. Perhaps more like goat? The textures here were perfect. The olives and pine nuts contributed so well to the stew’s great consistency.

As a fine accompaniment, I also made “Mushroom Orzo,” from Allrecipes.com. This recipe allowed me to use more of the same Pinot Grigio and to relish the decadence of the butter + onions + mushrooms that melted into a magnificent silkiness.

The scent of butter in a bubbling pot is exhilarating, uplifting, exuberant. I quartered my cippolini onions (rather than pearl onions) and cooked them in that butter for 10 minutes. I added 1/4 tsp. garlic powder, 1/4 tsp. black pepper, and 1 tsp. salt to the orzo mixture. Orzo’s mouthfeel will always calm the masses. Once combined with a buttery wine sauce, world peace could be realized.

PRICES
D’Artagnan Frozen Rabbit Fryer (3.28 lbs.) = $19.02
Carrot = .21¢
Cippolini Onions (1/2 lb.) = .68¢

RECIPES: if you find a rabbit, try a rabbit -- it’s a very approachable meat; everyone loves buttery orzo
PREP TIMES: rabbit stew could be eaten within 2 hours; orzo needs 30 minutes
TASTES: rich and meaty rabbit is successfully stewed with wine, olives, and pine nuts; butter, onions, mushrooms, and more wine melt into orzo’s silkiness

Returning from Florence, wise and enchanted, I’ll proceed to cook in my own kitchen. Next time, I want to make “Roasted-Almond Ricotta Pesto with Olives,” from the August 2009 issue of Gourmet. See what happens with this recipe, when you return to my site on Sunday, January 10.