My husband, Enrico, returned home from two weeks in Tuscany last night. Each January he leads a group of university students to Prato for a crash course in a region celebrated for centuries by writers and artists. I guess you could say it’s the college counterpart to the course I lead in Umbria each spring and fall: Two Weeks in Todi,. When I return from Umbria, exhausted from the journey, the first thing I do upon walking into our bungalow is unzip my suitcase and pull out my precious cargo: pecorino cheese (shrink-wrapped) and dried lentils from Castelluccio di Norcia, award-winning olive oil (in a tin can, for obvious reasons) from Marcello’s specialty shop in Todi, salt flavored with black truffles, maybe a bottle of sweet Sagrantino passito wine and usually 3 or 4 rustic, terra-cotta colored ceramic cups from Bevagna. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, sure, but bringing Italy home in our suitcases certainly makes for a delicious reunion.
This morning, Enrico handed me a bright blue bag of biscotti to enjoy with my coffee. Not just any biscotti, but the Platonic ideal of biscotti, the holy grail of almond biscuits. You see, the baked confection that has become synonymous with the word ‘biscotto’ in the States is actually a mutated (i.e. “on steroids”) version of a very specific cookie from Tuscany: the biscotto di Prato, also called the cantuccio (lit. “little corner”) di Prato. Why Prato? Because it was in this lovely and lively city located only only 17 kilometers from Florence, that a baker named Antonio Mattei (nicknamed “Mattonella”) perfected the recipe for his family’s traditional Tuscan almond cookies – 150 years ago this year. The cookies – tiny, golden, perfectly crunchy – are still sold in Mattei’s original bakery at 22 Via Ricasoli (Prato’s elegant shopping street), which boasts original wood and marble counters, many framed awards from the 19th century and the original painted wooded sign on the exterior. I would’ve loved a January visit to Prato myself, but all I needed to do was open the bright blue paper sack and taste almond perfection to experience Tuscany from the comfort of my own kitchen. As far as travel gifts go, regional, portable, edible Italian specialties make much better gifts than T-shirts…although Enrico did also bring me some clingy, basic black cotton tops from my favorite intimate apparel shop: Intimissimi – for my benefit, or his?
What precious cargo do you always bring home from Italy?
Travel Tip: Avoid crowds of tourists and get a better value for your euro by staying in Prato instead of Florence on your next trip to Tuscany. A lovely city in its own right, Prato boasts an elegant centro storico with lovely shops, a first class contemporary art museum, the celebrated textile museum and, of course, biscotti heaven. There are many lodging options, but my husband and his students found the bed and breakfast Accanto al Centro, to be very clean, friendly and central. Frequent trains zip you over to Firenze in a matter of minutes.