Empoli is a city about 30 minutes out of Florence on the train – it feels middle class, quite industrial, very hot and literally nobody speaks English. We’re here staying with my mate Samuele at his sister’s apartment, happy to kick back for a few days with our own kitchen, a washing machine and a TV to watch the World Cup.
The first night we’re there, we head straight to the supermarket. I go fanboy over all of the amazing, natural local produce and Ally fangirls over the cheap local white wine. After finding myself some incredible galletti (chicken) mushrooms, we head back home and have a hearty mushroom pasta, a salad and watch the football. Heaven.
The next day, Samuele has promised to take us to the beach. We didn’t even know there was beach in Tuscany, but this is the beauty of having a local on your side. After driving back from an Eminem show in Milan, Sam drives us about an hour away to a popular seaside town called Castiglioncello…pretty much a beachside holiday spot for Italians in this insanely hot summer.
Here’s my tip. If you have a car (and only if you have a car), you need to go to this place. Miles of sandy or rocky beaches (pick your poison), beautiful, clear, calm Mediterranean water, and dozens of restaurants lining the coast. We chuck our bags under a rock and swim for a bit before retiring up to a simple beach bar for our first proper ‘aperitivo’ of the trip.
Essentially, aperitivo is the Italian version of pre-loading, but they do it so much better. For somewhere between 1-5 Euros you can grab a beer, white wine or the omnipresent Aperol Spritz and they’ll also bring you out some nibbles…usually olives, nuts and chips. Some places, like this one, will ask for a few extra bucks each and they’ll give you access to an enormous buffet of crispy fried squid and rice balls, marinated olives and vegetables, simple bruschetta (little toasts) of tomato, basil, anchovies…local cheeses and cured meats, fluffy focaccia breads, frittatas and more. We pile our plates, sip our drinks and catch up over a sunset before heading out for a perfectly crusty pizza and driving home.
Back in Empoli, we spent our days pretty simply. Walking along the river, checking out a couple of local coffee shops – we did spend half a day visiting the town of Vinci, hometown of Leonardo, but the insane heat kept us holed up in a little bar that kept giving us more cheese and wine for free.
We take in more aperitivo with Samuele and friends, sipping on bitter pre-dinner cocktails sitting in alleyways, dodging vespas and always inhaling a lot of secondhand cigarette smoke. One night, I knock up a simple dinner of baked chicken and olives with pasta salad and greens for Sam and his mates. Despite enormous language barriers, it’s one of the best nights of the trip.
The incredible generosity of these small-town Italians is what I’ll remember most – friends of friends invite us out for lunch at a local restaurant-cum-garden centre where we eat amazing homemade spaghetti alla bottarga (with shaved dried mullet roe on top), and we are almost yelled at for even suggesting we would chip in for the bill.
Another food we are introduced to here is the Piadina – somewhere between a flatbread and a wrap, it’s almost a thin, lightly toasted pizza dough wrapped around a variety of fillings and eaten with your hands. Mine is sausage, rosemary and saffron potatoes, and Ally grabs a more simple proscuitto, rocket and parmesan. I briefly consider opening a Piadina shop in Sydney.
At the end of it all – this is what we wanted from Italy. An awesome little town that feels real. No souvenir shops, no entry prices, no guides. Sure, you need to learn some Italian and travel a little further to get to the ‘sights’, but you’re living. Empoli, and everyone who came with it, will remain one of the highlights of my trip, and definitely a place I will return to.