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A Pasta—With Canned Tuna!—That's Better Than George Clooney

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As Food52 gets older (and wiser), and our archive of recipes grows, we're making the effort to revisit some gold recipes and pick the brains that invented them. Today, it's not just a recipe, but a dreamscape of a travel essay on one very dishy spaghetti.


A long time ago, Food52 contributor Cynthia Ware—a.k.a. boulangere—visited her daughter in Florence. She carried a red Moleskine notebook with her everywhere she went. "My daughter usually had a journal with her as well," she tells me over email, "but I suspect hers was filled with penetrating insights, whereas a glance through mine might bring one to ask if we ever did anything but eat. FNIFS was the first dish I recreated when I got home."

Oh, hi George.
Oh, hi George. Photo by Julia Gartland

FNIFS refers to First Night in Florence Spaghetti..., a recipe she posted on our site back in 2011, after she tasted a very similar dish at a student hangout named Friends. The spaghetti recipe's headnote starts with Cynthia flying over Lake Como, considering her friend's request that she find George Clooney (who has a house there), and ends with Cynthia saying: "It was worth the price of the entire trip to have tasted [the spaghetti]. With my daughter. I was in heaven. George was on his own." Other dishes inspired by that trip include Chasing Cézanne Carrot & Corn Salad and Lost Shoes Risotto, also on our site.

Notice a theme? These are not your average recipes. They tell the story of particular dishes, emphasis on particular, and leave you with the possibility of making a magnificent meal to boot. (Community member pierino is also a master of this kind of creative recipe writing.)

Bloody Nonsense Paella

Bloody Nonsense Paella by pierino

Lattice Entertain You; Lasagne “Angry Sicilian Style”

Lattice Entertain You; Lasagne “Angry Sicilian Style” by pierino

Below is a barely edited excerpt from Cynthia's recipe for FNIFS:

[The airplane] flew over the gorgeous hills north of Florence; I think we passed over Lake Como. Under strict orders from my friend Marci to Find. George., I took a mental note. After all, I’d been trapped in a window seat on the wrong side of the restrooms. So I was a little ragged when I flopped into Florence at 3 p.m. in the afternoon, 18 hours after I had first taken off (and a couple of days before I was capable of doing the math).

Leaving the airport was like walking into a pizza oven. Hot. Seriously hot. I took a taxi to the daughter’s apartment, where the kind concierge was expecting me and let me in. I forced myself to stay awake until the daughter arrived a couple of hours later, but don’t ask me how. I was determined to start living on Italian time from the start so as not to miss one precious moment of the whole experience. I suspect a shower was involved, and probably a change of clothes. Lordy, it was hot. How few clothes could I get away with? I was never going to see most of these people again, right?

When the daughter and her roommates arrived home, the first thing she did was take me for a walk along the Arno and around her neighborhood: the favorite café, the nearest market, and most importantly, the best gelato place. With free WiFi. Have I mentioned it was hot? I didn’t exactly hang on the daughter’s arm, beg abjectly and weep, but I did suggest that perhaps we for just the first night we could have dinner Americanly early rather than Europeanly late. The daughter, who was getting by on the 10,000-calories-a-day required for an extreme dancer’s diet, was up for it.

She took me to their favorite student-priced restaurant. Its name? Friends. I could barely remember my own. I felt myself disintegrating, practically hallucinating. I wasn’t sure I could make myself understood in English, let alone Italian. I was easy pickings. I don’t recall what the daughter ordered (pizza would be a safe guess). But I will never, ever forget this pasta. I took the first bite. My mouth dropped open. I gasped. I gently set my fork down in my plate and folded my hands in my lap. I very slowly said, “This. Is. The best thing. I have ever tasted. In my entire. Life.” The daughter, who’d been eating like that for a month, sort of shrugged—oh, that old thing—and tucked into whatever she had ordered. If this recreation—I believe one says “avatar” these days—comes even slightly close to the one I tasted that night, you may get to experience some of what I did. And I really don’t believe it was the fatigue talking. Make it with and for people you love. Buon apetito.

Lost Shoes Risotto

Lost Shoes Risotto by boulangere

Chasing Cézanne Carrot & Corn Salad

Chasing Cézanne Carrot & Corn Salad by boulangere

Cynthia, a chef by profession (it's her 4th and happiest career by far), wrote a blog called The Solitary Cook, which she eventually migrated to Medium.com. FNIFS lived up to Cynthia's praise when I tasted it, perfectly al dente strands slick with garlicky olive oil, the tuna and tomatoes playfully coexisting. Was it better than George Clooney? Let's just say I agree with Cynthia's next statement:

Ah, George. The best of all possible situations would be if I could prepare this for and sit down to eat it with George Clooney. And Amal. And the twins. And my daughter. Add me to the guest list, Cynthia!

First Night in Florence Spaghetti

First Night in Florence Spaghetti

boulangere boulangere
Serves 2 with leftovers; easily doubles or triples
  • 1/2 package spaghetti or bucatini
  • Sea or kosher salt
  • Good olive oil, and lots of it
  • 1 pint cherry or grape tomatoes of whatever colors are to hand, halved
  • 2 or 3 good sized cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 can tuna packed in olive oil, not drained, opened, homage to Pierino who appreciates the value of very good canned tuna
  • A couple of generous handfuls of spinach leaves, stems pulled off
  • Juice of 1/2 lemon, Meyer if possible
  • Sea or kosher salt and pepper to taste
  • A good Parmesan or Romano cheese
Go to Recipe
Automagic Spring Menu Maker!
Automagic Spring Menu Maker!

Tags: Pasta, Travel, Essay