Mangia! Mangia! – Craving Mac ‘n’ Cheese in Tuscany

On a cold and rainy day when nothing is going right, Italians don’t have the same craving for Mac ‘n’ Cheese (maccheroni e formaggio) as most of the American baby boomers.

Mac 'n' Cheese plain and simple
Mac 'n' Cheese plain and simple

During the 50s and 60s across the U.S., moms would make Mac ‘n’ Cheese from scratch with a butter and flour roux and American cheese. In the 70s and 80s, Kraft cornered the market with powdered cheese or the deluxe version with a packet of “real” cheddar cheese sauce.

The popularity of macaroni and cheese in the U.S. supposedly started when Thomas Jefferson served the dish at a White House dinner in 1802. Some say he got the pasta machine from Italy and the recipe from France.

Macaroni’s first mention in literature is in Boccacio’s Decameron (1348) where on the eighth day the group, hanging out in the hills near Florence (waiting for the plague to abate), was told the story of people from Parma who ate formaggio parmigiano and maccheroni.

Today in Italy it is hard to find elbow macaroni at the market, Italians rarely eat cheddar cheese, and there aren’t any boxes of Kraft Mac ‘n’ Cheese on supermarket shelves. In fact, it’s a rare to find an Italian who has ever savored the dish and certainly none who understands the expat’s craving for the cheesy comfort food.

Trattoria Zibibbo
Trattoria Zibibbo

Now for the good news! Foreigners in Florence who need a fix of creamy cheese on pasta (or anyone else who just wants a fabulous meal) should head immediately to Zibbibo Trattoria, located out of the tourist hubbub, and try chef/owner Benedetta Vitali’s Spaghetti Pastificio Morelli con Monte 27.

Admittedly, the pasta is not elbow macaroni, but it is one of the finest spaghettis made near Pisa by the family-owned Morelli pasta company. The taste of the fine durum wheat comes through with a satisfying al dente chew.

Monte 27 Vecchio from the Tallegio Valley
Monte 27 Vecchio from the Taleggio Valley

The cheese is not Velveeta, or American, or even a fine aged English cheddar, but it is a unique aged yellow hard cheese called Monte 27 Vecchio. Monte 27 is made by a small cheese company in the Taleggio Valley in the mountainous province of Bergamo in the Lombardy Region of northern Italy.

Spaghetti Pastaficio Morelli with Monte 27
Spaghetti Pastificio Morelli with Monte 27

Benedetta hasn’t shared the exact recipe, but a spy in the kitchen reports that she melts down a lot, but not too much, unsalted butter, with about the same amount of brodo (savory stock from boiling chicken and a bit of beef). She boils the spaghetti until it’s almost done, then adds the spaghetti to the butter and brodo, sautés by stirring quickly and once the noodles are completely coated, she adds a huge handful of finely grated Monte 27.  She stirs briskly again until the cheese melts and serves the creamy pasta immediately, piping hot, garnished with a dash of pepper.

Paired with a glass of elegant, deep berry-red, velvety Barbaresco from the Piedmont region and followed by a fresh fruity sorbet, such as one made of fragolino grapes served in a tall crystal flute, makes the perfect light meal.

Benedetta Vitali
Benedetta Vitali

Benedetta is celebrating the tenth anniversary of her modern-designed, but cozy, trattoria. The menu changes frequently, reflecting both what is fresh at the market and Benedetta’s eclectic taste, especially of her love for the dishes of southern Italy. Look for appetizers like octopus salad or a flan of cauliflower and Parmesan cheese. The pasta to choose is, of course, Morelli spaghetti with Monte 27 sauce, but a good second choice is pasta with shellfish like clams, mussels, or shrimp. Main-course selections may include braised lamb chops, pigeon stuffed with liver, and squid stewed in spicy tomato sauce. Seasonal vegetables are not to be missed, especially if there are fried zucchini blossoms. Desserts have been Benedetta’s specialty for thirty years, especially the torta di gianduia (creamed chocolate and hazelnuts) and candied orange peels topping creamy cheesecake.

To get to Zibibbo, either take the 14C bus from Piazza San Marco or the train station all the way to the last stop in Careggi or ask the taxi driver to be dropped off at Piazzetta di Careggi. From that little square, Zibibbo is only a few doors up Via di Terzollina. There is a sign, but the name ‘Zibbibo’ is not immediately evident.

Zibibbo Trattoria

Via di Terzollina 3/R, Florence; telephone: Reservations necessary.

About $40 a person, not including wine.

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