I started at Berkeley’s Chez Panisse in 2000 with one adult travel experience under my belt: a year abroad in Europe, where the choices I made were informed by the cost of train tickets or the availability of creaky hostel beds. Food never entered into the equation.
But from my first moments in the restaurant, when I sat through a menu meeting where the chef shared the origin story of each dish on that day’s menu, I could see that travel begets memory, which in turn begets great cooking. Each day—and each new menu—brought with it stories of the far-flung restaurants, roadside stands, and dear aunties and grandmothers whose food inspired our cooking.
Many of the memories the chefs shared were of extravagant meals. Yet the ones that struck me the most involved revelations about the simplest foods: a pot of beans cooked in the coals, a pasta made with dandelion greens, polenta fortified with cheese and thick cream. I knew that the next time I traveled, it would be in pursuit of those powerful, simple flavors.
So three years later, when I secured an apprenticeship in the kitchen of a tiny trattoria in Florence, Italy , I immediately started dreaming of all of the storied dishes I’d hunt for on my days off. Of course I’d eat porchetta , thinly sliced roast pork seasoned with sage and garlic, and ribollita, the Tuscan bean, bread, and kale soup that’s so thick it’s served on a plate.
But one dish in particular incited such universal obsession among the cooks at Chez Panisse that it had taken on an almost mythical quality: the panino bollito from a stall called Nerbone in Florence’s Mercato Centrale. While parts of it sounded great—the drizzle of salsa verde, the two-euro price—parts of it sounded terrible: It was essentially boiled meat on a bun. What, I wondered, was mythical about that?
“The counter guy will dip the bun into the beef broth if you ask nicely,” the chefs told me. “It’ll put the best hamburger you’ve ever had to shame,” they said. I doubted it, but I left it on my list.
A week after I arrived in Florence, I made my way to Nerbone. While I waited in the long line, I rehearsed the Italian phrase for “A boiled beef sandwich with both sauces and a dipped bun” under my breath. When it was my turn, I carefully placed my order: “Un panino bollito con tutte due le salse. Bagnato, per favore.”
I took a bite and swooned. Suddenly, I understood.
I’d studied Italian intensively before arriving, but I may have overestimated my grasp of the language. When the man at the counter replied in Tuscan dialect, I froze. Stubbornly refusing to admit that I had no idea what he’d said, I blushed, nodded, and paid the cashier. He handed me my sandwich, which I took to eat on the steps of the market. I took a bite.
How could this strange-textured, off-tasting thing be the dish that inspired so many sighs at Chez Panisse? I forced myself to continue to chew, and then to swallow. There was no way this was the brisket I’d heard about. I went back and hovered near the sandwich stand, studying the signs, until I finally figured out what the man at the counter had been trying to tell me: He’d sold out of brisket. All he had left was lampredotto, a Florentine specialty. With my vehement nodding, I’d signaled that instead of brisket, I’d be fine with tripe.
Though embarrassed by my mistake, I couldn’t give up. I returned to Nerbone the following week. I arrived early to beat the lunch rush. I ordered my sandwich, and just as before, I took it to the steps. I took a bite and swooned. Suddenly, I understood. The tender meat melted in my mouth. The bun had absorbed twice its weight in savory broth, which amplified the flavor of the meat. Any other sandwich composed simply of bread and meat might have threatened tedium of taste. But this one was enhanced by the kick of chili oil and the punch of an acidic salsa verde. Not only was the panino better than any burger I’d ever tasted, it was the best sandwich, of any kind, I’d ever eaten.
I grew obsessed. Eventually, I moved to an apartment almost solely for its proximity to Nerbone. I ate there so often that I got to know the cooks. I convinced them to let me into the kitchen so I could learn their secrets. They showed me how to season the meat generously with salt. They taught me that the pot of meat must never boil, but rather remain at a simmer for hours. And they demonstrated exactly how they make their textbook-perfect salsa verde: not by painstakingly chopping parsley and celery and gently blending it with olive oil and vinegar, but by throwing everything into a food processor and pressing the “on” switch.
Two years later, I returned to Berkeley and started cooking at an Italian restaurant. I put a bollito sandwich with chili oil and salsa verde on the menu, and waxed poetic about Nerbone to the staff. A few years later, one of our young cooks moved to Florence to study and cook. As I printed out a list of my favorite spots in Tuscany on the night before he left, I gave him a few tips: “Watch how the Italians use olive oil. Eat everything you can. Don’t be afraid to admit when you don’t understand Italian.” And finally, I warned, “Watch out for the lampredotto at Nerbone.”Samin Nosrat is a chef, New York Times Magazine food columnist, and author of the James Beard award-winning, New York Times bestseller SALT, FAT, ACID, HEAT.
On October 11, 2018, a four-part documentary series based on Nosrat’s hit book debuted on Netflix.>>Next: Tar, Spaghetti, and Other Totally Real Ice Cream Flavors You Need to Try in Europe