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She wants to show you what Italians eat

By Cynthia Graber
Globe Correspondent / May 19, 2010

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FLORENCE — “If it’s supple, then it’s fresh,’’ says Antoinette “Toni’’ Mazzaglia, squeezing the talon of a rooster’s foot a butcher has handed her. We all take a squeeze, feeling the flesh give way to the pressure of our fingers. We then turn from the meat shop and wander over to the site of the next lesson: balsamic vinegar.

While Tuscany beckons food lovers with glowing visions of olive oil, cheese, and wild game, the reality here in the region’s capital can be far from appealing. Hordes of tourists descend each day on the city, and a plethora of sandwich, gelato, and pasta shops have sprung up to serve the masses. If you’re searching for the genuine tastes of Tuscany, Mazzaglia’s Taste Florence food tour is a good guide.

An American with Italian grandparents, Mazzaglia moved to Italy about a decade ago, and while working a variety of jobs found herself returning again and again to her love of food. She took classes in Italian food history and cooking, learned from the parents of friends, and began sommelier classes. She started the tour company two years ago.

“I realized that visitors are walking around, they’re starving, and they think that these scary pieces of pizza and dried sandwiches are what Italians eat,’’ says Mazzaglia. “That’s just a sin for someone who visits Italy, when one of the greatest masterpieces here is the food.’’

The four-hour walking tour begins at a 100-year-old bakery, where we taste a Tuscan focaccia called schiacciata, a savory bread snack with toppings such as artichokes. Next stop: a 101-year-old pastry shop. Then, despite the morning hour, we follow Mazzaglia into Casa del Vino, a shop whose owner offers glasses of Italian wine along with exceptional crostini and sandwiches.

Each stop involves lessons on Italian food, its history, and the customs involved in eating it. In the wine shop, Mazzaglia explains the correct way to toast — meeting the eyes of every person in your party — and tells the group that it’s considered bad luck to have 13 people at a dinner (superstitious diners everywhere believe this). If that should occur, she says, a seat is always set for a potential 14th guest.

Next, Mazzaglia whisks us to the San Lorenzo food market, replete with fruit and vegetable shops, cheese vendors, butchers, and all manner of food shops. Then a quick stop for boiled and spiced meat with a side of cannellini beans, and we park ourselves at a table by the Conti family shop. We are here to taste olive oils and discuss Italian food and its preparation.

Olive oil in Tuscany is pressed from young green olives, much of it unfiltered. Mazzaglia explains that the sharp, complex flavors of these oils become lost to heat; we should use cheaper olive oil for cooking, and more expensive, flavorful oils for finishing a dish. We taste oil on bread and simply on a spoon, including a bright green, cloudy oil made by the shop owner’s family.

Next, we sample a plate of cheese with a variety of toppings. One piece of pecorino is coated with a thick amber honey infused with truffles. The honey has a fragrant, earthy sweetness; it’s priced at more than $40 a bottle.

Mazzaglia hopes to offer people a closer connection to Florence. “I want visitors to feel like when they go places, they have a better idea what to eat, what to order, how to interact,’’ she says. “I want them to feel like they experienced the city, not just floated around as a tourist.’’

That same afternoon, when I wander back into Casa del Vino for a quick sandwich, the owner recognizes me and smiles. The connection already worked.

Taste Florence group tours range from about $83 to $120 a person. Contact Antoinette Mazzaglia at info@tasteflorence.com.

Cynthia Graber can be reached at cynthiagraber@mac.com.