It started and ended with a piadina from La Piadona in Pisa.
On the first night of bae’s and my weeklong road trip around Tuscany, we had beer and homemade amaro at a lovely local bar named Sud and were on the hunt for the perfect late night snack to soak it up before hitting the pillow. Meandering through the vibrant neighborhood near the Ponte di Mezzo, passing several piazzas and the Parrocchia di S. Michele in Borgo, led to a chance encounter with a place open til 1 a.m. with bright lights and an enormous menu. This was La Piadona, specializing in piadinas. What is a piadina? A thin flatbread typical of the Romagna region of Italy. The dough, made with flour, lard (or sometimes olive oil), salt and water, is traditionally cooked on a terracotta dish, but nowadays a flat plan or electric griddle suffices.
A friend of mine living in Bologna had convinced me, despite my persistence on eating exclusively pasta and charcuterie on this trip, to end my nights with piadinas, and when I saw that the entire menu was just a list of different ingredient combinations I got curious. The menu is organized by the predominant meat type (prosciutto cotto, prosciutto crudo, culatello, coppa, salami, speck, porchetta, pancetta, mortadella, salsiccia, hamburger, lardo, wurstel, bresaola, turkey, chicken breast, beef, roast beef, smoked salmon, tuna, shrimp), with some cheese, cheese/veggie and dessert piadina options as well. The variety is shocking. Their cured prosciutto ham collection is prominently displayed in a case in front of the counter, for customers to select from. Prices range from €4.50 to €5.50 per piadina, very low (even by Italian standards), considering the amount of fillings they add and the quality of those fillings.
Starving from the trip, appetite piqued further by a shot of bitter liqueur, I ordered the Sarda with porchetta, pecorino and crema di carciofi. What came to me was a dense pocket stuffed with juicy ribbons of pork roast, the subtle woodsy scent of garlic, rosemary and fennel still lingering on the fatty, moist flesh. The meat was paired beautifully with pecorino, a sharp ewe’s milk cheese from the same region in which porchetta is most popular. Mesmerized by the seemingly endless rolls of meat and cheese, I gripped my piadina and witnessed a thick cream squirting out between bread and pork. Lubricating the flatbread was a salty, savory artichoke cream with some sort of soft cheese that added a pleasant gooey, rich texture to each bite.
Bae got the Etrusca with pancetta, scamorza, pepper and oil. The very thinly sliced raw pork belly bacon was dotted with bits of black pepper whose heat balanced the fat nicely. The stretched scamorza melted from the heat of the griddle, adding a creamy, stringy texture and lightly smoked flavor to the dish.
San Gimignano, Siena, our agriturismo in the town of Pancole, the walls of Montalcino, Montepulciano, the Bravio delle Botti, Pienza, Castello di Chianti, Greve, Radda, the Verrazzano Castle and beautiful Panzano, Florence, the Ponte Vecchio, the Duomo di Firenze, Bologna, Lucca, the Leaning Tower, a Da Vinci museum, countless stops for cappuccino more for the foam than for the caffeine… We experienced a lot in just one week driving through the beautiful landscape of central Italy. But even as we stuffed our faces with wild boar prosciutto in Montepulciano, tagliatelle al ragu in Bologna and tripe stew in San Gimignano we couldn’t stop thinking of which piadina to order upon our return to La Piadona.
My man went with the Bolognese, a very satisfying, while also light, combination of mortadella, fontina cheese, pesto and lettuce. The silky smooth Bolognese cold cut, sweating from the heat of the griddle-toasted flatbread, was complimented fantastically with the soft and nutty cheese, and the lettuce added a great crunch to each bite. Patches of piquant pesto locked between layers of lettuce added tons of fresh basil flavor and a salty edge to the veg.
I had been regretting not choosing prosciutto the first time around, since so many of La Piadona’s piadinas are made with this most beloved of Italian cold cuts. I remedied the situation by ordering a Classica, with cured Prosciutto di Parma, mozzarella and tomato. The ham was expertly sliced, paper-thin, with patches of tight mozzarella adding a great textural backbone upon which the nutty, salty, sweet flavors of the prosciutto could be projected. A fresh ring of tomato here and there added moisture.
One piadina from La Piadona is quite enough for one person but we ordered a third to share, since it would be our last legit piadina for a while. The Estiva comes with grilled zucchini and eggplant, as well as some stretchy, smooth squacquerone cheese gushing out with each bite. When asked what “squacquerone” was the guy behind the counter explained it’s a soft, spreadable cheese from Emilia Romagna, “like Philadelphia.” Well…..it’s not at all like Philadelphia. It’s fresh, tangy, moist and delicious, extremely versatile as a topping or filling. In this case it did a great job binding together perfectly cooked disks of tender eggplant and zucchini, caramelized by the grill and melting easily in the mouth.
We must’ve looked strange sitting awkwardly on the bench in front of the shop a half hour before it opened up, anxiously smoking cigarettes and peeping through the window blinds, but we were determined to work a few piadinas into our afternoon before heading to the airport. We had talked about returning for days and had decided “mortadella for him, prosciutto for her, maybe a veg to share” hours before, and when the doors opened we leaped at the unsuspecting counter guy with our long predetermined orders.
Sometimes it pays off to do your research before a trip. Other times the perfect place just seems to kind of seek you out.