After Firenze, we were planning to continue on to Rome, but after much dithering, decided to skip Rome and go directly to the Hotel da Vinci near Empoli, where we had a room reserved for Friday night. Our new rule is that if you only schedule one night in a town, you're not sightseeing--you're on a death march. We had to negotiate a room rate for Thursday night, which wasn't difficult. Expensive hotel room prices are not at all fixed: the lobby attendant's duty is to fill up empty rooms at whatever price the market will bear, down to some minimal amount that covers cleaning and damage probability. One of the most effective bargaining tactics seems to be to just sit and wait (which I'm good at!). It's very stressful to wait 30 seconds while a person mulls over an offer, and tempting to make a lower offer just to get it over with.
We really liked Empoli. Our hotel was on the north side of the river Arno, right next to two supermarkets and several decent restaurants. We've decided that "Sphagetteria" in Italy means approximately "Denny's"--good, filling food at a reasonable price. Virtually all restaurants also serve beer, wine, and harder liquor.
The food in Italy seems different both from American and northern European food and from what is sold as "Italian Food" in America. Unique ingredients include: Prosciutto: a whole cured, salty leg of hog (available at finer supermarkets) sliced into sub-millimeter sheets. As such, each piece of prosciutto includes a rim of fat and bits of connective tissue in addition to just muscle meat, which makes an intersting taste. Prosciutto hog legs are sold at room temperature in supermarkets, and the sliced product also appears decay-resistant, either because of the curing process (it's a dry meat) or because of the salt. Taking photos of the prosciutto making process would be a good way to build a 3D model of a hog leg, except that to avoid slicing through the bone, slices are taken at various angles which would have to be combined. Panna: polymerized milk protein. This is made by boiling milk or cream until the protein forms curds on the boiling surface. It's a sort of thick yellowish protein paste with a unique and not particularly milklike taste.