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Eating Firenze

robert brown

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On the Italian autoroutes it is not always only the rubber meeting the road, but as anyone who knows them well will tell you, also the glass, leather, twisted metal and drivers and their passengers. We made doubly sure, then, to buckle our seatbelts as we took off on the A10, A12, A11 and A1 from Ventimiglia to Florence for two days of shopping and dining. The drive took an extra 30 minutes due to bottlenecks on the A1, which we fondly refer to as “The Sauce Route” (“The Sauce” for short). I figured that if there is a trade route between Europe and Asia named the Silk Route, then the main road between the foodie cities of Milan, Bologna and Naples should certainly have a special and appropriate name of its own.

With the accuracy of today’s Cruise missiles, we zeroed in on our hotel without missing a beat. The hotel in question, the Lungarno, merits special attention for its location and value for money. On the south bank of the Arno, about a half of a block from the Ponte Vecchio, this hotel of fairly recent construction evokes an almost New England feel in its white, wood-walled public rooms and gives a high level of comfort in its bedrooms. We had what is known in the trade as a junior suite. The price of somewhere around 220 euros including service, taxes and breakfast for two is very fair for Florence hotels. However, had we stayed in a room facing the river, the price would have been about 50% more.

After some shopping, we wanted a light lunch in anticipation of a big dinner. Relying, as we often do, on Faith Heller Willinger’s guidebook “Eating in Italy,” we walked across the Ponte Vecchio and continued on for about five blocks to the Cantinetta dei Verrazzano, the in-town wine-bar and casual restaurant that belongs to the Chianti Classico winemaking concern. The large traditionally-designed but recent establishment is divided into a take-out area selling pastries; a wine bar; and a small dining area, while at the back, a woman in a pizza-type kitchen makes what is the main draw for diners: the various “schiacciate” or foccacio. The “degustazione” of four types seemed to us to be the best way to eat here. We had ones made with peas; cepes; tomato; and, the best, fried zucchini flower. A salad of tomatoes and mozzarella was dreary as it was made from mediocre materials. Verrazzano’s cool, crisp chardonnay, well-structured and not overly-sweet, went well with our food.

(Cantinetta dei Verrazzano. Via de’ Tavolini 18-20. 055.268.590. Open 8 to 8. Closed Sundays.)

Florence has but two high-profile restaurants. Enoteca Pinchiorri is the only one with any Michelin stars, two in this instance. However, it is one that serious food lovers avoid because of its high prices and lack of Tuscan authenticity. One visit in 1982 was enough for us. The other restaurant, Il Cibreo, is considered by many to be the most interesting, if not the best, in town. Having been there fairly recently, we wanted to expand our rather small first-hand knowledge of Florence restaurants with an establishment we had yet to visit. To break what is truly a culinary log jam, we took out four guidebooks and compiled a lengthy list of restaurants and ratings, after trying to glean an idea from the text what we might find. In the end we selected an old-time traditional restaurant, Oliviera. Again we walked across the Ponte Vecchio and then down a narrow street just a couple of blocks away from the Arno. Here we entered a staid, circa 1960 dining room with red banquettes along each wall. So stuffed were they that my wife dined with her feet dangling and ending up with sore legs as a result.

My wife’s first course was an introduction to “gnudi”, a Tuscan dumpling or “gnocchi”. It is spinach and ricotta formed into a ball; egg and a bit of pasta hold its shape. The sauce on it was made with butter and yellow wine. The dish was good, but as we were to discover the following day, it can be made a lot better. I ordered a pleasant, straightforward salad of octopus with sliced tomato, diced potato, green beans and strips of uncut roasted chives.

Touted as one of the better restaurants for the eponymous “Bistecca alla Fiorentina”, the one we ate at Oliviero was not the best in memory. Neither marbleized nor fibrous, it was soft and tender, but with no pronounced beefy taste. It came with roasted potatoes and white beans. My wife skipped dessert while I ordered “gelatti misti”: chocolate, vanilla and pistachio from the famous local gelateria, Vivoli, which did not seem to be as good as the best ice creams I have had in France.

Our bill with a good bottle of Chianti came to about $170. ($70. of which was for the steak for two) with a gratuity. We found this address to be competent, but without any culinary fireworks. The clientele, what there was of it, was from the upper echelons and appeared to be local. Solid and conservative, one might say.

(Ristorante Oliviero. via della Terme, 51. Florence. 055-287643. Dinner only. Closed Sundays and August. www.ristorante-oliviera.it.)

Even if a much-anticipated visit to the big Prada discount outlet in Montevarchi, about a 40 minute drive southeast from Florence, was disappointing (oldish stock at only 30% off), our lunch in nearby Rendola at the Osteria di Rendola was not. The Osteria is one of those Tuscan triple-threat gastronomic enterprises: dining, winemaking and olive oil production. It is set in beautiful, natural Tuscan countryside of gentle hills and lush greenery. The local DOCG wine is Chianti dei Colli Aretini which we had with our lunch. It is a simple, inexpensive red without much finesses or softness.

We sat in one of the two dining rooms; this one with a bar and, alas, no air conditioning. Yet a bit of breeze was around and we tucked into a delicious, relatively simple meal without discomfort. Again, my wife ordered a “gnudi” in pepper sauce. This version was larger and fluffier than the one at Oliviera, and tastier as well. I opted for a dish perfect for the Tuscan heat. It was a salad of duck breast in raspberry vinegar, copious with its six large slices. Lettuce and cooked raspberries rounded out this delicious dish. I followed on with squid ink macaroni with pancetta, strips of zucchini and bits of tomato. My wife had warm goose liver with fried grapes, pieces of pear and accompanied with balsamic vinegar. We were content with both dishes. After some delicious home-made gelati and fruit, my wife roused a young American woman from Shrewsbury, Massachusetts away from her lunch to purchase several bottles of the Osteria's olive oil. Apparently the woman is married to a son of the family that owns the property.

(Osteria di Rendola. Localita Rendola. 055-9707491. No weekly closing. Closed in May.)

We then drove through the beautiful countryside that skirted the great Chianti Classico vineyards, then around Siena, and north about 20 minutes to Colle di Val d’Elsa for a rendez-vous with one of the better restaurants in Italy. Ristorante Arnolfo, awarded two stars in the Guida Michelin, is in the old and perched part of Colle. When we arrived in front of the restaurant-hotel with no apparent place to park, I rang the buzzer and after a short wait was greeted by the chef, Gaetano Trovato, who, with his brother and maitre d’hotel/sommelier Giovanni, has owned Arnolofo for eight years. Gaetano then led my wife to a garage while Giovanni led me to one of the four hotel rooms. Ours was spacious and comfortable with good air conditioning and a well-fitted bathroom and a strong shower.

Arnolfo’s dining areas, both inside and on its open terrace, have one of the most arresting views we have ever encountered in a restaurant. Look down and you see an array of treetops beneath you. Apparently there must be a gully below. Look up and there is a rising field turned yellow from the rainless summer, on the crest of which is a lone one-room stone house. The scene evokes Vincent Van Gogh and Andrew Wyeth.

Arnolfo somehow manages to provide pretty much a full-blown gastronomic visit with only four talented people in the kitchen and five skillful and attentive ones in the dining room. Gaetano Trovato offers a tasting menu composed of a la carte dishes, which, in turn, number four or five choices in each category: starter, pasta, meat and fish, and desserts. We chose to order a la carte. First, however, was a generous offering of “amuses-gueles” that included a perfect and light zucchini flower filled with ricotta followed by a tray of cheese-flavored pastry twists, teaspoons of fish tartare, and sweet onion tarts. My wife began her meal proper with raviolis filled with zucchini on a tomato-based sauce. The raviolis pockets were standing upright on the dish. They were extremely light with an unusual texture that was neither translucent nor silky. Could they have been made with Durham wheat? My wife proclaimed them “perfection”.

My pasta dish was tortellini filled with sea bass accompanied by threads of zucchini and the Italian red crayfish (“gamberi rossi”). Again this was perfect: light, delectable and pure tasting.

At about this point in the meal, between the first and second courses, Gaetano came by to talk to us and the other clients. I was able to surmise that he had received some training in France, which he confirmed by telling us that in the 1980s he had worked for Gaston Lenotre when he owned the Pre Catalan restaurant in the Bois de Boulogne, and for Roger Verge at the Moulin de Mougins. This aspect of his cuisine became more evident in our main courses. For my wife it was squab (“piccioni”) served in two pieces--the breast and the wing— that were in a stock made with Balsamico. The legs were stuffed with liver and wrapped in crispy dough. (“Fabulous” is what my wife noted). As side dishes Gaetano served a ravioli in a light gelatinous broth with the liver; onions that resembled bulbous leeks; and baby vegetables that included a delicious piece of a porcini mushroom. I had dream-like baby lamb cut into two thick pieces and on the bone that had nestled into them a black olive tapenade-like filling. On the side was an intriguing potato and Parmesan toast held together with a disk made of zucchini. I enjoyed this dish immensely.

The cheese service at Arnolfo is not my favorite type. Instead of offering a “chariot”, they bring a plate with three slices of goat cheeses and two of Pecorino that are, nonetheless, regional and interesting. Dessert, however, put the meal back on the fast track. Our order to share came in three parts: a dark chocolate wafer over a mound of mascarpone; a coffee granita with crème Chantilly; and licorice ice cream. Gaetano decorated the plate with ribbons of raspberry and apricot coulis. The mignardises of a coconut-coated cherry, little crescents of crush nuts and blackberries in paper-thin pastry crusts put the meal over the top.

As an indication of the integrity of the house, I had to read the remarkable wine list without my glasses, which I had broken by sitting on them in bed just before dinner. I nonetheless was able to make out a 1995 Brunello di Montalcino from Andrea Costanti. When I told Giovanni my choice, he said, “There is an even better wine. Take this one, the 1995 Brunello “Vigna Pianrosso” from Ciacci." Ciacci was a producer whose wine I had somehow never tasted, though I knew he was one of the great Brunello winemakers. In fact, I looked for one on the list and, in my visually-impaired state missed it. I was grateful to Giovanni for reading my mind.

The next morning we had a wonderful continental breakfast with delicious and dense, sweet apricot-filled croissants with giant grains of sugar sprinkled on them. Gaetano and Giovanni were there to chat with us (and to present the bill which was a remarkably fair 368 euros, including our room) as we bought some of the olive oil Gaetano cooks with (one type for cooking fish, another for meat). We promised the Trovato Brothers we would be back before another year was out. We began our trip back to Nice stopping at another idyllic restaurant for lunch, Rosa in Camogli. But because this was in Liguria, it will have to be another subject for another day.

Arnolfo. Via XX Settembre 50-52a. Colle di Val d’Elsa. 057-7920549. www.arnolfo.com. . Closed Tuesdays & Wednesdays and from early January to early February and one week around the beginning of August.

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Thanks so much for the report.

Having eaten at almost all of the establishments covered, I have to say I agree with you almost entirely.

I'm glad you enjoyed Osteria di Rendola -- it is one of my favorite places in the region. Wonderful people.


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Managed only to have a one-course lunch at the La Rendola (blistering temperatures and ratty travelling companions). The owner was a lovely man. Some friends went for the menu degustazione a couple of nights after we left for Lucca and said it was one of the best meals they'd ever had. Quite gutted we missed that.

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Excellent report, Robert.

"I've caught you Richardson, stuffing spit-backs in your vile maw. 'Let tomorrow's omelets go empty,' is that your fucking attitude?" -E. B. Farnum

"Behold, I teach you the ubermunch. The ubermunch is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: the ubermunch shall be the meaning of the earth!" -Fritzy N.

"It's okay to like celery more than yogurt, but it's not okay to think that batter is yogurt."

Serving fine and fresh gratuitous comments since Oct 5 2001, 09:53 PM

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RE: Prada.

The 30% off is in addition to their already marked down prices. I bought shirts for 40E and shoes for 80E...roughly 60-70% off list price.

Did you make it to "The Mall" - featuring Armani, Zegna etc... It had a tasty lunch room, as well as having many bargains in the various stores. I picked up a beautiful Armani sportjacket for 107E and sunglasses for 45E.

Better luck next time.


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Exellent review Robert, I shall hop on your coat tails with this from my recent trip to Chianti:

When in Tuscany:

"Bar Dell'Orso" Loc. La Colonna 23 - Monteriggioni

It is a tavern on the road near Monteriggioni, the middle of nowhere really. It is a place that all sorts attend, from Businessmen from Siena to local field workers. The place has a mind blowing selection of procuitto, salumi, lardo, cured wild boar etc, a dozen or so different pecorini plus other cheeses, a whole deboned, stuffed and roasted pig (Porcetta, this version is particuly good, very tender and they use coriander seeds as well as fennel seeds) and fantastic melons. You ask for what you want and it is piled onto a solid olive wood tray, this is all then weighed and you take the feast to your table. You can drink young local wine (6 Euros for a litre) or an excellent selection of Chianti, Brunello etc.

They have an excellent selection of Tuscan sweets, which are sourced from the best producers in the region, not just the cheapest and most local.


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Mind if I contribute an item or two, as well?

A friend who visits Italy regularly (four times a year or so) found a restaurant in Firenze called "Zà Zà's Trattoria." The first time he ate there (June 2002) he said it was perhaps the best meal he'd had in his life (this from a man of fifty). He found it by asking locals what was best, and that was their consensus. Not overpriced or overblown, just quality ingredients and simple dishes.

It is located "in Piazza Mercato Centrale 26/R (zona San Lorenzo) 2 minutes from the Duomo and the Santa Maria Novella train station."

My own best meal in all of Italy was in Siena at the Hosteria Il Carroccio. The bread soup is sublime perfection (especially perfect on the chilly day before Easter when we ate there). Their house dessert, a molten chocolate thing, is not to be missed. To find it, face the town hall at the Campanile: point out your right arm to one o’clock: head in that direction walk down the passage (Caseto di Sotto). You could probably just follow your nose; that's I found it. The owner opened the door to talk to someone, and the aroma hit me like those curled fingers of smoke in cartoons—the ones that lift you deliriously off your feet and float you to the table.

Hosteria Il Carroccio

Via Casata di Sotto, 32

Tel: 0577-41165

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  • 2 weeks later...
We then drove through the beautiful countryside that skirted the great Chianti Classico vineyards, then around Siena, and north about 20 minutes to Colle di Val d’Elsa for a rendez-vous with one of the better restaurants in Italy. Ristorante Arnolfo, awarded two stars in the Guida Michelin, is in the old and perched part of Colle.


glad to read you enjoyed Arnolfo. I was there last summer with my wife and we both enjoyed our meal very much. This came just a few days after a meal at Pont de Brent in Switzerland and Arnolfo, for us, was much better and much less expensive.

The restaurant doesn't always get the best reviews in the Italian media but I am glad you thought it was as good as I remembered.

Also, we missed each other by just a few days: I am very curious to read about the Camogli experience. We only managed a very good meal at Ca' Peo in Leivi which for us is an old friend.


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  • 1 month later...

I have been living in Florence since 1984 and have a dining guide online for some great places to try... not all of them but a good start!

Stop by for my dining guide for Florence and Chianti

as well as recipes online!

Buon Appetito!

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