Friday, October 19, 2007

Day 3 - Florence

Let the food orgy begin.

When we last left you, dear reader, the sweat was drying on our tired bodies, having just scaled on bicycle the summit known as Fiesole (ok, perhaps a bit of an exaggeration) and having been returned to downtown Florence by our guide, enjoying the pleasures of an Italian haircut.
Upon return to our hotel we had asked the concierge to arrange dinner reservations for us at our favorite Florentine restaurant, which shall go nameless in order to protect it against hordes of American tourists. A few moments later the concierge called our room to confirm our reservation.

We arrive at our restaurant, a few paces from the Piazza Santa Croce and enter the doorway into the tiny reception area where one of the two brothers who runs this little piece of heaven on earth immediately registers his recognition of us with a broad smile and an outthrust hand. “How are you? It’s good to see you,” he utters in very passable English, something he would have been unable to express a few years ago. We exchange greetings and are quickly shown to our table.

We pass through the front room and up a couple of stairs to a smaller back room with perhaps six tables. The front room, which seats maybe thirty people, is full, despite the early dinner hour (eight o’clock generally marks the time when restaurants begin to get busy, although you can generally find a table at seven thirty). Couples and larger groups are hunched forward in animated conversation and there is a noisy but friendly buzz throughout the room. The back room is nearly full and equally noisy. All of the voices, except ours, are Italian. All of the clothing, glasses, handbags and dogs (you will often see Italians entering restaurants with a small dog, who usually sits quietly underneath the table throughout the meal) are Italian. This is a local haunt, always filled with locals. We feel privileged to be allowed in and can think of no better recommendation for a restaurant.

We had tried to book a table here the previous evening, our first night in Italy. Unfortunately, the restaurant was closed. Another favorite was booked solid, so we allowed the concierge to recommend a good restaurant for us, Parione (Via del Parione, 74/76r, Florence, tel. 055.214005). We arrived there at 7:30, having just travelled from Washington, DC and wanting to get a relatively early night’s sleep. We were surprised to find Parione completely full, waiters dashing around and people obviously enjoying their meals. The three small dining rooms were similar in appearance to our favorite restaurants, plain wooden tables, open faced cabinets filled with various vintages, and a low, yellowish lighting that provided just enough illumination to allow you to see the menu, but which promoted calm.

But while the menus of these two establishments were similar, the experiences were very different, due largely to the fact that Parione caters directly, and it seems, primarily to the American tourist. As we are being seated every conversation we overhear is in English and our waiter, who rushes us to our table, speaks better English than my college age son. He is charming, no question about it (the waiter, not my son, although he is charming too) and entertains us with his bubbly personality as he runs through the menu with us, dumbing it down for these obvious dummies. Whereas our favorite place sticks to traditional Tuscan specialties – fettunta (toasted bread slathered with olive oil), crostino tipico (toasted bread with chicken liver pate), bruschetta pomodoro e basilica (toasted bread with diced tomatoes, basil and olive oil), assorted Tuscan meats and the like, Parione presents a menu that seems to want to make the American comfortable, featuring non-Tuscan offerings such as insalata caprese (sliced tomatoes with mozzarella and basil). There is nothing wrong with Parione’s menu, and our meal of bistecca alla fiorentina (chianina beef steak grilled to perfection and sliced from the bone), roasted potatoes and white beans is terrific. So good, in fact, that we have the identical entrée the following night at our local hangout. It is served the following night without so much glitz and commotion, but the humble owner nonetheless proudly carries our slab of beef to our table for us to inspect before it is cooked. Proclaiming that it is “un kilo e trenta” or 1.3 kilograms (just under three pounds) it is a deep maroon, red color, moist with its juices and about two inches thick. An enormous bone will give it even more flavor as it is cooked. (During the mad cow “epidemic” in the 1990s, the European Union required member countries to ban the sale of certain cuts of meat on the bone, fearing that this would encourage the spread the disease.
Surprisingly the Italians complied with this directive rather than withdrawing from the EU. We were fortunate enough to be visiting Italy several years ago just after the ban was lifted and heard a number of stories of city-wide celebrations where diners “welcomed back the bone.”)

Our bistecca is accompanied by white beans drowned in olive oil and sautéed beet greens. We wash all of this down with a bottle of Tignanello, a “supertuscan” red wine which has been priced at the same €60 for the years we have been coming here.

So, two nights, two bistecche, two exceptional bottles of wine. Not a bad way to start your trip. But while both meals were outstanding, we much prefer the local restaurant. Here dinner lasts a minimum of three hours. The waiters leave you to enjoy your food and your companion’s company, sometimes going too far, as it is often a challenge to get your check at the end of the meal. In contrast, Parione left us with the sense that we were being rushed, perhaps so the table could be turned over to another American couple after we left. Our waiter at Parione was a character, making jokes and yucking it up with us, but all of this was in flawless English, which sadly makes you forget you are in a foreign land. Not to say that our experience was in any way unpleasant; the food was excellent and the evening enjoyable. It’s just that the slickly packaged Parione made us feel as though we had dined at a very high end sort of Epcot. It looked like Florence, smelled like Florence but never quite felt like Florence.

The final point in favor of our local favorite occurred when we pushed away from the table. The night before at Parione we had struck up a pleasant conversation with a nice couple from Nova Scotia. As we left that restaurant we exchanged handshakes and goodbyes. The following night as we stepped away from our table, the distinguished Italian couple sitting to our left and with whom we had not spoken during the evening turned to us and wished us a good evening. By this simple gesture, we felt we had been welcomed into the fraternity of Italian diners, as sort of honorary Italians, and that made all the difference in the world.

* * *

For those of you who regularly read this blog, in which we have been recording our culinary travels in Italy for the past several years, you already know that we deserve to be members of the fraternity of Italian diners. We eat so much, so often, in so many places in this country, in fact, that if it had a dining Hall of Fame we would have been inducted into it already.

And if these future Hall of Famers have a new favorite place in Florence, it has to be the Teatro del Sale.

The Teatro del Sale (Via dei Macci, 111/r, Florence,, is a cross between a night club, social club and restaurant. It was established in 2002 by the owner of the popular and successful restaurant Cibreo, an expanding empire which now boasts of one of Florence’s best upscale restaurants, a more downscale caffe, a gourmet food shop and now, the Teatro del Sale. This complex is a stone’s throw away from the Mercato San Ambrogio, an outdoor fresh food market that is one of Florence’s best and definitely worth a visit in its own right.

The Teatro is housed in a former theatre and has been configured to include a gourmet shop, an expansive kitchen which can be viewed from the dining area behind a long plate glass window, seating for nearly 100, a stage for evening performances and a couple of comfortable sitting rooms for members. The key word here is members, for the Teatro is a club or circo-lo, open only to members. Membership is open to anyone, however, for a nominal €5 and runs from the date of joining until the following July. We originally joined a year ago and our classy little membership card, our names and membership numbers inscribed with a gold pen, announced us as the 57,000th member. Good Lord they sell a lot of memberships. The entrepreneur inside begins to scribble calculations on the back of a napkin.

We have only been to the Teatro for lunch, which runs from 12:30 until around 2:00. Like the dinners there, meals are served buffet style. Members find a table or a space at one of the longer communal tables and watch the kitchen staff preparing pasta and sauces, while grilled meats rotate on skewers in front of a large wood fire. Then a small opening in the enormous plate glass window swings open and the head chef shouts out in animated Italian what is being served. The antipasti has consisted of a dozen or so items, laid out on a central table, including polenta with cinnamon, pickled beets, pickled fennel and other grilled vegetables, a variety of cheeses, sliced prosciutto and other cured meats, several salads and thin slivers of toasted schiacciata, a Florentine version of foccaccia, which has been soaked in olive oil. As the food is set on the table, the members swarm about, jostling to get to the food before each other, Italians not being known for their skill in queuing up.

Heaps of food are taken back to the tables and a quiet falls over the room. Occasionally someone is elected to refill the table’s water jug or to get a fresh bottle of water. Handfuls of drinking glasses are transported to the entrance hall where a dispenser filled with very drinkable house wine is constantly in motion. Within a quarter hour or so the window swings open and the chef is shouting out the name of today’s pasta, and an enormous pan, perhaps two feet across, is passed through the window and transported to the serving table.

By now the dining room is as full as it will get, for members know that they can come late and get all of the antipasti they want. If they arrive late for the pasta, they fear, there will be none left for them, so a wave of diners has been arriving for the fifteen minutes or so before the arrival of the pasta. And when the pasta is announced it puts the commotion of the antipasti to shame. It is as though the diners are sharks and someone has poured gallons of blood onto the table. Elbows fly with such precision that an NBA player would be proud, shoulders slice through openings in the human wave like surgical lasers and, when not being served by one of the waiters, pasta is heaped on plates in monumental piles that would make Richard Dreyfuss’ character in Close Encounters proud. Italians love their pasta.

And so they should. We are given relatively small portions cavitelli pasta with a rich, silky tomato basil sauce, doled out on small desert plates. It is so incredibly satisfying that we sneak back for seconds, which is no problem as hardly a dent has been made in the enormous basin of pasta. So incredibly satisfying that later when I am having dessert, Suzy opts for yet another plate instead of chocolate cake.

The mixed grilled meats, rotated on skewers over a wood fire and which are the final course are often a bit of a letdown. This not because they are disappointing, but because there is little room left in our stomachs. We do our best to locate adequate intestinal space and finish off a healthy portion of chicken and lamb which have been seasoned with rosemary.

So nearly two hours after having wandered into this old theater we stumble out, our bellies distended and our brain cells diminished, the bright Florentine sun causing us to squint and adjust to the reality that much of the day remains ahead of us. At €15 for lunch, this is the best deal in the city and as two of the exclusive fraternity of 57,000 members we are proud to be recognized as members of the club.

So it’s off to Avis, by way of Vestri, Florence’s premier chocolatier, where we pick up a small cup of creamy drinkable chocolate and begin the ordeal of driving through Florence back to the Pierre Hotel to collect our baggage. After less than 48 hours we have to leave our favorite city, bound for Perugia and a whole host of new culinary and cultural adventures.

Stay tuned.

A presto,
Bill and Suzy

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