A Room with a View
We're just back from a few days in Florence. I've got a thing about the place. Thinking about it, I've got a thing about Italy, but Florence just has that special 'something'. I adore Venice. I'm excited by Rome. I'm turned on by the Amalfi Coast. But Florence? I'm not sure exactly why this is. The stern fortifications of the Palazzo Vecchio? Quite probably. The scented delights of the Santa Maria Novella apothecary? Quite possibly. The simplicity of the convent of San Marco and the wonder that is The Annunciation? Without doubt. The dreamy, water-colour view from the Boboli Gardens, Rus in Urbe? Most definitely. The food? Now that's an interesting conundrum.
The dusty Boboli Gardens
I first visited Florence back in the late 90's with my then girlfriend. We were both strapped for cash (a struggling junior auction specialist and a chain-smoking lapsed journalist between us); this was in the early days of the internet, before the addiction of ipads and iphones. We trawled the touristy area near the Piazza della Repubblicca, ending up in a generic 'trattoria', the memory subsequently banished to the dustbin of culinary history.
Quattrocento Virginal Beauty, Santa Maria Novella
I suppose the same could be said of any major European city. God help those poor visitors to London who end up in that steak house on Oxford Street, or Parisian optimists searching in vain for the ghosts of Jean-Paul Sartre, Gertrude Stein and Simone de Beauvoir and finding instead, a chain café in the Boulevard du Montpernasse- or even worse- the bacterial breeding grounds of a restaurant on the Place du Tertre.
Florence from the Bardini Gardens
But on this trip to Florence- thanks to internet recommendations- we ate extremely well. In a way, the food of Tuscany (at least in the chill of autumn and winter) reminds me of the best of England. It's hearty, rib-sticking stuff; comfort food at its best: wild boar, funghi, trippa alla Fiorentina, rustic tomato soups thickened with bread, slow cooked meat stews, prosciutto, white beans.
First up was the Trattoria La Casalinga. This is an old-fashioned family-run restaurant in Oltarano, that rather appealing 'arty' area on the wrong side of the Arno. Nothing much to talk about from the outside- and the inside either, but the staff were charming, considering we hadn't booked, and managed to find us a small table in the corner for an hour or so. Incidentally, the place was full of American and British tourists; but then in Florence every restaurant is packed full of Fodor brandishing tourists: the city is a monument to well-heeled American tourism.
The convent of San Marco
The food at La Casalinga is outstanding. Divine. Actually tastes of something. This is rustic simplicity. And the value for money! A carafe of the local chianti came to four Euros- I repeat, four Euros. A plate of thinly sliced proscuitto, served with bruschetta, chicken liver and some sort of fish, plus tomatoes of a wonderful flavour, came to seven Euros.
My main course was nectar. I asked for their house speciality, the peposa beef stew (beef stew with black pepper) but instead, ended up with a stew cooked with onions: bubbled on a low heat for hours, enriched with white onions, melting into a rich sauce; slightly Gothic but hitting the mark. Mrs Aitch's tagliatelle came with a seasonal funghi sauce. The whole shooting match came to 36 Euros. Including service.
Autumn funghi at the Mercato Centrale
Next up was the Mercato Centrale food market. This is a Victorian ironwork structure not unlike the now demoished Les Halles market in Paris or our own Covent Garden. Instead of pulling it down (Parisians please take note) the Florentines, very sensibly, have re-invented it as- gasp of amazement- a food market. And this time, there's not a tourist in sight. The range of fruit, vegetables, meat and dry goods is astonishing. It's a reminder that the food in Britain is languishing- still- behind the rest of Europe. I see this time and time again- in France, Belgium, Italy and Germany.
In Britain, it's possible to eat very well indeed- but only at shops, restaurants and bars aimed at an affluent, yuppy clientele. In mainland Europe, good food is part of the every-day culture. Where a French or Italian lorry driver can pull over at some roadside watering hole and eat simple and decent food. Or where some impecunious little old granny can buy a loaf of incredible, hand-made bread. In Britain, it's a Little Chef or a packet of Sun-Blest.
Rus in Urbe. The water-colour light of Florence.
On our last night we tried to get into Il Santo Bevitore, again in the Oltarano area. This has had rave reviews with the likes of The Daily Telegraph, no less, describing it as 'surprisingly gourmet for what at first looks like a Bohemian Drinking Den'. I tried to book, but they seemed to have left the telephone off the hook. Deliberately.
We arrived early (it opens at 7.30) and joined the queue. Immediate conversation. Charming Americans with the same problem. Eventually a harrassed waitress came out and separated us into two lines. Those who had reservations and those who didn't. Moral of the story: When in Florence, book.
So we ended up at the excellent Enoteca Pitti Gola e Cantina, a small wine bar offering individual glasses of artisan Tuscan wines. You eat out in the street directly opposite the magnificent Pitti Palace, formerly the residence of the Grand Dukes of Tuscany, as Baedeker puts it. Simple ingredients again: grilled funghi in a fondue sauce, fresh pasta, wild boar, anchovies- that sort of thing. The helpful waiter recommends a glass of this or that wine with each course. I like this approach. Eminently sensible. I wish more restaurants could do this.
Four cheers for Florence! We've rubbed that boar's nose. We'll be back.