As I promised in my newly published Tuscany and Umbria, this and subsquent posts are devoted to my favorite places to eat out in these two regions of Italy. I am constantly asked, by friends, family members, colleagues, and fans for dining recommendations, and it's a relatively easy request to satisfy: I have a lot of descriptive notes, I save business cards, I read and save a lot of reviews, and I am an accomplished home cook with a number of Italian cookbooks in my cucina. But over the years since the first book in my series was published (2000), I've struggled somewhat with recommending places to eat, and I haven't been able to put my finger on exactly what was bothering me about this until very recently. And it is simply this: when I make a recommendation, I'm not at all saying "this is the best place in Umbria" or "you must eat at this restaurant in Florence" or "if you don't eat here you're making a big mistake." Additionally, I'm not necessarily always looking for places where tourists don't go, or places that are "secret," or places that are far away from the sites that tourists want to see. What I want, and what I think just about everybody wants, is good food. If good food is found at a trattoria that's popular with tourists, then so be it. Who cares? It may also be found at a tiny neighborhood hole-in-the-wall, a refined country inn, a renowned expensive restaurant, at a winery, and a corner pizzeria, all of which is also fine. I like keeping in mind a sentence I read in an old issue of Wine Spectator, which reads, "In the faintly heady air of Florence, even a quick stop for a snack can easily turn into a long, lazy celebration of food and wine." This is really the point, and it doesn't matter where you may have your long, lazy celebration of food and wine.
Since I began with two photos of Trattoria del Garga I will recommend it first. Garga is neither new nor a secret. It opened in 1979 (though not in the via del Moro location) under the direction of Canadian-born Sharon Oddson and Florentine Giuliano Gargani, known as 'Garga' to his friends. The interior is a wildly colorful, convivial, fun, and warm space and though the kitchen has been described often as chaotic, positively delicious dishes emerge from it for eager locals and visitors. The first time I went with my fellow foodie friend, Amy, we shared the house salad, consisting of avocado slices, arugula, pine nuts, tomatoes, and thin slices of Parmigiano-Reggiano, which was just so good. I was happy to later discover that the recipe was included in Williams-Sonoma's Foods of the World: Florence cookbook, written by one of my favorite food writers, Lori Zimring de Mori, whose work is also featured in my book. Everything Amy and I ate that night was good. Not extraordinary, but Garga doesn't strive for the extraordinary, just high quality ingredients prepared well. On a later visit I tried the grilled octopus, in the photograph above, and it was outstanding. And again, and on repeated visits, everything was really, really good. Service and wine, too. At Garga, you feel like there's party going on every night and everyone's invited. And a very great thing is that you can feel like a part of the extended Garga family by taking cooking classes with Oddson. La Cucina del Garga (e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org / (39) 055.211.396) offers three classes, a Florence Day Class, a 4-Day Tour, and an 8-Day Tour. The Florence class takes place either in the Garga kitchen or in Sharon's kitchen at her nearby home and participants make a four-course meal and share it afterwards. Classes are held Monday through Saturday, from noon to 4:30, and the price is 155 euros, cash only. The two Tours are held in the southern Tuscany countryside at Santa Margherita, a casa colonica, a farmhouse dating from the 1800s. Depending on which Tour you choose you not only cook meals but can taste olive oils and wines, watch the making of pecorino, and visit La Foce, one of my most favorite places in all of Italy (read much more about it in my book). It can still be difficult to secure a reservation at Garga on short notice, so I recommend reserving in advance: (39) 055.239.8898. And, if you can't score a reservation, or a place in one of the cooking classes, at least there is Sharon's book: Once Upon a Tuscan Table: Tales and Recipes From Trattoria Garga (with Rena Bulkin, Camino Books, 2006).
Caffe Rivoire, on piazza della Signoria. is enormously famous for good reasons: it's in an outstanding location, perhaps the best place for a caffe in all of Florence, and the hot chocolate served here is memorable. Yes, it is of course expensive, and not everything is delicious; but you can sit at your table for as long as you want -- remember that, as elsewhere in Europe, it is customary to occupy your table for fifteen minutes or five hours. No one will rush you along as the concept of turning tables rapidly is a purely American concept. You will pay more for what you order if you want to sit at a piazza table (as in other European countries) but you can also sit indoors (less expensive) or stand at the bar (cheaper still). Many people who never walk inside the Caffe don't know that Rivoire also sells nice boxes of chocolates that are quite good. Some of the boxes have pretty scenes of Florence on the lid and are available in several sizes, all of which make great gifts. There are also small individual chocolate bars, good for a pick-me-up in the middle of the day and good for gifts, too. (Of course, if you're visiting in hot weather you'll have to ignore the chocolate.) Memories are made at Rivoire, and though plenty of tourists frequent the caffe, don't let that be the reason not to go.
Cantinetta dei Verrazzano (via dei Tavolini 18/20r) might just be my most favorite eating place in all of Firenze because it works for just about every occasion: whether you just want to stand at the bar and have an espresso or a glass of wine; buy bread and provisions; or sit down and have a delicious but casual meal, the Cantinetta accommodates. An outpost of the Castello di Verrazzano winery in Chianti, the Cantinetta (and the winery) is owned by Cavaliere Luigi and Silvia Cappellini. If the word 'Verrazzano' looks familiar, it is: the original estate was the family home of Giovanni da Verrazzano, who discovered New York harbor (the family name is spelled with two rs and two zs, whereas the well known bridge in New York is spelled with only one z). I had the extreme pleasure of meeting Silvia at the Cantinetta about five years ago and she told me a well known and respected bakery had previously occupied the space (it is still considered an excellent place for bread) but she and Luigi had a vision for the Cantinetta to be the winery's presence in downtown Florence, so they wanted to offer foods that would complement the wine. The only wine sold here is, obviously, from the Castello, and it’s very good (Luigi is a founding member of the Consorzio del Chianti Classico). The wood-burning oven turns out exceptional pizza and the assorted foccacia bites are incredibly delicious (I am partial to one topped with fresh peas and another with mostarda (or it might be quince paste) a slice of pecorino, grated orange peel, and black pepper). There are platters of sliced pork products, salads, and sweet and savory baked goods, and everything is of high quality and prepared fresh. The atmosphere is really warm and fun, with people coming and going all the time. And in case you're wondering about the beautiful wooden objects that line the walls near the ceiling, these are known as pale and I wrote about them for the travel section of The New York Times (September 25, 2005). Silvia told me the idea to feature the pale was Luigi's - he wanted to maintain the old Florentine style, and indeed the pale contribute to that style. I wish there were more places like the Cantinetta in the States. The only one that comes to mind is Eataly in New York. Even in Florence, when the Cantinetta opened in 1992, there was nothing like it, Silvia told me. "Florentines are tough customers," she also said, "but lots of Florentines love this." Stay tuned for a future post on Chianti in which I'll share more about the Castello's wines and the history of the family and the estate, located in Greve (note: there are also agriturismo accommodations on the property).
The very first time I visited Florence I ate nothing except pizza and gelato (and whatever was served at the youth hostel for breakfast). It was all I could afford, but I wasn't complaining. It's one way to get by anyway. Vivoli (via Isole delle Stinche 7r) is the most famous gelato place in the city, and it is really good; but so are some others: Carabè (via Ricasoli 60r, around the corner from the Accademia; and piazza S. Jacopino 9r), which Faith Willinger recommended in her excellent book, Eating in Italy; Antica Gelateria il David (via Sant’Antonino 28r; I don't believe there is a website) and Grom (via del Campanile at via delle Oche). Thank God there are Grom outposts in New York now (Columbus Circle, 2165 Broadway, and 233 Bleecker Street) as well as the outstanding (and my favorite) Il Laboratorio del Gelato (95 Orchard, Broome/Delancey) so that I can, on occasion, feel that I am in Italy, even if just for the time it takes to savor a cup of this delicious gelato.
The thing I love best about eating in Florence is that it has an assortment of very diverse kinds of places, more so than many other cities. As I note in my books, the best way to approach the culinary scene in a place is to vary your dining experiences. Believe me, some food critics I know will also tell you that eating out in fancy, Michelin-starred temples of gastronomy every night is not the way to experience the local cuisine. I Fratellini, (via dei Cimatori 38r) is the kind of quirky, memorable place that makes Florence unique. To use the word 'place' isn't even accurate. I Fratellini is not a restaurant or a trattoria or a caffe; it is, quite literally, a hole in the wall. You simply walk up to the (large) hole and order a simple but delicious sandwich and a glass of wine (I think there is water and maybe soda too) and you stand in the street and eat. The sandwiches are fresh and yummy and you can put your wine glass inside little "shelves" carved into the wall. I Fratellini is open continuously Monday through Saturday from 9 to 8, and as it's in the Centro, you could potentially walk by it several times -- you may have to wait your turn on line, but you never need a reservation. I love this hole in the wall the most because the likelihood that someone could open up something similar in Puritan America is so slim as to be just about impossible. Perhaps in Canada?
Le Volpi e l’Uva (piazza dei Rossi 1r, Oltrarno). Named for Aesop’s The Fox and the Grapes fable, this is a great wine enoteca, very close to the Ponte Vecchio (just off the via Guicciardini). This wine bar has long had a good reputation for introducing lesser known bottles not commonly found elsewhere. It's usually always crowded but very worth checking out. It's easy to make friends here and the prices are a good value.
Ristorante Il Latini (via dei Palchetti 6r) is without doubt one of the places most often listed in guidebooks to Florence. And with good reason: it's fun, the food is good and the portions are large, and it's fun. Yes, there are plenty of tourists, and the fact that you have to line up to get in at opening time (7:30) gives you the feeling of a bus package tour. But the truth is that the pappa al pomodoro and ribollita are better here than most versions of it served in North America, and even though a few people have told me they think Il Latini has gone downhill, I still think you can eat a good meal here and it will be memorable. Friendships are forged here, and the communal seating and essentially unlimited bottles of wine make a night at Il Latini great fun.
Buca dell’Orafo (via dei Girolami 28r) is noteworthy because though it’s not a secret to travelers, it is still very much loved by locals, who you will tend to see here at later hours for dinner than earlier in the evening, when there are more tourists. ‘Buca’ refers to hole or cellar (buchi is plural), and indeed this is one of those places where you walk down into it from the street, and was probably once a version of what we might refer to as a “hole in the wall.” The chef has published a cookbook, which you can ask to see (though it’s in Italian), but what’s clear from the book and the menu is that the seasons are very much honored here. This isn’t a fancy place, or a place with inventive dishes, but each dish is prepared with care and each sings of its true flavors. Some of the dishes are Tuscan classics, like ribollita, pappa al pomodoro, and crostini with mashed chicken liver, and when I was last there in the month of May, on the menu for just a few weeks was fresh, shelled fava beans tossed with olive oil and small cubes of young Pecorino cheese, a classic spring dish. It was so memorable, and it tasted so much like primavera, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. The atmosphere at Buca dell’Orafo is boisterous and fun, the service is attentive and helpful but the waiters don’t hover, and it’s the kind of place you’ll remember fondly. I for one am anxious to return.
Caffe Giacosa (via della Spada 10r) is positively fun and hip, even if I sometimes don't feel hip enough to be here. It didn't used to be so hip -- the Caffe was founded in 1815 and has the distinction of having once had the seal of approval from the royal family. It also was once located in the via Tornabuoni, where it became a prestigious place to see and be seen. The Caffe has the double distinction of being the place where the Negroni cocktail was invented -- at the time, between 1919 and 1920, it was called the Bar Casoni (named after an antique store previously on the site) and the bartender, Fosco Scarselli, made the drink to serve to the count Cammilo Negroni. (it's a delicious drink, though I'd had it many times before I knew its history.) You can still order a Negroni at Giacosa today, along with chocolate, pastries, and lots of savory things. Giacosa is now owned by designer Roberto Cavalli, who is somewhat of a hero for saving the Caffe in the first place (let's face it, he could have closed it for good and allowed it to pass into history). So if the Roberto Cavalli vodka and the chic packaging of the boxes of chocolate seem to be a bit much, just remember what could have been, and besides, you really can eat well here.
Frescobaldi Restaurant and Wine Bar (via dei Magazzini 2-4r) and Cantinetta Antinori in the Palazzo Antinori (via del Trebbio 1r) are both great places for wine lovers and both are in such historic, magnificent, Florentine surroundings. To be truthful, the food's not stellar at either place, and it's expensive for what it is; but you are paying for the surroundings and the wine, and that's enough for me sometimes. A great thing about both, though, is that you have the opportunity to try the Laudemio olive oil, which I first tried in an olive oil tasting at Olio & Convivium. Laudemio is a word used in the Middle Ages referring to the part of the harvest that was mandatorily given to the feudal lord. This part of the harvest was typically the best part, and today the word refers to the choice part of total production. In 1986, a group of about 30 olive growers who owned estates in central Tuscany adopted the word Laudemio for their extra virgin olive oils, which were widely recognized as being of exceptionally high quality and exemplified the character of oils from the region. The growers collectively agreed to the strictest of standards in making their oils at every step of the way, from cultivation and harvesting to extraction. Laudemio therefore refers to the best of the harvest, the cru of the crop. If you try it and like it --- I recommend asking for a small dish of it and dipping some bread in it -- you should consider bringing a bottle home. Pack it in your carry on bag, wrapped in clothing, and you needn't worry about it, and keep in mind that it is significantly cheaper in Italy than in the States. Frescobaldi and Antinori both are among the growers (now numbering about 21) in the Laudemio consortium, so the olive oil used in both restaurants is excellent; but it's really highlighted at Frescobaldi. (Incidentally, I have an excellent and beautiful book by Bona dei Frescobaldi called Italy's Finest (Edizioni del Titano, 2000), which is her personal tour of Italy from Aosta in the north to Palermo in Sicily and including Sardegna. Even though it's eleven years old, many of her recommendations are still worthy, and I consult this book often. I've tried to find more recent editions but haven't been able to track any down.) Note that though both of these wine bar/restaurants are in grand surroundings, they are also informal. And if you happen to be in Zurich, Vienna, or Moscow, there are outposts of the Cantinetta Antinori in those cities, too.
Ristorante Alle Murate (palazzo dell'Arte dei Giudici e Notai, via del Proconsolo 16r) used to be in the via Ghibellina, but the new digs in the former home of the Palace of the Art of Judges and Notaries is far more fabulous (and, you can actually visit the building every day from 9 to 5 by reservation, which I recommend even if you never eat here; there is an audio guide in 7 languages available). The building has been completely restored and is noteworthy for the earliest known portraits of Dante, Bocaccio, and Petrarch. The decor is hard to describe, but it is a really unique blend of contemporary and classic -- picture vaulted ceilings with frescoes and modern, glass cubes, and there is nothing else quite like it in Florence. The cooking is probably best described as nouvelle, though I tend to dislike that word; but under the direction of Giovanna Iorio the nouvelle dishes are great, some producing wows, and it isn't contrived.
Enoteca Baldovino (via San Giuseppe 18r) and Trattoria Baldovino (across the street, at number 22) are in the vicinity of Santa Croce, and I've actually never eaten at the Trattoria because the first time I went I hadn't made a reservation and of course it was fully booked and I couldn't get a table, so I just retreated to the Enoteca and had a really swell time. The second time I went to the Enoteca I had no intention of eating at the Trattoria as I had reservations elsewhere and didn't even try to get a table. Both Baldovinos and Beccofino (in the Oltrarno at piazza Scarlatti 1, where I haven't yet been) are owned by David Gardner, a Scottish restaurateur. I love the Enoteca because it has a great vibe and I was able to taste several great wines by the glass that were all new to me, accompanied by terrific nibbles. If the Enoteca is any indication of the food served at the Trattoria, and I believe it is, I know a good meal awaits me on my next visit.
Trattoria Sostanza (via del Porcellana 25r) has been in business since 1869 and is still turning out basic Tuscan trattoria dishes and it is still almost always crowded, with both locals and visitors. It's sometimes referred to as Il Troia -- the trough -- because of the long wooden bench against one wall that most diners sit on (some locals reportedly have their own tables reserved for them on the opposite side of the room). The kitchen is noted for its grilled steak, which I don't eat (though friends I was with loved it), but I ordered the petti di pollo al burro (chicken breasts cooked in butter) and thought it was one of the top three chicken dishes I've ever eaten in my life (the other two being at Chez Panisse in Berkeley and at a little cafe in St.-Paul-de- Vence, the name of which I will have to find in my files). This dish rather knocked my socks off, while everything else was good but not great. But I'd go back in a second.
Trattoria 13 Gobbi (via del Porcellana 9r) is near Sostanza and appears to be nearly as crowded, though I think it is less slightly well known among foreigners. 'Gobbi' means hunchbacks, and a Florentine friend told me hunchbacks are thought to be lucky in Italy. What I do know is that it's historically been popular with artist and actor types, and that I love it. When I visited Barbara Ohrbach -- author of Dreaming of Florence, Dreaming of Tuscany, and about twenty terrific lifestyle books -- when she was living in Florence, we had dinner here on my last night and it was so good and so much fun. Most of the tables are very close together and the decor is a bit chaotic, with lots of bottles and artwork and antiques and stuff hanging from the ceiling; but the service is not at all chaotic, and there's an interior courtyard at the back with a little more space.
Cammillo Trattoria (borgo San Jacopo 57r) opened in 1945 under the direction of Cammillo Tesi, and it has for many, many of those years been a favorite place to eat for locals and foreigners, notably a number of Americans. If some of those local patrons no longer frequent the trattoria I think it is their loss: the food's very, very good here, and the third generation of the family is in charge now showing the same care for the food and the service. Cammillo feels like an old house, which I suppose it once was -- the building dates back to the 15th century. You walk through the front room, which is often full, and then there is a series of smaller rooms -- if you're lucky you might get one of these all to yourselves, and in one of them you can see a sliver of the Arno even though you're not on the river side of the street. I've not only eaten well here, but each time a feeling of utter contentment lingered with me long after I left the restaurant. I have a soft spot in my heart for Cammillo and I hope it continues for many more generations.