Wednesday, January 26, 2011

(Interior of La Cucina di Garga, via San Zenobi 33 A/r, Firenze, and grilled octopus entree / photos by Peggy Harrison)

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.

I think a lot of travelers sometimes spend so much time searching for the supposed non-touristy places to eat that they miss wonderful food right in front of them. What's ideal, of course, are places where both locals and tourists are happy, where Italians aren't overwhelmed by foreigners and the foreigners feel they've chosen a place that is clearly held in some regard by the locals. Florence is home to a number of places like this, and today's post is devoted exclusively to my favorite eating establishments in this city. I believe that when traveling, meals are equally as important as all the other things you do on your trip, and they deserve the same amount of attention and research. A lousy or mediocre meal can nearly ruin my day, so even though I allow for a few spontaneous meals, I always plan out where I want to eat on each day of my trip and make reservations if necessary (I either reserve myself before I leave or ask the concierge to make the reservations). If you are planning a trip to Florence soon, I think you're lucky because I think the city is best appreciated in winter, and many seasoned travelers to Florence will tell you this, too. With no humidity, authoritative sun, or masses of tourists it is an absolute pleasure to stroll around the Centro and duck into warm and cozy places to eat, museums without long lines (even the Uffizi), and shops with enticing windows. You may not have the opportunity to eat outdoors, but this will be the only thing you'll miss about meals in winter.

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: / (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).

Mention of Lori de Mori above reminds me that she wrote an excellent article for Saveur (No. 92) called 'The Flavors of Home,', in which she highlighted five trattorie in Florence.: Al Tranvai (piazza T. Tasso 14r); Coco Lezzone (via del Parioncino 26r); Omero (via Pian de'Giullari 11r); Sabatino (via Pisana 2r); and Sostanza (see below). It's a very good piece and I urge you to read it -- among the many memorable words of wisdom she learns are these from Siliano Costagli, who retired after 48 years of running the dining room at Coco Lezzone: "Florentines look for the flavors they know. They don't want to be surprised, and they aren't going to pat you on the back and say bravo if you do it right."

I typically recommend that visitors to Firenze reserve a Sunday for a leisurely half or full day in the beautiful Boboli Gardens. Why? Because many places to eat out are closed on Sunday, so it's a perfect opportunity to buy some delicious provisions and dine alfresco in the Boboli. However, note that you have to plan ahead because many of the food shops are closed as well, so you have to purchase everything on Saturday. I tend to select room temperature, prepared foods so that I don't have to worry about refrigeration or reheating, but I've also kept some containers in my hotel room's mini refrigerator and, on a few occasions, I asked the staff in the hotel's kitchen to hold things for me -- it helps to also ask for bread, a bottle of wine or water (that you will of course be charged for). The Mercato Centrale (via dell’Ariento 10-14) is a great, one-stop market to buy foodstuffs (make sure to stop by the Baroni Alimentari stand where you will also want to buy some Baroni balsamic vinegar, mostarda, and a whole bunch of other culinary specialties for gifts). The front counter at Cantinetta dei Verrazzano (via dei Tavolini 18/20r, in the Centro -- read more about this wonderful place below) is also a great place for picnic treats, notably for bread and savory and sweet baked goods. Also great for buying provisions and for culinary gifts to take home is Olio & Convivium (via Santo Spirito 4). Olio has not only Mattei biscotti, pasta, wine, condiments, oils, vinegars, etc. but also prosciutto, cheeses, breads, etc. [you can also eat here – there are about a dozen tables for lunch and dinner – and meals are delicious but reservations are essential. Amy and I took an olive oil tasting class here that was unbelievably amazing, but again, you have to reserve.] Wine, oil, condiments, pasta, truffles, etc. can also be bought at Antica Cantina del Chianti (piazza Duomo 23/r), a good place to know about in the vicinity of the Duomo with a very friendly staff.

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.

Enoteca Pinchiorri (via Ghibellina 87) is a top notch restaurant (most definitely not an enoteca -- wine bar -- in its most common form) with three Michelin stars owned and operated by Giorgio Pinchiorri and his wife, Annie Feolde. It is also a member of the prestigious Relais & Chateaux group and another called Traditions & Qualite, an organization founded in 1954 by a group of Parisian restaurateurs with the aim of promoting gastronomy and a specific art de vivre; today there are 144 member restaurants in 23 countries on 3 continents. Someone once asked me why I would recommend such an expensive restaurant in Florence when you can eat such delicious meals for far less and buy such delicious products at food markets. But that is like asking what the difference is between a minor and major league baseball game, or between a college production and a Broadway show. It's true that there are a number of good, moderately priced restaurants in Florence; but a meal at Pinchiorri -- which also is included on lists of Italy's best restaurants year after year -- is an event, and if you would like a real over-the-top dining experience, this is where you will find it in Florence. The story behind Pinchiorri is unusual: Giorgio is a wine aficionado and when he met Annie, whose parents worked for many years at the Hotel Negresco in Nice (where she grew up), she decided she might be able to provide some good food to accompany Giorgio's fine wines....and thus their partnership in life began. Feolde is self taught, so it is quite an accomplishment that she was the first woman chef outside France to receive a Michelin star, as well as the first woman in Italy to be so honored. In a March 2007 interview with The Guardian in London, she said, "our job is to make people very happy and we have to love it ourselves to do that or it doesn't work. If you stop loving the business you have to stop immediately. That is the only way." The cuisine at Pinchiorri is Italian, however, not French, but of course it is Italian expressed in not so traditional ways. Consider some dishes on the menu I kept: agnolotti ravioli filled with ricotta, saffron, mint, and scampi tails; rack of lamb filled with lardo di Colonnata, Jerusalem artichokes and horseradish sauce; pigeon cooked under a bread crust with white beans, olive oil and a liver mousse crouton; duck breast with spices, celery root puree, and meatballs flavored with dates. The wine cellar is, as you might imagine, vast, and note that women are given menus without prices.

Caffe Ricchi (piazza Santo Spirito 9r)is a good place to know about in the Oltrarno, at just about any time of day. I learned about Ricchi from Faith Willinger, who lives nearby, and I'm not sure I would have wandered in otherwise because the exterior is nothing special. But the interior is noteworthy because lining the walls of the Caffe are drawings submitted for proposed facades of the Santo Spirito church, a contest the Caffe sponsored in 1980. If you've seen the church, you know that it has a plain, light beige/pale yellow facade and its surface is smooth -- the church was designed by Filippo Brunelleschi but the facade was never actually completed. Originally the building was rough stone but in the 18th century it was plastered over. Ricchi serves commendable cappucino, lots of other drinks of all kinds, gelato, and light bar food, and in warm weather you can sit in its little garden on the piazza and feel like you're one of the world's luckiest human beings.
If you seek out Mokaflor, on piazza San Marco near where the bus stop is, you will wonder why on earth I mentioned it. It's a sliver of a place, with not much atmosphere; but it represents one of the things I love about Italy: in hundreds of places just like this, including at train and bus stations, your caffe will be served in a real ceramic cup and saucer, not a styrofoam or paper cup, and it will come with a real stainless steel spoon. The coffee will also be delicious. And it will not be expensive.

Procacci (via Tornabuoni 64r) is a small and elegant place sandwiched in between the famous designer stores on tony Tornabuoni (do you love saying 'Tornabuoni' as much as I do?). It is the perfect place to stop when you need to take a break -- sit down at one of the metal tables and order a glass of prosecco and a few of the panini tartufati, truffle paste tea sandwiches. Trust me, one of these is one of the most delicious things you'll ever put in your mouth. It is sublime. Happily, you can buy a tiny jar -- for about $23 -- of mushroom spread, though this isn't exactly the same as the stuff on the sandwiches (and if you ask for the recipe, you'll just be given some very vague directions; I've tried twice to recreate the paste, neither time successfully, but I came close when I mixed the mushroom spread with creme fraiche and minced shallot). My favorite time to come here is mid-morning, about 11:00, when I'm not at all hungry for lunch but the prosecco and panini tartufati are just right for getting my palate ready for lunch a few hours later. The Antinori wine family now owns Procacci, which has been in the truffle business since 1885.

Zibibbo (via di Terzollina 3r, in the suburb of Careggi), named after a grape variety unique to Sicily and the island of Pantelleria, is owned and operated by chef Benedetta Vitali, cofounder of Cibreo (see below) with her former husband, Fabio Picchi. As I note in my book, Zibibbo is used to make table wine and grappa, but it's most commonly used in a strong wine similar to Marsala. Unlike Marsala, spirits aren't added -- and the grapes are partially fermented in the sun, a process that's derived from a formula used in the Middle Ages -- and dried Zibibbo grapes are often used in desserts. If you're getting the feeling that Vitali has an affinity for southern Italy, you're right: she does, but the food she makes at Zibibbo features some familiar Tuscan dishes as well as others with more of a Mediterranean or Near Eastern influence. I was familiar with Vitali's excellent cookbook, Soffritto: Tradition & Innovation in Tuscan Cooking (Ten Speed Press, 2001) before I ever went to Zibibbo, but I loved her voice in the cookbook so I knew I was predisposed to love Zibibbo. It's a really lovely place that envelops you with warmth as soon as you step inside. It's not in the Centro but is a ten minute drive away, not at all a deterrent. Vitali also offers cooking classes -- A Day in the Kitchen and An Afternoon Encounter -- and the next time I'm in Florence I am signing up!

Dolci & Dolcezze (piazza Cesare Beccaria 8r) is a fantastic pasticerria (the name means sweets and sweetness) that would be worth the detour anywhere in the world. It's also a really pretty place that itself looks like a confection with its mint green walls and lace paper doilies. Historically, Italian cuisine is not noteworthy for dessert, but Dolci & Dolcezze defies this culinary footnote and offers outstanding desserts that are every bit as impressive as those found in French patisseries. I'm not ashamed to admit that I've come here for lunch, which consisted of nothing but espresso and treats, like the lemon crostata and torta di cioccolato -- not a bite of anything savory. I just never made it here for breakfast, but one day I will. You can also get sandwiches and champagne but note that there are no tables so you have to be willing to stand at the marble countertop. If you are invited to someone's house for lunch or dinner and don't want to show up emptyhanded, a gift from D&D will be noted and appreciated.

Caffe Coquinarius (via delle Oche 15r) is a great place to know about in the Centro if you just want to take a break or meet someone or have a light meal. It's primarily a wine bar, with wines from Italy and beyond, but there are plenty of people who come just for a coffee. A nice selection of both hot and cold dishes are offered and are rather artfully presented. Coquinarius is a good, reliable caffe very much worth recommending. Maureen B. Fant, one of my favorite food writers and restaurant reviewers, referred to Coquinarius as "a snappy little refuge" and I quite agree.

Fiaschetteria da Nuvoli (piazza dell'Olio 15r) is a surprisingly affordable wine bar/trattoria in the immediate vicinity of the Duomo. I went here the first time because I was fascinated at the time by the word 'fiaschetteria,' which refers to a kind of place that is now rather old-fashioned, one where you could buy and drink wine in flasks. Typically, food wasn't offered at a fiaschetteria, which has as synonyms mescita, bottiglieria, and cantina; but food is definitely offered at Nuvoli, and it's good. Culinary heights aren't aimed for here, just Tuscan and Florentine classics prepared well if not downright lovingly. There are always several pasta dishes and soups, seasonal vegetables, and a choice of a meat course. You can also just stand at the bar and have a glass of wine and a sandwich.

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.

The Cibreo mini-empire -- Cibreo Caffe, Cibreao Ristorante, Cibreo Trattoria (Cibreino), and Cibreo Teatro del Sale -- is the creation of chef Fabio Picchi (though in fairness he and his former wife, Benedetta Vitali, opened Cibreo Ristorante together in 1979). The word 'cibreo' refers to a Tuscan dish of chicken innards and coxcombs that must be ordered three days in advance. I've never tried it, and I'm not sure I would like it, except that I am willing to try anything that comes out of one of Picchi's kitchens. There is no doubt that Picchi is the most famous and most flamboyant chef in Florence, though he is not a graduate of a culinary school. "I am a Florentine and I am a cook" he told Molly O'Neill in a piece entitled, appropriately, "I, Fabio" (The New York Times Magazine, December 18, 1994). What Picchi cooks is food that is local above all, and there is no pasta on the menu at the Ristorante (despite reports that he claimed pasta is not of Tuscan origin, Picchi told a Lonely Planet writer that when he opened Cibreo he only had a wood stove, and to keep water boiling continuously on a woodstove was problematic, so he decided there would be no pasta and soon everyone was talking about this crazy restaurant in Florence with no pasta and it's been his good fortune ever since). Danielle Pergament, also writing for the Times (June 3, 2007), opined that "Fabio Picchi's Cibreo is to food what the Medicis were to housing -- impressive, famous and seemingly everywhere." All the Cibreos are very close to each other in and around the via dei Macci, and via del Verrocchio near the San Ambrogio market (I must also mention that steps away from the Cibreos, on piazza Ghiberti, is one of my favorite stores on earth, Lisa Corti Home Textile Emporium, where you can buy colorful tablecloths to take home for your own great meals). I've only eaten at the Ristorante once, years ago now, and it still stands out in my memory. Some people have told me they feel the Ristorante isn't as good as it used to be; I can neither agree nor disagree as I have only one, incredibly wonderful experience. But I have been more recently to the Caffe and the Trattoria, both of which I thought were terrific, and on my last visit I went to the Teatro del Sale, which I think is my new favorite. It is named Theater of Salt (sale) because "salt is what's needed to bring out the best in food. We try to bring out the best in people. Besides, here in the Mediterranean, salt has been used from the beginning of time as a preservative, and we're trying to preserve what's good in human nature as well as preserving our cultural patrimony." You have to become a member to go to this dinner theater (annual membership: 5 euros, which you pay at the door and you're given a membership card) and you have to be willing to forgo wait service -- everyone sits at communal tables and the food is served buffet style, and all formality is tossed aside as Picchi emerges from the glassed-in kitchen (very cool; I would pay just to watch the goings on here) dramatically bellowing out the name of each dish as it is brought to the buffet tables (I was briefly introduced to him one night before the dinner service began and can report that he seemed larger than life but quite sincere, like he really cared that I was there). At this point, after each new dish is brought out, it can be chaotic and downright competitive as people elbow their way in to the platters and bowls. Those platters and bowls hold some of the most delicious food you will ever eat, and at a cost of about $35 per person, it is positively the best quality-value meal in Florence, perhaps in all of Italy. I hadn't expected the food to be so outstanding -- I lowered my expectations because I thought that for the price the food couldn't possibly be as good -- but it was amazing and I was literally oohing and ahhing the entire time. I don't have my notes with me as I type this, but I remember there were several different kinds of pasta, several meat dishes, a chicken dish, some salads, and some yummy, yummy vegetables. It seemed like about a dozen different dishes were brought out, each one better than the last. Writer Bruce Schoenfeld noted in Wine Spectator (October 31, 2004) that the food at Teatro del Sale is even more rooted in Tuscan tradition than that at Cibreo. "What he does better than anyone else is create dishes that taste like something your Tuscan grandmother might have served to you, though she didn't." In At about 9:30, all of a sudden there is a lot of bustle and all the tables are cleared away and chairs set up in rows facing the stage. This is when the 'teatro' part of the evening begins, and the performances can be anything from Shakespeare to comedy to music. I believe every night the performance is in Italian -- the night I went Picchi's wife, Maria Cassi, a performance artist whose been described as Italy's answer to Robin Williams, had the crowd roaring with laughter at her one woman monologue -- but it really doesn't matter if you can't understand it (I didn't). You really feel you are part of a local tradition (you are). One word of warning: I'd been told that Picchi really takes offense if you walk out during the performance, so be prepared to sit for about an hour or two. All in all, if the prices at the Ristorante are too steep for you, spending an evening at the Teatro allows you to experience food that is equally as delicious for a fraction of the cost at Cibreo and be part of a Florentine theater tradition. Teatro del Sale is also open for breakfast and lunch -- without a performance -- and there is also an appealing selection of culinary specialties in jars, cans, and bottles available for sale in the front room.

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.

****Sources I continue to use to insure all my meals are great in Florence:

Eating in Italy: A Traveler's Guide to the Hidden Gastronomic Pleasures of Northern Italy, Faith Heller Willinger, (Morrow, 1998). Yes, it's still a great book, and Willinger's website (with details on her cooking classes in her Florentine kitchen) is

The Food Lover's Guide to Florence with Culinary Excursions in Tuscany, 2nd edition, Emily Wise Miller (Ten Speed, 2007); Emily's blog is www.

Italy for the Gourmet Traveler, Fred Plotkin (Little, Brown, 2007). To borrow a phrase from a reviewer, "In Fred We Trust." And there you have it.

Louis Vuitton European Cities Guides, published annually (Louis Vuitton). Florence isn't regularly included in each boxed set of guides -- the cities selected are meant to change, though Paris, for obvious reasons, is always included -- but even the older recommendations hold up.

Trattorias of Rome, Florence, and Venice, Maureen B. Fant (HarperCollins, 2001). Fant lives in Rome and is well traveled throughout Italy and has written about Florentine restaurants frequently for The New York Times. There are 39 pages of Florence recommendations in this book.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

I'm sixteen days late with this question, but did you see the January 2nd travel section of The New York Times? Well, the 'In Transit' column -- a weekly roundup of features from the In Transit blog, which is written by editors and reporters of the Travel section, -- revealed the results of a question readers were asked in early 2010: where do you want to travel this year? I'm so pleased to say that the winner for 2010, "by a landslide" according to the results, is Istanbul! The comment I hear most often when people come back from visiting Istanbul is, "I had no idea how amazing it would turn out to be." And it's absolutely true. And it's also true that my book will help you uncover a wealth of knowledge about the city's history, people, contemporary issues, cuisine, and neighborhoods, and the A to Z Turkish Miscellany is a great mix of places to stay, interesting words and phrases, souvenirs to shop for, and all kinds of tips. Discover Istanbul for yourself if you haven't yet been!

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Hello in 2011! In this, my first post in this calendar year, I'm departing from Tuscany and Umbria to enthuse about a book for children that has nothing to do with travel (except in a small way). People who write for their own blogs can, of course, write about whatever they want, myself included, which can sometimes be annoying. Who has the time to read about a whole bunch of useless stuff? (Probably those same people I see hanging out in coffee bars, but that's another topic.)

I believe that my blog features a lot of useful, interesting, and just plain fun information, even if it doesn't all relate directly to travel, like The Butt Book by Artie Bennett (illustrations by Mike Lester, Bloomsbury, 2010). This picture book is written in rhyme -- very hard to do well -- and though it's not as lengthy as, say, a book by Dr. Seuss (the king of rhyme), it's the perfect length for the seven-and-under set and is great fun to read aloud. And here's the thing of it: kids love butts. Girls and boys both. They positively can't hold back when someone mentions the word butt or bottom, and they typically burst out laughing. One of the best gifts in the world to give a kid is a rubber whoopie cushion (and at about $1 it's one of the cheapest, too) - a whoopie cushion guarantees peals of uncontrollable laughter, and after a while the adults can't help but laugh too because the kids are falling down and practically about to expire. And do you remember heinie bumpers? Just asking someone in a pool if they want to do them usually results in smiling, but then after you do them -- two people hold hands and then go under water with their feet touching and then swing around until their butts meet -- you are just howling. But just mention of the word 'butt' (sorry, no pun intended) brings huge smiles to the faces of kids, and in this winning book Bennett reminds us that "Butts are vital body parts, important as our heads or hearts," yet he also notes that "when dancing, you can shake your booty. Shake, shake, shake you little cutie." I said earlier that this book relates to travel in a small way, and it does so when Bennett explains that "Some names for butts have foreign flair: tuchas, keister, derriere!" and "In England, where they call moms "mums," people call their buttocks "bums." (I love any book that expands a kid's horizons, even in a small way.)

It warms my heart to know that I'm not alone in my enthusiasm for this book: The Brooklyn Paper says "you gotta love The Butt Book" and The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books opined that "...the verse is reliably and rewardingly silly. Use this for revving up the silliness anytime." Bennett is a wordsmith par excellence -- browse his witty site, -- and, among other distinctions, he is probably the youngest person ever to have sold a crossword puzzle to The New York Times.

Now that I think of it, giving a young child a whoopie cushion and a copy of The Butt Book just might possibly be the most perfect gift on earth. And there's no need to wait for a holiday or a special occasion: let the laughter begin now.