During the BUCA years, Joanne and I traveled to Italy up to three times a year with our culinary teams and managers. These deep dives into Italy’s culinary heritage took us from the wealthy areas of the north to the less affluent, gritty areas that dominate the south, including the heel and toe of the boot as well as Sicily.
The thread of continuity that binds Italy is, of course, the food – the glorious food – equally wonderful from Bologna to Rome to Naples and Palermo; yet so different, sooo very different.
We’ve taken a breather for several years, but now Joanne and I are planning a trip back, this time with our grandkids. And that starts me thinking about the restaurants that we so enjoyed during our many visits.
Let’s start with Florence.
Despite the throngs of tourists, the city not only endures, it consistently charms. If it’s cold and rainy, you can easily spend a day inside the Uffizi Gallery, replete with treasures like Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. But if the weather’s good, put on your walking shoes and head to the Ponte Vecchio. You can spend your euros on a cameo or spend some patience dodging the Germans who congregate around the Duomo and the Baptistery with their backpacks, annoying sandals and wool socks.
Joanne and I like to stroll across the Arno to the Pitti Palace and the entrance of the Boboli Gardens, a true oasis in the heart of the city. Stroll by the Dwarf Morgant Fountain that depicts an obese naked dwarf astride a turtle, his testicles squashed against the shell. We can stroll the gardens for hours and emerge back into the chaos of central Florence well refreshed.
Pisa is nearby – a perfect daytrip. And be sure to indulge in gelato…every day, maybe twice a day. Be sure also to visit Florence’s markets and salumerias for their beautifully merchandized bounty. While at the Central Market, don’t pass up the porchetta sandwiches (from the porchetta food stall on the first floor). As you stand in line for lunch, check out the photo they posted of our culinary team.
Afterward, head to the Academia and check off another item on your bucket list: viewing Michelangelo’s David.
As evening sets in, consider where you might dine. We love RISTORANTE CIBREO, near the Central Market, led by chef Fabio Picchi. The night we were there, all his arrogance and condescension were on display in the way he treated his guests, but so were his culinary talents – which are spectacular. If you’d prefer a little less attitude, make your way to the less costly and more casual CIBREO TRATTORIA and, weather permitting, snag an outdoor table.
We also love COCO LEZZONE on Via del Parioncino, where – strange as it may sound – you can make a budget meal of a small green salad accompanied by either of their incredibly robust soups (or are they stews?), including Pappa al Pomodoro (Italian tomato/bread soup) or the Ribollita (a thicker, “bready” vegetable soup). If you want Bistecca Fiorentina, you must call in advance, but my advice is to stick with the soups. I’ll steer you someplace better for steak.
By the way, look closely at the image I’ve posted of the dining room. Note the ochre-colored stripe on the wall. That represents the high-water mark from the disastrous 1967 flood that ravaged Florence.
Dining with a group? Don’t miss IL LATINI on Via dei Palchetti for spectacular family-style fare. It’s a carnivore’s heaven – totally meat-centric, with giant sharing platters of Bistecca Fiorentina, as well as mixed grills that include lamb, chicken and pork. Note the expressions on the faces of our Minneapolis colleagues as our server presents the platter. They do not take reservations, so line up early.
I’ve saved my favorite for last: the old school TRATTORIA SOSTANZA, located on a desolate, dimly lit little street called Via del Porcellana, two blocks from Santa Maria Novella. The restaurant is tiny – maybe 40 seats – with distressed white-tiled walls that evoke a vintage butcher shop. They haven’t changed a bit in the 25 years that we have been visiting there, and I hope they never do.
Like TRAMSHED in London (see my July 20, 2017 posting), Sostanza specializes in two offerings – CHICKEN and STEAK – but here they’re so good that the restaurant doesn’t need a Damien Hirst embalmed chicken and cow installation to wow the crowds. In fact, from a culinary perspective, comparing Sostanza and Tramshed is like placing a horse next to a mouse. Sostanza is far, far better.
Bistecca Fiorentina stars here. Harvested from huge Chianina cattle (Italy’s premium breed) and raised primarily in Tuscany and Umbria, the tender, well-marbled meat is available only through state-approved butchers, ensuring uniform quality (and high prices). Sostanza grills its one kilo porterhouse over white-hot embers. It’s about $100, but serves two to three people. And I have to say, it rivals MANNY’S porterhouse.
Now, if there are at least four people in your party, get the BISTECCA, which is arguably Florence’s best. But you MUST ALSO order the PETTI DI POLLO AL BURRO – brown butter chicken. YOU MUST! The dish consists of a pair of plump chicken breasts, lightly grilled and, while still hot, dredged in flour and passed through a bath of beaten eggs, then set in a small pan with at least a quarter to half a pound of premium butter, then finished over a bed of glowing embers. It’s brought to the table sizzling hot, its brown butter bubbling gloriously.
A good piece of advice: Get a side of CANNELINI BEANS, which are a welcome counterpoint to the richness of the Bistecca and the butter chicken.
Finish up with a slice of signature MERINGUE CAKE with fresh strawberries, and by all means order a few shots of GRAPPA. Even though tourists have certainly discovered this restaurant, you can toast the fact that Sostanza embodies the uncorrupted soul of Tuscan cooking.