Tuesday, 13 January 2009

Trip to Florence Jan 2009

A delicious trip to Florence including an upscale trattoria in the hills, a fantastic trattoria in town, a visit to the food market, and a long lunch with a food critic who knows her way around ordering

I had a delicious trip to Florence at the start of the new year. Stayed in a wonderful pensione: Hotel Casci--at rock-bottom prices in a lovely room. The hotel had a very friendly hotel atmosphere and a copious breakfast and is a block from the Duomo. This was my fourth or fifth trip to Florence and I had to inaugurate it with a cappuccino scuro (dark) at Rivoire. I love that place and have so many wonderful memories of just sitting there admiring the people in the Piazza Signoria. I was shocked to see that the David statue had disappeared. Although it is just a copy, it was in restoration.

The first night, I went to a recommended wonderful trattoria called Zibibbo.It is run by Sra Picchi who is the ex-wife of the chef of Cibreo (a wonderful restaurant in the center of Florence). I will speak of Cibreo later. This was a lovely restaurant in the hills and I had a truly memorable meal: Maltagliati al ragu di anatra (square stamp-shaped pasta with a duck sauce), Piccione arrosto ripieno con scorze di arancia e pere (delicious crispy roasted pigeon stuffed with pigeon liver, pears and orange rind) and a wonderful rich chocolate cake which was really a chocolate mousse in a crust. It was a wonderful meal and with wine came to 66 euros. You could never do better in Paris.

The next day, after a coffee at Rivoire and a visit to the Uffici, I found an unassuming caffe-bar and had a delicious seafood salad for 10 euros. I was saving myself for dinner.

The Michelin removed its star from Rossini but that was after I had reserved. I went anyway. It is a beautiful restaurant with high ceilings, well-spaced tables and excellent service. The food was fine but pricey and I was turned off by my St. Pierre with rasperries. The fish was delicious but somehow I don't associate fish with raspberries. To start I had skewers of scampi served on a bed of pappa al pomodoro--which is basically a tomato-bread soup indigenous to Tuscany. This was a very good and interesting dish.

The highlight of the trip was the day I spent with my friend, Maureen Fant. Apparently, we met when we both attended the same daycamp in 1958! But we remet on a web site: the Italian Forum organized through Compuserve. Maureen was a regular overseer of the site. After she recognized my name, we had to meet. Since then have met up several times and do enjoy spending time together. She is an author and a food critic. Our rendez-vous was at a tripe stand in the San Lorenzo market and we did a little exploring, admiring and photographing the meat on the ground floor and the fruits and vegetables on the first floor. Outside this enclosed space is the other market where you can buy leather goods, pottery, scarves and shawls, trinkets.

After wandering around the food market for awhile, we walked to Cibreo (which I mentioned earlier), the restaurant we both consider to be the best in Florence. There is no menu but a large choice of appetizers, main dishes and desserts that are recited to you by the diningroom manager. Before anything, we were treated to a variety of antipasti including a delicious bruschetta di pate de fegato, prosciutto, a variety of vegetables preserved in vinegar and served with olive oil, and their signature sformato of potato and ricotta. I chose two half portions to start with: ribollita (another delicious Tuscan bread and vegetable soup--this time served at room temp) and pasatelli al ragu which is a specialty of Emilia Romagna. It consists of little noodles made from a paste of eggs, bread crumbs and parmigiano that are passed through an instrument. Traditionally these are served in broth, but I opted for the ragu and pretended I was eating a small portion of pasta. Maureen had the sformato of potato and ricotta with the same delicious ragu, and then a wonderful zuppa di zucca (pumpkin soup) with crumbledamoretti--delicate and delicious. All the home-made breads were spectacular--especially one very long baguette with knobs at both ends that is almost as long as the diameter of the table.

For my main course, I chose seppie in inzimino--a very spicy stew of calamari--absolutely wonderful. Maureen opted for salsiccio con fagioli, cavolo nero, e salvia (one of my favorite herbs) which was also terrific. The wine that was recommended was spectacular and reasonably priced: a Tuscan wine called Podere Sapaio Volpolo 2006. During the meal, various and sundry staff and family members came to talk to us to make sure we were doing fine.

Before dessert, the chef came out to see us. He is a striking man with a mustache and beard who is extremely expansive. His new wife lives in Paris so he and I had a few things to talk about. At some point, he came back to our table with two lovely jars of fig jam and two gallon-sized cans of peeled tomatoes!! His son, looking on, said that he had seen his father give many gifts but never cans of tomatoes. I would not dream of transporting such a large item on the plane (especially since the liquid would never pass through security) so I gave my can to Maureen. She lugged it back at great pains but assured me that she will make use of it, being accustomed to preparing large meals for big audiences.

I couldn't decide between two desserts so of course, I chose one, and they gave me both! I had the delicious budino al cioccolato with a coffee sauce and also the bavarese al salsa cioccolato. I wanted the panna cotta con salsa cioccolato but theirs come plain and I am sure there is a good reason for that. Maureen had a heavenly budino di yogurt with candied grapefruit and honey.

We ended the afternoon with coffee. With our discount, we paid 75 euros apiece for this spectacular meal. I would have been happy to pay more and that is what it would normally cost--probably 180 euros for the two of us.

Cibreo has opened a trattoria which has many of the same dishes on a menu, a cafe, and also a theater where members are served dinner buffet-style before or after watching a show.

Of course, I could not think of eating again--perhaps for 24 hours, and so I went back to my hotel and watched a dvd which the hotel provided free of charge. As Maureen mentioned, the less expensive and friendlier the place, the more free perks there are.

I had to get my pizza fix even though my favorite places in NY, Washington, D.C. and Naples are probably better than anything I could get in Florence. However, at lunch the next day I went to Il Pizzaiuolo right near Cibreo for a sausage pizza. I would say it was fair by my standards. The crust was chewy but not at all crisp and it was a bit too oily.

However, dinner was a winner. Maureen recommended a traditional Tuscan trattoria. Da Ruggero is a fun place with laughing happy customers in two well-lit rooms ordering and eating all the signature Tuscan dishes. I started with a dish of baby asparagus that had been cured in vinegar and served in a garlic oil, and then had ribollita again. This one was full of vegetables and white beans and was served hot. It was memorable. After that, I had a big juicy steak served hot and rare with a lemon wedge. Bistecca alla Fiorentina is the thing to order here but one person could not eat that, so the filet I chose was an excellent second choice. It was delicious and so much to eat--I left half of it for the restaurant's dog. I had a blueberry crostata for dessert. With wine, my dinner came to 45 euros and was well worth it. I wanted to go back the next day! By the way this place only serves meats as main courses but a vegetarian could happily survive on the delicious soups and contorni and perhaps a picci dish (thick spaghetti which I imagine is a Tuscan specialty).

It was difficult to find a restaurant open for Sunday lunch so close to the end of the holidays, but I found Baccarossa. It is a lovely space and wooden desks with drawers for tables. The glassware is quite attractive. The week after New Year's is particularly dead in Florence and I was the only client, but that didn't detract from the friendly service and delicious food. Breads are home-made and excellent--especially one with pignoli. I ordered fresh fish that seemed to have just sprung from the sea. It was steamed in cartoccio (paper) along with baby black olives, capers and cherry tomatoes. I started with a lovely gnocchi dish also served with a light fish sauce. Dessert was made to order (I could hear the sound of the mixer from the kitchen) and was a big fave: chocolate soufflé. The restaurant serves a choice of 60 wines by the glass and I had an Italian Sauvignon Blanc called Valbuins Livon. I would go back to this place, but probably at dinner when it would be more likely to be full.

That said, every restaurant I went to that week was pretty empty. Florence seems to close up the days between Jan 2-14.

Grom is the new ice cream place to go and that is all I need to say. Everyone is talking about it and the ice cream is spectacular.

I was sorry to leave Florence and already know which restaurant I want to try when I return: La Giostra. When I got home, I received a Zagat Guide of the best restaurants in Europe and this restaurant along with a Michelin 3-star get top marks. So I am sure it is worth the detour.