As the pianist swung into a Scott Joplin number in the Winter Garden restaurant and the sommelier poured us our first glass, my friend leaned forward and said, somewhat conspiratorially, “I think the changes in my city’s restaurants can best be described in two words – alto basso, from top to bottom.”
For as long as he could remember, he explained, Florentine restaurants tended to cover the middle range extremely well by simply serving the best local ingredients. Now, he suggested, the numbers of both casual and ambitious restaurants are swelling.
A year ago the management of the St Regis hotel, home of the Winter Garden, brought in the esteemed chef Valeria Piccini from Da Caino in Maremma, Tuscany, to breathe warmth into its grand dining room. Having met Piccini, I can think of no one more suitable to do the job. Certain dishes are very good, particularly her pappardelle with pigeon ragu and the beef tartare, but front of house there is still the need for a personality of Piccini’s stature to bring the whole place to life.
The plush surroundings of the St Regis were in complete contrast to my €7 lunch in the Central Market by the church of San Lorenzo. Here I collected a plate of freshly sliced buffalo mozzarella laced with tomatoes, basil and olive oil, and enjoyed it all with a plastic knife and fork.
The market has traded since 1872, and the displays of chickens, veal and fish – cheek by jowl with punnets of apricots, cherries and borlotti beans – are a draw for local chefs. In April, restaurateur Umberto Montano’s plans for a new venture within the market finally bore fruit too.
Following in the footsteps of Barcelona’s Santa Caterina and London’s Borough Market, the large upper floor has been divided into sections for the region’s top cooks and producers. The central area is taken up by the all-important bar, coffee machines and a communal seating area. It is very easy to wander round and take one’s pick from the bread and patisserie of David Ledu; the cheeses of Franco Parola; or fish prepared by Maurizio Spadini and Paola Rosellini. Or you can just stroll about with an ice cream made by Cristian Beduschi. It is an immediate edible immersion into Florence.
Even older than the market is Trattoria Sostanza, just north of the Arno, which has been in business since 1869, and still does not take credit cards. The menu, on a single sheet of paper, reveals its unchanging approach and obvious great value. First courses are under €10 and most main courses, including their signature dish tortino di carciofi – a creamy artichoke tart – are about €15-€17. The only more expensive item is the bistecca alla Fiorentina, ordered with great enthusiasm by the tables of Filipinos and Japanese on either side of us.
The food is exemplary: the chicken broth for the pasta was uplifting and the trippa alla Fiorentina, or tripe, was served in a shallow pan so that neither the rich tomato sauce nor the grated Parmesan overwhelmed the deliciously tender meat.
The contrast between this trattoria and the style of La Bottega Del Buon Caffè, a 10-minute taxi ride towards the town of Fiesole from Florence’s centre, could not have been greater. We were served a complimentary glass of French fizz as we sat down at this intimate, candlelit restaurant that seats no more than 30 and houses a cellar that will appeal to both French and Italian wine lovers. It is managed by Saverio Roseni, a man of charm who came running after the women in our party with posies of freshly picked flowers.
The kitchen is run by the talented Antonello Sardi who, although modern and precise, sticks to the local habit of writing only a brief but intriguing menu. Highlights included three well-thought-out combinations: diced beetroot with octopus; taglierini with anchovies and crisp breadcrumbs; and an exquisite agrodolce sauce that sensitively complemented a rich duck breast. A good meal, alto basso.
The Winter Garden
St Regis Florence, Piazza Ognissanti 1, +39 055 2716 3770; stregisflorence.com
Il Mercato Centrale
Piazza del Mercato Centrale
Via del Porcellana 25, +39 055 212691
La Bottega del Buon Caffe
Via Antonio Pacinotti 44, +39 055 553 5677; labottegadelbuoncaffe.com
Desinare is Florence’s new stylish cookery school; desinare.it
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