Thursday, September 16, 2010

(There's a) Firenze (in my pants)

After the somewhat disappointing culinary experience in Rome (although a glass of good cognac for 4 euros next to the Colosseum was rather excellent), I was a bit nervous about what Florence would have in store for me. Another poor experience could have solidified into a poor impression of Italian restaurants (well, those in tourist meccas). Thankfully, there was some relief.

On the first day we saw the first bad weather of the trip, with heavy showers for much of the afternoon. Good weather to stay in an eat. Lunch was nothing to write home about, a solid beef carpaccio, but the afternoon gave me my first good restaurant experience of the trip. Opposite the Palazzo Pitti is a tiny wine bar with only 12 or so seats. Being located opposite a tourist destination is usually not a great sign, so I was a little hesitant when I walked in.

An aperitivo to start--a crisp sparkling wine. Then into the business end of things. One of the “super Tuscan” reds and a cheese plate with a selection of Tuscan cheeses. Great wine, even greater cheese plate. A truffled peccorino was the highlight, but every other cheese on the plate was tremendous. After polishing off the glass of red (served in a mini decanter, cute) they gave me a try of one of the more classic Tuscan wines to try. Very different in flavour, but a fantastic expression of sangiovese. To finish, a delicious glass of cool vin santo and a brisk walk home in the rain with no umbrella.

Dinner was a little less successful. With no restaurant shortlisted, I had trouble finding something open on a Monday that looked good. I eventually found two opposite each other, but one ended up being closed and the other full. We walked around for a while, looking for something acceptable (it took a while). Eventually, we stumbled into a small pizza restaurant and, while it wasn't extraordinary, it was still very enjoyable. Solid pizza, nice insalata caprese, okay crostini misti and a very enjoyable tiramisu. For 20 euro, no complaints at all.

Day two in Florence and I was hoping to try some of the steak that the region is famous for. That didn't quite happen. I started with a stroll around the city, picking up a great coffee and almond cookie along the way, before stumbling on to a food market. If I had access to a kitchen then I would have bought a tremendous amount of the delicious looking cheese (oh buffalo mozzarella, you haunt my dreams), prosciutti and vegetables. Nearby there was also a stall selling the traditional tripe sandwiches. I was tempted to get one, but couldn't will myself into it.

So I headed over to a restaurant called il Latini, that does a brisk trade with locals and tourists alike. I was sat on a table with a tourist couple and four old local men. It was one of the first time that I really wished I spoke Italian, because the men ate, drank and joked with everyone (that spoke Italian).

The restaurant is popular for good reason. Delicious prosciutto, handmade pasta, roast beef with potatoes (wow! Excellent texture and flavour of the beef, perfectly roasted potatoes) and good, simple desserts. It wasn't cheap, but it was delicious.

Filled with renewed faith in food/table wine, I headed back to the market to get a tripe sandwich. But that wasn't to be: they'd just sold out.

In the afternoon I became annoyed that I hadn't had any gelato yet in Italy. So I went in search. First up Gelato Pecche No? For a cup of amaretto and chocolate. Very good, but hardly the mind-blowing experience I was hoping for from Italian gelato. Next stop Vivoli, one of the more famous places. Here we go! Seasonal flavours, artisan methods, stacks of annoying tourists. Caramelised orange and chocolate was utterly sensational, with the orange melting in the mouth and combining with the rich chocolate. Also another flavour featuring candied ginger that was quite solid. Lastly, to Grom, which had the biggest queues. Incredible. Caramelised pear was perfectly balanced, refreshing, yet rich, but not overly sweet. And the crema de Grom, a mix of many good things. Rich, but, again, not overly sweet.

Dinner time and it's off to Trattiora Cibreo, a cheaper version of the restaurant next door. This is where I start to question things. We start with delicious crostini misti and mozzarella, follow it with beautifully simple polenta with oil and cheese and a hugely flavoured fish soup. For secondi, a fish carpaccio with a lively topping that made every bite both refreshing and satisfying, and a really good, simple chicken meatball dish. Sides of roasted carrot and a bean dip were also satisfying. To finish, good, but not extraordinary, chocolate tart, cheesecake and pannacotta. All up, a hugely enjoyable meal of simple, honest, traditional food.

I should have been overjoyed, but I was having a dilemma.

Back in Sydney that would have been a tremendous meal and the restaurant would have immediately become one of my favourites. But here... How is this for an Italian restaurant in Italy? Would a local have seen this as overpriced for such simple food? A restaurant for tourists? For me, this was great food, but I haven't had that much “great” Italian food so what do I know? I could say that it was a great restaurant and be completely wrong. And that means I could also be wrong about the other restaurants I go to. Taste is always subjective, but there is an element of objectivity to it. A good restaurant is a good restaurant. But maybe il Convivio was great FOR Romans? Maybe it played off THEIR tastes, not mine? More though (and more food) is required.

But that wasn't the only thing on my mind.

With the language/outsider barrier, I was worried that it was limiting my dining experiences. These cities are big tourist destinations, so they're experienced in dealing with my “type” (tall, slim, dark hair, good taste in music, obsession with food). In a couple of restaurants we've been seated in different sections to the locals. Just a way of making sure the bilingual staff are given that section, or something more sinister? How many times have I been ripped off so far? I suppose I'm playing the paranoid tourist thing to an extent, but it can't be totally irrational. Again, more thought and more eating is required.

For now, on the train to Milan. Tonight, dinner at two-star Cracco. Tomorrow night, dinner at two-star Trussardi alla Scala. While Cracco has the two Michelin stars and is ranked in the San Pellegrino world top 100 restaurants, I've seen some mixed reviews--particularly from tourists--so this could be interesting.

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