Friday, 2 March 2007

My standard Florence recommendations

I've been lucky enought to live in Florence, Italy twice - and as a result have spent a lot of time vacationing there. While it is susceptible to lots of fair criticisms: too many tourists, too many restaurants catering to tourists, etc., it is a wonderfully accessible city, particularly when visited in late fall or winter.

There are a number of places I frequent whenever I go back. Most are mentioned in reliable guidebooks -- which is often the kiss of death for an Italian restaurant. These nonetheless have maintained a high level of food quality, service and atmosphere.

My first stop is always Cibreo Trattoria, located in a residential neighborhood behind the Duomo about 10-15 minutes near the Sant' Ambrogio market. Chef-owner Fabio Picchi has a bit of a dynasty going in this neighborhood, with a trattoria, ristorante, bar, and dinner theater all next to one another. The food is creative Tuscan, you're unlikely to recognize anything on the menu and much of it looks underwhelmingly simple when it arrives. But wait until you taste... The intensity of flavors is extraordinary. The more formal restaurant requires reservations, and the trattoria next door (literally) with the same menu from the same kitchen at less than half the price (the portions are slightly smaller, more limited wine list and no reservations - plenty of food and by far the better deal). The pomodoro in gelatina (spicy tomato aspic) is outstanding, as is the sformato di ricotta e patate (think a gnocchi flan), and the calamari inzimino (squid and black cabbage cooked with hot peppers and squid's ink). I adore this place.

Aqua al 2 (Via Vigna Vecchia 40/r - 055 28 41 70) is a very lively, inexpensive restaurant right behind the Bargello (sculpture museum) popular with locals and students. Most nights these days it's packed with Americans until the late night Italian crowd wanders in, but don't let that scare you. The menu is not particularly Tuscan: Excellent pasta dishes - particularly the fusilli with porcini mushrooms and marscapone. They do an assagi di primi, a tasting of 5 different pastas that come out separately as each is made to order. The tagliata (sliced steak with arugula) is quite good as is the chicken curry believe it or not, and I love the tiramisu here. Wine list is limited but reasonably priced. I've been eating here since I was a student almost 20 years ago, and the owners, Gianni, Stefano and Lucia have always remembered me and treated me like family.

Quattri Leoni – Via de dé Vellutini 1R in the Piazza della Passera Tel 055/218562, has a number of wonderful dishes and a good wine list. The fiochetti a la pera - pasta stuffed with taleggio cheese and pears in an asparagus cream sauce - is marvelous. The tagliata di pollo is thin slices of marinated grilled chicken that are intensely flavored, and the torta di pera e ciocollato (pear and chocolate cake) keeps the pear theme going perfectly.

La Giostra – Via Borgo Pinti 12/r (Behind the Duomo on a small side street off Via del Oriouolo) tel. 055 241341 – is very romantic, though overrun with tourists and expensive. The food is very good, and the wine list is pricey but voluminous. One side note, they perform an extensive ritual when serving the wine, that includes taking a glass from your bottle, presumably to be served to the owner.

Borgo Antico Noe, Volta di San Piero, 6r, Phone: 055.2340838, just across Via del Oriouolo (in a scary little covered alley between it and Borgo degli Albizi) is a slow food spot that is very good, simple and cheap food. They have a take out sandwich place next door that is also excellent.

Though I used to be fond of Gelateria Vivoli, I think they've suffered from a good reputation. Instead, I now return to Perche No? (Why not?), notably the location of a gelato eating contest my mother won when she studied in Florence in college (which is where she met my dad). Very centrally located and delicious.

If you're thirsty rather than hungry, Florence has some very fun bars. The trendy spot changes at any given moment, but some reliable stand-bys are: Slowly – near the leather market is a dark, lively bar with DJ's, booths and a VIP section upstairs. Rose’s just off via Tornabuoni is much quieter and serves food. It's a good place for a quiet, intimate conversation. La Dolce Vita, is an almost exclusively Italian crowd in the Oltrarno with a huge section of outdoor tables and a great appertivo. A great place to sit, drink and people watch.

In terms of hotels, one of the best deals is Torre Guelfa on Borgo Appostoli. Clean, simple, reasonable very, very central (a block from the Ponte Vecchio and the Piazza della Signoria). Rates include breakfast and there is great roof deck. The only caveat is not to get a room facing the left side alley (facing the building), as the push carts for the leather market are stored in garages there and start moving with significant noise at 5am. For old-world style and luxury, the Grand Hotel and the Excelsior are both Starwood hotels on the Piazza Ognisanti on the Arno. Rooms with wonderful views of the Arno in a convenient neighborhood that is a bit quieter, these places are not cheap. For hip, modern accomodations, the Hotel Gallery Art and Hotel Continental are both across the street from one another and from Torre Guelfa. The style comes at a high price. If you want CHEAP – Hotel Locanda Orchidea (11r Borgo degli Albizi) is about $50 us a night, clean, shared bathrooms, no frills but acceptable. Very central. The owner, Miranda Cook, is English and is very friendly.

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