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stirring the lees with james molesworth

A Few Days in Florence

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Aug 26, 2007 10:56am ET

Day 1

After two flights without a hitch (go figure) we landed in Florence on Thursday in a steady rain. We dropped our bags at the Hotel Savoy and headed out, undaunted by the weather. In the Piazza San Pier Maggiore there’s a small, casual restaurant called I Ghibellini, where a tented patio beckoned.

We got a shrug of indifference when we asked the waiter if we could sit outside despite the rain, as there was no way we were going to sit inside on our first day. The pizzas feature the classic thin crust: Nancy got her quattro formaggio fix, while I loaded mine up with prosciutto, wild boar sausage and truffles. The wine list has no vintages and features only Antinori wines. We made do with the Antinori Vino Nobile di Montepulciano La Braccessca 2004, which was slightly chewy and raisiny but helped to ward off a bit of chill, as the rain got steadily harder.

After a gelato pit stop, we let the girls nap a bit in the afternoon (a forced nap, I nearly had to pull out the tranquilizer gun) and recharged the batteries while the sounds of the busy Piazza della Repubblica, including a soprano singing, filtered up to our room.

The Hotel Savoy, part of the Rocco Forte group of properties, was completely renovated back in 2000, and it offers a very sleek combination of Tuscan and modern styling. Room have high ceilings and the décor is done in elegant, muted tones. 

When it comes to traveling, we try to mix in a few off-the-beaten track places. Our rules are simple: we never eat in a restaurant that shows pictures of the food on its menu at the door, and we try not to eat at a restaurant that has an English translation of its menu at the door (which in Florence is nearly impossible). For dinner we hit Acqua Al 2, known for their mixed pasta menu; just tell them how many people you have in your party, and they'll deliver that number of plates to your table. The penne in spinach sauce was light and elegant, while the farfalle with zucchini was sublime. Though the wine list doesn't include vintages, it does offer some well-priced bottles of Montevertine, so we had the Riserva 2004 and Il Pergole Torte 2001. The Riserva was bright and fresh with dried cherry fruit, while the Pergole Torte showed more incense and dried leather, with a very smooth texture.

 
This menu doesn't pass my simple test for deciding where to dine.  
Jet lag set in overnight and everyone overslept on Friday morning, so we skipped breakfast and dashed through another steady rain to make our reserved time at the Uffizi.

At noon the lunch bug hit hard, so we ducked into Osteria delle Brache, on the Piazza Peruzzi. This seafood restaurant has a small but decent wine list (with vintages!), and a grilled John Dory with the C.S. Giogantina Vermentino di Gallura Lughéna 2006 proved to be a great pairing; the earth and almond notes of the wine matched nicely with the firm flesh of the fish. Those who had the pasta were sipping the Planeta Cerasuolo di Vittorio 2005, an earthy but supple blend of Nero d’Avola and Frappato with nice dusty tannins and dried currant fruit.

When traveling, we often spend our lunch hours discussing our dinner plans, which on Friday were for a Florentine institution, Il Latini, located down the alley-like Via Palchetti. There’s no menu, and if you don’t get a reservation you will wait in line outside—but you’ll be sated with plates of salami and glasses of wine while you wait. Luckily we had a table waiting, by an open window, through which a gentle breeze kept us cool. The rain had stopped and the heat was starting to build. There’s no menu here: They simply ask if you want pasta or meat or fish. We wanted all of it, so they brought out plate after plate of food until we told them to stop.

The wine list is lengthy, but probably hasn’t been reprinted in a few years, so it’s out of date. My first three choices were no longer in stock, but the staff offered me a simple solution—come down to the cellar and pick something out. Easy enough. Within minutes we had a bottle of the Casanova di Neri Brunello di Montalcino Cerretalto 1997 on our table, loaded with earth, spice and tar notes that went from older to younger, gaining a velvety texture and turning darker in profile as it aired in the glass (a rare trait I’ve seen only with some bottles of Château Rayas and other Grenache-based wines, and the occasional old bottle of Rioja from CUNE). For fun, the owner then brought us a surprise bottle of a wine, the Agricola Punica Isola dei Nuraghi Barrua 2002, a new wine from winemaker Giacomo Tachis. Made from Cannonau (according to the owner, but I wasn’t so sure), it was loaded with sweet toast, blueberry and spice notes. It was a total 180 from the Brunello, which provided great food for thought as we worked our way through the lengthy meal.

While the other restaurants were good, friendly and fun, this was the first place to really light my fire. The vibe was great, as was the food, and the staff went out of their way to make us happy.

 
We stocked up on foodstuffs at mercato centrale for our villa in the countryside.  
The heat that built during the night led into a true August day. Saturday was over 90 degrees, with a bright sun. We worked our way through the outdoor mercato centrale, which is basically a step up from a New York Italian street fair, minus the hot sausage vendors—avoid it at all costs unless you need to stock up on leather gloves or tacky T-shirts. Inside the mercato centrale, however, are the food vendors, and despite half the booths being shuttered for summer vacation, there was still more there than one could possible take in. Fresh pasta, oils, wine, and a multitude of butchers hawk their wares, and we easily filled up a few bags of completely necessary items to take with us to our villa on Sunday.

On our way to the Boboli Gardens, we found another simple, charming restaurant on the Piazza Santa Felicita, Ristorante Celestino. Once again the staff went out of their way to make us happy (there isn’t much to interest children in Florence, but the locals are very kid-friendly). With the heat really starting to crank up, some simple bruschetta al pomodoro and grilled salmon was the ticket, along with a couple of bottles of Feudi di San Gregorio Falanghina Sannio 2006, a tangy, citrus filled white with some nice heft on the finish.

On our last night here, we’re leaving the kids with the grandparents, and Nancy is taking me for a surprise dinner, so I’ll have to report back later.

In the meantime, my impressions of Florence are favorable but not necessarily memorable. Good food and friendly people offset the oppressive tourist presence (the town totals 350,000 residents, but handles 10 million visitors a year) even in what is currently the low season. Wine prices are very favorable, though, with Super Tuscans for 80 euros or less, and many decent Chianti and other bottlings in the under 30 euro range.

We hit the road for the countryside tomorrow.

Antonio Nieto
celaya —  August 27, 2007 2:22pm ET
james hi, I was in florence 2 months ago. I visited Il latini and other great places like la giostra, golden view etc.One thing that bothered me was that the wine was always at room temperature, as you mention the heat can be a bit of a pain and drinking wine warm is not very pleasant.let me know if that also happened to you
James Molesworth
August 27, 2007 2:54pm ET
Antonio: Good point. Even at Il Latini, the wine from right the cellar was not very cool. It is a problem in these parts.

We've been chilling down our reds in the fridge for 20 minutes here at the villa, before opening them...

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