Spent December 3-10, 2007 in Florence, our third trip in the last 5 years, all of which were in first week of December. What a great time to go there! Weather was in the high 50s with 1 morning of rain out of 7. The city was itself, not just a mass of tourists (only comparing it to summer). Everything was open and we were surprised at how small a city Florence really is: On Monday night, we saw a couple in a restaurant and saw them walking elsewhere 3 days later; saw a woman eating alone in another restaurant Tuesday and she was at the airport the next Monday; shared a lunch table with an Italian couple Friday, then met them in the street behind our hotel later that afternoon, quite a distance from the restaurant.
But on to the CHOW! We finally got to Teatro del Sale and our lunch there was a highlight of the week. Here are our reviews:
1. TEATRO DEL SALE Via dei Macci 111r This is a “sister” restaurant to the 2 Cibrèos (restaurant and trattoria), all three of which are run by Fabio Picchi (who was seated at a table near the entrance conducting business with suppliers and staff on Friday afternoon when we went for lunch). To eat here, you must join their “club” – Circo-lo Culturale - for a fee of 5 Euros per person for “foreigners” (higher club fees for locals). You fill out a form and receive a numbered membership card valid from July 1 of this year to July 1 of next year. They are open for breakfast (7 Euros), for lunch (20 Euros), and for dinner (30 Euros, reservations required at night).
You can relax in the “club” in leather sofas and love seats, with free self-service coffee, tea, water available, read newspapers and magazines, or chat. We visited for lunch and were amazed at the quantity and quality of what they served. When you enter the main room, it is a small theater, and various performances are offered each night after dinner only (musicians, singers, dancers, performers of different types and styles vary each night).
Tables of various sizes are available in the dining area and you can sit alone or with others whom you know or don’t know (we sat with an Italian couple from the Florence suburbs who come in once a month to have lunch at Teatro del Sale; this was a good experience because they were able to explain what the unusual dishes were and what the various announcements were about).
Meals are self-service from a buffet table. You pick up a small plate, take what you like, return to get another and select from the offerings again as often as you wish. You take used plates to a dutch door and place them there so kitchen staff can wash them. White and red wines are complimentary and are self-served from a wooden box on a table at the entrance to the theater. If you are seated in the main theater room, you can see the entire kitchen and food preparation area behind windows on one wall. From time to time, one of the chefs opens a window and announces what dishes are about to be delivered to the serving table.
Quantity and quality of what we were offered were outstanding and plentiful. Here is what they served: cannellini beans in oil and spices, ceci beans in oil with different spices, roasted cauliflower, baked fennel slices, mixed carrots & peas in a sauce, traditional dish of tomato/potato/celery/carrot mash, polenta with roasted garlic cloves and topped with parmesan cheese, Tuscan ribollita, thin-sliced veal roll, potatoes with herbs and tomatoes, baked ricotta topped with parmesan cheese (sformata), hot fillets of mackerel in oil and spices, mixed salad (arugula, chicory, radicchio, etc.) in balsamic dressing, and “chicken neck” which is often served at the other 2 Cibrèo dining rooms (essentially chicken forcemeat with added spices in a cooked roll).
Following this enormous spread, they served us plates of hot fusilli pasta in a tomato and meat sauce, and “raw” salami meat to be spread on foot-long “dog biscuit” bread sticks. Finally, they served spiedini: grilled chicken, pork, sausage and bread chunks in oil, along with roasted potatoes in herbs. Dessert, for those who had room, was a simple chocolate pavé cut into small pieces.
Dinner must be somewhat similar, although we expect dinner would include more main courses (meat dishes). DO NOT MISS THIS PLACE WHEN YOU GO!!!! If you know how to use the electric buses, take the C line bus to Piazza San Ambrogio stop which is where Via Dei Macchi is.
2. VINI E VECCHI SAPORI Via dei Magazzini 3/R So small it's not easy to find at the end of this small street, just before you go into the Piazza della Signoria. Look for the word OSTERIA over the door and an oval sign in the window with the name on it. Seats no more than 16-18 people and you might have to share a table with others. Most of the clientele appear to be personal friends of the owners, so it is a very real Florentine place. If it’s full when you go there, come back in a half-hour and there might be seats for you.
Our primi were: tagliatelle con anatra (freshly made flat noodles with duck meat) and bucatini con carciofi (pasta with chopped cooked artichoke – not chunks of artichoke but little pieces blended into the pasta sauce). Both were priced at 8 Euros per plate in sizable portions, very delicious and flavorful. For secondo, we shared puntarelle stuffed with ground meat (veal and pork with spices and tomato pieces) – like cabbage rolls – but more subtle in flavors and texture (puntarelle is a winter chicory). Price was 9 Euros and we had enough for two to eat and enjoy.
This is a great restaurant to sample home cooking of good quality at a reasonable price. We would definitely go back for more.
3. TRATTORIA IL CONTADINO Via Palazzuolo 69-71r I posted on this place in December 2004 and many chowhounders have posted that they enjoyed eating here as well. An excellent bargain: low price, very good food! Fixed price menu is 11 Euros and includes a primo, a secondo, bread, plus wine or bottled water. We had: freshly made fettucini with fresh pesto (best plate of fettucini I ever ate!) and spinach-stuffed ravioli in a meat sauce. Secondi: grilled swordfish (fresh and nicely grilled) and veal stew with tiny peas and potatoes. Both secondi came with side orders of vegetables so we shared a plate of mixed cooked veggies (potatoes, carrots, artichokes, green beans) and a mixed greens salad with radicchio, fennel, chicory, and lettuce.
Some changes from last posting in 2004: the restaurant décor has been spiffed up, but still plain and clean, fixed price no longer includes dessert and coffee, many more Americans eating there. In 2004, it was more of a working man’s restaurant with few foreigners. BEST PRICE/QUALITY VALUE IN FLORENCE
4. TRATTORIA ANTICO FATTORE Via Lambertesca 1/3r We have been here 3 times and will always return for 2 special dishes they offer: gnocchi in black truffle sauce (8 Euros) and pici alla Senese (8 Euros). The truffle sauce is an absolutely great experience and should be tried. Pici is a very thick spaghetti common to the area of Siena (Senese refers to Siena) and at Antico Fattore, it is prepared in a light cream sauce with tiny walnut pieces – excellent as well. For secondo, we shared involtini (13 Euros) – veal slices wrapped around sage leaves with bacon wrapped around the veal. It was quite tasty but the portion of 2 involtini was rather small and not worth 13 Euros (approx $19). We were also disappointed that the bill included both a 1.30 Euro per person cover and 4 Euro service fee.
I always suggest that before going to this restaurant you go to their website (www.anticofattore.com) On the home page, click on “Uno Regalo per Voi” and print out the page which comes up. Take that page to the restaurant and when you present it they will give you both a small dish as sen on the page (useful for olives and as a souvenir of Florence) and a free bottle of Ruffino wine (white or red at your choosing) to take with you when you leave. The wine offsets the service fee and is decent quality from a good brand.
5. IL PALLOTINO Via della Stinche 1/r (across from small Ukrainian church on corner of Via Vigna Vecchia) Found this little place when others nearby were not open. They offer a “menu degustazione” at only 8.50 Euros and it was quite good: penne in a simple butter and black pepper preparation, followed by a grilled slice of pork with carrots and zucchini. Wife ordered risotto with speck and radicchio and found it a real delight. Rice turned red from being cooked with the radicchio and the speck gave it a nice extra flavor (8 Euros). Unpretentious good restaurant at a budget price. Mostly Italian families eating there.
6. Quick lunch places: NERBONE and VINI DEL CHIANTI
- Nerbone is still going strong but I was disappointed not to find ribollita on the menu when we were there – theirs is one of the best I have had in Florence. Had to settle for pasta fagioli soup, which was good but not like the ribollita. Meat used in the panini sandwiches this visit was pork, not beef, as on last visits.
- Vini del Chianti is a panini and wine stand on the side of a building on the Via del Cimatori just off the Via dei Calzaiuoli opposite Orsanmichele. Good quick sandwich and glass of wine for low price, stand in the street to eat and drink with everyone else. Still a good place for a quick bite.
On the non-food side, we took a day-trip to Siena and San Gimignano using a bus company that provides guided tours and a full-day excursion to those towns. Price of $75.00 per person was a waste. Siena has some magnificent art treasures, but we got to see rather few, as we had to walk from site to site without spending enough time in each to see much. The walking tour of Siena was 2 hours and lunch was set for 1 ½ hours but you could not go back into the museums/churches again to see the art without paying another entry fee (which had already been paid as part of the tour package but was for the group). If you want to visit these towns, probably better doing so on your own and staying overnight in Siena.