People have always told me the culinary delight of Italy ... little did I realize that statement was too humble and kind for the experiences I've had. It is truly hard to find a bad meal ... outside a company's cafeteria that is. I went to Florence in the middle of January for a week and I was lucky to enjoy the dinners in the Florence core (most of the time).
I landed pretty late with severe jet lag. My colleagues and I were staying in Novoli and instead of trekking downtown, they wanted to stay in the hotel for dinner. Do not eat at Hilton Garden Inn... not only is it expensive, it's not much better than Olive Garden in the US.
We finally made it to the heart of Florence core where we stared and awed at Uffizi, David, Neptune, Duomo, Santa Maria, and other treasures. Lunch was at a horrible tourist trap called Osteria de Peccatori. The food was horrible (it should have been obvious when there's not a single word of Italian spoken, menu is in English, and everything is nearly served with French fries). Service was worse... it made me miserable. The only good thing about this place was that it was close to the Florence core.
I was able to convince the group to get gelato... they wanted to grab any neon looking thing but I managed to tell them about Carapina and Grom and how wonderful it is. Luckily we were within 3 minutes walking distance of Grom. I converted the entire group to listen to me about food (finally!). I must have died and gone to gelato heaven. Marron glace (seasonal chestnut) was delicious and creamy. Caffe (coffee) was the best coffee flavoured item I've ever had... smooth, bold rich flavour, and just a lovely experience overall. Crema di Grom is a nice treat as well... milky custard base with biscuit crumbles and dark chocolate chunks.
Dinner was held at Acqua al 2. This was arranged by the local team and it was ok to pretty good. Service was good and the pasta sampler was very good. Perfectly al dente and some of the sauces (gorgonzola cream and a spicy pommodoro) were really special. The beef was ok ... slightly tough and the baked eggs with mushrooms was nice but nothing special.
Lunch at office cafeteria and it nearly made me cry. We went to Cipolla Rossa on my suggestion. What a lovely atmosphere. We were a large group and so we were lucky to have the entire 2nd floor alcove to ourselves complete with a big screen tv showing the Italian soccer game. The service was great and charming. The food was definitely a huge step up from the days before. We had platters of antipasto come out and the crostini and salumi was a lovely start to the meal. I ordered the ribollita and I loved the flavour. It was the perfect comfort food for a cold January day. I had the spinach gnocchi with truffles... holy cow. I haven't seen this many shavings of black truffles in my entire life. The gnocchi was light and the gorgonzola sauce was divine. It wasn't the overly heavy cream sauce we have in North America but rather this was lighter and far more flavour. I could have licked the plate clean. The table shared many secondi to try... the florentine beef was brought out and shown first before being seared. I have to kindly thank the wait staff for not rolling their eyes when our English teammates asked for well done steak. The steak tartare also had tons of black truffles shaved on top as well. The 'butter' Florentine style chicken was good but not as nearly as good as our follow up place.
I managed to secure reservations at Sostanza and wow... this place blew me away. This superbly charming place was constantly packed and lively. The Florentine steak was the best beef we had all week. I had the artichoke 'omelette' and I wanted a second one but I held back. I tasted the butter chicken everyone talks about and it truly is decadent. Dessert was homely and yet so memorable as it show cases simple ingredients made so well. One of the best places we ate in Florence.
After getting the group to enjoy true Tuscan meals and not US transplant (they originally had Hard Rock cafe on reservations), we headed to Cibreo for a change of pace. I've read may reviews on this place and I debated between here and Ora D'aria for our group. Seeing how many of them favoured US chain restaurants, I figured Ora D'aria would not be appreciated. The Cibreo experience made them gasp and swoon. Three of them even commented how this is the best food experience of their lives. Christina is the consummate hostess... her charming demeanor coupled with her poetic prose about food made a believe out of everyone. It is so lovely to have the menu told to you and described with such passion that everyone is just drooling at the table. I think it's wonderful how they don't have a formal menu and just cook what is fresh from the market. Our amuse bouche is composed of a tumeric yogurt spiced with black pepper and drizzled with local olive oil. It was such a lively green herbacious taste to olive oil and gentle heat from the black pepper to awaken your taste buds. Following that was many complimentary antipasto. My favourite was the fresh fior di latte (it was like the purest raw milk flavour) and tripe salad. I usually do not like offal but this was delightful. My primi was a revelation. I had a parmesan flan paired with slowly cooked ragu. I've never had a ragu like this before... the flavour was lightly acidic but it had a wonderful sweetness from the soffritto and tomato. The flan texture was so amazing. It was soft and silky. My secondo was a seasonal artichoke, golden liquid yolk, and the most wonderful mash potato. The presentation just made it over the top. The base was the potato and it was a nest for the artichoke which was upside down with the stem in the air. Hidden underneath the artichoke was the egg yolk. Christina took a butter knife and cut the artichoke in half from the stem down to reveal the liquid yolk... such loveliness. Lastly, the desserts. I think I had the best dessert of my life. I had the very unique Italian marron glace (chestnut) puree mixed with a cream and then had crispy meringue embedded in the puree and chilled into a cake. The texture and taste was wonderous. I could have eaten a second slice. It definitely is the most expensive meal of Florence (about 90-100 Euros per person) but certainly worth it.
The group wanted food that an Italian Nonna would serve, I managed to convince the group to trek out to Al Tranvai. This tiny little restaurant was a hidden gem. It's tucked away from the Florence core and tourist area. It's quite casual but the food was just comforting and delightful. I had the ribollita and this was the best one of the week. Hearty, comforting, and the vegetables flavours were just delightful. The fried zucchini flowers and artichoke was amazing. Superbly crispy, hot fresh from the kitchen, and not a spot of oil.. these were delightful. We gobbled up 2 plates of each. At 6 euros a plate, this was a steal for our table. Most people had pasta for their mains and it put a smile on everyone's face. The gnocchi was a definite winner for me. The dessert was ok... I had the marron glace budino and though it was good, it just didn't have a strong flavour. The tiramisu was the best of the bunch.
We had time to grab lunch out of the office! So we trekked out to Ino where everyone said they would not look at sandwiches and panini (or is it panino) the same way ever again. Ingredients were simple but they were amazing. I had the tuna filet with rapini and tomato. The freshly warmed crusty bread just so flavourful ... I could have just eaten the bread alone. And the 'canned' tuna was not any tuna I've had in North America. If I didn't know any better, it was so good that you could almost fool me to believing it was poached instead.
We followed this wonderful lunch with a treat at Caffe Giacosa. The place is not that touristy but it certainly was made for Armani and Gucci wearing folks. The cappucino was pretty good but the sweets didn't stand out against the others I've had in the past few days.
Our dinner was at Osteria Personale. It was a bit of a stretch for some of our colleagues as this was more 'gourmet' than their usual fare. I personally enjoyed it as the flavours were bright and bold. I had the egg (seriously delightful and so unique), followed by the prawns (the lime and thyme combination of the raw prawns was unique and memorable). Most people enjoyed it but if you have people who are not very adventurous eaters, it might be 'too precious' for them.
Our last day and our flights was early afternoon. We were so smitten with Ino that we went back there again. The 2nd time really confirmed how great this place is... I got the vegan and once again, it proves that all you need is a source of really great ingredients. You don't need fancy atmosphere or posh service to make a memorable meal. We grabbed 2 more gelatos (Grom and Perche No) to compare before we hopped into a cab and onto a plane. Perche No sadly had a bit of ice crystal in their fruit based gelato. The cafe from Grom is still my favourite gelato ever.
Honestly... I want to go back to Florence once again just for the food (let alone history and wonderful city life). I managed to find this great Sicilian chocolate bar that is so unique as well. CioMod cioccolato Puro where the bar is composed of 50%+ cocoa mass and sugar but none of the butter. I wish we had stuff like that in Canada.
Italy... grazie mille! It was a food adventure of a lifetime and the many wonderful meals are seared into my heart and stomach. One day I will return to enjoy it all over again.