Last week my wife and I completed one of the more interesting weeks of binging in Italy that we have yet enjoyed. From Baldin, a wonderful restaurant in Genoa, to Garga, an overpriced and disappointing Saveur cover in Florence (with a great pasta dish however) to what may be the most unique restaurant that I have ever been to: La Fornace di Barbablu, 30 miles west of Genoa. In between we had stops at Badiani for gelato in Florence, very good pizza at Il Pizzaiola (adjacent to Cibreo) a disappointing meal at Omero and a good but not spectacular dinner at Parione.
The lime that was used to build part of the Coliseum in Rome was supplied in part by this furnace. Two thousand years later, in 1992, the furnace underwent an unprecedented renovation and became home to what today is a Michelin starred restaurant featuring some of the best food in Liguria. Yet it is not the food which makes this an extraordinary experience. Built into the side of a hill the former lime furnace has stone and brick walls, stone floors and beamed ceilings which in places are only five feet above the floor. Three levels have been carved out of it along with what must be the most incredible wine cellar in the world with a table centered squarely in the middle of the converted quarry's "basement." With subdued lighting, candles and fireplaces La Fornace is also one of the most romantic restaurants that I have ever been in. Certainly it is the greatest adventure of any that I have tried to find.
Our waiter, who spoke adequate English, mentioned that he had taken five years of the language and had hoped to be able to practice it with the many American and English guests that he expected to meet at the restaurant. In the two years he had been there he noted that we were only one of a handful of English speaking people he had ever seen there. His guess was that no one could find it since even those from Genoa had a difficult time.
Still, this is a great experience, certainly one of the most unique anywhere. Michelin has discovered it and we did too. For anyone on this board who loves superb Ligurian food as well as the adventure of seeking out one of the world's most unusual yet romantic restaurants this is worth the journey and the investment in time to locate it.
They have a website with photos which is linked below.
Baldin is one of the best restaurants in Genoa. It is also one of the best restaurants in Italy. It does not have a Michelin star although Gambero Rosso gives it 50 for its food rating. Small with only 32 seats its owners are passionate about food and wine with their talented 32 year old chef overseeing the kitchen.
We did not take notes on either of these meals but both restaurants had "pre-desserts" along with several amuse buches and at least a half dozen chocolates, cookies, etc. They were the highlights of our trip for dining.
We have had four trips to Florence in the past two and one half years and seven total in the past eleven. During this time I believe that I have eaten at most of the better Florentine restaurants and am developing the opinion that this city that I dearly love is NOT one of the better cities in Italy for dining. The two star Enoteca is extremely overpriced by any standard and may not be the best restaurant in the city. Cibreo may own this title but for me it greatly suffers because of the many Americans who regularly eat there. Il Latini, written about in as many guidebooks as Cibreo, and recipient of 26 points in Zagat's food rating would be a very good restaurant in, say, Wheeling, West Virginia although I doubt if any Italian restaurant in West Virginia has quite as many hams hanging from the ceiling. I don't like Il Latini. It is mediocre, overrated and feels to me like Disney's version of what a Florentine restaurant should look like. Couple this with a tendency to match Americans with other Americans at their tables and I just haven't gone back in several years.
Di Vinus was a real discovery two years ago with incredible bisteca. It's owner sold and opened a new restaurant near the rear of the Excelsior called Parione. It is very good but does not have the same steak that di Vinus (now under a different name) offered. For $25 he does have one of the best linguines with white truffles you will find in Italy at a price that realistically is more than fair considering the number of truffle shavings. Still, a good restaurant but not an exceptionately good one.
I would say the same of Omero which has been written up in many guidebooks. Omero is known for their bisteca (and hams hanging from the ceiling) which is profoundly mediocre. So is their bread soup. Like so many other restaurants in or around Florence the price of wine from their excellent list has recently gone through the roof so its no longer the bargain it once was. This is also not nearly as reasonably priced as Il Latini although its food is slightly better.
I should note here that wine throughout Italy has rocketed north in price since the introduction of the Euro. Alessi, two blocks from the Duomo, is one of the best if not the best wine shops in all of Italy. In stock last week I found Dal Forno Amarone for E 285, Ornellaia Masseto for E 225, '97 Solaia Magnum for E 550 and others priced as high or higher than what they sell for, if available, in the U. S. The days of Italian wine selling for half of the American price are over.
Trattoria Garga was featured in Saveur's December issue. We had to go. No choice. An incredible writeup that focused on partying there by a former American employee on New Year's Eve. While the lengthy story gave several recipes it really did not focus on the food. More so the party.
After eating here I understand why. This is a colorfully painted, "character" restaurant staffed by exuberant, outgoing waiters and a wine drinking chef owner who has a wonderful, winning personality that incorporate elements of opera as well as used car salesmanship. Great ambience for getting loaded and having a good time.
Just not exceptional food other than their signature pasta dish which, along with everything else, is incredibly overpriced. This is NOT a starred restaurant yet its prices must be among the most expensive for the style of restaurant that it is of all of those in Florence. Most entrees were in the low 20's and just not that good.
Badiani has been credited by most magazines and books with having the best gelato in Florence. It does. It also is a few miles from the center of the old city but worth the drive or the cabfare. Intense flavors and a rich creamy texture make this among the best gelato that I have tasted anywhere. Not high in butterfat like American ice cream but truly exceptional gelato worth seeking out.
A word about GQ's Alan Richman: he is one of my favorite critics. Several issues ago he wrote about the AutoGrills on the Italian autostradas. I have been addicted to their grilled sandwiches for years but never really "longed" for them until I read about his "loving" addiction just before visiting Italy. On this trip I discovered that adding Calabrian hot pepper relish to what is called "Olivia" makes one of the best sandwiches on earth, kind of a grilled cheese with parma ham on flatbread with whole pitted olives embedded in its crust. Grilled so that the cheese melts into the ham this is one of Italy's best "street foods." Simply worth every indulgent calorie of which I am sure there are many.
Finally, a word about shopping outside of Florence in the outlets: this may now be the best bargain shopping in the world. Between the impossibly difficult to find Prada twenty miles south and the "Mall" which incorporates Gucci, Loro Piana, Bottega Veneta, Armani and seven or eight other Rodeo Drive manufactuers near the Incisa exit off the A1 this is worth the ride from Florence. Sixty, seventy, eighty per cent or more off of the American price with each store having two to three thousand feet or more of space topping out with approximately 15,000 at Prada. All have significant inventory and all had sales continuing through last week. At Loro Piana two ply heavy cashmere sweaters that sold for E 590 in Florence (which means almost $1200 in the U. S.) were going for US $225! And they had a lot of them in a number of styles and colors. My wife bought two pairs of Prada shoes that sellfor $450 here for about $95. What is important about all of this is that we REALLY liked what we got. Not just because they were a bargain but there was so much to look at in the various stores that it made all of this very worthwhile.
Sales were also still going on in Florence. Even Frette had 50% off of a significant portion of their inventory. (They have an outlet elsewhere where this is the norm.) These were all sales that had started in December or early January and were continuing. Part of the reason may be that Florence WAS EMPTY. Just empty. Incredibly empty. Almost no tourists and everyone complaining that the possibility of war with Iraq had scared everyone away. The Excelsior had 70% of their rooms empty last Saturday night, an unheard of figure for Florence despite it being January. No political valuations but many people are just not travelling right now.