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Florence Restaurant Review: Il Ritrovo (long)

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Florence Restaurant Review: Il Ritrovo (long)

Burke and Wells | Dec 21, 2002 12:52 PM

Burke and I so far have limited our food reviews of Florence, offering general comments only. The Parisian food scene is too enormous to grasp, but the smaller, more territorial Tuscan cuisine begs for an overview, which we plan to sketch when we return to the United States in January. Even so, two restaurants demand individual attention, immediately.

Il Ritrovo is a gem, more precious for being hidden. We stumbled upon it--literally, tripping on the step--our third night in Florence. It’s on a large, dark street just north of the Duomo. We were very hungry. “How about here?” I expressed uncertainty. It’s one of those restaurants you have to climb down a flight of steps to reach. It had no facade, just a doorway, so small even I had to duck to get under it. Burke persisted, so we went.

First signs were bad. Here it was, a weekday, 8:30, prime dinner time, and the place was empty but for a single family. Still, it was cozy, a warm basement dining room with candles, white and tan linens, straw chairs, soft wall lighting and plaster-vaulted ceilings. We were greeted very graciously, so we took the seat of our choice.

What followed was a spectacular meal at startlingly reasonable prices. Appetizers, pasta, main plate, dessert, half a bottle of wine and two bottles of spring water cost two people less than $90. The food was uniformly excellent, even inventive (as we’d later learn, finding after two weeks most Florentine cooking delicious but narrow). We left very happy. Burke felt the surrounding residences and banks gave the restaurant it’s impulse towards quality cuisine. Seemed a good theory, there was precious little in this street for tourists, despite the looming dome of the cathedral just a block over.

Then we lost it. Lost! Two weeks passed as we went from restuarant to restaurant, sampling Tuscan cuisine high and low, realizing that meal our third day had been one of the best, and the most reasonable. But which street was it on? It was so close to the center of town, surely it would be easy to find, but no. We gave up. Then, two days ago, on my own, disoriented, I stumbled on its stoop once more. This time I jotted down the name, the number, the street, and marched purposely towards the church so I could find it from the Baptistery, like a salmon learning the route back to its spawning grounds.

Last night we returned. It had been weeks, but the owner recognized us instantly. “You’re back, I’m so glad, we were hoping to see you again! Here is your usual table.” He sat us precisely where we’d been last time. It was a startling moment, since once again, the dining room was completely empty. Friday night, nine in the evening, not a single person? We’d been in town long enough to know this place had quality, and the prices were so reasonable, what was the problem?

“Location, location, location,” Burke mused. How, so close to the tourist center of this tourist city, could a place like this be empty? “They’re on a street with no shops, no municipal holiday lights (much of Florence is strung with them, but not this section of Via de’ Pucci), on a road that runs by but does not quite intersect with the piazza or the church.” Burke was right, and furthermore, the single, low-slung medieval doorway, the lack of signs, and the fact that they lock their front door against the cold, all contributed. The doorbell was to the side, with only an Italian sign asking customers to ring. We were turning to leave before I spotted it!

We’d managed the hurdles and were inside, happy as clams, but deeply concerned about the restaurant’s ability to survive, with all these strikes against it. No matter, it was time to see if the cooking was as good as we remembered. We tossed aside the menu, asked the chef/owner/waiter and his wife to prepare whatever they felt like.

They felt like treating us to a feast. Crostini, traditional Tuscan toast spread with chopped chicken livers, began an antipasti course that came in five flights. Sun-dried tomatoes with buffalo mozzarella, quick baked. Mousse of pike with raddichio, toast with the year’s new olive oil--in short, traditional Florentine fare plated with a surprisingly artistic eye and composed fresh, fresh, fresh. For once, the toast was to the tooth, rather than brick hard. It was the best example we’d had so far.

Two pasta dishes followed: spaghetti with seafood, spiced with black pepper, the squid and shrimp tender and flavorful, the pasta firm and sleek with quality oil and hand-prepared tomatoes. We’ve been avoiding fish in this town known for it’s meat, but this was truly worthwhile. Tortellini stuffed with ricotta served in home-made pesto was the first masterpiece of the evening. I admit pesto is not my favorite Italian sauce: it’s frequently overoily, too green, and any pine nut flavor is crushed by the basil. Not this time, not in Marco Del Re’s hands. The basil had been cut by hand, ground by hand, mixed with the oil by hand, mortared by hand with fresh pine nuts. It was green by the collection of tiny fragments of herb, not from the chromatic grind of the food processor. It was the most delicious pesto I’ve ever had.

Veal scaloppini came with a twice-baked rosette of mashed potatoes and an oven-baked whole pomodoro tomato, skinned and drizzled with that fabulous olive oil. The meat was tender and flavorful, the portion small, thankfully and rightly, in a meal with so many courses. Two desserts followed, a custard with syrup of cherry and whole cherries, and a delightfully underbaked chocolate cake with a thick cream we were certain had some moscarpone cheese in it somewhere. The very respectable Chianti Classico served use throughout the meal.

A liter of mineral water wasn’t enough to push the price over $78. Absurd! A meal like that for $39 a person, tax and cover included? Two hundred yards from the Cathedral Santa Maria del Fiore? In an empty dining room? The world must know about this place. And the world did, in the person of a lovely couple who had themselves just stumbled upon the place about an hour into our dinner, a visiting Scottish woman and her husband, an Italian-born professor of architecture at Glasgow University. We found ourselves locked in conversation until nearly midnight, tripping over ourselves with topics of discussion.

Before we left, Marco and his wife invited us to join them in their restaurant for a special New Year’s Eve party, a complete dinner with fabulous ingredients, friends and family. We were honored and touched, and plain excited about having such astonishing, delicious plans for December 31.

Restaurants like this, so rare, so precious, must be preserved. We begged the owner to put up a larger sign, to point tourists to the doorbell (or better yet, unlock the door), to find some way to turn the location into an advantage. Until then, let this review serve as a call to whomever might be on their way to Florence: don’t miss dinner at

Il Ritrovo
Via de’ Pucci 4/A
Firienze
Telephone: 055.281688

A Burke and Wells review.

Link: http://www.burkeandwells.com

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