I just wanted to write a note of thanks to the recommendations and reports from so many of you that led to some excellent restaurant experiences in Italy. I thought I would share my impressions. May I have unanimous consent to later revise and extend my remarks?
I should preface here by saying that my wife and I speak passable Italian, and were here as much for the art and architecture as much as the food. When we dined out we made an effort to speak and order in the native tongue, just as much out of a sense of politeness as a desire to seek out and find the best places have to offer. I don't wish to sound overly judgmental about our fellow American tourists, but I think most Chowhounders will agree that if you walk into a place speaking only English, ordering your chianna beef well done and refusing the occasionally proffered glass of complimentary prosecco (either because you don't drink or are worried about the cost) you're going to be regarded with suspicion and possibly some deserved contempt. Dining out anywhere, but particularly in Italy, is not simply a one-way transaction where you exchange your money for food. The relationship between your locale, a restaurant's quality and style, its waitstaff and kitchen staff is complex. The customer is, in fact, not always right. One can choose to navigate the situation carefully or not. The only thing at risk, aside from your money, is your enjoyment. Personally, I think it helps to go in with the right attitude.
This is not to say it is impossible to have a bad meal in Italy, because in my experience it is certainly is. Perhaps mediocre is more accurate than bad. There are blocks than can have several pizzerias on them, with not one of them more than average at best. And beware those menus with asterisks beside the items! (*out of season/may be frozen) When is lasagna out of season?
We did arrange for a cooking class in the midpoint of our trip and as a result came away with a very good understanding of the Tuscan/Florentian approach to food. We had an apartment not far from the Piazza Signoria and while we did spend time in Rome, Bologna and Pisa, we spent most of time in Florence over two weeks and hit all the majors, including Cibreo, Sostanza, Quattro Leone, Nerbone, Osteria Benci, Antico Fattore, and Antico Noe. All Chowhound recs lived up to their reviews.
We were, in retrospect, extraordinarily lucky to get a table at Cibreo at prime time on a Saturday night with only a minor wait (maybe 20-30 minutes), which in our opinion was totally worth it. Service was, by Italian standards, impeccable, but I can understand how some would be thrown off by the "spoken menu only" and the vibe of the place. In some ways, one gets the sense that Fabbio Picchi is the Florentian version of an American Celebrity chef; later in our trip during our class we learned our instructor had actually worked there and that person agreed with our assesmment.
Still, Picchi's food at Cibreo was absolutely superb, and the wine list intimidating. We started with their polenta , and I had a veal "stew" which was actually a braised veal breast elegantly presented under braised veal shoulder. My wife had the eggplant "parmigiana" which was a superb deconstruction, delicately made from first rate ingredients.
We hit Quattro Leone on a busy Sunday afternoon after a tour of the Boboli gardens nearby. Our waiter did his best to charm us with prosecco while we waited about 10 minutes for a table. Definitely worth the wait. Their ribolitta was terrific. Being still overwhelmed from Cibreo the night before I wanted to dial it back and without thinking asked for penne pomodoro. Our waiter suggested we could get that anywhere, why not try something else? True, I said (though why then put it on the menu?). I indulged him and was given an excellent plate of tortellini in cream sauce with asparagus.
Sostanza (Il Troia) is superb, and they know it, though it did not keep the waiters from being perfectly friendly and helpful. Had an excellent lunch there (bistecca and butter chicken, of course) when it was surprisingly quiet. We tried our luck again for dinner about a week later, but had no chance without a reservation, where the ratio of savvy American diners is much higher. Should have called.
Nerbone was a unique and fun experience. I asked for our pannini bagnato, but was ignored (no worries), with all the bustle and for only 3 euro, one can hardly complain.
Anitco Noe stands out as the superb ratio of quality to price, due in part, I suppose, to the slightly dodgy location (one review actually refers to its location as "heroin alley"; overstated, in my opinion). We tried the Osteria first: absolutely amazing tagliatelle with shaved black truffle. We went back for pannini two days later. Excellent. The place was popular with students, as predicted.
Antico Fattore was very good the first time (veal with porcini) and decent the second. I should have guessed the below market priced gnocchi with black truffles would have meant minced winter truffles rather than shaved fresh ones, which lead to an overwhelming flavor for me despite the nicely done gnocchi. On that second trip my wife had the white truffle torteloni, which were turned out to be a far better choice as they were very, very good. The zucchini flowers (enjoyed as a primi) were delicious fried salty goodness.
Enoteca Vino Olio (http://www.vinolio.com/) over in San Zenobi, was a great find after trudging around after visiting Piazza Annunziata (with the famed church and Ospedale Innocenti) and L'Accademia. A very simple place; I took a chance on the picci a l'amatriciana and was not disappointed.
Bar Ringo, over in the oltarno on Borgo San Jacobi was an interesting mash-up. Sort of "slow food" meets American diner. It's had a couple of travel write ups, but appears to be under operation by different people (two chatty ladies rather than the eponymous chef). Perhaps this is just because it was off season. In any event, after 10 days of Tuscan food were in the mood for a break. Burgers made from chianna beef made may sound sacreligous, but to us they were (to coin that overused term) sacrilicious.
Le Valle de Cedri, a Lebanese place over near Santa Croce, was packed on a Saturday night, so we gave it a go a few days later. Good, but not great. Worth a shot if you're in the mood for a break from crostini misti and pasta cinguale.
....more to come on Rome, Bologna and Pisa. Stay tuned.