I’m back in Florence—Firenze—for the fourteenth or fifteenth visit since 1992. Clearly I can’t keep away, can’t resist the charm, the magnetic pull this place has for me. This is a very short visit, just two days, and so it seems a bit rushed, discomforting almost. But I’ve tried a bit this time to make it slightly different hoping to discover new streets, points of interest, maybe a new coffee bar. I’ve tried to force myself to walk down new streets and I’ve managed to find a few new-to-me sights.
Like this loggia I found walking own Via dei Neri, a major street in the heart of the city I think I’ve managed to avoid in all my previous stays. It was a very pleasant surprise! It is called the Loggia del Grano and was built in the early 1600s by Cosimo de Medici as the grain storage point when old one, closer to the center of town, was converted into a church.
|Loggia del Grano, Via dei Neri, Florence|
I also found a record store, a few interesting restaurants, one of which I dined in Saturday night, Del Fagioli.
I first visited Florence in mid-October, 1992; which was also my first trip to Italy. I remember arriving at my pensione after a long trip from Austin, as usual, with no sleep, at about 3pm. I should have slept a bit, but instead, ran out to the streets to start my explorations with an amazing burst of energy. I headed straight to the Duomo, the famous iconic cathedral, and went directly inside.
|Interior, Duomo, Florence|
I was shocked at how spare it was, there were no grandiose statues, or much other art on the towering stone walls. Instead, a few stingy frescos dotted the walls, and even the grand marble floor was nearly devoid of any seating for the church’s still regular services. I later learned that, over the years the Duomo’s at one time numerous works of art were removed to a museum across the piazza where they are guarded under better conditions. Since many of them are important and priceless works by Michelangelo, Donatello, Brunelleschi, Ghiberti, di Cambio, della Robbia and many others, they needed to be placed outside the reach of vandals, both human and environmental.
|Dante with the Divne Comedy in Hand; Duomo, Florence|
|John Lockwood; Duomo, Florence|
So, this enormous and cavernous church somehow brought forth a flood of emotions for me—I thought it might have been because I was exhausted—which touched on my years of Catholic upbringing, memories of my mother, my son and I can’t recall how many others. I remember crying softly, but openly with these thoughts. I know it wasn’t from exhaustion because I had the same reaction on Friday afternoon on my umpteenth walk through the Duomo. I remember wishing, on that first exposure to the church, I could have shown the place to my mother who was then still alive and kicking. But that was not meant to be, unfortunately. However, to this day, I still light a candle or two in the church in her memory…never fails. And yes, the place still makes me teary-eyed.
There are some interesting frescoes in the church: the one I love most it of Dante holding the Divine Comedy, standing a bit outside Florence (remember, he was in exile most of his adult life), showing the paths to heaven and hell as described in his monumental poetic opus.
The other I like has a wonderful story behind it. It was painted by Paolo Uccello to celebrate the contribution of the English mercenary John Lockwood to the victory of Florence over one of its many foes. The story goes that he was promised a bronze statue in his honor if he would help Florence in its warring. The stingy Florentines had no intention of an actual statue, but rather, their joke was to create the work in painting. I have a feeling that this is just a legend since Lockwood spent many years in Florence fighting many wars, and was even named by England’s Richard II as an official representative to the Holy See. I still love the myth.
|Palazzo Stozzi, Florence|
It’s impossible to walk down any street in the historic center of Florence without encountering fascinating art and architecture. The place is dotted with majestic towering palazzi, some possessing literal towers which were used in their day as protection, as lookout towers and as impressive symbols of status. It’s hard to imagine that these structures, many commanding a full city block, were private homes to the rich and famous of the time. Many must possess acres of floorspace within their multi-storied structures.
And I often, when walking down this stone streets weighted down with beauty and loaded with history…now, if these walls could talk! I see a house built in, say 1400 and something and think about the generations of Fiorentini who have lived and died therein. It is really heavy! And these thoughts, like being in the Duomo, sometimes make me a bit weepy. Sorry, I’m a wuss. Sue me.
|Palazzo portal, 20 feet tal|
|Typical palazzo stonework|
One of the major draws of Florence for me is the food. Actually, it was the food that attracted me in the first place after my indoctrination in the early 1990s of the importance of Tuscan cooking by my guru, Giuliano Bugialli whose books have become my personal culinary bibles.
So, I’ve managed to cram in lots of eating in just two short days. My first day, I even had two lunches just to expand my exposure to more dishes!
And without hesitation, I can say that my favorite restaurant in Florence, one of favorites of all time any place, is Cibreo, opened in the 1980s by Fabio Picci. Picci is a Tuscan stalwart and his kitchen has managed to save and promote many of the otherwise forgotten treasures of the Tuscan table. In fact the name Cibreo is stolen from one of this dishes, in this case, a stew made from the stranger parts of the chicken, or rooster, including the liver, the cockscomb, and other internal, or external organs. It was a favorite dish of Catherine of the Medici.
|Cibreo Trattoria, Florence|
Cibreo is an interesting, as well as delicious restaurant. Fabio refuses to serve pasta because each serving of pasta must be cooked to order, to an exact point, and he cannot physically be in the kitchen with each order to ensure perfection, so he chooses to avoid it. Instead, his first courses explore a fascination world of soups and other porridges. Over the years I’ve eaten most of these and have been able to recreate them at home, largely because Italian, and especially Tuscan cooking is so frigging simple.
|Passato di Porcini; Cibreo, Florence|
A few well chosen ingredients comprise most dishes, and knowing this list, it is fairly easy, given high quality ingredients, to replicate the flavors. So his pumpkin, yellow bell pepper pumpkin and bean soups, actually purees called passato, have become staples. The newest passato which I had twice this trip is of porcini mushrooms. This will be difficult to reproduce in my kitchen because we just don’t have fresh porcini in any quantity or regularity. But I will attempt it with dried porcini for their flavor, and fresh mushrooms such as portobellos for their texture. I’ll come close.
Another unusual dish I have fallen in love with is called gelatina de pomodoro, literally, tomato gelatin.
|Gelatina di Pomodoro; Cibreo, Florence|
It is like eating a very small slice of heaven. It is the pure essence of tomato spiked with a bit of hot pepper, some flecks of basil and the appearance of red, tomatoey jello, at least in its bounce. I will give this one may all when I get home…I learned that there is, indeed a very small amount of gelatin added to a tomato puree, so, the trick will be adding just enough for the bounce, but not so much as to make it look like a children’s, or a Texas cafeteria, dessert. I had both the passato de porcini and this gelatina twice in two days. I would have them again today, just hours before leaving Florence, but Cibreo is closed on Sundays!
|Polpettine di Pollo; Cibreo, Florence|
The other dishes I had over the last days were delicious chicken meatballs, a plate of seasoned raw pork sausage, and another long-time favorite, a sformato of sheep’s milk ricotta and potato, the one dish I have yet to conquer in my own kitchen. But someday I will, someday I will. The problem is, the texture Fabio achieves if very silky, but American cows’ milk ricotta is very grainy, whereas Tuscan sheeps’ milk ricotta is very smooth. I may never get the exact texture, but I will get the flavors. By the way, a sformato is sort of a flan/souffle hybrid…sformare means to unmold, so these are typically made in some sort of mold, then unmolded for serving! Some of these Italian concepts are strange in English and there are not direct translations. Hell, even flan and souffle are not English words!
|Sformato di Ricotta e Patate; Cibreo, Florence|
Oh, another interesting thing about Cibreo is that there are actually two restaurants next to each other. One is a swank white tablecloth place with frills and high prices, the other offers the same food with smaller portions and a reduced selection for about one-third the price. You can’t make a reservation in the piccolo Cibreo, and you have to share a table with strangers, but it is worth the effort. And with the savings, you can easily afford to eat there every day. Don’t miss this place if you are ever in Florence.
|Salsicce Crude (Raw); Cibreo, Florence|
On my first day, after already having lunch at Cibreo, I decided to try yet another place, the Osteia Vini e Vecchi Sapore, a place I’d heard about but never tried. Ok, two lunches in two hours. Hey, I’ve done this before, like in New Orleans back in the days with Uglesich’s was still open and I just had to have one of his shrimp dishes after eating a shrimp po’boy at Domilese’s.
(to be continued, the next installment will be tomorrow, my current hotel has no internet service…now in Bologna, a city I have grown to hate in only an hour!!!!)