Our man [formally] of Amsterdam

Bistecca alla fiorentina
December 26, 2009, 00:13
Filed under: Italy

[Warning: vegetarians may want to avoid reading this post.]

By what criteria can you say a restaurant is your favourite? Does it have to outlast fashion while being consistent over a long period time? Or can you just like a place because it regularly ticks your boxes in what it means to thoroughly enjoy a dining experience, and that you can confidently recommend to friends? If so, then by both these counts, I have a favourite restaurant in Florence. How do you say that without appearing pretentious? All I know is that this rustica cucina simply does really simple food really well all the time.

I came upon it almost 20 years ago when making weekly day trips to Florence from the hotel I was then managing in the hills outside Lucca (about an hour’s drive away on a good day), where to supplement a meagre wage as il capo de albergo, I offered chauffeur services to guests, piling them into the hotel’s mini van and depositing them near Florence’s main train station mid morning, with the promise of a late afternoon pickup to get us back in time for pre-dinner aperitifs on the hotel’s terrace.

So, with many hours to kill on each such trip each week, I’d roam the hills and highways, the lanes and alley ways in and around Florence, and it was on one such wander that I discovered what has become my favourite restaurant, and not just in Tuscany but likely in all of Italy. And now guidebooks have mentioned it too I see, so getting a table at short notice is a near impossibility.

I knew it would be closed today, being Christmas and all, but still I couldn’t help gravitating towards it; turn right at Ferragamo’s headquarters (if coming from the Ponte Vecchio along he river), left at Tiffany & Co, then along a narrow street without footpaths, and then right just past the arch at Il Bisonte, there, on the corner of Via Purgatoria. The rusty metal shutters were pulled down, but not all the way on one window because the track was bent, probably from a long-ago burglary attempt. A hand written note said ‘Chuiso‘ until 7 January, and still no signage, no nameplate, no product branding, no indication of the terrific no-frills trattoria that lies behind the stone and peeling stucco facade, except for the small glass-enclosed menu board inside a black metal frame attached to the wall that looks like a council warning notice for eviction or ‘not safe for habitation’, because the curling sheet of paper inside is type written and faded. “No coffee, no credit cards,” it stills says. (The latter was added in pen probably because credit cards weren’t around when the menu was originally typed.)

The best little restaurant in Italy, but you'd never know even when it is open

So with a whiff of nostalgia I continue ambling in the light afternoon rain; Piazza de Bellesguardo – way over and high up in the Oltrarno hills – my only priority. After that, it was time to eat, and there were many options too, with most offering a fixed menu. Near Pallazzo Pitti, between Via Guiccardini and Via Romana, a cafe caught my eye; it was full of Tuscan families, not American or Japanese tourists, and the menu had the meat option (at a hefty public holiday premium) I’d come to Florence ostensibly for. Couldn’t see a spare seat but went in anyway, and an elderly woman (dining, I assume, with her younger lover) occupying a large space on a luxurious banquette kindly moved her thick fur coat and Hermes Birkin bag to make room for my battered leather jacket and Oakley day pack.

“Grazie senora.”
“Prego,” she said.

Having selected the three courses upfront and this being Christmas, I ordered a glass of Brunello di Montelcino (for mine, the Grange Hermitage of Chiantis), and the waiter said, “Perfecto”.

The penne Siciliana soon followed, as did my second glass of Brunello. The pasta starter was my first solid food for the day having only consumed 2 espressos and a litre of water to this point; all part of the fasting plan needed to accommodate the secondo piatto of the set menu – bistecca alla fiorentina. To call this a mere T-bone steak is blasphemous, especially on this day, or any day for that matter; it’s like saying Ferraris or Maseratis are just cars.

This legendary hunk of beef starts life as a beautiful cream-coloured Chianina cow that grazes on hay mixed with the chaff of organic olive tree off-cuts after the virgin pressing, and rosemary and sage grasses to give the meat an incomparable flavour (OK, I made that last bit up about the sage; it’s actually oregano). Once butchered, the loin must hang for at least 10 days; some restaurants even state on the menu the exact age, and charge accordingly, with 40 days being top euro and top of the tender scale. The 4-5cm slab (that’s the standard cut) should only be cooked the Tuscan way, meaning medium-rare, with even a hint of blue on the inside, and at the right grill temperature so as not to nuke the outside. No salt, no oil during cooking. It could feed 2 people comfortably, maybe 3, but that’s the way it is. Don’t even dare to ask for a half portion; you’ll be laughed out of the restaurant. When it arrives at your table you just stare, thinking ‘how on earth can I eat all of this?’ And most times you do; that’s just the way it is.

Outside the windows, tourists come and go, looking for Michelangelo.

Didn’t need the pasta, but you plough on with the meat trying not to think of the effect on your credit card limit or upcoming bowel movement. It’s Christmas, and isn’t that the time to overindulge and overspend?

The elderly woman next to me sees the struggle but utters words of Tuscan encouragement, like; “come on, you can do it; only 400 grams to go.” She smiles when I eventually place my cutlery together signifying victory. “You must have traditional Italian Christmas dessert,” she insists soon after. “Panatone with chocolate sauce.” Every entreaty at refusal is meet with such insistence that I give up the resistance, take one forkful and leave it at that, but not before sampling a divine dessert wine, gratis from the pretty waitress. Later, I get the bill, almost faint at the price of the meat, and sign on the dotted line, too fearful to look at the final total (service was included).

Just one more spoonful or two; struggling with the panatone and chocolate sauce, but not the delicious dessert wine.

Completo: can I get the panatone with chocolate sauce to go?

But walking was uncomfortable, as was breathing. On the way to the station to get the last train back to Orvieto, I detour to Piazza della Signoria, for old time’s sake. Eighteen months earlier, Anita and I spent a few days here. It was the middle of summer, sweltering. She sought a gelato at a very crowded gelateria right on the Piazza. For some reason I declined and waited outside under an awning.  A while later I hear my name being called with some urgency. It’s Anita, in need of more money. “Scusi?” I query, “you’ve got all the change. That should be heaps.”

“It’s not,” she pleads. “Give me ten euros please.”
I do. She exits with a single cono and double scoop. Standard fare. “How much was that?”
“Fourteen euros.”
“What the %^*#?” A quick conversion meant it cost more than $20. I laughed. “Did it not occur to you that that might be a little overpriced?”
“She’d already scooped it in to the cone and it was in my hand before I could pay or do anything.”
“That’s a $20 plus gelato,” I reiterated. “And that drop that just dripped on your white t-shirt probably cost 50 cents. Better hurry up and eat it.”

Even today, with a stomach about to burst, I still chuckle when thinking of what’s become known as the ‘gelato incident’. I round the corner of Via Vacchereccia into Piazza della Signoria, and sure enough, Bar Perseo is open, and packed with punters. I wander over, curious to see what the prices might still be; 12 euros as far as I could tell. For a fleeting second I’m tempted to order a cono with a single scoop of pistachio, but sanity prevails and I move on down Via del Calziuoli.  As the Christmas lights shine and carols ring out from a church nearby, I smile again at our gelato memory, and for the first time in many months, feel a little bit – just a teensy little bit – lonely at the memory.

Bar Perseo, crime scene of the 'gelato incident'

Bar Perseo - crime scene of the 'gelato incident'

Buon Natale, 2009.


1 Comment so far
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heheh! I love it the “gelato incident”!

Merry Christmas and Happy New Years! In the world of W we still miss you and look forward to your return!


Comment by Mary-Claire

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