Monday, January 07, 2008

In search of a good lunch

I’m not one to argue with an Italian who is passionate about his food, especially one who has had lunch at the same place for the last thirty-five years.

I was just getting ready to order when Angelo grabbed my arm. Leaning in, he stated, ‘It’s the only place left in Florence. You eat anywhere else and you’ll pay seven times as much and the food will be … and then you’ll die. I kid you not.’

I had turned up early as I was in desperate need of some good food. Tuscany had been a disappointment. Places were either closed for the holidays or overpriced. So it was with a sigh of relief that I was lead to the last available seat looking out onto the piazza di mercato centrale at Da Mario. It was here that I found Angelo, already in residence and holding court. He was clearly a regular as well known as this local osteria with its successive slow food awards.

He barked his lunch order, gave instructions on what to eat and drink. His conversation was rapid as he shifted between Italian and impressive English, talking with everyone and to anyone around him. People stopped to say hello and I was introduced to all, including a member of the New York Mafia at the next table who assured me that next time I came to New York I would get a table at his restaurant.

Lunch was simple fare. There was a menu somewhere but Angelo found it easier just to say what was on offer. I was told to order papppardelle alla lepre (a wild hare sauce) with the peposo (a slow cooked beef stew) to follow. He would also have the pasta but had it on good authority that the bistecca was exceptional (better than normal, which was always exceptional). A piece of bread was unceremoniously dropped on the table with a small carafe of house red. I was familiar with the bread – a regional speciality made without salt, the perfect way to soak up any leftover sauce. The wine was warming and spicy and would prove the perfect beginning to an afternoon of slow eating.

The lepre arrived shortly after the first carafe of red wine had been emptied. My lesson on regional Tuscan food now started with a bottle of Chianti Classico from Montepulciano served from an ottovino (a small serving glass, one eighth of a litre of wine). This now curiosity was found in the cellar to illustrate to me the importance of the award recently won by Da Mario (the award for best trattoria in Italy was in the shape of a ottovino). Much later we would leave the subject of food and wine and turn to that other great Italian subject, love.

The sugo had clearly been cooking for hours, so succulent and pronounced was it in taste. It was rich without being overpowering, each mouthful revealing a further depth of flavour that made you want more. I savoured the sauce like a wine detecting a note of cinnamon among the tomato, wine and hare. The pasta was a papparelle, wide sinuous ribbons, perfect to pick up the juices. It was uncomplicated, served as is, a simple statement of good food.

The peposo followed: mine a mezzo (half serve) and another bottle of Chianti opened. The noise of the osteria quietened as the crowd settled into the ritual of lunch. This was a dish worthy of veneration. It was hot, spicy, astonishing. The meat fell away with the slightest touch of my fork. The sauce had a rich lustre and a contentment and happiness came with each mouthful. No wonder it was the favoured dish of the tilemakers who worked on Bruneschilli’s Il Duomo. Supposed they cooked the dish for hours in a kiln before breaking for lunch.

Romeo came to the table for a small glass of wine. ‘He is my friend, a real friend’, said Angelo of the chef. I noted the snail on the lapel of his whites, the symbol of the slow food movement. He had started cooking the peposo at seven that morning and six hours later I was eating it. Its flavour was robust, developed. ‘Not like those restaurants where the cooking starts ten minutes before they open’, was Angelo’s response to my rapturous appreciation of the dish.

The afternoon became progressively hazy as you would expect from a three hour lunch. Sometime later, after vino santo (dessert wine) and almond biscotti, we left: I to the airport and Angelo for an expresso.

‘Next time you are in Florence, come back. I’m always here from twelve at the same table’.

Da Mario, Via Rosina 2r, Florence (opposite the central market), Open 12.00 – 15.30 Tel: 055 218550 Special thanks to my dining companion, Angelo - he with the name of an angel and the surname of war. See you next time I'm in Firenze.
Recipe for Peposo
1 kg of lean beef stew meat
10 cloves of garlic
2 tbs of freshly ground black pepper
1 can of diced tomatoes
2-3 cups of Chianti red wine

Place everything into the one pot and cook slowly, very slowly. Five to six hours is just enough and then allow another three for lunch.

Quick guide to Florence

Even in Florence, the most tourist of Italian cities, you can find yourself a little dolce vita.

Head to areas such as Oltrarno and San Marco and you’ll discover a city that belongs to the Italians rather than tourists. Eat at the local osterias, shop at the markets and stores that Italians frequent and walk through a city that is remarking unchanged since its Renaissance.

Where to eat
The much awarded Da Mario is one of the last authentic osterias in Florence. Open for lunch only, this is the place to eat and savour seasonal Tuscan food such as lepre fagiano and the famed bistella served with a wedge of lemon. Come at 12 o’clock to avoid queuing and look out for Angelo. He will be seated at the table by the front window. Via Rosina 2r, Florence (opposite the central market)

Go hungry was the recommendation that came from two strangers on a train back from Pisa when I asked them to tell me their favourite restaurant in Florence. I Latini is a much loved favourite, with its generous servings and hospitality. Some say it’s a little overpriced but in a city of expensive and often very poor food, it deserves its reputation as a place for good food. Don't be deterred if you can't find the street on your map of Florence. Most of the smaller streets aren't listed. Just head in the general area and keep on walking. If you really get lost, just ask Dove I Latini and someone will point you in the right direction or give you directions in English!! Via dei Palchetti 6r, Florence Tel: 055 210916

Never let it be said that distance is an obstacle to getting a good lunch. A day trip to Lucca is the perfect excuse (if you needed one) to dine at I Santi Vineria, a small wine bar off the main piazza. Order i testaroli con pesto, a dish typical of the north-eastern area of Tuscany. The pasta is made from flour and water and then baked in a large heavy dish. The texture is like a foccacia and goes perfectly with the pesto made from famed basil from Lunigiana. Via dell'Anfiteatro, 20A, Lucca Tel: 0583 316116

This is the story of the lunch that got away. At 13.00, Osteria Il Carroccio was full and it was still full an hour and half later when I returned desperately hungry. The food would have been worth the wait as opposed to the very expensive and so so meal I had at a nearby trattoria. But yes, back to the osteria, this is the lunch that I would have ordered. For primo piatti, risotto al radicchio rosso porcini (risotto with red chicory and porcini mushrooms) and for secondo, pappardelle al cinghiale (large ribbon noodles with wild board sauce). The moral of this story is always book a table on a Sunday in Italy! Via del Casato di Sotto 32, Siena Tel:0577 271255

Where to drink
In a city full of bars, you will never be short of a drink but I Fratellini is unique. This is one of the last hole-in-the-walls left in Florence. Place your order at the counter and then stand around like every else enjoying one of the local chiantis. If you are game, try panino no. 22 lardo di colonnata (pig lard, another Tuscan favourite) but failing that no 22, pecorino tartufo e rucola (pecorino chesse with truffle) with a drizzling of fresh olive oil is very very good. Via ei Cimatori 38r, Firenze. Mon–Sat. Tel:055 2396096.

For another neighbourhood favourite, go to All’antico Vinaio. Most evenings it is standing room only but don’t worry the wait for a seat tends to be short. Locals meet at this bar for a quick chat before heading home or out for their main meal. There is a limited but excellent selection of crostini. Try the gorgonzola. It’s self-serve and relaxed like the bar itself. This is a place to enjoy and listen to the locals. Via de’Neri, 65, Firenze. Tues – Sunday. No telephone.

The view from Forte di Belvedere is definitely worth the climb, as is the wine bar, Enoteca Fuori Porta, that you reach after a steep walk along the old city walls. A glass of 2004 Belguardo comes highly recommended as does the crostini con proscutto crudo e crema di tartufo e gorgonzola. The selection of wine is impressive, the atmosphere is warming. This is the perfect place for a memorable lunch. Via Monte alle Croci, 10r 50125 Firenze Tel : 055 23 42 483

Where to shop
Florence is the city of leather. Along the streets lining the Mercato Centrale and at the Mercato Nuovo, you will find leather as far as the eye can see as well as other tourist essentials – marbled paper, miniature statues of David, painted ceramics and italia t-shirts. For better quality and more expensive leather, walk around the small shopping district near the Ponte Vecchio walking towards Santa Trinita. For high end designer products, go straight to Via Strozzi.

If bling is more your thing, then the Ponte Vecchio is your destination. This famous landmark was once the home to the tanners of the city, before one of the Medicis took offence to the smell. This is the place to spend serious money but the artistry of the jewellery is obvious, if not somewhat gaudy.

No trip to Florence would be complete without a trip to Santa Maria Novella Farmacia. Established in 1527 by Dominican monks, it still sells herbal remedies as well as its famous soaps said to be the finest in the world. Via della Scala 16, Santa Maria Novella Tel: 055 216 276

Mercato Centrale is the place to stock up on all those essentials that are incredibly overpriced elsewhere. This is the main market of Florence, so it is wonderfully noisy and overcrowded with locals just doing their own thing.
You'll see Italian food at its best here - seasonal hams encrusted with peppercorns, rosemary and garlic; mustard fruits; pestos and fresh pastas; enough truffle products to satisfy any foodie or truffle pig. The ground floor is dedicated to small goods, cheeses, meats; upstairs, to fruit and vegetables.
Follow your nose to the porcini mushroom stall – the prices range from €8 - € 10 per 100 grams, the most expensive being for the larger ceps.