We’re tipped off that one of Florence’s barely known (to tourists anyway) new culinary jewels – La Bottega Del Buon Caffe – is easy to miss. It squats, pop-up style, inside what was a decades-old coffee shop. “Are you sure we have this right?” asks my mother, who has agreed to accompany me on this absurdly decadent adventure to find out just how far the food scene has evolved in a city with a long reputation for resisting change.
While only a 10-minute taxi ride north of the centro storico, or old town, “Del Buon,” as it’s known to the locals, couldn’t be further from the old-school, tourist-mobbed dining destinations in the city centre. Del Buon is intimate, minimalist, not slick or showy. Italian linens drape the 10 or so tables, and bottles of wine line the white walls. Everything is understated and gorgeous, including the patrons and, as my mom points out, the staff. Chef-proprietor Francesco Gasbarro greets and seats us. Glasses of prosecco and a modernist presentation of heady duck-liver crostini magically appear.
In the sardine-can-size kitchen, chef Gasbarro rearranges tradition, to wit: His “liquid pizza” involves a shot of sweet tomato water floated with crispy little croutons and an accompanying node of fresh mozzarella; olive oil ice cream is an unctuous foil to a pristine stack of beef tartare.
This is slow food with a fresh, casual brilliance and intense, harmonized flavours. It’s only Day 1, and we’ve witnessed the new Italian kitchen. Back in the historic centre, the rustic, matter-of-fact food of Florence – bollito misto, boiled beef served on a crusty bun, and the two-finger thick fiorentina porterhouse – will never go out of style.
Still, big-thinker Florentines, from an evolving mix of government, private business and residents, have been nimbly plotting the city’s 21st-century renaissance. Among them, mover and shaker Mayor Matteo Renzi, who took office in 2008 and was recently sworn in as Italy’s youngest prime minister, has made good on his vow to make Florence a cool, sophisticated place. With Wall Street back to record highs and a surge of pleasure-seekers from the East – Russians, Asians and Arabs consuming everything from panini to Prada and palazzos – Tuscany’s foreign tourism is back in the black, reportedly up seven per cent this past summer.
All, no doubt, catalysts for the exciting new food movement. A 2014 guide to Italian restaurants, Le Guide de L’Espresso, declares that the vaunted cucina della nonna, or grandma’s kitchen, has officially passed the blow torch to the cucina dei nipoti, the kitchen of the grandchildren.
This past summer, amid the magnificent Renaissance gardens of the Four Seasons Palazzo-cum-hotel, my mother and I conducted glorious, al fresco research into the new scene at chef Vito Mollica’s Il Palagio. This is the restaurant that kick-started the change in 2008. We enjoyed an uncannily sweet asparagus risotto and a memorable riff on ribollita, the thick bread and vegetable soup with clever addendum of seared sea scallops and crispy guanciale, pig-jowl bacon.
Mollica’s crony, Canadian James Bradburne, who runs Italy’s first public-private cultural foundation Palazzo Strozzi, is also one of the city’s zealous change agents. “Florence has gradually come to the realization that mass tourism was getting it nowhere,” Bradburne tells me. “Instead of seeing its spectacular Renaissance past as a burden, Florentines are turning their city into a dynamic weave of old and new, traditional and experimental.”
At modernist, one-Michelin-starred Ora d’Aria, soothing hues of pietra serena grey set off white barrel-vault ceilings and Saarinen tulip chairs – surely an aesthetic code for what’s to come. Here, chef Marco Stabile nudges the Tuscan playbook forward. He builds a “mille-feuille” out of fresh tomato tiles, buttery burrata cheese from Puglia and crisp bacon from nearby Valdarno, then devotes an entire tasting menu to fish – say, baby squid atop a fragrant fennel purée or a glimmering prawn tartar.
Still, it’s chef Michele Griglio who’s leading the city’s oligarchy of modern cooking at the intelligently sumptuous new Winter Garden by Caino. With obvious disdain for pretension, Griglio deploys techniques that play with contrasts of aromas, temperatures and textures to make very old dishes new again. Sea-sweet rock shrimp and basil sorbet add unexpected dimension to my rustic tomato soup, while my mother describes her elegant pecorino risotto, dotted with a glossy dollop of lamb tartare and pennyroyal (an astringent, Old World herb) as “peculiarly divine.”
At Io Osteria Personale, the thirtysomething duo behind the restaurant have dispensed with dogmatic Italian menu courses and nixed pasta altogether. Chef Nicolo Baretti and owner Matteo Fantini use didactic chalk sketches to announce what’s on the menu. One night we construct dinner choosing from four elements: fish, meat, vegetables and cheese. Think miraculously tender beef cheeks and celery sorbet with hazelnut crumble, paired with a marvellously spicy Chianti Classico.
Before we leave Florence, chef Mollica, our adopted culinary consigliere, tells us not to miss Gelato di Carapina: “Its proprietor, Simone Bonini, makes ice cream with a chef’s vision.”
Turns out this is no frou-frou gelateria. With its stainless-steel counters and bold graphics, Bonini churns gorgeous, seasonally driven fruit flavours, plus more unusual ones lsuch as vin santo, ricotta and gorgonzola. This new-wave gelateria even collaborates on inventive tasting menus back at Buon Caffe, where slow-cooked baby pig is served with cherry sorbet, and traditional lampredotto, long-braised tripe, is paired with salsa verde gelato.
The selection is tempting, and after days of some seriously earnest eating, my mom and I stroll the historic street of Lambertesca enjoying one last treat that’s managed to marry Florence’s traditional and experimental food scene. The “kitchen of the grandchildren” is frozen in a paper cup of superb black-fig and Parmigiano gelato, and it couldn’t be more delicious.
IF YOU GO
From ingeniously interpretive menus to blissfully transformative gelato, Florence’s food scene has its mojo back. Here’s where to find it.
La Bottega Del Buon Caffe Understated, gorgeous; chef-proprietor Francesco Gasbarro rearranges traditional Italian meals. Via A. Pacinotti, 44, labottegadelbuoncaffe.com
Gelato di Carapina Gelato flavours are chosen with “a chef’s vision” and include fruit in season, plus more unusual flavours such as vin santo, ricotta and gorgonzola. Via Lambertesca 18/r, carapina.it
Io Osteria Personale No pasta, but a deconstruction of favourite Italian meals. Borgo San Frediano, 167/r, io-osteriapersonale.it
Il Palagio Chef Vito Mollica’s cavatelli pasta, red prawns and baby squid with sheep’s-milk cheese won coveted best dish of Italy prize for 2013 by Le Guide de L’Espresso. Borgo Pinti, 99, ilpalagioristorante.it; fourseasons.com/florence
Ora d’Aria Chef Marco Stabile nudges the Tuscan playbook forward in this one-Michelin-starred restaurant. Via dei Georgofili, 11, www.oradariaristorante.com
Winter Garden by Caino Executive chef Michele Griglio deploys techniques that play with contrasts of aromas, temperatures and textures to make very old dishes new again. Piazza Ognissanti 1, restaurantbycainoflorence.com