“There are two kinds of light: the glow that illuminates, and the glare that obscures.” —James Thurber
Surely Thurber had Florence in mind. Florence glows in illuminary light that is evident in the paintings of the early Renaissance. The sun bathes the piazzas and statue of David in incandescent beauty, making the cold marble look warm. After a sudden shower, the sunlight in the centuries old, private garden of the Four Seasons Hotel creates a magical space. We have been watching the rain during breakfast through the Paladio-style windows in the Michelin starred Il Palagio restaurant. It’s my favourite meal of the day, served on exquisite china along with a flute of champagne. The beginning of another fabulous day in Firenze.
The Galleria dell’Accademia is crowded, even on a rainy morning, with people like us who have come to admire Michelangelo’s David. Strolling along the streets, we are in awe of the beauty of the public and religious buildings that grace the squares and piazzas. And we are struck by the realization that what is stylish in Toronto is yesteryear in Florence. Here, women throw on a scarf and look like the pages in Vogue. Wherever the eye falls, there is art. Big art at the Uffizi, Bargello and countless museums and churches, and small art in the chic fashion, glove and shoe boutiques. The studios and botteghe of artisanal jewelers, scarf designers, all bear the Made In Italy stamp. Even the Art Hotel, a newish small hotel that caters to an artistic crowd, has a curated show in its lobby—photographs of Marilyn Monroe.
Our guide, Anna Ristori spends some quality time with us at the Uffizi and Bargello. She refers to the artists and their works as her friends, and is a fount of fascinating information. A stone’s throw from the Ponte Vecchio on via de’ Georgofili is the tiny, perfect café, ’Ino. A very chic clientele nibbles on made-to-order Panini and biscotti plumped with chunks of orange chocolate.
Turn a corner and surprise! An outdoor market has exploded in the Piazza S. Maria Novella (in front of the church of the same name), and I plan to have a taste at each stall. Cheeses, sausages, chocolate, olives, breads and cakes, and all things Italian. Florence is a walking city, and it allows me to justify this self-indulgent feasting. A flea market that goes on for what seems to be the length of the city keeps us enraptured for hours. Tiny food shops are treasure troves of chocolate, gelato and espresso. Sunday late afternoon, there is little auto traffic and pedestrians take over the streets, walking, pausing for a stand-up espresso at a tiny bar. At Coronas Cafe, I treat myself to a gelato, which is so addictive I have two more. I am not myself. There is a carousel in the Piazza della Repubblica and, for two Euros, I have a great ride. Everywhere there are restaurants, and we select Caffe Donnini. Pasta funghi, pizza Margherita, vino, vino, vino. Why drink water when there is wine? How appreciative I am to stay, even for a few days in this living museum of art history. The Four Seasons Hotel comprises two Renaissance palaces whose previous residents included a Pope, five centuries of Florentine nobility and a Viceroy of Egypt who sold it when his harem was barred from moving in. After seven years of restoration, it has been returned to its original beauty. Original works of art, frescoes, bas-reliefs and silk wall coverings are throughout. And yet, the service is unpretentious and friendly, as in the Four Seasons style evident throughout the world.
I am offered my personal printed menu at dinner, listing the suggested wines and seven courses that read like culinary poetry. A carte of five wines that begins with Champagne and ends with Vin Santo is just fine with me. Mushrooms that proliferate the area are in season: Fresh porcini mushroom salad with parmigiano, porcini risotto with provolone Podolico and Iberico de Bellota chorizo, tagliolini with porcini. It is impossible to choose a favourite. I enjoy the parts and the sum of all the parts. Apparently, during the Second World War, mothers cooked pasta very al dente so that it expanded in the stomach and made children feel full for a long time. Hmm, interesting and perhaps more than an urban myth. Pigeon with caramelized poached pear, plum, melon and foie gras. Grilled sea bass, boned effortlessly at table. Pre-dessert, dessert and post-dessert. Who can resist?
The food is the culture, and when food and culture are combined, it is an evening’s entertainment. I would not be surprised to learn that dinner theatre was invented in Italy. Impresario and Chef Fabio Picchi and diva Maria Cassi have created a fabulous dinner theatre, Teatro del Sale—members only, but membership fees are minimal. We’re in luck; seated away from the buffet table we are at the kitchen window and get our food handed to us. Even dinner is drama, all’Italiano. The chef rings a bell, shouts out to the crowd the equivalent of “come and get it” and retreats to the kitchen. Tables are removed, theatre seats are brought in, the curtain rises and here is the love story in song and script. It is the story of Maria’s life and her romance with Fabio. During the standing ovation and curtain calls, Fabio presents Maria with a bouquet of roses. There is something in the air in this city founded by Julius Caesar in 59 BC. It is called amore. Couples embrace, kiss, hold hands, and pause to gaze into each other’s eyes. On a Sunday afternoon, Florence is a love-fest.Read More
Sara Waxman is an award-winning restaurant critic, best-selling cookbook author, food and travel journalist and has eaten her way through much of the free world for four decades, while writing about it in books, newspapers and magazines. She is the Editor in Chief of DINE and Destinations magazine.