Finding the best restaurants in Florence is no easy task, but someone has to do it.
Living in a country which has contributed so much to our fundamental understanding of fine food, (indeed, how we even define good food), it is difficult to give an opinion on such a broad topic as ‘authentic Italian cuisine’. In fact, most ‘stranieri’ would be extremely hesitant in making any such overt appraisal.
My other blog posts will look at pizza, ice-cream and the like, but this one is designed for those with more objective, international tastes and standards. And within such cohorts, there has been a significant change from previous years. Gone are the appreciative days of ‘contadini’ food, (new ways of making tripe edible, or serving up large raw vegetables to dip in peppery new olive oil), giving way to more sophisticated variations on traditional taste combinations and their presentation at the table.
TERMS OF REFERENCE
In an attempt to be fair, I have to set some parameters or ‘ground-rules’. Having lived in Florence for the last five years, the following should be read in the light of my own personal and immense love for this extraordinarily vibrant and stimulating city, whose wonderful people have an unparalleled history and a wealth of proud achievements. In what follows, I am writing as a Florentine would, despite the fact that I have absolutely no right to do so! However, it is said with honesty in order to access the very complex cultural milieu which surrounds the concept of eating.
- Food, wine and dining out in Florence is more of an ‘experience’ than it is a matter of objective culinary judgement. The nature and ambience of a restaurant, trattoria or osteria, is every bit as important to the assessment as the quality of the food and wine. Separating these things is incredibly difficult, as the ‘romance’ of Italy (and the pre-eminence of Florence), permeates every aspect of living. As such, I will stick exclusively to the quality of food – the ingredients, the culinary concept and its preparation – followed by ambience, service and price.
- Italians will tell you that the concept of a ‘meal out’ is all to do with the quality of the food and its traditional preparation – where the food is sourced and the particular skill of those sourcing it or preparing it. In my own experience, it has very little to do with the actual quality of cooking and is more to do with family loyalties and historic associations. This perhaps explains the quite appalling table service in many Florentine restaurants. You are not there to be served food. The proprietor and staff will take care of the food as and when it can be lovingly presented (because no-one else can do it better). In the meantime, your priority is to enjoy the company of your associated family or eating partners. Food for Florentines, in general, is less to do with food than it is the dress you are wearing or the people you are seen to be eating with. This also explains the associated concept of ‘passeggiata’, (the evening ‘see and be seen’ walk-about), in which Florentines are prone to be notoriously discerning about the place they choose to stop and eat, and most importantly, be seen to eat. Does it satisfy their fundamental requirements in which their otherwise sophisticated palates must be voluntarily surrendered to the exigencies of ‘La Bella Figura’? In view of this, I am not sampling by recommendation and will only rate those eating establishments which I judge to provide an acceptable level of food quality and service.
- It seems to me that most Florentines are incredibly conservative in their food tastes and habits, a fact which conditions the food provided by most restaurants. The finest food and wine is the food and wine they are used to and have experienced for generations. Experimental ideas and even the slightest amendment to the way ‘nonna’ made a pasta dish, simply cannot be tolerated, though it has to be admitted that this has the additional spin-off of creating a wonderful sea of denunciation and conversation in which to swim. All I can attempt to do here is to consider the broadest application of Italian cooking, whether it stands with or against ‘tradition’. The point is, you want to savour, as well as enjoy what you are eating.
There are innumerable restaurants in Florence which would claim the top spot in the list of the best cuisine, (they want your money after all), but for me, there are three which stand out from the crowd for the quality of their food, wine, service and value for money.
THE TOP THREE
In third place, there is Il Borro on the Lungarno, very close to the Ponte della Santa Trinita’. As the name might suggest, this is in fact the Italian equivalent of the English ‘Brewery Pub’, ostensibly a restaurant but actually a showcase to promote the superb Tuscan wines from that particular Chianti estate. Nevertheless, their contemporary approach to dining and the open kitchens produce some extraordinary (though classic) taste combinations. In a very daring approach, this is where you will find a re-mix of history, such as the ‘Turnip green omelette, wild salad, with radicchio and Joselito Iberian pork cheek’ (€10), or an extraordinary combination of flavours in the ‘Marinated beef carpaccio with goat cheese mousse and hazelnuts’ (€13). The contadini would have been left speechless, but then they would most probably have been sat on one of very few outdoor tables on the busy Lungarno road.
But in addition to a varied and exciting menu, beautifully presented in a style becoming some of the best international hotels in London, there is also the unique provision of the estate’s fine wines. If you are sceptical about the magical ability of the Sangiovese grape to enhance and literally transform the already beautiful flavour of your food into something quite spectacular, then this is the place to visit.
In second place, there is Se.sto at the Westin Excelsior Hotel. This penthouse restaurant has managed to combine traditional Italian dishes with more contemporary tastes and ideas, such as hints of Asia in the ‘red Sicilian prawns with crustacean jelly and summer vegetables’, and has all the hallmarks of Michelin ‘magic’. It does this with immaculate attention to detail and high levels of service, in one of the most dramatic and panoramic settings in the whole of Florence dining.
Unfortunately, the Michelin experience comes at a premium, but the set menu at lunch has all the gravitas and satisfaction of luxury dining. An amuse’, starter/or dessert, main course and a glass of excellent wine from a choice cellar (plus water) for less than €30pp, is simply great value for money for lovers of sophistication and elegance, and is undoubtedly one of the best restaurants in Florence.
Excellent outdoor seating available.
Piazza Ognissanti 3,
6th Floor, The Westin Excelsior Hotel,
+39 055 27151.
THE BEST RESTAURANTS IN FLORENCE – THE WINNER
But the top place, in my opinion, is a clear winner on virtually all fronts. Olio e Convivium on Via Santo Spirito stands apart as a place of fine cooking, imaginative presentation and excellent service in a traditional Italian ambience. What these people can do with peas, turnip tops and juniper berries cannot be underestimated and, despite an unusual tendency to favour ‘cooked for a long time at a low temperature’, (and no, the oven isn’t broken), can run rings around most top chefs with a vibrant and breathtaking co-mixture of styles, scents and flavours. The wine list is utterly comprehensive but only from a purely regional angle. White wine drinkers will be relieved to know that there are a few, excellent Italian whites available as well, and at very reasonable prices by glass or bottle.
Unfortunately, as a traditional restaurant in a beautiful but very restricted location, they only have internal seating, but the gastronomia shop which forms part of the eating space supplies an excellent and exciting range of truly authentic provisions which can be picked up on the way out. At €15-30 for primi/secondi, Olio e Convivium is not the cheapest place in town, but on two recent tastings was consistently the best and the most imaginative and reasonably-priced food in Florence, benefitting from attentive and very courteous waiting in a truly beautiful and traditional atmosphere. It represents the true magic of Florentine dining. Find somewhere better.
Olio e Convivium,
primi/secondi dishes €15-30, Lunch 12-14:30 and Dinner 19-22:30
No outdoor seating.
Via Santo Spirito 4,
+39 055 2658198