Umberto Menghi's Florence
Jim Tobler discusses Florence with one of it's most valuable culinary exports, Umberto Menghi. This is an insider's view on how to eat and drink in a city you may already be familiar with. This article was originally published in the June/July 2007 issue of Wine Access magazine.
I grew up in Florence and its environs, but the glory of this city was established centuries ago, and much of it was about food. They did not go to war about oil back then; they went to war about crops, sustenance, food. The Saracens came in, the Romans, and of course the Medici, who most obviously still resonate here. A visitor to Florence these days is still, in my opinion, a privileged person, but it pays to keep in mind that Florentines understand their own history very well, and are happy to share it with those who really want to know, to learn.
But that is not the real point. The most important thing is that at every level of Florentine culture, from the art galleries, and on to the shops, and most importantly, for visitors, the restaurants and hotels, is a pride in what they do best. This means it is vital, and I mean vital, to make yourself open to the experience of this city. If you walk in to a nice little trattoria, sometime in March or in November, and ask for the ubiquitous mozzarella and tomato, garnished with basil, they will provide it to you, but they will also frown, and you will not have made anything but a negative impression. Why? Because everyone in Florence who serves food for a living takes great pride in seasonal ingredients, simply because they are so intimately tied to the produce, and to the land that provides it, that surrounds them. This has been true for centuries; it is not a fad, a fashion, in Florence, but a way of life.
You can sit in a little café off the Piazza Duomo, have an espresso or two, and part of the charm is that you are seated in a building that is many centuries old, the building of which was done by hand. The stones chiseled and shaped, and placed, by hand; the tiles fired in furnaces and formed by hand. The people serving in these establishments, and those who run them, are a part of the culture here, and often have been for many generations. Florence is a city in which it is best to know what each place has as its specialty. Tripe is everywhere, of course, even at little stands that serve it in a small panino, rather like the hot dogs you find in New York. If tripe isn't your thing, you may want to at least try it at one of these little stands. Still, there are restaurants also that specialize in tripe, or in seafood, or in prosciutto, or in pasta, or the famous bistecca fiorentina.
So, you can plan a visit to many different places in two or three days, and discover the regional foods in a way that is nearly impossible in other large cities. That is how resolute Florence is about serving its own food, from farms and ranches nearby that have been connected, by family or by business, for many generations. That is also why, for example, the asparagus in one restaurant or the beef, or even the garlic, is different from a neighbouring restaurant. They do not all go to the same big market, and buy the same produce. They each have their own suppliers, who often supply only them. So it is a rich, and sometimes subtle, dining experience to be had here.
To really make marks with your wait staff, who are often the owners themselves, it is best to leave your preconceptions at home. Ask what they are cooking that day, what they think is good, and you are already in their good books, and your experience will be much better. The first, most frequent, and biggest mistake tourists make is to ask for something that is in fact out of season, like that ubiquitous mozzarella, tomato and basil. And it is really not a good idea to depend on hotel concierges or taxi drivers to know the best place. Instead, look around, see where the well-heeled locals are going, if you want fine dining. Or watch where the local merchants go after they close up shop. Those restaurants will likely be standouts. Better still, go ahead and ask, during your shopping expeditions; ask the locals who are there shopping right beside you, looking at jewellery.
Many places, the truth is it is hard to even find a menu. Keep in mind these are very honest restaurants, run by professionals, who take a lot of pride in what they do. So, let yourself go. Ask what is best today. Don't sit down and snap your fingers (I can't tell you how many times I have seen that, in my own restaurants, certainly, but in Florence, too). "Give respect to receive respect" is a good rule of thumb. Think about what your own expectation is, your mood that day, what kind of food will suit you. Then find that kind of place to eat.
Tuscans, Italians in general, go to specific restaurants for specific dishes, as we mentioned. You will miss out on the real Florence entirely unless you find a way to connect your own tastes with what is on offer. It helps to know that the dry beans that come from the flats near Siena make an amazing fagioli soup, served with a fiasco of garlic-infused olive oil. The four seasons are the most important thing; in fall, for example, the soups are thicker, rabbits, wild boar everywhere, and a lovely chick pea dish called cecina.
Keep in mind, this is a people that went to war over food. Food is such a constant component, a fact of daily life. The restaurants are not going to change what they do for you, so it is best to bring a sense of exploration and discovery, and, basically, let them feed you. It is very much like going to someone's home for lunch or for dinner. "What are you cooking tonight, for us?" that is the best question to ask. And please, forget about selling your son or daughter to the local waiters; they have heard the offer countless times, and it remains charmless.
Some things to note: a bettola was what in the old days was a carriage house, a resting place. The food is casual, easy fare. An osteria has, usually, one special dish, maybe two, on offer. It is a nice place, clean, but no linen, and no extra service, which of course you always pay for anyway. The quality can be Michelin-star, for the specialty of the house. Trattoria is a family-run business, very local, local wines by the glass, all good and affordable. By the way, wine bars you can ignore for the most part. They are built with tourists in mind. Wine is such a basic feature of the food, that you can do very well in the restaurants, without having to search out wine bars. And finally, a ristorante, with more waiters, top levels of service, linens, crystal stemware, all of which you pay for of course. That is why it is so important to go with your own feelings for the day, so that you choose wisely for your dinner venue.
Florence is a city of fine art, and the Galleria Uffizi is not to be missed. The great landmarks, the Duomo, Michelangelo's David at the Galleria dell'Accademia, the bridges, the palazzos, are all wonderful, too, but the Uffizi reveals some of the Tuscan soul, and it helps in understanding how important history, and legacy, and art are to the culture of Florence. It is living and breathing each day, in this friendly city which is nonetheless large, and almost always extremely busy.
There is nothing finer than entering a place, just like a home kitchen, cosa mangiamo and seeing a basket of fresh fennel, arrived just that morning, sitting near the door. You might even tell them how good it looks. Before you know it, you have a nice glass of vermentino, and some of the fennel, thinly sliced, with some blood oranges, olive oil, coarse sea salt, and fresh bread. It begins there. There might be fennel sausage, with a touch of salad, following that, and then a plate of pasta, whatever came from their farm. A final plate, of whatever meat is in season, or a stew, even. Earthy colours, terra cotta cut by hand, comfortable chairs, and if bistecca is what you want, the place will have a hand-fed fire, all wood, that reaches 700 degrees, so the meat is properly charred on the outside, and cooked to medium rare inside, every bite melting in your mouth, a Chianti Riserva in your glass.
By Jim Tobler
Twice each year, Umberto goes back to Tuscany. Villa Delia is nestled in the rolling hills near Ripoli di Lari, 25 minutes from Pisa, 45 minutes from Florence, and 35 minutes from the Italian Riviera and the port city of Livorno. It is idyllic, surrounded by gardens, rosemary bushes, olive trees, and vineyards, which yield wines that are made by Umberto, and are available, if in limited supply, in Canada. The rooms are large, with hillside views, and both luxurious and comfortable. The cooking school is run most of the year by his sister, Marietta. Classes are in the mornings, with excursions to locales throughout the region in the afternoons. Umberto teaches classes and leads the excursions when he is there. Other times of year, guest chefs come for a visit, and to share their expertise. Hotel rooms without cooking packages are also available. Villa Delia is a fabulous way to experience Tuscany firsthand, learning both the cucina povera local cuisine, plus more broad-based Tuscan, and Italian, cuisine. True to the traditions of the place, most ingredients come from the estate gardens, or local suppliers. This is one visit to Italy you will never forget.
www.umberto.com, 604. 669.3732