Tuesday, June 22, 2010

FIVE GUYS & ME - Feasting In Florence (Italy) - Day One

Feasting In Florence (Italy)
Day One

It was hard leaving Lyon (well, hard leaving all that great food), but we did and headed out for our adventure in Provence...

We left Provence over the "To Catch A Thief" High Corniche and crossed the Italian border and made our way to the medieval city of Alba, mountain top restaurants, truffles and truffle hunting dogs...

Then onto ancient Reggio Emilia and castles and frescos and balsamic vinegar that rivals fine port...

By now I was in love w/ Germany, France and Italy. I wanted to live everywhere... Everything was so wonderfully... well, old!  Ancient!  But nothing prepared me for Florence, but more on that a bit further 'down.'

I had to admit as we drove to Florence, I missed Barry's droll humor. What I didn’t miss, however, was sharing the back seat of the Passat. With Jim and Jason in the van following close behind, Charlie was again driving with Richard riding shotgun and giving directions. I sprawled out in the back and enjoyed the scenery as we caravaned to Florence. We were on our way to Tuscany. Tuscany!

Though the ride was smoother than our long mountain drive to Alba, my emotions weren’t. By the time we reached the outskirts of Florence my stomach was growling and I was getting a tad ‘out-of-sorts.’ As we entered the city, Charlie – and Richard – lost their way completely which only added to my crankiness. A few Cheez-Its or a small bag of chips, even a nut would have calmed me down, but the only thing we had in the car was chewing gum. I hate chewing gum!

We finally found our way into the ancient part of the city - a maze of narrow one way streets jammed with smart cars and Vespas.

We drove up and down the streets and alleyways for what seemed like hours. Charlie tried to get directions, but none of us spoke Italian and we found no one who spoke English. Other than the noise my stomach was making, I remained quiet for fear I might start hyper-ventilating because, along with no Cheez-Its or chips, we had no paper bags to breathe into. Finally Richard jumped out of the car waving a piece of paper with the name of our hotel and its address and jumped into an empty taxi in front of us. The cab took off. Charlie followed and the equipment van w/ Jason and Jim followed Charlie. A turn at the next corner and a half a block later we were in front of our hotel.  Why didn't he think of that before?!

Richard rushed back to the Passat and opened my door.

As I got out and saw the old, cramped, ugly buildings on our street and the New York City flop house marquee marking our hotel, I burst into tears. Dozens and dozens of Vespas careened noisily up and down the street, narrowly missing us as we unloaded the car while I sobbed quietly to Richard that this wasn’t the Florence we always dreamed of visiting.

I got it together, however, as we walked under the old, ugly marquee and into the tiny lobby of our hotel. Inside, I began to feel a little better. It had a charm that belied the outside. There was some lovely Italian pottery on display. The guys checked us all in and made arrangements for the van and its equipment as I “inspected” the sweet little mahogany bar in the rear of the lobby and the hotel’s small dining room. My stomach was still growling, but I was “adjusting.” We finally made it upstairs to our room which was very simple, but had an artistic flare. The ceiling was high and surrounded by crown molding. The plastered walls had wonderful faded stenciling here and there. There was an antique desk and chair and a lovely painted armoiré. The heavy, dark drapes covering the windows added a sense of drama. The duvet was plush. I sat down on the bed and let out a sigh of relief. Richard suggested we go explore and get something to eat. I grabbed my purse.

As we walked along the streets looking for a café I felt I was in the midst of a glorious outdoor museum.  No movie or picture prepared me for all the amazing artwork.  Everywhere!  Just hanging out in the piazzas w/ us ordinary folk.

We wandered into an outdoor market filled with vendors selling beautiful leather goods, clothes, artwork, jewelry, pashminas, scarves and Tuscan pottery.

(a souvenier Tuscan pottery plate - great for cheese or a salad)

We decided we’d explore all the stalls later as we still wanted to get some lunch. We turned a corner and, for the second time that day, I thought I was going to hyper-ventilate… this time not from panic or frustration, but from the sheer beauty of what we were seeing. There in front of us was the Piazza del Duomo and the 15th century Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, a/k/a Il Duomo.

Its massive size was overwhelming. I was positive it could house every citizen of Italy behind its walls. The magnificent terra cotta colored dome cast a warm shadow over the piazza… hell, it cast a warm shadow over all of Tuscany, that’s how big it is!  The inside of the dome was magnificent!

There were carved marble figures, gargoyles and mosaics, a bell tower that reached toward the heavens

stained glass windows and a figure of Mary holding a flowered scepter over the intricately carved door and mural.
I was breathless. Though this was Italy and not medieval England, I wondered if this magnificent neo-classic cathedral was Ken Follet’s inspiration for his novel, “The Pillars of the Earth.” My hunger forgotten, we strolled in the piazza examining the cathedral from every angle for what seemed like hours. There was so much to see just on the outside that we didn’t notice the sun beginning to set. It was time to get back to our hotel and get ready for dinner.

Back in our room, I showered and put on my black DKNY traveling pants suit, a cream-colored silk blouse and strands of Coco Chanel pearls. Tonight we were going to experience some of Italy’s finest dining at the Ristorante Enoteca Pinchiorri and, like the restaurant in the Hostellerie de Levernois in Beaune, France, it’s a member of the Relais & Chateaux group – Relais Gourmand. Richard had discovered it on-line when he researched the sites in Florence and had made the reservation. Since it was in the old part of the city, Charlie, Jason, Richard and I walked the narrow streets to the restaurant. Jim didn’t join us. It seemed he fell in love that afternoon with a beautiful shopkeeper and was playing Romeo to his newly discovered Juliet.

As we approached the restaurant we were greeted by a plain door to a building with an unremarkable façade. I didn’t react. I learned my lesson when I misjudged the outside appearance of our charming little hotel. We entered and walked up a short flight of stairs to a small foyer. We were greeted by the maitre’d who led us to our table in a stunning garden atrium with colorful flowers in huge stone urns and tall carved statues of what I assumed were Roman gods. The tables were dressed with ‘aged’ pink cloths and the walls were a pale yellow. Through a doorway on the other side of the atrium I could see another dining room in the same pink and yellow theme with vases filled with brightly colored flowers. An old world landscape in a gilded frame hung on a wall. Our waiter brought us menus and a tiny little chair that he placed on the floor beside me. I hadn’t a clue what it was for until he unhooked by Vuitton bag hanging on the back of my chair and placed in on the chair. A purse chair! Who knew? But it was then that I knew we were in for a memorable evening… no detail was too small.

Our food ordered, the sommelier chose a bottle of rich red Italian table wine (the only one we could really afford even on an expense account) from the restaurant’s cellar that houses about two hundred variety of wines.

We shared the appetizers: sea scallops with herbs and bell pepper, lobster ‘gratinated,’ a quinoa salad with ginger and yogurt, and an endive salad dressed with hazelnut oil. We talked about the past three weeks and all the shoots we’d been on for the Food Network while the waiter replenished our wine glasses. He really didn’t understand English that well, but he did understand “Food Network” and began asking us all sorts of questions… Who were we? Why were we in Florence, etc? By the time we finished the delicious appetizers and answering his questions, the wine was gone. But, sadly, “our” budget didn’t allow for another bottle.

However, when our waiter returned with our entrees, the sommelier also returned with a second bottle of wine, compliments of the chef, explaining that the chef couldn’t allow people from the Food Network to eat his creations without “complementing” it with wine. I wanted to cheer, but restrained myself. This bottle of red was far more complex than the one we had just finished and went beautifully with each of our entrees. We shared a handmade tagliatelle pasta filled with ricotta and basil served with chanterelle mushrooms, mozzarella and capers. Richard and Charlie had the duck cooked two ways. The breast came separately – tender and juicy – followed by the legs which were served up in its confit. Jason had a lamb shoulder with asparagus and sesame seeds and I had the pigeon with thyme and garlic, squashed potatoes with a black pepper and chicken liver sauce. I had a taste of everything. Oh my!!!... This Tuscan food the chef made using French techniques was amazing. We couldn’t eat another morsel… well, except the cheese wheeled in on a cart by the chef. Not as extensive a selection as the restaurant in Beaune, but filled with some of the most delicious cheeses I’ve ever had.

Jason paid the tab, we thanked the chef, telling him that this was one of the greatest meals we’d ever had and walked back to our hotel.
Tomorrow was another day in Florence. I couldn’t wait.


Stu said...

Forget about the food…how about that Tuscan architecture. Stunning piece in all ways. – By the way, the road is the Corniche (like the Rolls Royce) not Cornish, which means “from Cornwall”. Not nearly so classy as cornice!!

ilona saari said...

Thanx so much, Stu, for the Corniche catch -- it was a bad 'typo' and I've made the correction

Patricia said...

Okay, I'm green with envy now.

Marianne said...

Great blog post, Ilona! We missed Florence on my Mediterranean Cruise last November because the waters were to rough to port. :-( Now, I have to plan ANOTHER trip to Italy, but til then I'll live it through your blog posts! Great fun!