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The good, the bad and the Bacchanalian

November 1, 2010

My experiences with food in Florence were diverse and interesting.

Actually, I met lots of cool people in the hostel and generally had quite a sociable time in the evenings, but mostly spent the days on my own. One of my favourite things about being on holiday, particularly in southern Europe, is taking time over lunch. (This is also one of my favourite things about being self-employed.) As an anthropologist, it pains me to make such a massive generalisation, but it simply is acceptable, in a way that it isn’t in England, to linger over two courses and have a glass of wine in the middle of the day. There’s something even more deliciously decadant about doing it on your own.

Particularly after you got up at 6.45 to get in the queue to see Michelangelo’s David and then visited a cathedral and two basilicas.

Before I left, my hosts in Turin had pressed a piece of paper into my hands with directions to Trattoria Mario. The picture on the website looks very quiet and empty – in reality, the door was plastered with reviews and awards and there were people queuing down the street. Although once I’d figured out that you had to get the waiter to write your name on the list instead of just loitering aimlessly outside the door, I got a seat pretty quickly. Another perk of dining alone. =) I was squeezed into a corner table alongside three hairy Italian men and tried desperately to keep track of the starters as they were reeled off at great speed. Ended up with pappardelle with duck sauce, which was what I had intended. Absolutely divine.

Between courses, one of the hairy Italian men bid us farewell and was replaced by a retired American man who loved Florence so much he lived there for half the year and we all started talking. (Again, this never happens in England. In Italy, I cheerfully chatted away to people I happened to be sharing a restaurant table or train compartment with, but this just isn’t acceptable in London.) Turned out one of the Italians has eaten lunch there virtually every day for decades, since the current maitre d’ was about 4 years old or something. He joked to his American friend that ‘it was obvious I was British not American’ as I’d picked ‘the best thing on the menu’. I asked if it was true that it was the best thing on the menu. Apparently not, actually – he said the only way to choose was to close your eyes and point. So much for my exquisite taste. (The beef in tomato sauce was excellent, though.)

By the evening, I was still genuinely too full for dinner. And still rather cheerful after possibly the most surreal and wonderful lunch of my life.

Despite this success, I decided not to go back the next day, in the spirit of trying new things and of there presumably being more than one good place to eat in Florence. Big mistake. There probably are more nice places to eat in Florence, but I didn’t find them. Instead, I wandered around dismissing restaurant after trattoria after osteria because they were empty, overpriced, touristy… After a while I was just so hungry I couldn’t face walking to the other side of town and queuing up outside Mario’s again, even though I knew it would be good. I stumbled into the next half-decent place I saw, and was incredibly disappointed. For the same price as the amazing lunch from the day before, which comprised two excellent courses, a glass of wine and a bottle of sparkling water, I had one rather stingy and underwhelming pasta dish, a glass of wine and a bottle of sparkling water. And I was all alone at my table with nobody to talk to in my broken Italian, and nobody took me out for coffee afterwards. There’s a lesson in here. It’s: always trust your Italian friends when they tell you where to have lunch. Or your Slow Food friends.

The following day I went into the Tuscan countryside with my new friends from my hostel to eat brunch, tramp round a vineyard and taste wine and olive oil. Felt rather ancient compared to the 19-year-old American girls on my table at brunch, but the vineyard tour and wine-tasting were excellent. I recommend sitting next to the trainee sommelier, should you ever find yourself in a similar situation. I learnt that they plough the rows between vines in alternate years so the roots grow straight down. I saw all the shiny machinery that they use to crush grapes and ferment the wine. I reflected on chianti having to come from a specific region to be labelled as such, and how these kinds of geographic indicators include but also exclude, and how they allow producers to avoid being tied to regional markets. I stopped thinking for a while and talked to new people and drank some delicious wine. And then I got off the bus back in Florence and overheard someone asking our guide where to have dinner. She said Mario’s was good, but it was closed in the evenings; instead, they should just look around the market as that was where all the good restaurants were. Of course. It’s so obvious. I should have thought of that.

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