- Food & Drink
I meant to write this up as soon as I got home from Italy. But I didn’t. I couldn’t. I was huddled in my bed, sweating my way through a 36-hour pasta comedown. We’d got up to three bowls of pasta a day while we were in Italy. Three bowls! We even ate it cold for breakfast (god, it was good).
And then it was the run up to the EU referendum, followed by the Brexit result. It felt faintly silly to write a chirpy ‘what I done on my holidays’ blog post after that. Like standing in a house that has just burnt down, saying: “Well, the views are still nice.”
But the views are still nice. And more importantly, you will need to eat when you get there. Let me tell you about Florence. Specifically, one piazza.
We’d rented an apartment on Piazza Torquato Tasso, a square on the Oltrarno side of Florence. We’d picked it at random, just wanting to be away from the city centre and the frantic crowds. We couldn’t have picked better. The annual calcio storico tournament was on and we were staying in the Bianchi district, so there were white ribbons and bunting strung around the trees.
On the corner of the piazza Circolo A.s. Aurora opened up at around 6.30pm every evening. In the winter it’s tucked inside a medieval tower, but in the summer the bar moves into a portacabin on the street. It’s has a modish menu of organic wines and craft beers, along with cocktails, which the menu lists as “pornodrinks” (really Italy, behave).
We stuck to the €5 Aperol spritzes and, over the course of the week, became bold enough to fill a plate with the food laid out on the side of the portacabin. It would obviously be mad to drink without eating, so Circolo supplies its customers with a help-yourself aperitivo buffet. Little pots of risotto, warm slices of stromboli, cups of artichoke dip and roast carrots on sticks. Yes, roast carrots on sticks. Try those out on your kids the next time they demand lollies and see how far you go.
On the opposite side of the piazza is Al Tranvai. A narrow little trattoria that has benches running along each side of the room and an old tram car dividing the dining room from the kitchen (hence the name), Al Tranvai is so exactly like the perfect Italian tratt that I still think it might be an art installation.
The menu covers Florentine greats (ribollita and penne alla chiantigiana, tripe and lampredotto), Italian favourites, and a few daily specials, all written in looping black letters on thick, yellow butcher’s paper. I had melanzane alla parmigiana (€9), bubbling with cheese and tomato sauce, and then fried rabbit with courgette fries (€13).
It was courgette flower season, so we also ordered a side of fried fiori (€6). I rapidly realised this was far too much fried food, even though the frying was perfect. Crisp, greaseless batter swaddled the sweet rabbit flesh, the thick batons of courgette and the soft courgette flowers. Every mouthful was a wonder of texture and seasoning. The espresso and throat-searing grappa that we ordered instead of pudding saved me from a night of batter paroxysms.
We went back to Al Tranvai for our final lunch. We’d walked past greengrocers displaying boxes of huge, dirt-dusted porcini on our morning wander, so I ordered tortellucci stuffed with spinach and ricotta and heaped with slabs of fresh porcini (€12). I helped myself to a glass from the house wine that sat in a wicker-basketed bottle on the table and thought that going home was a terrible idea.
On the far side of the piazza, where Torquato Tasso meets via Vasco Pratolini, there is Alla Vecchia Bettola. A touch grander than Al Tranvai, in the sense that the everything is €1 more expensive and the wine comes in 11/2 litre bottles rather than 1 litre, Alla Vecchia Bettola is also a little more fun.
The dining room is small, but the space is more than doubled by a couple of huge communal tables outside. Shed and I managed to get two seats just before the queue formed.
We’d more or less successfully translated the menu the day before and ordered in the mix mangled Italian and bizarre English that had foxed a lot of waiters in Florence. Our waiter handled us wryly, cracking out his favourite dad joke when we ordered the house wine: “Châteaux de la maison! An excellent choice!” (This joke did the rounds with almost everyone. No one was ordering anything other than the €4 bottomless red).
Pasta with tomato sauce is my death row dish. At Bettola they make it with unripe tomatoes and spoon it over bevattine, a pasta that bridges the gap between spaghetti and linguine that we all worried would never be filled. It was fantastic, sharp and sweet and fragrant with olive oil.
An enormous pork chop (€14) bathed in its own well seasoned juices was the best argument for going carnivore I’ve experienced in a while. We shared more crisply fried courgette flowers (€7, Al Tranvai’s version just beats them) and a bowl of beans that had been cooked with a bushel of bay (€5). I think there may have also been a green salad, but that could just be my mind trying to persuade me I ate leafy greens while I was on holiday.
Pudding was a cloud-like tiramisu (€7). The only odd note was the coffee: two small cups of filter coffee rather than thunking hit of espresso I’d come to rely on.
Half way through the holiday, we did have a pasta break. We went to Trattoria Sabatino, five minutes walk from Torquato Tasso. It’s a neighbourhood tratt, with a wooden beamed ceiling, an echoing tiled floor and red and white checked table cloths. We were there on a quiet weekday lunch, but I suspect that on busy days you sit where there is space and join in the conversation, as best as you can.
We’d reached that stage in every holiday when an overwhelming desire for vegetables must be met. So we ordered a mixed salad (€3.40), raw cabbage (€2.60) and cauliflower in tomato sauce (€2.80). The stand out dish was the cabbage: finely shredded and dressed with oil and vinegar. White cabbage is usually the most boring of veg, doomed to coleslaw hell. But spritzed with good oil and vinegar, it turns out to be the perfect refreshing dish for hot days and jaded palates.
I had a chunk of golden roast chicken (€4.60) alongside my veg, Shed had roast veal (€5.60) and we split a modest 500ml of red wine between us. You can tell from the prices that this is not a glamorous joint. It’s a family-run restaurant that treated us and our veg mania kindly. If ever there was a reason to work on my shaky Italian, it’s lunch with the neighbours at Sabatino.
We rented an apartment through airbnb and I 100% recommend it. Link here. Massive thanks to Chris, who happened to be in Florence at the same times as us. If he hadn’t spotted Shed tweeting from Florence, we would never have found the Aurora or been so determined to eat at Alla Vecchia Bettola or Sabatino. Holiday made.