Florence

FLORENCE, ITALY

HOTELS

Hotel Casci - A family run, good value two star hotel in the very centre of the city, just a few minutes walk from Duomo

The Campsite - We stayed at the Florence campsite for four nights. The location is great and the nearby piazza has THE sunset view, but it's a noisy site and staff can often be less than friendly.

 

RESTAURANTS

La Cucina del Garga

Cuco Cucina

Relais Le Jardin

Marco Ottaviano Gelateria

Il Santo Graal

Touch Florence

Gustavino

Frary's in Venice

 

TOURS & ATTRACTIONS

The Roman Guy Cooking Class

Florencetown Pizza & Gelato Making Class

Florencetown Wanna Be Italiano Cooking Class

FlorenceTown Tuscany Wine Tour

Walks of Italy Best of Florence Tour

City Wonders Uffizi Gallery Tour

City Wonders Best of Florence Tour

Florencetown Inferno Tour

Florencetown Uffizi gallery and Vasari Corridor Tour

Day Trip to Venice - Venice is only a few hours away by train. We visited it en route to Vienna although you could make it a return day trip.

For the creative person, Florence - the cradle of what we call the Renaissance - is brim full of inspiration. Every day, everywhere you look, be it an art gallery such as the Uffizi or Accademia, a painting by Botticelli or da Vinci or a simple, modern restaurant such as La Cucina del Garga or Il Santo Graal, you'll find something that urges you to think "Wow, that's amazing, I could definitely use that to improve my photography." You have to bear in mind though that everybody else knows this as well, to the extent that in summer the city is incredibly crowded. Think of the Shin Ju Ku intersection in downtown Tokyo that's always featuring in articles of the world's busiest places, or even central Kowloon or Times Square at rush hour, and then imagine that occuring all day and you have an idea of Florence in summer. The off season is less busy though so our advice is if you want to enjoy the sites without somebody poking a selfie stick in your eye, perhaps plan on a visit from late autumn through to early spring.

 

If you like to look at as well as make photography you might want to pay the National Museum of Photography a visit. See their own website here http://www.mnaf.it/eng/mnaf.php or you can find out a little more about the museum in English at http://www.museumsinflorence.com/musei/alinari.html

We've got to be honest, we didn't visit it even though it's pretty central. In our defence, when you've got an abundance of work by da Vinci, Michelangleo and other great artists of history to inspire you it's possible for even the keenest photographer to forget about their camera for a while and focus on looking at images instead of creating them. Which is mostly what we did (plus we were cooking and eating a lot, as you can see in our reviews). However, the museum seems like it has a fantastic collection so if you've time it's probably well worth a look. You might also check the listing at;

http://www.visitflorence.com/what-to-see-in-florence/current-exhibits-in-florence.html

 

Based on our own experiences our advice to you is to try to include as many of the following into your Florence trip;

  • Take one of the 'Best of Florence' Tours, they'll orientate you and give you a good look at 'David'. You only get less than an hour or so at the Accademia but for most of us, that's going to be enough.
  • Have a day on your own looking around the city centre, including the Duomo (it's free to enter, although you pay extra for the crypt or for the bell tower ascent). Florence is a small place, you'll struggle to get lost for long.

  • Sunset from Piazza Michelangelo, see it if you can, it's spectacular.
  • The views from Piazza Michelangelo and Giotto's Bell Tower (attached to Il Duomo).
  • Restaurants that we found to be inspirational art wise are La Cucina del Garga, Il Santo Graal and Touch Florence. The owners are extremely creative and it shows in the decor, menu and atmosphere.
  • The Roman Guy cooking class was superb and a lot of fun, as was the FlorenceTown pizza making class. You learn a lot about making your own food at these classes and we think such knowledge is a great souvenir to be taking home.
  • The Vasari Corridor. This is a one off, a must see art gallery. Don't leave Florence without seeing this.

 

Click here to see some pinhole images we took whilst in Florence. Otherwise, below are some of the digital images we created during our stay and more indepth information about hotels, tours and restaurants.

Hotel Casci

The 2* Hotel Casci has an ideal location from a tourists persepctive. Housed in a 15th century palazzo it’s a few doors away from the old Medici palace where Michelangelo himself stayed whilst a student and a five minute walk from Duomo (one of the centres of the old town). The Uffizi Gallery is a fifteen minute walk away, as is the Ponte Vecchio and it’s also about ten minutes walk from the central SMN train station and twenty minutes walk from Camp di Marte train station. The staff are friendly, the rooms very comfortable and quiet (and equipped with a TV with three international channels, a fridge, a safe, a large wardrobe, plenty of storage space and a really useful international powerpoint adaptor that covers all plugs as well as being a dock for iPhones, usb’s and most other phones. There's also a radiator in the room and an air con unit although we didn’t use either; we were there in November and the weather was mild). Breakfast is served buffet style and consists of warm croissant, fresh cakes and bread rolls, cheese and meat cuts, cereals, fruits, juices, boiled eggs (you can also boil your own eggs to your own requirements), toast, juices and of course a range of coffees.

See our review of the Hotel Casci here, or visit http://www.hotelcasci.com/

La Cucina del Garga

La Cucina del Garga is a fascinating restaurant a short walk from the very centre of Florence. Their food is classy yet substantial and served with little fuss in a very relaxed environment where the decor is so completely art focused that you feel like you’re in the house of an artist with an impressively wide taste in creative style. But don’t think this means the atmosphere is stuffy with people whispering quietly in rooms lined with copies of work by Renaissance masters, no, it’s much more inclusive than that.

The first thing we noticed when we arrived – apart from the cool music (Outkast were playing and it stayed at the same level of brilliance throughout the evening) – at our table was that there were marker pens laid out with as much care as the cutlery had been.

“Feel free to create something on the tablecloth,” said Andrea, our waiter, “the best designed table cloths win a dinner for two.” Table clothes of previous diners were draped over the wall lamps. They were impressive. We knew we’d never match their skill, but we were going to have fun trying!

Before we could even think about ordering a meal we had to take a few minutes to look around the property properly and take some photos. There were three rooms, all of them works of art in themselves. Our room had been painted by an artist who had worked their way through their palette as they made their way up to the barreled ceiling.

Ok, onto the food! La Cucina del Garga is becoming well known these days for it’s honest food. A couple of weeks before our visit the Food Network’s Guy Fieri had been here filming for his show ‘Diners, Drive-ins and Dives’ (it aired in January 2015) and it’s the restaurant of choice for many locals and expats alike, and after our own meal we could see why. The portion size is good, the dishes are intelligently seasoned and have an inventive combinations of flavours and also, it’s really good value!

We started doodling on the tablecloth as we waited for our food to arrive. It was fun, and the fact that we could do this gave us the opportunity to make the dining experience as lighthearted as we wanted it to be (the people on the next table just sat and talked about politics all night, they preferred things to be a touch more formal but that’s cool, the way the restaurant is set up gives room for all requirements).

We ordered an Insalata del Garga to share. This was a spicy rocket salad with tomatoes, avocado, palm hearts, toasted pine nuts and shavings of parmigiano. It was as refreshing on the eye as on the palate and there was just the correct amount of dressing; just wet enough to add to the ingredients without overpowering. I’m not saying that some salads don’t need a lot of dressing but a rocket salad like this isn’t one of them. Some other guests had the same salad and asked for balsamic but having tasted it ourselves that seemed a pretty savage thing to be doing, it was excellent as it was.

We were also brought fresh, home-made table bread and a delicious focaccia with a rich tomato topping. This was oily yet indescribably delicious.

For my starter I had the Tagliatelle del ‘Magnifico’. This was a signature dish of the chef (he made it for the Food Network show with Guy Fieri) and it’s basically fresh fettuccine with orange and lemon zest, mint and parmigiano in a creamy cognac sauce. No doubt, this was by far the most memorable pasta sauce I’ve ever had. I couldn’t pick out any particular flavour in it though, everything blended together intimately to create a unique taste experience that was totally new to me.

For my main I had Baccalà fritto con salsa ‘Vigliacca’ aglio. This was crispy fried cod fish served with a spicy garlicky tomato sauce. I’d had Baccala in Rome a few days earlier – it’s basically cod that has been dried, salted, then re-hydrated and fried – and that was nice but this version had a much lighter, crispy batter and was all the better for it. Coming from England, where I’ve enjoyed many summers searching for the ultimate fish and chips (not an easy task, I’ve only found it once), I’d say that this was perfectly fried fish. That’s not to say it tastes the same as English fish, it’s been dried out and salted as I mentioned so it hasn’t got the intense taste of fresh cod, but it’s still enjoyable and has a taste all of it’s own. It was tender, fried to produce that lovely golden colour but not long enough to take away the fish taste, and the salsa was excellent. Very tomatoey, slightly salty and somewhat spicy – it complimented the relative dryness of the fish perfectly.

As a side dish we had Patate al forno con rosmarino. So, roasted rosemary potatoes, another classically English dish. These were very well done, like you’d expect with your Sunday roast dinner, crispy on the outside, fluffy inside and sprinkled with dry herbs.

Our other side dish was Zucchine, melanzane, peperoni e radicchio grigliati con olio agliato. This was grilled radish, eggplant, zucchini and red bell pepper in a garlic infused oil. There was no mistaking that it was garlic infused oil that’d been used, it was very powerful. The vegetables had a medium texture, ensuring everything had a bite.

We’d eaten enough by this time so can’t tell you about the desserts, but if they’re anything like the other food we ate they’ll be well worth trying. You might have guessed by now but if not, we 100% recommend you pay La Cucina del Garga a visit. The food is great, the price is fair, the atmosphere is very relaxed and friendly and if you’re into art in any way, the whole place is a real spectacle.

Value 4/5

Atmosphere 4/5

Service 3.5/5

Flavours 4/5

Vegan Friendly? 1/5

Vegetarian Friendly? 3/5

You might like to know that the Chef, Alessandro Gargani, and his mother Chef Sharon Oddson also offer cooking classes during the day inside the restaurant, booking in advance is needed. For more information about cooking classes, menu, directions etc, please see http://www.garga.it/

And if you want to see the Food Network episode featuring the restaurant, here it is. Skip to the 8 minute 40 second mark if you want to go straight to the part about La Cucina del Garga. http://youtu.be/36RYzTwra9U?t=8m40s

Cuco Cucina Contemporanea

We were greeted at the door of Cuco Cucina by Riccardo and shown to a table in the corner. I’d mentioned to him by email (Riccardo speaks great English so communication was easy) that we’d be doing lots of photos so he seated us at the table with the most light. We thought that was a nice, considerate touch. Then when he offered wine and Lamia said that she was sick and didn’t want any alcohol he suggested green tea instead. This might not sound worthy of mentioning but we’d been in Italy a while by the time of our visit and this was the first place we’d come where a waiter had offered a non-sugary drink alternative to wine. Quite often the waiters are a little confused if you don’t want wine with your meal. It’s understandable, almost everybody drinks a glass of wine or two with their restaurant meal in Italy but we were eating out every night and occasionally wanted a night off from alcohol. So, full marks for Cuco Cucina for having green tea on the menu!

The kitchen is to the side of the dining area and separated only by plain glass so you can see chef creating your dinner. There are a few local products for sale on the orange recessed shelves, such as quality balsamic and other condiments, and contemporary art displayed on the walls. The design of the space felt modern and calm; glass and metal, pale green and white, it was kind of new world design meets organic farmer. Ricardo explained that they buy their ingredients fresh every morning in small portions and pre-cook only a very few cold dishes, such as quiche.

“We like to offer fresh food, but also, we can’t do it any other way as we don’t have any storage space!”

Riccardo advised that this wasn’t a place where you might get a small portion of food on a small plate and that unless we were super hungry we should order just two dishes each, plus dessert.

We were hungry though, and eager to taste a variety of things, so we went for three small dishes, and whilst we were waiting for the first to arrive we enjoyed the music (world fusion, a little Middle Eastern, a little Hindi) we enjoyed the organic, fair trade green and mint tea with the hot water served in a cast iron teapot. That morning we’d a pretty appalling experience whilst on a day tour with a group of brash, vulgar tourists that’d upset us and this was the perfect opposite; small scale, organic, local, calm, quiet and respectful.

The prices at Cuco Cucina are very reasonable; a starter for between 8 and 10 Euro, a main for around the same.

The table bread was typically Tuscan. It’s totally unsalted so has an unusual taste when eaten on it’s own but a perfect accompaniment to compliment the regional food, which is generally well salted.

My starter was a homemade quiche with cauliflower and a salad of sun-dried tomato and eggplant. The quiche was warm, made in the Provence style (so, a real quiche and not just a flan), subtly seasoned and in a light pastry. The sundried tomato was full of flavour; it was a light, gentle opening to my meal.

For my second course I had the spiedino scamorza & pepe. Basically this was skewers of cheese and pear, with the fruit’s natural sweetness added to by a drizzle of balsamic. It was a hearty dish with a medium range of texture, with the stretchy, warm semi-hard cheese and the sweet, soft pear; it was also full of flavour.

For my third course I had the sformato di spinaci with the torturi di zucchine. The sformato di spinaci had a firm texture. It was only a spinach and ricotta mix yet it still needed a knife to cut it. And what a beautiful deep green colour it was! There was no real explosion of taste with it, just a nice, subtle flavour. I loved the salad, there was some sliced apple and fennel among the leaves and it was sprinkled with pumpkin seeds, apricot and raw peanut. It was the nicest salad I’d had in a long time.

The torturi di zucchine was a very tasty and well seasoned cross between a quiche and a flan. The filling was just firm enough, not watery at all, and the filo was crispy on both bottom and top. It was as good as the quiche I’d had as a starter and it was clear having tasted these two dishes that the chef at Cuco Cucina was well skilled in the art of baking.

By the time we left the place it was full of locals; we’d been the only tourists in the restaurant all night. That’s not to say it’s not popular with tourists – the food is great, Riccardo speaks perfect English so there are no communication problems and it’s just five minutes walk from Duomo and five from the central station – and if you look on TripAdvisor it features in the top 50 places to eat in the city. We’d say it certainly deserves to be rated so highly. Excellent home-style food, personal, attentive and genuine service, a focus on local, organic produce, plenty of vegetarian options and all for a very reasonable price. Whether you visit for lunch or dinner, we don’t think that Cuco Cucina will let you down. The only hassle you might get here is in finding a table – there’s limited space as you can see in the photo above – so if you can, drop them an email to reserve a table before you arrive.

Value 5/5

Atmosphere 3/5

Service 4.5/5

Flavours 3.5/5

Vegan Friendly? 1/5

Vegetarian Friendly? 5/5

To discover more, please visit http://cucofirenze.blogspot.ca/

Relais Le Jardin

Relais Le Jardin restaurant can be found within the 5-star Hotel Regency, about a fifteen minute stroll (or a much quicker taxi ride) from the Duomo in the very centre of Florence. For a little classy, old school glamour, a confidently gentle atmosphere, high quality food and superb service we consider it a fine choice and would recommend it to any visitor looking to finish off a satisfyingly arty day with a cultured fine dining experience.

We’d reserved a table so were pleased to discover that Paolo, our waiter for the evening, was expecting us. It should be like this at all restaurants, of course, yet that’s so often not the case. I’m happy to say that there wasn’t a hint of this happening at Relais Le Jardin. Paolo knew we were coming, he greeted us by name and then he showed us to a table that was clearly set aside for us. Brilliant, that’s just how it should be.

Paolo offered us a choice of aperitifs but we decided to go with the traditional prosecco. We took our time over this first drink, enjoying our surroundings. The chairs were covered with soft, plush velvet, there were orchids on every table, Frank Sinatra was crooning in the background and the tables were laid out with a fine array of heavy silver, hallmarked cutlery and gold rimmed plates.

We’d already asked, at the time we’d reserved, for a set vegetarian three course meal so there was no need to look over the menu, we just ordered some water and then snacked on the table bread. It was an unusual but pleasant selection with Carta Musica from Sardinia (a yeast free, large, thin bread named after it’s look, which is similar to sheet music) which was a cross between a salty cracker and a light, peppery snack, Croccantelle and a selection of softer breads, as well as breadsticks and rolls covered with sesame.

Paolo suggested a white to go with our meal, a Vernaccia di San Gimmigmano. We’re definitely no wine buffs but we were happy with this choice; we’d recently been on a wine tour so understood that this particular white was the first Italian wine to be awarded Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) status in 1966, that it was reassuringly longstanding enough to have been mentioned by Dante in his ‘Divine Comedy’ and that, most importantly, it was well regarded by Italians as a very decent everyday wine.

It was a crisp, easy drinking wine that, as expected, went well with our first course, a leek omelette with a pecorino sauce. The omelette rounds were three high, had a firm texture and were served among a delicious aroma of freshly ground black pepper. Small pieces of leek added an extra variety of texture. The sauce was creamy and had a subtle depth to it’s flavour. One of the signs of a great chef is that they allow the individual ingredients the opportunity to shine. It’s so easy to say and not so easy to do but with this dish we could certainly enjoy the pecorino, the leeks, the pepper, the tomato and the herbs as individual joys or as a whole experience.

That first course had been creamy, as I’ve explained, but it wasn’t buttery at all. So our main course, a homemade ravioli with a potato filling and a butter and sage sauce, led on as a perfect compliment to it, building up the range of flavour experiences we were to enjoy during our meal.

We’d eaten this particular dish in many places, it’s a very traditional combination. I eat it often as I do love foods where subtle flavours are allowed to shine. In this case that was the tomato, the sage and the very rich butter which took it from a simple dish to a decadent one. Even the potato filling was discernible. It was a simple, satisfying al dente dish, excellently cooked and presented.

For dessert we were served a chocolate soufflé with vanilla ice cream. The presentation of the fruit was a delight, sliced thinly and dusted with icing sugar, and I found the pear especially tasty. The soufflé had a hard enough crust to support the ice cream whilst inside was a rich, sweet, hot molten chocolatey centre. Excellent.

The dessert was paired with a sweet wine, Ben Ryé, from the island of Pantelleria, just south of Sicily. It was a calming wine and a good choice to ensure we finished the meal relaxed and content. The meal had been a light experience, which was exactly as we like it (I enjoy eating more at breakfast so prefer to eat lightly in the evening), and the service had been impeccable, genuinely friendly and without any sign of stuffiness.

Value 4/5

Atmosphere 4/5

Service 5/5

Flavours 4.5/5

Vegan Friendly? 1/5 (but we asked for a vegetarian menu and they supplied it, so we're sure if you ask for vegan they will oblige)

Vegetarian Friendly? 5/5

We enthusiastically recommend the Relais Le Jardin, to discover more please visit - http://www.regency-hotel.com/en/5-stars-hotel-florence-italy/relais-le-jardin

Marco Ottaviano Gourmet Gelateria

Marco Ottaviano is a gelato shop and it’s rated, on TripAdvisor, as the Number 1 restaurant in all of Florence. Now, we know that TripAdvisor often can’t be trusted (if you search for activities in Canterbury, Kent, you’ll find my canoe tours at number 19 out of 40, even though I haven’t been operating them for the past four years…) but even so, if a simple gelato shop is Number 1 in a city full of very good restaurants, it deserves to be checked out!

We visited on a damp November weekday afternoon and found the shop relatively busy, which was a good sign. Many gelato shops in Italy adjust their menu in the winter to account for a drop in demand (they often offer types of cakes instead of gelato) but Marco Ottaviano didn’t seem to be doing that; perhaps they were so good that their gelato was loved all year round, rain, snow or shine? We’d soon find out…

Marco greeted us and took us into the back of the shop – which also doubles as his kitchen – so that we could have a talk in private.

“I used to work in the health industry until recently,” Marco explained in perfect English, “and my wife was a journalist. Then we decided to change careers and open an artisan gelateria here in Florence. It’d been a dream for a long time, and we decided to make it happen. I went back to university to study the art of making gelato, then I added my own distinct style of working to what I’d learnt and opened this shop.”

“It must be a successful style,” I commented, “You’ve only been open for five months yet already you’re ranked as the Number 1 place to eat in Florence despite the fact that the shop is a ten minute walk out of the city centre, which is a long way in such a small city!”

“Well, we’re very popular with local people,” smiled Marco, “which I’m happy about. Florentines know a lot about gelato, they’re a demanding audience so if they like you, it means you’re getting it right!”

We walked back into the shop for a look at the product. There wasn’t the usual high, colourful piles of gelato behind the counter; instead you could only see a polished surface dotted with pan lids.

“The gelato mix is a live thing,” said Marco, “if you leave it – or any dairy product – exposed to the air it changes it’s flavour. It can also go off, so we keep it enclosed. There are many shops in Florence that have their gelato piled high to entice the tourists in, but it’s not my way of doing it. Gelato is supposed to be all about the taste, not how it looks.”

Thanks to our having visited several gelato shops in Italy already (we love our job!) we already knew not to trust the shops where things looks too unnatural. If the colour is fluorescent and the gelato piled up high in huge quantities then it’s best to stay away. Gelato is made from fresh ingredients (if it isn’t then in reality it’s just ice cream) and at the most it can be kept for three days, that’s all, so when a shop has the gelato out on display in great mounds and it stays there like that for weeks, it’s not real gelato, it’s just ice cream full of preservatives. I doubt that any Italian would eat at such a place. They usually have a nose for decent food and they understand that a real gelato shop makes small, fresh batches of gelato most days and that the colours have to be real for them to taste as good as they should do.

“Here’s my pistachio,” said Marco, lifting a lid, “it’s light brown, see? That’s the colour of real, organic pistachio when it’s ground up and made into gelato. In many shops you’ll see pistachio gelato that’s a deep or even a bright green. Don’t trust it, it’s got additives in it.”

We had a taste of the pistachio; it was wonderful. He served us it in cups so I asked if the cones that we see people eating on the street often were traditional.

“You can have them, but too often they are sweet and I believe that this interferes with the flavours of the gelato. People like them so I have a range of cones available here, but I don’t like it personally and if you have no preference, I’d advise eating your gelato from a cup.”

We have known of gelato artists who make their own cones so that they’re simply a crunchy receptacle rather than a sweetener, as they couldn’t find cones to buy that are fit for purpose. It seems essential at the moment that if you’re a gelato artist who wants a cone that will really compliment the gelato you make, you have to make it yourself.

Marco explained that all of the milk used at the shop is sourced from the same herd near to Florence. It’s real milk, straight from the farm.

“How do you choose your flavours that you serve?” I asked.

“I decide what ingredients I can get that I can be sure are the real thing,” said Marco. “For instance, one of my most popular flavours is espresso. I decided to make this as I know a man who works nearby who is the six times world champion barrista. He knows about coffee, he goes around the world to source the best beans, so I get my coffee from him as I can then know for sure that my ingredients are the best available. The same goes for the other flavours; first I look to the people around me, then I decide what I can create whilst working with them.”

At the moment everything in the shop is gluten free except for one flavour that incorporates biscuit. There are also a selection of vegan sorbets and next year Marco will introduce vegan cream gelato using soya milk.

Marco, like all gelato artists, has his own exact science. He blast freezes his mixture at minus 39 then puts it into a regular freezer, then stores it behind the counter at minus 13 (which is warmer than many places we’ve been to) which, he says, ensures that the gelato is at the softness that he likes when it’s served.

It was 3.30pm by the time we finished talking, and time for us to enjoy ourselves and eat!

“Many of my flavours have been used up at lunchtime, so I’m about to make more,” Marco said, “but at the moment we have these.” Lamia chose a combination of Sicilian Pistachio, Piemonte Hazelnut and Chocolate Chip. I had the Crema al vin santo con cantucci with Pastore’s delight and Espresso coffee. They were delicious. Really. Absolutely delicious.

We’d recommend a visit to Marco Ottaviano. It’s not always easy to get good gelato considering how many gelato shops there are in Italy but we’re satisfied that Marco Ottaviano is a place you can trust. The gelato is authentic, made in the shop using quality, fresh ingredients and tastes excellent and for English speakers it’s a very easy ordering process. First, the available flavours are printed on the wall and are easy to understand. Then the prices are very clearly stated on the counter. You just ask for one, two or three scoops and if you have any questions then Marco and his wife speak English and will be happy to help.

The shop is easy to find, about a ten minute walk from the Cathedral on the route to Santa Croce. Just Google Map the address which you’ll find on the website, otherwise there’s a map on the TripAdvisor listing.

Ask any Florentine what their favourite gelato shop in the city is and they’ll all have a passionately held view. We’ve tried several and we’d say that based on taste, quality of ingredients and friendliness, Marco Ottaviano is ours.

Value 4/5

Atmosphere 2/5

Service 5/5

Flavours 4.5/5

Vegan Friendly? 3/5

Vegetarian Friendly? 5/5

To discover more, please visit http://www.marcoottaviano.it/

Il Santo Graal

Il Santo Graal Restaurant is very near the Pitti Palace, the former grand home of the Medici family, on a quiet street about a ten minute walk from the Ponte Vecchio in the very centre of Florence. We’d heard they had an unusual menu starting the week of our city stay that would appeal to artists; a ten dish degustation with each dish paired to a certain artist or art movement through colour or some other feature of the food that would offer a strong connection to the individual concepts. The table cloths would all be decorated by a local artist as well and other artists would be in attendance on the ‘opening night’, working as they ate throughout the evening.

It sounded like a very brave and unique occasion - we’ve never heard of a fine dining restaurant taking such a chance, usually they’re very safe in their concepts – so we turned up early evening and were greeted by Federico Fametti, Maître D’ of the restaurant, who invited us to look around and take some photos before service began.The front room was where we’d be dining that evening; the tables were already covered with the specially designed cloths that, we were told later when the artist arrived, were influenced by the work of Alighiero Boetti and the Arte Povera (poor art) movement that’d flourished in Italy from around 1967 to 1972. How lucky this modern day Florentine artist was, to have found a restaurant such as Il Santo Graal to recognize their art and have the skill and ambition to try to do something special with it.

Next to the front dining room was the bar and it was here that we were introduced, on an iPad, to the artists and art movements that were to play their part in our ten course meal. The first course was going to be an open one, where we’d be encouraged to find the artist within ourselves (we didn’t get what that meant at the time but all would become very clear at the table), the second course would be influenced by the founder of Spatialism, the Italian sculpture Lucio Fontana, the third course was titled ‘Pointillism’, the fourth ‘Cubism’, the fifth ‘Pop Art’, the sixth ‘Action Painting’, after artists such as Jackson Pollock, the seventh course would be influenced by Salvador Dali and his melting watches, the eighth by Dr Seuss, the ninth by Picasso’s blue period turning to pink and the tenth by Magritte and his pipe.

It seemed like we were in for an exciting evening!

Another good sign was that Federico noticed that Lamia was left handed straight away and, once we were seated, put her complimentary prosecco on the correct side for her.

“That’s the first time anyone’s ever taken notice of that,” she said. “It never occurred to me that it would be possible. We’ve eaten out four or five times a week for the past six months and even at the top end Michelin star places, nobody has ever thought to notice that I’m left handed and arrange my drink accordingly. If they take notice of such a slight thing, I can only imagine that the kitchen work is going to be very particular.”

The waitress spoke good English and after setting out our cutlery and bread (served in a leather bowl) handed us menus that explained more about each course that was to be coming our way. It was all in Italian but we could understand parts of it, and what we couldn’t quite get she was happy to translate for us.

The first course, where we were meant to discover the artist inside ourselves, was a fried pasta stuffed with an amatriciana sauce and a selection of other sauces (in the colours of the Italian flag, as so often is the case at the start of any meal in Italy) served on an artists palate.

Next came the course inspired by the sculpture Lucio Fontana, known for his wide slashes in stone and canvas. It was a beef tartare with beetroot, capers and olives and to get at the food we had to tear through the ‘canvas’ that covered the pot. Lamia didn’t care for this one and the dish was difficult to me to enjoy totally as I like to eat vegetarian or even vegan most of the time, but I was open to the experience and thought that if you enjoyed beef tartar, then you’d be happy with this new way of eating it. For sure, this and every other dish on the menu was not going to allow you to relax and just sit at the table and talk about how your day had been. It demanded your full attention, as did course number three; Pointillism.

The dish was created using chicken liver, orange aged grappa and apricot. As with the previous dishes it was rich and nearly impossible to compare it to anything else either in presentation or in the combination of flavours, and impossible, for me, to say whether I liked or disliked it simply because it was unlike anything I’ve ever eaten before. It’s so rare to eat something that is a completely new experience. We offered our compliments to the chef after this course – which is something we very rarely do – for creating such a new ‘thing’. We had begun to feel like we were at a unique art opening because of the whole feeling that was being created as the meal moved forward.

Course four was a bread, kale and vegetable soup created after the Cubist style. The presentation was magnificent and once again we had the colours of the Italian flag.

“Wow, the sauce is excellent,” said Lamia. ‘So strong, nothing like a curry sauce but with that sort of depth and power, if you get what I mean.”

I understood, I couldn’t pick out a particular ingredient in the sauce but it did have a flavourful gravitas about it. Later Federico said that it was a mixture of beans, vegetable and cabbage that had been made the day before and reheated for the extra flavour that the process creates, which made sense of Lamia’s comment about the curry feeling as that’s how curry is generally made if the chef wants to bring about an intensity of flavour.

“The bread’s acting like a sponge and the tomato and cheese on top is a pleasant compliment,” said Lamia. “I don’t really know if I enjoyed the first few dishes that much from a taste point of view but this one has definitely brought me back into the meal.”

Without any waiting (service was extra quick all night long) course five (potato gnocchi with saffron yolk and squid ink sauce) – inspired by Pop Art – was upon us. This gnocchi was extremely creamy, visually exciting and certainly enjoyable. Yet again though we ate it whilst asking ourselves, what do we think of this? Is it nice? We believed so…but it was just so different in taste, appearance and texture to anything we’ve had before. Could we say we loved it? No, not with any certainty. Could we recommend our friends to try it. Absolutely yes!

For the next course – the risotto with parmesan, vegetable, coal, hazelnuts and capers – the chef, Simone Cipriani, brought the cooked ingredients to our table and slapped the risotto onto the plate with confidence in front of us, creating a Jackson Pollock style movement and result.

There was real artistry at work here combining chewy and crunchy, soft and hard with the rich buttery taste that risotto generally has. The infusion of coal created what might be called a vegetable meringue, amazing.

After several more amazing dishes, finally came the homage to Magritte and his ‘This is not a Pipe’. In this case, it was a dish inscribed with ‘This is not a Truffle’. The strong scent of cocoa wrapped itself around a hint of truffle. Inside the light choux pastry was a cold cream, delicious!

You’ll probably not find this ten course experience on the menu at Il Santo Graal when you visit but Federico assured us that whilst the dishes may have been altered slightly to fit in with the art theme they were very representative of what’s usually on the menu.

The crowd sharing the room with us seemed very down to earth and willing to have fun. This is not the place to come if you’re after a black tie experience but if you want to expand your sensory horizons in a restaurant where the chef and owners are committed to creativity, supporting local artists and pushing the boundaries of contemporary Italian cuisine then Il Santo Graal is a must for any visitor to Florence. Personally we had an excellent evening there, and one that we’ll be talking about for many years to come.

And if you’re vegetarian then ask for the a la carte menu, there are certainly items available that’ll suit. Check out the options online before you visit if you like, the website is in either Italian or perfect English.

Value 4.5/5

Atmosphere 4.5/5

Service 5/5

Flavours 4.5/5

Vegan Friendly? 0/5

Vegetarian Friendly? 3/5

To discover more, please visit http://www.ristorantesantograal.it/

Touch Florence

We heard about Touch Florence, where the cuisine claims to be a contemporary twist on Tuscan classics and you order your meal with the aid of an iPad, from a friend and since it was just a fifteen minute walk from our hotel – the Casci – in the heart of old Florence we decided to pay it a visit.

We were greeted by co-owner Stefano and chef Matteo who showed us to our table. We immediately felt at home. Stefano and Matteo have the sort of genuine smiles and attitudes that we like and also the music suited our tastes, a fusion of classic remixes including songs by Queen, Depeche Mode, Blondie and Manu Chao.

After we were settled a waitress bought us our iPad menu and talked about it a little; like Stefano and Matteo she spoke good English which is always a bonus as our Italian is at a very low level! The waitress explained that having the iPad menu helps the restaurant as they change the menu often according to what fresh, seasonal ingredients they can get, so because it’s on a computer it means they don’t have to keep getting new menus printed. It also helps show the customer exactly what they’ll get. There are short videos next to some of the descriptions showing the chef buying produce and preparing it, and there’s clear labelling showing what’s vegetarian. It was very easy to navigate with the menu split up into courses, which then had a number of options, each illustrated with clear photos.

For starters Lamia had the pumpkin cream with roasted bread and ‘Colle Beteto’ extra virgin olive oil.

“It’s the quintessential winter pumpkin soup, it reminds me of cold days and long walks in the woods,” said Lamia. “It’s perfect for me as I’m slightly ill at the moment and this is a very comforting dish. The croutons are crispy and softened in the creamy texture of the pumpkin. The pumpkin isn’t puréed though, it still has little bits in it, which I like, and the entire thing is served in a mason jar which I think is a very cute way to present it.”

I had the roasted bread with carrots, celery, beans and black cabbage with new extra virgin olive oil from Chianti. There was a lot of texture and colour in this dish and the simple ingredients were excellently seasoned. Matteo said that everything they serve at Tough Florence is made from locally sourced ingredients which is why, he explained, the menu wasn’t as full as other times (it seemed fine to us) as it was November and there wasn’t the abundance available at the markets that spring and summer brings.

“If I can’t find ingredients locally then I won’t get them at all,” he said. “And as for the herbs we use, such as the sage which is a favourite of mine, I grow it in my own garden so I can be sure of it’s availability and freshness.” Matteo was an attentive chef, he passed by our table often to sit down and talk about the food. He’s very passionate about his cooking and we found it a joy to listen to his views on food and his profession in general.

As my next course, the homemade ‘gnudi’ with ricotta, spinach, parmesan butter and sage arrived he explained that it’s a traditional dish no longer found very much because it’s very time consuming to create.

“The ricotta and spinach has to be drained and completely dry before being mixed with flour, parmesan, egg, nutmeg and a few other ingredients. It can take up to two days to prepare. It’s a very traditional Tuscan dish and I suspect it’s a creation of people not wanting to waste any leftover filling after they’d made ravioli. As you probably know, in the past Tuscany was a very poor region and people wasted nothing, much of our food is created using all parts of the animal, so yes, I think that gnudi was created from that situation."

When the gnudi was set before me I felt it had a strong smell of ghee, which is the pungent melted butter you find often in Indian cooking. The wafer was salty and cheesy and the balls themselves were creamy, moist, tender and smelt strongly of herbs, butter and cheese. Since we’d made ravioli twice at cookery classes in Florence during the past few days I felt that I could appreciate a quality filling more than I could do before, and this certainly tasted top notch. The balls were slightly salty but that meant they paired excellently with Tuscan bread, which is completely unsalted.

For my main course I had a chickpea millefeuille with grilled tomino cheese, baby spinach salad and an artichoke cream. I’ve known Millefeuille as a layered French dessert before (we called it a Vanilla Slice in our part of England) and this took the concept of layering and adapted it to a traditional Tuscan dish called Cecina, which is a sort of pizza made from chickpea flour, water and olive oil.

“I wanted there to be a strong vegetarian option on our menu,” said Matteo, “and I wanted it to be a take on a very traditional Tuscan dish.”

As in my previous dishes, as well as creating a tasty experience, attention had also been paid to providing a range of textures and colours. It was well seasoned and salty, as Tuscan cuisine generally is, and there was a strong smell from the chickpea flour that came to me before the taste. When the taste did arrive it was an earthy one that really reminded me of Indian and Bengali cooking, which wasn’t surprising as Matteo had mentioned he’s worked in a kitchen preparing Indian food whilst in London.

The desserts on offer were…a chestnut cannoli with fresh ricotta cream, dark chocolate and persimmon sauce - the cannoli was made with chestnut flour, tasted subtle and was, I thought, a suitable closure for a thoughtful meal - a tiramisu served in a jar. As expected there was a coffee flavour; it was also exceptionally light yet creamy. Then there was a mini creme brûlée with truffle, topped by a mini nest of spun sugar, and finally a mojito with rum. It was a mix of English cream, light mousse, mint and crunchy particles of biscuit to top. As with all the desserts these flavours were subtle – there were no fireworks or easy-hit sugar-rush angles taken – and to me this is the mark of a confident chef.

“I understand how difficult it is to please diners,” said Matteo as we prepared to leave, “so I consider it a success if somebody enjoys and remembers two courses out of a four course meal here.”

Matteo cooks for himself, that’s clear. He’s happy if other people like what he does but his own passion and curiosity is the driving force behind his creations (he offers cooking classes at the restaurant that you can book directly through their website, if only we’d known before our visit – which was at the end of our stay in the city – we’d have definitely gone on one). We felt that overall the food he created showed a respect for Tuscan tradition whilst trying to re-interpret it for the present age and also dedication to presenting real flavours, rather than masking sub standard ingredients with tricks which, let’s face it, many chefs try to do with the overuse of certain ingredients (like sugar or an overdose of sauce).

Matteo says that their aim at Touch Florence is to recreate what they feel a restaurant should be; somewhere comfortable like your home where you can get good food and drink. As I’ve explained, during our meal both he and Stefano regularly stopped by our table to see how we were doing and just have a chat, as would have happened in an old style restaurant in Tuscany, or indeed anywhere in the world in my experience. There was no stuffiness about the place and the staff had the ability to make us feel like regulars straight away. We’d say that if you’re after eating at a restaurant that appeals to both Italians who want traditional home cooking with a modern and creative twist and to tourists who want something different than the ‘Fettuccini Alfredo’ found so often on American/Italian menus (for the record it’s mostly called Fettuccine al Burro in Italy nowadays and historically ‘Maccheroni Romaneschi’ although to be honest you’d struggle to find it in most real Italian restaurants as really it’s just buttered noodles and not many people want that when there’s so much more that cuisine has to offer!) then we advise you to give Touch Florence a try. Ordering from an iPad is fun, the surroundings are stylish and unique and Matteo, Stefano and the rest of the staff are excellent hosts.

Value 4/5

Atmosphere 3.5/5

Service 4/5

Flavours 4/5

Vegan Friendly? 1/5

Vegetarian Friendly? 5/5

To discover more visit http://www.touchflorence.com/en/

Gustavino

Gustavino is located on a relatively quiet street just a few steps from Piazza della Signoria, the square that fronts the town hall in Florence and which most tourists gravitate to many times during their stay in the city. Our visit to the restaurant didn’t start well. We were booked in for 6pm but when we arrived a sign on the door said that they didn’t open until 7. Mmm.

When we returned at 7pm there was a little confusion as to our reservation which annoyed us further but eventually we were seated and given menus. Don’t misunderstand me, the staff were friendly enough and Chef came over – once we were seated – and explained the dishes, recommended several specials, said that all the pasta was handmade and offered us complimentary glasses of prosecco. It’s just the bit about the reservation being for a wrong time – and then not being remembered – that shouldn’t have happened, it made us feel rather unimportant, which of course is the truth but it’s a truth we all like to overlook when we’re dining out…

The restaurant interior is part modern, part old style with bare brick vaulted ceiling and walls and also an exposed kitchen that you can see from anywhere in the main dining hall. The wine alcove is impressively stocked, the floors hardwood and there’s a metal and glass table and chairs theme throughout.

There are a few other observations to make.

  • The music was unnoticeable and, you might say, undistinguished and mellow.
  • The bright lights were good for photography but not for a romantic atmosphere.
  • The chairs were hard; this was a place to sit upright and to pay attention to the food.
  • There are no outside tables so you’re very protected (outside tables in Florence are often plagued by street sellers, musicians or car fumes).
  • There were no local diners present when we were there, or when we left.
  • The paintings on the bare walls, created by a local artist, were a little Spanish in feel and light to look at.

Andrea, our waiter for the evening, seemed knowledgeable about the menu and offered to pair our wines with each course. We declined; sometimes we enjoy a wine pairing but to be honest the trouble we had at the start of our visit put us in a guarded mood so we just wanted a simple meal. We knew that the family of Barbara, the owner, owns their own vineyard locally so we asked for a light Chianti from her farm as we looked over the menu.

We both started with a salmon mousse with balsamic.

“It’s a soft, tangy mousse,” Lamia said, “and the dish has a solid texture in all, what with the crunchy toasted toast. It’s an ok starter, I’m sorry I can’t say more than that.” I had to agree, it wasn’t a startling beginning.

Next Lamia had artichoke in a puff pastry stuffed with ricotta cheese, pine nuts, sultanas, honey and pesto.

“It’s hot, and smells and taste freshly cooked,” said Lamia. “The puff pastry is incredible, this is more like it. The salmon was just ok but this is great. The tastes are subtle although I can really taste the honey well, and the pesto and honey combination is interesting and new to me; I like it. I’ve never had artichoke before and this is a nice way to be introduced to it.”

I had the herb goat cheese mousse with honey and black pepper. It was basically a small glass with two types of goats cheese – neither of which were very strong in taste – and three rusks of thin toasts protruding from the top. It was served cool, felt light to the tongue and to be honest, it was average. The presentation was good but I would’ve wanted for the balsamic to touch the food, not just the plate, to add taste as the cheese was just too subtle. Like Lamia’s artichoke it conformed to the usual local pattern early in the meal of mimicking the colours of the Italian flag.

For my second course I had chestnut dumplings with porcini mushrooms. Both dumpling and mushroom were of a similar medium texture and felt like the onset of winter, so it was a success in that respect. I really felt that my meal ought to have got going by now, but it just wasn’t happening with this dish. It’s ok for first course to be very subtle but the second should be of a stronger taste, in my opinion. This would’ve been an ok first as the dumplings have a decent texture but the flavour was so incredibly subtle, as was that of the mushrooms; the strongest flavour was the pepper. I know that both mushrooms and chestnut are tastes you have to look for on many occasions but this dish needed work; perhaps something to bring the chestnut taste out more. I wasn’t too unhappy at this stage though; I’d eaten enough Italian food to know that the meal could still be rescued by main and dessert and perhaps what they added could make sense of what had come before.

Lamia’s second course was homemade yellow pumpkin and amaretto ‘ravioli’ with butter, sage and Parmesan cheese.

“This is very nice indeed,” said Lamia. “I can really taste the sweetness of the pumpkin and the ravioli is nicely al dente. There are five raviolis served in a line with some shredded parmesan in one corner and two sage leaves on the other. It offers a delicious combination of flavours, ingredients and textures, with the crunchy biscuit like crumbs on top – I think they’re nutmeg – and the buttery and cheesy filling and sauce. It’s not too heavy a dish yet it feels rich. It’s a success.”

For my main course I had the vegetarian flavours triad. It consisted of a vegetable flan, variations of eggplant parmigiana and also smoked cheese ‘Scamorza’ in a puff pastry with pear, honey and black pepper. This was a much better dish than my previous two; everything had a much more discernible taste. I thought that the pear and cheese combination didn’t quite work on this occasion but overall it was a decent dish. The flan was more a vegetable soufflé. As for the rest of the plate, the eggplant parmigiana was nearer to traditional Italian cooking as I know it. It had a comforting heavy-ness and the springy mozzarella texture complimented well the soft eggplant inner and it’s hard skin.

We asked for the dessert menu and was more than surprised to find it covered with fake fur. Very odd. I had the variation of cheese cake with wild berry sauce. For me this was the best part of my meal, together with the excellent wine. Two crispy choux pastry bowls filled with ricotta cheese and drizzled with and surrounded by red berry sauce. It was light and nothing explosive, but a lovely end to the meal all the same.

Lamia finished with amadei’s chocolate soufflé with molten center. “This is soft chocolate served warm with a hot molten creamy centre that spills out as you dip your spoon into it,” Lamia said. “It’s circled around with caramelised orange and syrup and topped with a sprig of mint. Nice and gooey, I’m happy with this.”

The presentation had been very good throughout the evening. This wasn’t fine dining – nobody filled our glass up when empty – which is ok by us. With a bit more thought going into the flavour combinations we feel that Gustavino could be a very decent mid range, mid Europe-style restaurant. Perhaps we caught the chef on an off day; certainly we hope that our photos show that the food has potential. Lamia’s food was mostly very good indeed and I enjoyed the wine a lot, and each dish had it’s little highlights. One major plus point is that it’s easy for a vegetarian to eat a full meal here without searching the menu hard, and that the staff are friendly.

Value 3/5

Atmosphere 2.5/5

Service 4/5

Flavours 3/5

Vegan Friendly? 0/5

Vegetarian Friendly? 5/5

To discover more, please visit http://www.gustavino.it/

Frary's Restaurant and a Day Trip to Venice

Frary’s Restaurant was the highlight of our trip to Venice. That might seem a strange statement to make as this is Venice we’re talking about after all, one of the most famous tourist destinations in the world, but bear with me, I’ll explain.

On the day of our visit, Venice hadn’t lived up to the hype. We’d had only 16 hours to spare in the city so we’d arranged to go out on a boat trip, recommended on Trip Advisor (Il Bragozzo Local Boats Tours) and built our day around the arrangement. But the boat owner hadn’t turned up at the meeting point so we’d been left to wander the rainy, cold streets on our own, trying to make the most of our time.

Sometimes the streets were nice but the more central ones were lined with expensive, vulgar shops (Prada, Armani, Dolce & Gabbana, etc); it seemed as if the whole inner city was just a net to haul in clueless cruise ship passengers. I understand the need to make money from the city but if I want to shop in such stores I can do it in my home country, I really don’t expect to see such things polluting ancient Venetian streets, no doubt pushing up rent prices and driving local people out of business in the process. There’s a time and a place for crass materialism and when it’s wrong it stands out like a very sore thumb. Whatever next, a Pizza Hut or KFC outlet at the Pyramids of Gizeh? Well, actually, yes, but that’s a moan for another time…

So we’d spent a lot of time in churches, sheltering from the rain (there are covered marble benches flanking parts of St. Marks Square but signs say that sitting here is an offence punishable by law, which seems rather odd). The art on the walls was often good, especially when we stumbled upon a Tintoretto or another artist from the Venetian School that we’d learnt about and started to appreciate thanks to the educational tours we’d taken in Florence.

By the time the cold damp day had turned to drizzly evening we were eager to experience something of Venice that wasn’t just there to amuse rich tourists; luckily we’d booked ourselves into eat at Frary’s.

Generally in Venice there’s just two things to eat. Fish and pizza. But good fish can be expensive, as it is anywhere, and Venetian pizza is generally accepted by Italians to be of a poor quality because of the humidity and dampness of the climate. So if you’re a vegetarian you’ve got the choice of a so-so cheese pizza or a variation of pasta with sauce, and if you’re gluten free or vegan then you may as well just forget eating…almost.

We’d done some research before our visit and seen that Frary’s offered good options for every style of eating. It had loads of vegetarian choices, a few vegan and it’s one of only five restaurants in the whole of Venice that is certified to promise gluten free meals (many more restaurants in the city claim to offer gluten free but they’re not certified to do so, so you take your chances with them). We also liked the look of the style of food on the website and when we’d emailed them to reserve a table Federica, who owns the place, had emailed back in perfect English, and in a very friendly manner. That had sealed it, it was going to be Frary’s for dinner!

The restaurant is about fifteen minutes walk from St. Mark’s Square and the same distance from the central train station and is relatively easy to find. You just have to be careful, when you’re almost there, that you don’t go to ‘Fraris’ (spelt with an ‘i’) that’s just a couple of meters away from Frarys. You probably won’t mistake it as Fraris plays very loud music whereas Frarys is much calmer.

The deep red, orange and Tuareg blue decor was decidedly Middle Eastern and North African and together with the relaxed and friendly atmosphere it reminded us of our times at mud brick Kasbahs in Morocco, or as if we were in a Bedu tent with a skylight view up to the deep blue. Federica the owner explained that she has family roots in Greece and, since she started the restaurant alongside a Jordanian, this provided the first direction for the cuisine to go in.

“First of all we were serving mainly Italian dishes with a few Middle Eastern examples as well,” she explained, “but the Middle Eastern food proved so popular with locals that we switched over to that style almost exclusively.”

“Are locals generally adventurous with their eating?” I asked. In Florence several chefs had mentioned that the locals there weren’t adventurous at all, and that if you didn’t have at least five very traditional dishes on the menu, your restaurant would fail.

“Well, quite. Venice has a long history as a trading post with goods coming in by ship from all over the place, so the locals here have a tradition of being open to trying all types of food.”

Frarys is apparently very popular with locals at lunchtime and that’s not surprising considering the quality of food – that we were soon to taste ourselves – and the fact that they do a great lunch for €15, that includes a tasting menu and half litre of water, or €12 for an appetizer and a main course.

The menu was in English, Italian and French and as the website had suggested there was a satisfying range of vegetarian, vegan and gluten free choices. There were so many interesting and thoughtful options, we could tell that the selection had been put together by somebody well traveled, like Federica. We felt we were in for a treat; well traveled cooks who’ve a deep experience of textures and spices generally offer up a memorable experience.

For appetizers we had pita bread and traditional Italian handmade bread (made near to Bologna) and a mixed plate each. Lamia’s plate had hummus and tzatziki served in crunchy red lettuce bowls, skewered kebabs made of haloumi style cheese, eggplants, peppers and zucchini, kefta and also minced beef and raisins in a soft fried pastry triangle. I had the same hummus and tzatziki with deep fried crispy falafel balls, vegetarian pastries, softly fried cheese and also dolmades (rice wrapped in vine leaves). I couldn’t taste the nutty tahini in the hummus first of all because I haven’t eaten a good dip in a long time, just the sorts you find in a supermarket, so the subtleness of this one took a while to come through. When it did appear though it was lovely, there were none of the tricks you’d associate with regular hummus, no fake flavours, and the same was true of the tzatziki which wasn’t overly garlicky. Everything was very light in feel, and very Greek. I loved all of mine and Lamia did as well.

For her main course Lamia had the Kalam. This is a Bengali dish and since Lamia is Bengali and was missing her home food, and Federica had told us that the chef making the dish was Bengali (Frary’s has three chefs, each handling different parts of the menu according to their expertise), Lamia figured she’d order it and enjoy a (hopefully) well cooked taste of her homeland.

“This is a classic Bengali pulao and korma dish,” said Lamia. “I’ve had this as a child many times, and as an adult too. This one tastes different to how my mum makes it but it definitely tastes like someone’s homemade version. I mean, it doesn’t taste like a restaurant version of Indian food which is all too often too oily with exaggerated spice levels. This isn’t like that, I can imagine someone’s mother making this for their children. The chicken is tender and moist. A korma would traditionally be marinated in a yogurt sauce for some time before being cooked and I think this is how they have done it here. It’s served inside crispy lettuce leaf flowers on a bed of pulao rice, which is basically spiced, plain white rice. This isn’t a hot spicy dish though, the tastes are mild, subtle, and the most noticeable spices are cinnamon and cardamom. As much as I like Italian food I do miss my home food and it’s such a pleasant and welcome surprise to have this dish, in Venice of all places! I’m a happy Bengali today!”

I had the Vegetarian Magluba. It was vegetarian Jordanian rice with carrots, potatoes, raisins and yogurt. There was an exciting range of things going on with this dish. Warm, medium cooked carrot and peas, a sweetness coming from the raisins, the crunchy lettuce, pine nuts and almonds and then the cool yoghurt. The result was a light dish that was freshly satisfying, with just enough juice to taste but not to swamp.

For dessert Lamia had the Tiramisù and I the Gelato Arabo.

“It’s a pleasant Tiramisù,” said Lamia, “and not that different from the one we made in Florence earlier this week. The soft wafers have a subtle coffee taste, it’s not overpowering but I can tell it’s there, and the mascarpone egg mix is firm. The whipped cream on the side is different though, that’s got a Middle Eastern twist with it’s sprinkling of pistachio. Overall it’s a very soft and delicious Italian ending to what’s been an unusual, tasty, multi-national meal."

The Gelato Arabo was described as Arab ice-cream with dates, raisins, pistachio and rose-water. I’d imagine it was quite a difficult decision to make homemade ice cream in Italy, since the country is the home of gelato which is widely accepted as a superior dessert when made correctly. Unless the ice cream is very, very good it’ll be a fail, for sure. But this dish was good. The rosewater was noticeable and offered a windblown freshness whilst the chopped nuts and sultanas gave texture and geographical context to what was, in my opinion, a cross between ice cream and gelato. Not so hard as ice cream, not as creamy as gelato and decadent enough without feeling particularly unhealthy.

We’d recommend Frary’s very highly, it’s a warm, friendly place serving plenty of options whatever your style of eating. It’s also pretty central, fairly priced and popular with locals, which is always a very good sign.

Value 4.5/5

Atmosphere 3.5/5

Service 3.5/5

Flavours 4/5

Vegan Friendly? 2/5

Vegetarian Friendly? 5/5

To discover more, please visit http://www.frarys.it/

The Roman Guy Cooking Class

We were in Florence to see some art, the same as every other tourist.

No, scrap that.

We were in Florence to see some art, the same as every other tourist…except the vast swathes who seemed to be in Florence just so they could take selfies with camera-phones stuck on the end of those ridiculous ‘selfie-sticks’ and inform their friends that they were in Florence (and to those people we say, have you no intellectual shame, no sense of how silly you look? And be careful with that thing or you’ll have someone’s eye out).

And make no mistake, we were seeing some great art, only, we needed a break. From the selfie-stick-wielding hoards, for sure, but also, there’s only so much Renaissance genius one can take in and truly appreciate before the eyes start to glaze over and start to view a masterpiece with the same joy as a re-run of a TV show you never really liked in the first place. We had to take time out, for our own sake and for that of the art that demanded our full attention but, we were in Florence for just a few days, we didn’t want to sit in our hotel, or a cafe, as we recovered our enthusiasm, we wanted to make use of our time!

So after a quick look around at what else we could be doing in the city we committed to a five hour cookery course. We’d done a little pizza making before and loved it so when The Roman Guy said they could teach us to make fresh pasta in Florence it sounded just what we wanted; what a superb skill to learn, and also what a great present it would be for those at home! We could take them a fridge magnet home as a gift, as usual, or we could take the knowledge of how to make pasta, and cook it for them when we invited them round to dinner!

We met Barbara outside the cookery school which was a ten minute walk from the centre of the city, and our hotel (the Casci) and walked onto the outside section of the Sant’ambrogio market.

“It’s smaller than the more central San Lorenzo market that’s more popular with tourists,” said Barbara, “but this is where Florentines come to get fresh vegetables. I also like it as it’s near the school and I can get good organic vegetables here, and a fine selection of cheeses.”

At the organic vegetable stall we talked about what we’d like to cook and eat. We try to be vegetarian so we mentioned that.

“Ok, I try to be like that as well,”said Barbara, “so how about we get some vegetables that are in season, such as pumpkin, artichoke and broccoli and then some fresh ricotta cheese and parmesan, then we can make ravioli and another pasta dish?”

That sounded great for us. Even better was that the vegetable stall was certified organic, you could also tell that it was the real deal as the produce was of irregular size and colour rather than the uniform same-ness of the mass produced, full-of-pesticide produce carried by most supermarkets.

“I always try to buy organic, and produce that’s both local and seasonal,” explained Barbara. “I can get different produce from other regions of Italy and of course even other countries if I like, but it doesn’t make sense to do that, we have so much here in Tuscany, it’s better to eat what is fresh and made nearby.”

We liked this philosophy, it’s better to buy local, it helps the local economy and it helps ensure the produce is fresh and not racking up a huge carbon footprint as it travels from another part of the world to where you are. And eating seasonally also helps you to understand something of your own region, what’s grown there, what’s possible, the history behind it all, and more.

We walked back past the tripe stalls – tripe soup is a popular lunchtime snack for locals – to the cookery school and prepared to cook. Lamia hadn’t cooked much at all before and I’m certainly no expert, so we warned Barbara that we might be a little slow.

“No problem, we will do it all together,” she said. “First we chop the ingredients.”

Our aim was to make fresh pasta and combine it with two styles. First, we’d make ravioli with a pumpkin and ricotta filling, served with a melted butter sauce (this classic dish is often also served with sage) then another sort of pasta that we’d decide about later, to be served with a broccoli sauce. We’d also make an artichoke salad for starters and use the leftover pumpkin and ricotta filling as a topping for fresh bread.

Lamia cut the pumpkin up, I made the pasta dough and Barbara peeled the artichoke and soaked it in vinegar to soften it up. Later she’d drain this and cook in a little water for a few minutes, then layer it on top of parmesan and spray with balsamic.

“We used the balsamic that’s between three and five years old here,” said Barbara, “but for other uses you can pay huge amounts for balsamic that would last you for years.” I asked if balsamic can be aged in the bottle and not just the cask, it seemed to me that it’d make a brilliant present for somebody. Imagine, you give them a bottle of five year old balsamic and tell them it’s a gift for their newborn child, to be opened on the occasion of their twenty-first birthday. I’ve tasted a twenty year old balsamic, it’s thick and sweet, what a gift that would be.

“Yes, you can age it in the bottle, you just have to make sure it’s kept at a regular temperature, about nineteen degrees, and in a shady place.”

It was this ability to ask so many questions as and when they occurred to me that was appealing to me. I enjoyed the cooking, that was great, but to have a knowledgeable chef on hand to answer whatever question came to mind was invaluable. I learnt how to make fresh pasta that morning, sure, but I learnt so much more too. About how to pair ingredients, about seasonal produce, about real Italian cooking (Spaghetti Bolognese and garlic bread are things you will never find on a real Italian menu!) and some really interesting stuff about organic wine.

“Many producers in Chianti region offer organic wine, the growing season is shorter for that grape so there’s less chance of the insects spoiling the grapes. In Montepulciano it’s different, the grapes take longer to ripen so there’s more chance of spoiling if no pesticides are used, so less producers offer organic wine. Also, a major influence is the USA market, they won’t import any wine that isn’t grown with chemicals, so that puts many producers off. But the organic wise from Chianti region is great, I can share a bottle with my husband and have no bad feeling in my head or stomach as a result of it.”

That didn’t surprise me about the USA, the place seems to be run by big business at the moment, one of whom is the agro-chemicals industry so it’s not surprising that they don’t want chemical free products in the country. It’s insane but nothing new, really. At the start of last century the French wine producers saw Absinthe as a threat to their industry so they invented a huge smear campaign against it, saying it induced insanity and addiction when really the truth was simply that it was cheaper and stronger than wine and therefore more popular with the general public. By getting it banned the wine producers ensured that the biggest threat to their own product was removed from the marketplace.

I’m not going to go into all that we did, you can attend a cookery class yourself to learn all that, I’ll just say that in those three hours that we spent preparing our lunch we went from knowing next to nothing about Italian cooking to making our own fresh pasta dishes and gained a confidence that had us planning already what meals we were going to make for our friends and family when we returned home.

At the end of the class we sat and enjoyed our work, along with an excellent organic wine. I’ve eaten in more scenic locations, obviously, but rarely enjoyed dining as much as I did here. Barbara was a very capable, enthusiastic and encouraging teacher; if she could teach us to cook (and she could) then she can teach anybody! We’re now confident that we can make a very passable ravioli, and it feels great! It was also really useful to learn from a chef like Barbara who understands the value of organic produce. The path to producing healthy food nowadays is fraught with difficulties – there are so many supermarkets and big businesses trying to sell us poison-laden food – so every bit of knowledge we can gather from those people who do actually care about the rest of us is incredibly valuable.

If you’re planning to be in Florence, do consider this tour. It’s fun, informative, you get a great lunch at the end of it and we reckon that your family will thank you for your efforts when you bring the knowledge home and cook them a nice meal!

To discover more about this class, visit http://theromanguy.com/tours/private-tours/florence/details/63762/florence-private-cooking-class/

FlorenceTown Pizza and Gelato Making Class

There’s much about this cookery course that I can’t really relate to you. It was three hours long after all and the excellent chefs were always eager to answer any questions that we had. Personally I wanted to be able to make pizza at home, and to be able to make gelato by hand, like people did when it was first invented (without a fancy machine that would cost a lot and which I'd hardly use). Thankfully the chefs could answer my questions, the second with a lengthy explanation about how gelato could be made with just a regular freezer and the first, well, that was what everybody wanted to know really so that was dealt with over the course of the evening as we made our own individual pizzas. After eating our pizzas and gelato, all of which was washed down with a few glasses of Chianti, we were awarded certificates and also given a small book containing the recipes for pizza and gelato. We thoroughly enjoyed this FlorenceTown Pizza and Gelato Making Class. It was informative and fun, we met lots of decent people and we’d learnt how to make pizza and gelato, from scratch!

To discover more visit http://www.florencetown.com/161-pizza-gelato-cooking-class.html?tour=161

FlorenceTown Wanna Be Italiano Cooking Class

During this class we learnt how to make tiramisu, bruschetta, ravioli stuffed with ricotta, tagliatelle and a meat and also a vegetarian sauce. It was a fun learning experience, open to all levels of cooking experience and at the end of it we got to eat a lovely meal with new friends. When we look back on our week in Florence the overall feel of our experience was that it was a very creative one. Sometimes we enjoyed looking at what somebody else produced, such as the ‘David’ or the treasures of the Uffizi, and sometimes, when our eyes and brains weren’t appreciating all the beauty and needed a time out, we began creating ourselves, and this cookery class was part of that process. It’s inevitable that the average tourist is going to need a break from museum-going if they’re in Florence for more than a few days and we say that there’s no better way to recharge your energies that to take a cookery class. We met some lovely people on this one, ate great food, learnt some new skills and when it comes to impressing dinner guests back in our home countries (“We learnt to make this in Florence…”) I think we’ve now got that covered. To discover more please visit http://www.florencetown.com/49-cooking-class-florence.html?tour=49

FlorenceTown Uffizi Gallery and Vasari Corridor Tour

The Vasari Corridor is a one km long private passageway lined with self-portraits of prominent artists from the past few hundred years that used to be the Medici families' route from their home in the Pitti Palace across the Ponte Vecchio to the Uffizi Gallery. It's an outstanding art collection and the fact that you can only visit it as part of the pre-booked group makes the viewing process all the more special. You get to see a little of the main Uffizi Gallery at first purely to explain the evolution of the Renaissance and its position in the history of art and then you move onto the corridor and spend a decent amount of time there. I felt that I learnt more on this tour than on any other, mostly because our guide kept asking us our opinions. I felt a bit stupid at first because I don’t know much about art but it was clear that the rest of the group was in the same boat so after a while, with everybody’s support, I gained confidence and began to put forward my opinion. And it felt good to do so! Fascinating, also, to see the face of art changing through the years, as you walk the corridor. Of all the gallery experiences we had in Florence, all of which were brilliant, this was the most memorable.

To discover more please visit http://www.florencetown.com/103-vasari-corridor-uffizi-tour.html

FlorenceTown Inferno Tour

If you'd like to discover Florence through the adventures told by Dan Brown in his book 'Inferno', so, essentially using Dan Brown - and Dante - as an excuse to discover Florence, then this tour may well be for you. You'll visit the Palazzo Vecchio, the small backstreet church closely connected with Dante and also the Baptistry, a building which influenced both Brown and Dante heavily. It was here, towards the end of our tour, that our guide Mario recited some Dante and certain sections of Brown's Inferno book. He was a superb orator, and a very talented poet. I think maybe the tour would benefit from Mario doing more recitals as he certainly has a talent for it, and from a tourists perspective we loved it as it’s not every day you hear Dante recited so well in English (he also recited Dante in Italian; equally thrilling to hear). Discussing the tour over lunch we thought that even though we hadn’t read the book we did feel that it was still an interesting and informative way to spend a few hours. The sites we saw were unusually introduced to us and well worth the visit, and Mario’s recital and passion were a joy to behold. To discover more please visit http://www.florencetown.com/166-inferno-florence-tour.html

FlorenceTown Tuscany Wine Trail

After a forty minute drive from central Florence you're in among the rolling, misty Tuscan hills that you're probably well used to seeing in glossy travel magazines. And you'll be happy to find that the scenery really is as beautiful as you expected it to be. This tour takes in two vineyards; at one of them you get an extensive, very educational tasting session. Matteo, our driver and guide, was a professional sommelier and skillful at relaying his knowledge. After the vineyards you drive to FlorenceTown's base - the lower floors of a stately home - in the Chianti region for another tasting and then a sit down, leisurely pasta lunch (plenty of vegetarian options). Our advice to other travellers is that if you're interested in cutting through a certain mystique and really understanding the basics of wine, then this is a great tour and is well worth the money. Matteo knows wine, he can talk about it well and also the scenery is lovely. To discover more about the tour, please visit http://www.florencetown.com/160-tuscany-wine-tour-chianti.html

City Wonders Tour of the Uffizzi Gallery

The Uffizi is generally thought of as one of the world's finest art galleries and it's our opinion that any visit to Florence should make a little (or a lot of) time for it in their schedule. It's possible to visit on your own but if you'd like to see the art in the company of a local who can relay a great deal about it, then a guided tour is the way to go. This City Wonders tour shows you the collection highlights - Botticelli, Michelangelo, da Vinci, etc - and at the end of it we had the choice of leaving the gallery or staying around on our own and spending more time in the presence of our favourite pieces. We stayed and experiencing the works alone in the deserted early evening was a very great pleasure. Lamia thought our guide, Angelo, made things more interesting than the usual tour guide. He was a real storyteller, incorporating fables and interesting anecdotes into his explanations, increasing insight into paintings that are already well known to most people. I agreed that he had a great way of talking, ending each little speech with a prompt to look, or follow his line of thought. All in all, he was a fascinating talker and this was a brilliant tour. To discovre more please visit http://www.citywonders.com/en/italy/florence/florence-tours/florence-tour

Walks of Italy Best of Florence Walking Tour

Walks of Italy always promise a small group size, and they always deliver. This results in a more personal experience for the tourist, we find (we've taken six tours with them now, in Rome and Florence). Of course, you sometimes pay a little more for the privilege but as well as the small group you also tend to get a classier guide for your money and, because it's costing more, a more refined fellow tourist. Which matters in some situations; you hardly want to view 'David' whilst in the company of somebody who can't stop talking about bacon, or 'how small and quaint everything is over here', do you. Our tour started at the Accademia where we saw Michelangelo's 'David' and 'Prisoners' and then continued onto Il Duomo, Florence's centrepiece church. From here we walked onto the open air art gallery that is Piazza della Signori and then finished on the famous Ponte Vecchio. By the end of this three hour tour we felt that we had a good understanding of both Florentine history and of the layout of downtown Florence, at least the part that’s of most use to tourists. We could now go on and explore with more confidence. To discover more please see https://www.walksofitaly.com/florence-tours/florence-walking-tour-david

City Wonders ‘Skip the Line’ Best of Florence Highlights Tour

This tour is similar to the Walks of Italy tour we've described above, only it takes a slightly different route through town and visits an extra church but doesn't visit the crypt of the Duomo Cathedral. We started at the Accademia, where our 'skip the line' tickets allowed us straight in without queuing (although to be honest, in winter when we went there were no queues to skip), and then, after a short tour, we had half an hour to enjoy 'David' (plenty of time to take photos, which you are allowed to do in all Italian galleries and museums now). Then we were off to the Il Duomo - Florence's cathedral - for a look around it's sparsely decorated walls and magnificently tiled floor before moving on to a church that used to be a market, another market that is still a market, Piazza della Signori and of course, the Ponte Vecchio. There wasn't too much walking, about 2 miles maximum, and it was all flat so within the physical capabilities of most. We found our guide to be very knowledgable and the tour to be good value; take it on your first or second day in the city and we think the knowledge you gain on it will set you up for the remainder of your stay. To discover more please visit http://www.citywonders.com/en/italy/florence/florence-tours/florence-walking-tour

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