For many travelers, their best meal in Florence might be high on a hill with views of the Duomo. Or along the Arno river, overlooking the Ponte Vecchio. Or maybe in a piazza near the Uffizi museum.
But for me, while celebrating my 50th birthday this week in Florence, a small neighborhood place stood out from all the others.
The restaurant: I Carbonari
Normally, my wife would research restaurants and get trusted recommendations. But we were all tired on Tuesday night and so we chose the restaurant closest to our hotel. It was I Carbonari, less than 50 meters away and so new that there weren’t any reviews we could read.
As soon as we walked in, the place felt inviting. The brightly colored kitchen was open and smelled wonderful. One entire wall was a chalkboard with an area reserved for kids to draw. Instead of a printed menu, they listed a few specials based on what was fresh that day. And they also offered to cook other dishes based on what we liked.
I went with the classic dish listed that day: spaghetti vongole. It’s so simple - just spaghetti, clams, garlic, olive oil, some herbs - and yet somehow this was different. The dish sang and not a note was wrong. The amount of oil and blend of seasonings was pitch perfect. The clams tasted like they just came from the sea. And the pasta had a firmness and flavor that stood up to all of it. Despite a generous portion, I ordered a second helping.
And the wine! Again no menu, just a carafe of house wine. I chose red and it had a wonderful taste that I could only describe as - and I know this is a strange word to use for wine - “fresh.” I asked about it and they proudly told me the wine was made without preservatives. Making a stomping motion, he emphasized “with the feet.”
After we ate, the kids were tired and walked backed to the hotel with my wife while I sipped my wine. Now alone, I indulged myself with a 3rd glass accompanied by a slice of ricotta cheesecake like no other. I thought of my grandparents, Vito and Angelina Bruno who took the boat from Piaggine to New York almost 100 years ago. Perhaps it was the effects of the wine, but I felt more Italian than ever.
Contributions & curiosity
Normally, that would have been it. After all, restaurants for tourists are usually a simple transaction, rarely if ever to be repeated. But in writing about working out loud, I’ve developed a greater sense of curiosity and contribution. I wanted to know more about these people and to do something for them besides just say "grazie” and leave a tip. But what else could I do?
The most obvious contribution was to come back the next day for lunch. When we did, the Ciaos! and Buon giornos! we exchanged had even more feeling. Immediately, I noticed a familiar dish on the counter. Pizza rustica is a traditional Easter pie and the last time I had it was before PCs were invented. We started our lunch with 4 slices and some red wine.
Other people came and went, everyone wearing warm, genuine smiles. We met the woman who baked the cheesecake from the other night and another chef (he was “the meat chef” as opposed to “the fish chef”). Seeing everyone interact in this small, friendly space made me feel like I was in someone’s home. I very much liked being there and that gave me an idea.
“Tomorrow’s my birthday,” I said. “I’d like to come back again.”
“Your birthday?! Really? She’ll make you a cake!” he said, excitedly, pointing to the baker. “What kind of cake would you like?”
The best meal in Florence
The next night, we got to know each other better. I learned that Stefania and Fernando have been married for 20 years and just opened the restaurant recently. They met while doing other work in London and lived there for 10 years.
And we learned their restaurant is truly a family business. The meat chef is the brother of the husband. And Andrea (in the photo, on the right) is the fish chef and their brother-in-law. He’s married to the wife’s sister, Gabriella, who's also the baker. Andrea is also responsible for the wine as it comes from a vineyard he owns in Puglia.
During all of this conversation, our family busily swapped plates, sampling everything. Whole squid stuffed with ricotta and vegetables. Marinated sardines and orata. Pasta with pureed asparagus that tasted like the sun itself. Between courses, the kids drew pictures for my birthday while I lost count of the wine glasses (both white and red this time).
And then came the cake. I had asked for “something with Nutella in it” knowing my kids would love that. Stefania dimmed the lights, Fernando lit the candles they’d purchased, and everyone sang. Then they presented us with a bottle of champagne and entertained the kids while we all talked and drank. We encouraged them to come visit us in New York City and we even connected on Facebook before we left. Back at the hotel, I saw they’d posted pictures of the cake and I did the same.
And that’s how I came to experience my best meal in Florence. We did eat at other places but I don’t remember the names of those restaurants never mind the people. At I Carbonari, we made a connection. And that’s what turned our meal into an experience and a story I wanted to share.
Mille grazie to my new friends.