One of the things I love most about vacation is how sometimes, you’re able to have what feels like three days’ worth of adventures in just one.
Driving from Milan to Florence was a bit of a bear, as we knew it would be. Our original goal had been to get to Parma, sleep there, then get up on Saturday and truck down to Chianciano Terme in southeastern Tuscany where we had rented an apartment. However, the closer the vacation became, the more absurd it seemed to just drive by Florence and pay her no mind. So marathon drive with little to no sleep we (ahem. JR.) did.
The streets of Florence are slick and jewel-like in the rain, yet traffic still continues at a good clip. With the occasional indignant honking and the somewhat frequent occurrence of a car passing us in quick, jerky motions (with a bit of stink-eye cast in our direction for good measure), we traversed the city finally arriving on the northern side of the Arno.
The hotel directions instructed us to come in from the south, then to head north via Porta Romana, the gate that leads in and out of the city on the road to Rome.
After annoying hopefully only a handful of Florentine drivers, we arrived in good shape for sleep-deprived, autostrada-fatigued humans, and idled the car next to the Salvatore Ferragamo boutique, at the end of the street where Hotel Torre Guelfa, is located.
There was a bit of a downpour as we unloaded our two backpacks – we’re classy adult travelers, we are – though the gentleman who checked us into the hotel informed us that rain had not been predicted for the day, and that the hotel’s tower wine bar would be open at 5:30pm.
Hotel Torre Guelfa is a Rick Steves’ suggestion from 2002 (and possibly prior to 2002, though I didn’t read Rick Steves before then), which we decided to go with after we found ourselves in a very American-style hotel down the river on our first trip to Florence in 2001. The 2001-trip hotel was a little boring and like what we’d expect at home, and we wanted more a little Florentine character from our lodging. Live and learn. The torre – or tower – of Torre Guelfa is the tallest privately owned tower in Florence, and perched atop the tower is, yes, a wine bar.
We have had a number of drinks on the top of that tower, the tower being what has drawn us back to the hotel for this, our fifth stay. It wasn’t the charming conversation from the wine bartender (winetender? I’m going with it. Look out.) that had drawn us there in years past, and heck, with views like this, who would care?
This year, however, there were two surprises for us. First, the skies, while remaining ominous-looking, cleared of rain just the moment we finished settling into our room. And second was Christina, the enthusiastic – and chatty (a plus in my book – I think she knew it would be) – proprietor of the bar.
The wine list was short, but high-quality, with a 100% Cabernet Savignon San Jacopo Rosato calling my name. It turns out that Christina is the co-hab (those are her words, not mine. But partner, life partner, wife, what-have-you – those were all failing me here) of one of the owners, Carlo, and she works in the wine business when she isn’t lending a hand at the hotel: leading wine tours in Chianti, denouncing wine snobs (my kind of wine expert!), or hosting very reasonably priced wine tastings at the hotel.
There was, actually, a third surprise as well: the hotel had recently been reacquired by Carlo and his cousin from a former partner to whom they had sold the hotel in 2007, and room prices had dropped, which only endeared the hotel to me further. As you might imagine.
Once our wine glasses were empty, we said our goodbyes to Christina, and we made our way from the tower to the grey cobblestone street, just one block back from the Arno, and a couple blocks from Ponte Vecchio.
We headed to a wine bar for which JR has great affection, Enoteca Fuori Porta (fuori porta means “outside the gate”, and it sits on the southern side of the river, just outside the fortress walls of medieval Florence.
In 2001, after our first visit to Florence, I too, shared his affection for the place. We had gotten lost (well, as lost as one can become in a small city), meandered into the joint, and found an absurdly long wine list with all manner of local wines from Tuscany, and wines from farther afield.
I know it ruins the funny if you have to explain, but here I go: that’s a joke. If you aren’t familiar with Italian regions, which are similar to US states, Piedmont is about 4 hours away from Tuscany. There’s a lot of wine in that there Italy.
That first visit to Enoteca Fuori Porta, might, in fact, have been the first time I realized just how very local drink – and food – could be. And the winetender (hurrah!) was friendly, humored me my crap Italian, and helped me pick out a wine that I surely couldn’t find at home. That was the criteria, in fact. Please help me find a wine that not only have I never heard of before, but that I most likely won’t find at home.
And she did that. With a glass of wine, the varietal now forgotten, but not the expected Chianti. A wine that helped me branch out and learn more about regional wines. If I were making it up, I’d guess it was still a Sangiovese, perhaps a Rosso di Montepulciano, but until I find that (very) lost 2001 travel journal of mine, I can’t verify.
It was magical, that first visit was. But never again since. Despite our persistence at raising a glass at Fuori Porta on all subsequent trips, there has never again been friendly service or a sense of welcome for us.
I attribute this to Fuori Porta having also been discovered by writers who loved it as much as we did, right around that same time, and it then being included in must-visits for the traveler to Florence in American food and travel magazines, for I did see it mentioned in more than one magazine shortly after our return home that year. Or, perhaps, this was the food person’s version of New Car Syndrome. I hadn’t known about Fuori Porta before, but once I did know, it seemed that every magazine I read also knew about it.
Regardless of the cause, for me, the magic of Fuori Porta was fleeting. Pretty much just that one Saturday in April of 2001 held the charm, though I do, and will always, appreciate having my eyes opened to regional food and wine by Fuori Porta.
On this trip, I’ve finally made my peace with Fuori Porta. It’s time to move on. I loved it then, I appreciate the speedy inculcation regarding one of the primary tenets of Slow Food – unique, place-based food, but, alas, she has changed. And maybe I have, too. Changed or not, I do consistently like friendly (like Christina. Christina was friendly. You should do a tour with her, I’m telling you.).
On the plus side for Fuori Porta was not the mushroom crostini that I ordered, but instead, was the shaved pecorino fresco with balsamic vinegar. Now, that shiz was good. It didn’t matter that it wasn’t served with a smile. Noitdidnot.
On the plus side for the neighborhood overall, wine bars now seem like the commodity crop of the area. We counted no fewer than four just inside the porta, and not one named Enoteca Dentro Porta (inside the gate – you knew that from the contextual clues, though, right?).
One sleek wine bar looked sadly neglected, while the chef stood in the doorway, looking somewhat longingly at the crowds in the neighboring bars. “We should eat at her place,” I said to JR. Only I said it when we were about a half-mile away from it, back in the direction of the hotel. “Really?” “Well, I feel bad for her. It looks like a nice place – why is no one eating there?” *
Good intentions, only. Instead, we ate at the most un-Italian of all places we could possibly choose. A hamburger bar.
You’re incredulous, I know. So was JR. “Seriously, you want to eat at the hamburger place? Who eats hamburgers in Italy?”
I had a feeling it would be better than just a hamburger bar. It happens sometimes, this sense of something good inside something, well, seemingly wrong.
It was 8:30 or so, with only one party of four seated at a table inside, and one couple seated outside. Otherwise, the place was empty. This did not inspire trust in JR. “Really? I mean, no one is even eating here,” he loud-whispered at me. I walked in and asked for a table.
“Completo,” the head server responded.
Completo means full. And this place was definitely not full. Vuoto was more like it. Tutti vuoto. All empty. I was now as incredulous as you are reading about us eating hamburgers for dinner in the (cliche alert) cradle of the Renaissance.
Turned out, the restaurant was fully reserved for inside dining. We were welcome to sit outside. Apparently, Florentines found this 60-something degree weather cold. Ah, yeah, not so much for the New Englanders, and so outside we did sit.
Over the years, my Italian has veered between kindergarten-level, third-grade level, and restaurant-appropriate only (this being the least fluent state), with the exception of that one beer-influenced time in the Amalfi coast where I was completely, 100%, adult-fluent – which is the same time that JR and I met the pharmacist in town – at the bar – and it turned out that he had lived in our little town in southeastern Massachusetts with his girlfriend and her grandmother while he attended pharmacy school in Boston. More on this another time, as I was beginning to believe he had stolen our passports while I was slugging back my yippee-we’re-at-the-beach beers.
However, I am a Latin honor student from waaaayyyy back, so I can read a fair amount of Italian and decipher what’s up – for real. Both the Latin honor student and the reading comprehension.
This burger bar that had so compelled me to eat there, presumably on vibe alone, that burger bar turns out to be owned by four friends who decided that they needed to educate people about the endangered Chianina cattle, which are large, white cattle indigenous to Tuscany. Oh, hells, yeah – they just happen to be indigenous to the area nearby where JR and I would be staying for the rest of the week.
All of the burgers at the burger joint, LungArno 23 is it’s proper name, are made with Chianina beef, as are a handful of other dishes, including carpaccio, roast beef, and a platter of Chianina specialties.
As we had already had one disappointing mushroom crostini and one blessedly wonderful pecorino and balsamic crostini, we skipped apps, and moved straight on to burgers. About 15 minutes after we were seated, the entire restaurant, indoors and out, was completo.
Though we ordered hamburger specials; for JR, asparagus and cheese, for me, truffles and cheese, there’s no need to go this far. The beef is slightly gamy, in a more pronounced way than the grass-fed beef I’ve had at home is, and doesn’t require embellishment of any kind, not truffles, not cheese, not even a hamburger bun, though LungArno 23 does serve a side plate of very American condiments, bright red ketchup – Heinz, I think – mustard, and mayonnaise. And the fries? Well, the fries were the best I’ve had since The Back Eddy last summer, and The Back Eddy fries a mean potato, let me tell you.
And for dessert? JR had spotted a gelateria on our walk to Fuori Porta, so dessert at LungArno 23 was out.
Cantina del Gelato is run by two young men, one who was minding the store on the night we were in, and the other is the artisan in charge of gelato-making. His family has been making gelato since the 1930′s, and all that familial knowledge has paid off. Their gelato is the lightest, creamiest, most ethereal gelato that I have ever had. And I’ve eaten at a few of the other lauded gelaterias in Florence before.
I became entirely too giddy after my first taste of Nutella gelato in the shop, and told the proprietor that we’d be back the next day for breakfast. He informed me that we’d have to wait until noon, which would be just fine, I thought, as we were sure to be jetlagged and just pulling our sleepy selves out of bed at 11am. But no, the excitement of being in Florence, and my desire to not get hosed on seeing the Brancacci Chapel for the fifth time got us out of bed at a very respectable 8am.
Do we stave off the next morning’s hunger with nothing but an espresso until the noontime opening of Cantina del Gelato? Or do we cave and start eating early and often? The answers to these questions and more in the upcoming post, Florence, Part Two.
Hey, at least I didn’t try to go for back to back World’s Longest Posts Ever, right?
Hotel Torre Guelfa
Borgo SS Apostoli, 8
Doubles from 140 euro, though online there is a 10% pre-paid rate (126 euro) for a one-night stay, and 15% off for 3 nights.
Wine tours with Christina Wespi
*Tours in Chianti for a maximum of 6 participants: 129 euro per person for a 1-day tour (10am-5pm)
*Wine tasting classes at Hotel Torre Guelfa: 30 euro per person for 1.5 hours (3:30pm-5pm), generally offered on Saturday. Available Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday by request.
Enoteca Fuori Porta
Via Monte alla Croci, 10r
Lungarno Torrigiani 23
Cantina del Gelato
Via de Bardi, 31
*I realized only much, much later that her wine bar/restaurant was likely to have followed in the footsteps of LungArno 23. Empty at cocktail hour, but jam packed once it was time to sit and eat. I sure hope so.