Florence: Flair, Enthusiasm and Effervescent

FLORENCE --- It has been more than 16 years since I first set food inside Cibreo, one of Florence’s best and most consistent restaurants, and one that is filled with the flair and enthusiasm of outgoing owner Fabio Picci.

On that first visit Fabio served up some of his now classic fare --- his signature yellow pepper soup emblazoned with a C-shaped drizzle of local extra virgin olive oil; the memorable tomato aspic, brilliant red and shot full of his signature red pepper flakes; and a truly memorable platter of fresh pecornio sheep's milk cheese, shelled walnuts and an avalanche of garlic, Fabio’s own take on the traditional Tuscan starter.

Since that first visit, I never go to Florence without checking in with the effervescent Fabio. This time around, I had barely crossed through the front door and the chef was dragging me into the kitchen to take a look at the gorgeous, glistening fresh tuna a friend had just sent from the island of Elba. But we would have to wait a bit for that, since Fabio – on this evening cheerfully decked out in a crisp white chef’s jacket, a bright red apron and cool yellow clogs --- had a lot in store for us during that single meal.

Fabio’s once-modest trattoria has now grown into a full-fledged restaurant, albeit one with a fine, casual flair. Diners searching out an even more casual world can still check into his small trattoria on the other side of the wall, or the elegant Cibreo café just across the street.

Call it a parade, call it a procession, the food can keep on coming here, all full of intense flavors, refined fare with a distinct personality. Italian, yes. Tuscan, yes, sort of. Pure Fabio Picci at the top of his form, yes. For he takes native flavors and ingredients and punctuates them with his own style, always making sure that flavors knock you out. A tender squid salad blaring with the spice of his favorite red pepper flakes; an ethereal, feather-light salt cod purée, or baccala; lots of cloud-like substances, like the brilliant red tomato aspic; lots of dense, compact flavors that still manage to shock you with their overall lightness, like the cubed pecorino tossed with fresh fava beans and oil. The tuna finally made its appearance as the thinnest of carpaccio, smothered with a ton of herbs and a wealth of minced raw garlic.

And the memories keep coming, from the delicate tastes of his bright red spicy fish soup and on to his brilliantly prepared red snapper, oven roasted with a bright mix of lemon zest, rosemary, garlic, sage, parsley, red pepper, fennel seed, black pepper and olive oil, then marinated a full day in olive oil. Brilliant, you say? Also delicate and delicious.

“I am a happy man,” declares Fabio. Yes, he knows what he is doing and should well be proud.

My other must-visit restaurant in the area is welcoming family restaurant Da Delfina, a 15-minute train ride from the center of Florence, outside the walled medieval village of Artimino. Like the fare at Cibreo, Da Delfina’s food is earthy, and based on the freshest of local ingredients. Delfina herself, now 92, can be seen sitting shelling fava beans or returning from the fields having gathered nettles, mushrooms, or wild herbs for the next meal.

The remaining duties are cheerfully and passionately carried out by her son, Carlo Cioni, seconded by his wife, Franca and their son, Marco. In good weather be sure to reserve a table on the terrace at lunch time, when you will be able to enjoy an exquisite view of the verdant Tuscan countryside. Da Delfina is known for its game, wild mushrooms, extraordinary local sausages, delicate homemade pastas and assorted meats and fish grilled over the giant wood fireplace in the spacious kitchen.

Starters might include the most delicate—I dare you to try to stop eating them --

slices of fresh as well as aged fennel salami. The fresh version is sweet, infused with the essence of fennel, and supremely moist. The dried version, aged up to a year in the restaurant’s own cellars, is all grown up, dryer, with flavors that are intense, meaty, and sophisticated as a salami can be.

If you are looking for fine Italian essence of purity and simplicity, go for the truly fresh and lactic slices of pecorino sheep’s milk cheese – young and mild but far from wimpy – paired with the freshest and tiniest of raw fava beans. No seasoning needed here, for the ingredients speak for themselves.

Depending on what was found in the woods that day, homemade pasta smooth as silk just might be paired with delicate wild mushrooms that have been sautéed just seconds in olive oil and tossed with the tender strands of pasta. Nettles, or ortica, could find their way into a rich and rustic pasticcio, or complex pie made of pasta and herbs bound with a delicate béchamel sauce.

But I guess my favorite dish of the day was simply cubes of the most moist and delicious pork, infused with fresh fennel and roasted on the wood-fired spit. As ever, Carlo Cioni and family were true to their roots. While Carlo travels a great deal to see what is going on in the food world, he does not let it influence his own authentic cuisine: It is as if he says “This is who I am. This is what I do.” And he does it very well, indeed. Some people call Da Delfina the true endangered species of Florence, a city known more for its tourist trap eateries than restaurants of sincerity and quality.

Two wines definitely worth trying here include the fine Tuscan Carmignano from the house of Ambra, vintage 1998, a blend of Chianti grapes with a touch of Cabernet, making for a truly distinctive red; as well as the finely tannic 1997 Chianti Classico from the Castello di Fonterutoli.

Via Andrea del Verrocchio 8r
50122 Florence
Tel: 055 234 11 00
All major credit cards. Closed Sunday evening, Monday, and August. 75,000 to 100,000 lira per person, including service but not wine.

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