FLORENCE

ONCE YOU’VE SEEN THE REQ­UI­SITE ART, DALLY A WHILE IN LESS-TRAMMELED SIDE STREETS AND GET TO KNOW THE REAL

Travel + Leisure Southeast Asia - - TRAVEL + LEISURE - PHO­TOGRAPHED BY FED­ERICO CI­AMEI

Like most first-time vis­i­tors to the sto­ried Ital­ian city, I’d ar­rived with the itchy fer­vor of a mu­seum-goer, be­liev­ing tran­scen­dence would be de­liv­ered by see­ing in per­son all the Re­nais­sance glory I’d en­coun­tered in pho­to­graphs. Michelan­gelo’s David. Brunelleschi’s Duomo. Bot­ti­celli’s Pri­mav­era. The Ponte Vec­chio and Palazzo Pitti. I spent my first 48 hours in a manic whirl, pin­balling through the terra-cotta maze in the hot May sun, work­ing through the req­ui­site to-do list with sur­gi­cal ef­fi­ciency. Yet in this blis­ter-in­duc­ing gorge on Medici-era splen­dor, I couldn’t shake the sense that I’d made the very mis­take I’d vowed to avoid: see­ing plenty but sa­vor­ing lit­tle, skim­ming the city’s sur­face at the ex­pense of un­der­stand­ing its soul.

Then, on my third evening, came the dumpling. I was in Sant’Am­bro­gio, a sleepy neigh­bor­hood on the fringes of the tourist-clogged cen­ter, din­ing at the bar of a tiny restau­rant called Ci­blèo. Opened in March last year, it is an en­thralling spot with only 16 seats that bills it­self as “Tus­can Ori­en­tal.” There is no menu; in­stead, din­ers sit for a lan­guid, omakase-style feast of tapas that mixes Ja­panese, Chi­nese, Korean and Ital­ian fla­vors with el­e­gant sim­plic­ity. Edamame and wild field peas ar­rived driz­zled in spicy olive oil; a fatty sliver of sop­pres­sata shared a plate with a wasabi-in­fused potato; glasses of lo­cal wine gave way to sips of sake. The dumpling, per­fectly steamed, its del­i­cate skin

I DID NOT EX­PECT TO FALL FOR FLORENCE WHILE EAT­ING A JA­PANESE DUMPLING.

pinched around a stuff­ing of Casentino pork, ar­rived in the mid­dle of my meal. It was be­yond de­li­cious, a bite-size re­minder that Florence is far more than a daz­zling reli­quary. It’s a city open­ing it­self to the mod­ern world in sur­pris­ing ways.

“It’s quite spe­cial, is it not?” said Fabio Pic­chi, Ci­blèo’s owner, os­ten­si­bly re­fer­ring to the dumpling, though I would pre­fer to think he un­der­stood that I was hav­ing a rev­e­la­tory mo­ment about his home­town.

A wiz­ardly charmer with a white beard, Pic­chi has long been re­garded as the high priest of Floren­tine cook­ing. His first restau­rants—the in­ti­mately up­scale Ci­brèo Ris­torante and its more in­for­mal sib­ling, Ci­brèo Trat­to­ria—opened way back in 1979 and re­main some of the best places to sam­ple re­gional del­i­ca­cies and rel­ish the ebul­lient en­ergy that per­co­lates out­side the city’s more trod­den precincts. Later came Caffè Ci­brèo, where espresso-and-pas­try morn­ings blur into Chi­anti-and-sa­lumi evenings, and Teatro del Sale, a sup­per club where buf­fet din­ners are fol­lowed by mu­si­cal per­for­mances. Along with Ci­blèo, they are all clus­tered around a lively in­ter­sec­tion. Pic­chi pre­sides over his em­pire with panache— glid­ing be­tween restau­rants, scour­ing the nearby market for in­gre­di­ents, greet­ing old friends and mak­ing new­com­ers feel like long-lost reg­u­lars.

What led Florence’s most fa­mous chef, a revered gate­keeper of lo­cal tra­di­tion, to take the cu­ri­ous leap of open­ing a restau­rant serv­ing Asian­in­flu­enced food? Pic­chi shrugged. “I had a dream af­ter vis­it­ing Ja­pan,” he ex­plained in his sooth­ing bari­tone. “That was forty years ago, so it was one of those per­haps-mad dreams that re­fused to die.” He grew con­tem­pla­tive. “I am a Floren­tine,” he said. “This is a place built on re­al­iz­ing wild fan­tasies, on in­no­va­tion and in­spi­ra­tion. What you see in the mu­se­ums is con­nected to what you see in the streets to­day. You miss the point if you think the Re­nais­sance ex­ists only in the past.”

FLORENCE IS MORE pop­u­lar than ever, with some 16 mil­lion peo­ple vis­it­ing an­nu­ally. Even so, you hear a lot of talk from lo­cals about how it’s mis­un­der­stood, even undis­cov­ered. The sheer vol­ume of crowds can make it easy to for­get that the city is a liv­ing, breath­ing home to more than 380,000 res­i­dents. Be­fore my meal at Ci­blèo, I met up with Dario Nardella, the youth­ful, quick-wit­ted 42-year-old who has been mayor since 2015. Like just about ev­ery­one you meet in Florence, Nardella is wor­ried that the city’s her­itage and cul­ture—the cen­turies-old pur­suit of those “wild fan­tasies” that once made the place a hub of civ­i­liza­tion—are at risk of be­ing di­min­ished by mass tourism.

“We are one of the small­est global cities in the world, and very frag­ile,” he told me in his of­fice, a grand room painted with Re­nais­sance-era mu­rals in the Palazzo Vec­chio, the fortress-like town hall. Just out­side the door vis­i­tors roamed the palace with antlike in­ten­sity, mar­veling at its vaulted ceil­ings and ar­ray of Medici ar­ti­facts. “We don’t need more tourists in the city, but more qual­ity tourism. We want peo­ple to come here and have a pro­found ex­pe­ri­ence, not just take pho­tos.”

Drive-by sight­see­ing is, how­ever, the way most peo­ple ap­proach Florence. As a cau­tion­ary tale of what can hap­pen when cul­ture tips into com­mod­ity, Nardella men­tioned Venice, where most signs of lo­cal life have been eclipsed by the 30 mil­lion tourists who pour in each year. “It is quite sad—a real, fan­tas­tic place is now a plas­tic city,” he said. “We are still a real city, but we risk hav­ing the same prob­lems if we’re not care­ful.”

With that in mind, Nardella has de­voted much of his en­ergy while in of­fice to find­ing in­ven­tive ways for Florence to flour­ish and en­cour­ag­ing vis­i­tors to stay longer. A higher tax on tour buses has led to an 8 per­cent de­crease in cruise-ship pas­sen­gers who swarm the town on day trips from Venice and Livorno. And a num­ber of ini­tia­tives are now in place to re­tain res­i­dents in the city cen­ter. “Be­cause with­out them,” he said, “we are just a mu­seum.” In 2016, he passed a con­tro­ver­sial bill re­quir­ing that 70 per­cent of the pro­duce served in the unesco-pro­tected cen­ter must be of lo­cal ori­gin. Some saw it as a veiled anti-im­mi­grant mea­sure—a means of curb­ing the spread of ke­bab shops run by the city’s small Arab pop­u­la­tion. McDon­ald’s, mean­while, saw it as an at­tack; the law put a stop to an out­post that was planned to open in front of the Duomo, lead­ing the fast-food be­he­moth to sue the city for €18 mil­lion in dam­ages.

“Look, I love McDon­ald’s!” Nardella told me with a chuckle. “But food is cul­ture, and we have to pro­tect our tra­di­tions. Do we re­ally need a McDon­ald’s across from Brunelleschi’s mas­ter­piece?”

He paused for a mo­ment. “My vi­sion is not a closed, con­ser­va­tive one,” he said, not­ing a va­ri­ety of ef­forts the city has taken to ex­pand and el­e­vate its iden­tity. A re­cent ex­hibit of a mas­sive Jeff Koons sculp­ture in the plaza out­side his of­fice marked the first time in nearly 500 years that an orig­i­nal work of such scale had been shown along­side sculp­tures by Michelan­gelo and

‘This is a place built on re­al­iz­ing wild fan­tasies,’ said Fabio Pic­chi, the city’s most fa­mous chef, ‘on in­no­va­tion and in­spi­ra­tion’

Donatello. Mean­while, a new part­ner­ship with Ama­zon has helped lo­cal ar­ti­sans stay in busi­ness by sell­ing their crafts through the on­line shop­ping gi­ant. “We now live in a global world—I em­brace that,” Nardella said. “But we must find ways to adapt that keep the spirit of the city.”

This men­tal­ity has led to an am­bi­tious re­vamp­ing of Florence’s cul­tural pro­gram­ming. The new opera house, for in­stance, is an un­apolo­get­i­cally mod­ern, Cu­bistin­spired struc­ture that stands out with giddy de­fi­ance in a city fa­mous for look­ing much the way it did cen­turies ago. The Uf­fizi Gallery, Italy’s most pop­u­lar mu­seum, has been in the midst of an over­haul since 2015, when Eike Sch­midt took on the role of di­rec­tor. A stu­dious Ger­man, he is the first non-Ital­ian to hold the post, and has been work­ing to stream­line the tick­et­ing process, shorten the no­to­ri­ously chaotic lines, and im­prove the flow through the halls so vis­i­tors can bet­ter ap­pre­ci­ate the exquisite Bot­ti­cel­lis and Raphaels for which the mu­seum is fa­mous. This re­mains a her­culean task, as I dis­cov­ered when I at­tempted to visit. Over­whelmed by the mosh pit out­side, I opted to pass.

But the Uf­fizi, for all its world­class hold­ings, is hardly the whole of the city’s creative of­fer­ings. Palazzo Strozzi, Florence’s con­tem­po­rary art foun­da­tion, opened nearby in 2006. Many re­gard its 2016 ret­ro­spec­tive on Ai Wei­wei, the sec­ond-mostat­tended ex­hi­bi­tion in the city’s his­tory, as the mo­ment Florence reestab­lished it­self as a prominent force in the global art com­mu­nity. When I vis­ited, a ma­jor sur­vey of the video artist Bill Vi­ola was all the more pro­vok­ing for be­ing set in a palace built in 1538. Wan­der­ing through the mag­nif­i­cent cham­bers was a trans­port­ing de­light. The space was full but hardly fren­zied; I didn’t have to dodge a sin­gle selfie stick. That fact alone was worth the cost of ad­mis­sion.

“You come to Florence and you need to see the Uf­fizi and the David—it’s nor­mal,” said Ar­turo Galansino, Palazzo Strozzi’s di­rec­tor, when I met him in his book-lined of­fice on the mu­seum’s top floor. “What we of­fer is an al­ter­na­tive to that model. Be­cause we’re con­stantly chang­ing we de­mand that you re­turn over and over.” A ca­su­ally debonair gen­tle­man—crisp suit, Way­farer frames—Galansino hopes that guests will ap­pre­ci­ate Palazzo Strozzi not as a pro­gres­sive out­lier, but as a nu­anced way for lo­cals and vis­i­tors alike to tap into the city’s her­itage. “The Ai Wei­wei show, if you think about it, is re­ally an ex­ten­sion of the city’s his­tory,” he told me. “Florence was the Em­pire State Build­ing of the 15th cen­tury— the high point of moder­nity.”

HAV­ING SPENT MY first two days at­tempt­ing to main­line all things Florence, I took a dif­fer­ent ap­proach the rest of the week: set­tling in, am­bling about, let­ting con­ver­sa­tions with lo­cals serve as my pri­mary guide. A head­strong peo­ple un­der­stand­ably proud of their roots, Floren­tines are by no means averse to mak­ing sure you visit the city’s main­stays, like the Mer­cato Cen­trale, a bustling market that’s been in op­er­a­tion since 1874. But even here a com­pelling di­a­logue be­tween past and present has be­gun to play out. While the ground floor re­mains a time warp of fish-, cheese-, and pro­duce mon­gers, in 2014 a mez­za­nine was added with stalls serv­ing ev­ery­thing from es­o­teric beer to truf­fle pasta.

Still, I found that Floren­tines re­served their great­est en­thu­si­asm for newly opened places that don’t feel be­holden to the past, like La Mé­nagère, a restau­rant in the cen­ter that many lo­cals men­tioned as the sort of es­tab­lish­ment that was unimag­in­able un­til re­cently. In an airy, so­phis­ti­cated space of ex­posed plas­ter walls and dan­gling ferns, a mul­ti­tude of worlds col­lide: fine din­ing in the back, a ca­sual bistro in front, a craft cock­tail lounge un­der­ground—not to men­tion a florist and a shop sell­ing home goods. I ar­rived ex­pect­ing a quick lunch. But af­ter an oc­to­pus salad and spaghetti with an­chovies, both sub­lime, I found my­self se­duced into stick­ing around for a glass of wine, then an espresso. By the time I left, the sun was set­ting.

My ac­com­mo­da­tions cer­tainly helped me ab­sorb the city in a more lan­guorous man­ner. Florence has lagged be­hind its larger Eu­ro­pean coun­ter­parts in of­fer­ing the sort of ho­tels that en­cour­age ex­tended stays, but this, too, is chang­ing. I spent the first half of my week at the Four Sea­sons, which opened in 2008 in a for­mer 15th-cen­tury palace. With its orig­i­nal fres­coes, out­door

pool, and large pri­vate gar­den, the ho­tel pro­vided the sin­gu­lar ex­pe­ri­ence of liv­ing, lit­er­ally, like a prince. Then I switched to the Gallery Ho­tel Art, a sleek, white­washed bou­tique es­tab­lish­ment at the foot of the Ponte Vec­chio where the lobby dou­bles as a show­case for mod­ern art—a Warhol ex­hi­bi­tion, when I vis­ited. The ho­tel is one of a num­ber of uniquely ur­bane prop­er­ties op­er­ated by the Lun­garno Col­lec­tion, the hos­pi­tal­ity arm of the Fer­rag­amo em­pire. An­other, the nearby Ho­tel Con­ti­nen­tale, is a wink­ing throw­back to 1950s Italy. It of­fers one of the city’s best rooftop bars, which I vis­ited sev­eral times to sip an aper­i­tif while watch­ing the sun dip be­hind the ma­jes­tic sky­line.

“We’re in the midst of a new dolce vita,” said Edgardo Os­o­rio, a Colom­bian-born de­signer who has helped re­vive the city’s stand­ing in the fash­ion world with Aquazurra, his play­ful line of hand­crafted shoes. The dap­per 32-year-old was dis­cussing his adopted home­town’s cur­rent re­nais­sance while giv­ing me a tour of his stu­dio, an eclec­tic space above his shop. While most Ital­ian fash­ion is now based in Mi­lan, the coun­try’s mod­ern in­dus­try was born in Florence. Iconic brands like Gucci be­gan in the city, which re­mains the cen­ter of its pro­duc­tion. “I wanted to be con­nected to that lin­eage,” Os­o­rio said. “Be­ing close to the pat­tern­mak­ers and cut­ters brings in a hu­man ele­ment that you just can’t get in New York or Paris.”

I thought about this sen­ti­ment of­ten while ex­plor­ing Ol­trarno. Lo­cated across the Arno op­po­site the city cen­ter, this is Florence’s “Left Bank,” a swath of labyrinthine streets where I got the dis­tinct sense that the city’s res­i­dents are as keen on as­sert­ing them­selves as their mayor. Pok­ing my head into the mi­nus­cule store­front stu­dios of the old-school leather crafts­peo­ple, cob­blers and pa­per­mak­ers who have worked in the area for cen­turies of­ten led to im­promptu tu­to­ri­als on their work and tech­nique.

Ol­trarno is also the most com­pelling neigh­bor­hood for eat­ing and drink­ing. The area around Pi­azza Santo Spir­ito, a small square that turns into a nightly gath­er­ing spot, has be­come a show­case for bud­ding chefs chal­leng­ing the city’s rep­u­ta­tion for stag­nant cui­sine. The an­chor of this new food scene is Il Santo Be­vi­tore, where dishes like roasted pi­geon with foie gras ice cream are served in an un­fussy, bois­ter­ous room; the restau­rant re­cently added an ad­ja­cent wine bar, Il Santino. I ate one of my most mem­o­rable meals at Gur­dulù, a mod­ish, dimly lit spot on a quiet street. Af­ter a gin and tonic that ar­rived with a sprig of laven­der sus­pended in a hand-cut ice cube, I or­dered the tast­ing menu, leav­ing my meal to the whims of chef Gabriele An­dreoni, whose ob­ses­sion with un­ex­pected in­gre­di­ents shone in a cut­tle­fish salad with apri­cot bot­targa and a suc­cu­lent duck breast ac­cented with kumquat and wasabi.

Great cities im­press in sec­onds but se­duce slowly; Florence is no dif­fer­ent. On my last day, I vis­ited Numeroventi, a co-liv­ing space for artists that I would never have heard of had I spent only a day or two in town. Co­founded by Mar­tino di Napoli Ram­polla, a 28-year-old Ital­ian, and An­drew Trot­ter, a peri­patetic de­signer from Eng­land, it opened in 2016 in a con­verted palace built in 1510. The or­ga­ni­za­tion in­vites artists, writ­ers, and de­sign­ers for res­i­den­cies last­ing one to eight months. Once a week it opens to the pub­lic for stu­dio vis­its, a throw­back to the days when the elite popped in on the likes of Leonardo da Vinci; the com­pleted works are dis­played in monthly ex­hi­bi­tions. To help fund the

en­ter­prise, Numeroventi rents out a hand­ful of im­pec­ca­bly de­signed apart­ments on Airbnb, mak­ing it ar­guably the choic­est (and still se­cre­tive) place to stay for trav­el­ers eager to be im­mersed in the city’s lat­est scene.

“I would like Florence to be what it was in the Re­nais­sance in­stead of just mak­ing money off the past,” said Alessan­dro Modes­tino Ric­cia­rdelli, Numeroventi’s pas­sion­ate, heav­ily tat­tooed project man­ager, when I met him for a tour of the space. The palace al­ready had quite a his­tory be­fore its cur­rent in­car­na­tion. It was built for a gov­er­nor, and a Michelan­gelo sculp­ture once stood on the pedestal in the court­yard; when the gov­er­nor clashed with the Medi­cis, he was be­headed, and the sculp­ture was re­pos­sessed. To­day the pedestal re­mains a hal­lowed spot where emerg­ing artists show their work, the past lit­er­ally spot­light­ing the fu­ture. “There are a lot of peo­ple here do­ing cool things, but they’re like lit­tle is­lands,” Ric­cia­rdelli said. “This is a place where we can come to­gether.”

Ric­cia­rdelli led me through the stu­dios and shared kitchen, ab­surdly gor­geous spa­ces where or­nate plas­ter­work and fres­coes con­trasted with Mod­ernist fur­nish­ings. We walked down a hall­way lined with pre­cise draw­ings of sound waves; on the floor be­low them were ab­stract ren­der­ings of the same shapes carved from mar­ble. Both were the work of Lorenzo Bri­nati, an Ital­ian artist and for­mer res­i­dent. The top floor still looked much the way it did dur­ing the decades when squat­ters oc­cu­pied it: dingy, with peel­ing paint, yet en­tic­ing given what was hap­pen­ing there. “Ba­si­cally, this is a kind of free-for-all gallery,” Ram­polla said, ex­plain­ing that artists were in­vited to use the rooms how­ever they saw fit: paint­ing on the walls, ex­per­i­ment­ing with mis­chievous in­stal­la­tions. It was the op­po­site of a mu­seum.

“Mak­ing some­thing new,” Ram­polla said, “is al­ways more in­ter­est­ing than just wor­ship­ping what is old.”

FROM FAR LEFT: Bac­cio Bandinelli's 16th-cen­tury copy of a Hel­lenis­tic statue of Lao­coön and his sons in the Uf­fizi Gallery; walk­ing on the Pescaia di Santa Rosa, a dam that juts into the Arno River on the Ol­trarno banks; a guest room at the Four Sea­sons Ho­tel Firenze, housed in a 15th-cen­tury for­mer palace.

LEFT: Morte­gan, a leather-goods ate­lier in Ol­trarno. OP­PO­SITE FROM LEFT: The food halls at the Mer­cato Cen­trale; a street artist re­pro­duces Guido Reni's Saint Ce­cilia in chalk.

RIGHT: Min­joo Heo, a chef at the AsianI­tal­ian fu­sion restau­rant Ci­blèo. OP­PO­SITE: Folk danc­ing in the Pi­azza Santo Spir­ito, in Ol­trarno.

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