Calgary Herald

Where to eat in Florence

Three meals worth the trip across the ocean


Italy, like Canada, is full of mediocre Italian restaurant­s, full of boring food that has the unfathomab­le attraction of being reassuring­ly familiar.

We’ve seen “turistica” restaurant­s packed fuller than poorly made ravioli in Rome, Pisa, Venice, Florence and various smaller towns. It may be comfortabl­e and even entertaini­ng, but not even fresh local ingredient­s can make such food sing.

We’ve also found excellent restaurant­s in Italy, some by chance (seven courses of exquisite seafood in San Benedetto, on the Adriatic coast) or through local hosts (five courses of perfect pasta and salads in Macerata, a typical walled town). But luck is capricious and local friends not always an option, so how to find the food that made Italian cucina so famous?

There are travel guides, but they are inconsiste­nt and, in my experience, skew toward the middle-ofthe-road. Websites such as tripadviso­ allow diners to write their own reviews, but you have to be discerning when reading them. Also, look at the restaurant’s menu online before you go.

Another resource is your concierge or others at the hotel front desk. Stress that you want real Italian food, not a tourist trap, and then ask yourself if the concierge or clerk genuinely seems to understand what you want and is interested in finding you a fine meal.

Hotel staff are sometimes paid kickbacks to send you to a specific restaurant, so go with your gut.

You might get lucky, as we did in Florence when we asked a desk clerk at the Grand Hotel Adriatico for “really good — not touristy — restaurant­s within walking distance.” She suggested three — also a good sign, as insistence on one restaurant is more likely to be a kickback in action. We went to two and both were tremendous­ly good. Below are quick looks at the two and a third worthy restaurant in Florence, each within strolling distance of the central station and Duomo. Reservatio­ns essential. Prices are average for two, with a bottle of local wine.

Buca Mari, Piazza degli Ottaviani 16

Traditiona­l Tuscan food, with massive veal steaks, bread soups, boar, salt cod and the greatest plate of pasta I’ve ever eaten.

We begin with fresh squash blossoms — the little flowers from atop the gourd — slightly battered and fried and squeezed with lemon juice; they’re crispy and curiously delicious.

Our main plates are osso bucco, tender and flavourful, and the star of the dinner — Taglierini al tartufo. It’s five ingredient­s: salt, pepper, handmade pasta, butter (still melting on the plate) and a thick topping of shaved white truffles. Fresh truffles are a rare and outrageous­ly expensive treat in Canada, and their earthy flavour is unique and exquisite. Without question, the most delicious plate of pasta I’ve ever tasted.

Tab for two: $130 Cenacolo del Pescatore Borgo Ognissanti 68 www. cenacolode­

Two “gifts from the kitchen” start with Tuscan bread and mussels, complement­ed by a zesty tomato sauce. Second is a sort of shrimp lollipop that declares the restaurant’s quality in both flavour and presentati­on. The shrimp is on a stick, hidden beneath a coat of rice noodles puffed to create the effect of delicate fronds. It’s unlike anything we’ve eaten before, as the puffed fronds crunch into a shrimp so succulent that it’s almost like a pate.

Our mains are a butter-poached lobster with Tuscan bread salad and then a mixed platter of raw seafood that includes tuna, sea bass, tiny prawns, scallops, oysters and a giant shrimp drizzled with truffle oil. Fresh, exquisite.

A plate of eggplant Parmesan resets my opinion on what is usually a bland dish. The eggplant is peeled and not too soft and dressed with a modest dab of tomato sauce — not drowned in it — and a small pad of melted mozzarella. The best eggplant Parmesan we’ve had, by far.

Dessert brings another standard-raising dish: goat cheese cake with orange sauce and fresh mint — light, sweet with just a savoury touch and a crispy-waferish crust.

Tab for two: $150

Coquinariu­s, Via delle Oche 15 www.coquinariu­

Coquinariu­s — from the Latin word for kitchen, we’re told — is a wine bar with casual service and atmosphere. We start with a chicken liver pate, mache, crostini and muscat grapes. The pate is rich and velvety, but the plump grapes almost steal the show. Each one tastes like a little burst of sparkling wine, which pairs well with the liver.

Next is a raviolini, stuffed with pecorino and sweet pears and bathed in butter.

For a main, we have two plates of smoked tuna carpaccio, one with tomatoes and a chickpea flan, the other with tomato, raisins and wild fennel. Both are rustic in plating, but contempora­ry and clean in flavour — which, generally, describes everything about Coquinariu­s.

Tab for two: $100

 ?? Peter Simpson, Postmedia News ?? Goat cheese cheesecake with orange sauce and fresh mint at Cenacolo del Pescatore raises the bar for a standard dish.
Peter Simpson, Postmedia News Goat cheese cheesecake with orange sauce and fresh mint at Cenacolo del Pescatore raises the bar for a standard dish.

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