There is a street in Florence where there is, possibly, the best restaurant in the world. Although this street is within a dong and a clang of the Duomo’s Campanile it is not one down which tourists saunter, licking gelati in gormless hoards. On this street live two hookers, one at each end. One is a retired army officer, a transvestite until recently, but now a transsexual. She has started wearing tighter trousers since her operation we’re told by a local. The other has been doing the same job since the end of the war. She must be into her seventies and judging by the amount of time she spends sat on her doorstep greeting the neighbours with “buon giorno” and “buona sera”, one might imagine that regular trade (amongst other things) dried up some time ago.
This is a street that doesn’t get much sleep. The windows of the tenement blocks are permanently open at this time of year and the ups and downs of life go on around the clock. There is a Somalian immigration office half way down the road, and next to it a twenty-four hour Egyptian sandwich shop. And opposite is, possibly, the best restaurant in the world. We are sent there by a local man, an ex-pat but after thirty years in the city, more Florentine than Bostonian. If it weren’t for him perhaps we’d have never been, despite staying only two doors down. This place, a trattoria, is not in the guidebooks, and even the internet gives it up grudgingly.
The greatest restaurants are great in a way that is hard to describe. Professional critics write column after column, week after week, and still struggle to say what it is that truly makes a restaurant great. So I shan’t really attempt it here (after all, I’m no professional critic). This trattoria, on this street in Florence just does it. So well. Perhaps it is that it has been here for nearly 150 years and has barely changed the formula. Maybe if it were in a more affluent neighbourhood and in all the guidebooks then it wouldn’t be such a thrill to score a table for two there on a Friday night. I just don’t know. But the things that they can do with a couple of eggs and some artichokes for a primi, and the magic they turn with a piece of chicken and some butter as a secondi, are simply beyond my wildest gastronomic dreams. Their ingredients are of such quality that they are happy to serve a large raw tomato as a single course, and a bowl of unadorned tiny wild strawberries as a dolce. The interior is utterly stunning in a way that modern restaurateurs could only dream of recreating.
There is a disease in the UK that started in London, and possibly some of the more ridiculous Cotswold gastropubs, but is now spreading with more vigour than swine flu: Restaurants that are ‘ingredient-lead’ and advertise as much on their press-releases / menus / waiters’ polo shirts. Is this not quite the most daft and horrific indictment of all that is wrong with eating out in Britain? What on earth else should ‘lead’ a restaurant? Intricately folded napkins? Pretty waitresses? Sweet-smelling bogs? For pity’s sake. What is a decent eatery if its kitchen does not start with good ingredients? Why have we in this country got to the point where chefs have to advertise the fact that they actually care about food? Admittedly there are a few restaurants over here that can achieve great things seemingly effortlessly, but not enough.