Thursday, March 31, 2016

Florence Day 10: Dinner at Il Latini

Not only had Il Latini had come up on several must-try Florence restaurant lists, our B&B host also recommended it, saying he had been eating there since he was a kid. Since it was only a block or two from where we were staying it, we definitely wanted to eat there on our last night in Italy.

Our Lonely Planet guidebook said the restaurant had two seatings and that reservations were a must. But when we asked our host if he would make reservations for us, he said they didn’t take reservations. Just get there for one of the seatings (7:30 or 9:30) and be prepared to wait 5-10 minutes, he said.

We arrived extra early, around 6:45, and a few students were already standing outside. The wait staff were sitting inside eating dinner in full view of everyone on the street; the doors were locked. A crowd began to form in front, and of course since this was Italy, there was no orderly queue, just a growing mob of people ready to stampede.


No one seemed to know what was going on or how the whole thing worked, and as we stood there reading Yelp reviews and waiting, we grew increasingly uncertain and nervous. The wait staff took their sweet time eating and drinking and smoking, completely ignoring the crowd. 

Finally around 7:30 someone came to the door, reassured us that there was plenty of room for everyone, and said to stand back. But as soon as he unlocked it, pandemonium ensued. We had been waiting longer than anyone else except one party of eight, but after they got in first, everyone began crowding and people pushed past us. Mass chaos.

Sure enough, though, the restaurant was bigger than you could see from the entrance, and everyone seemed to get in. The tables were pushed together so closely that we felt like we were eating at a table of six, with strangers. The place seemed to be filled with tourists, and it was incredibly loud.

Our food was definitely not the best we had in Italy, but I think that had everything to do with our preferences and what we ordered, not with the quality of the restaurant.

For our antipasto, we ordered caprese salad and were disappointed to find the mozzarella and tomatoes came with lettuce but no basil (doesn’t caprese always include basil?).

As a primo piatto, we ordered the zuppa mista, eager to sample three traditional Tuscan soups, but we didn’t care much for any of them. It was mainly a texture thing for me.

pappa al pomodoro // photo: TripAdvisor
zuppa di fagioli col grano faro (soup with beans and farro grain)

Our secondo piatto, however, was phenomenal. The agnello arrosto (roast lamb) was one of the best meats we ate in Italy. 

Dessert, a raspberry tart, was not as delicious as it looked:

...but we also received complimentary biscotti e vin dolce (cookies and sweet wine) and the cookies were yummy.

The really bizarre part was, it seemed like the whole “two seatings” thing was a myth. The whole time we were there, they continued to seat people as tables opened up. And when we left the restaurant around 9:20, there were plenty of empty tables and no one standing outside. We couldn't help wondering if the whole “two seatings” thing is a huge joke on the tourists! Maybe the staff/owners get a kick out of seeing a crazy mob at 7:30, and the locals know they can then just come later without all the drama?

Moral of the story: go late.

Italian Artisans: Alberto Cozzi and Stinga Tarsia

I have to devote my penultimate Italy post to two artisans with whom I was especially enamored: Alberto Cozzi (in Florence) and Stinga Tarsia (in Sorrento). A bit out of order, to go back to Sorrento, but it seemed like a good fit to combine the two in one post.

As soon as our ferry docked at Sorrento, we set out to find Stinga Tarsia. We had a bit of trouble locating the shop, but finally found the storefront and spent some time inside marveling at the incredible craftsmanship. Sorrento is well known for its inlaid wood art and furniture; the technique is called intarsia. Stinga has been run by three generations of family artisans.

The artwork wasn't limited to two-tone wood designs on boxes or tables. Stinga and other intarsia shops also had unbelievably intricate artwork that looked like a painting, but was in fact wood inlay:

This one is from another shop in town:

The enormous wooden doors of Sorrento's cathedral are covered in intarsia panels done by Vicenzo Stinga (the father of the brothers who are currently in business at Stinga Tarsia) and another artisan, Giuseppe Rocco. We were unable to take photos, and I cannot find any to post here without copyright violation, but you can see them on the cathedral's official website here and here

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In Florence, we heard about Alberto Cozzi's shop in the "Heart of the City" walk that the Lonely Planet guidebook recommended. Florence is famous for its handmade marbled paper, and Cozzi is a fourth-generation papermaker/bookbinder. Given my general obsession with stationery, I definitely wanted to take a look.

The shop was fascinating and full of so many beautiful things--paper in traditional prints, the handmade marbled paper, leatherbound books and journals, albums, pens, pencils, and other gift items. 

I wish I'd gotten a shot of Mr. Cozzi at work. We got to watch him stamp the cover of a leather journal for another customer. If the journals had been lined, I'd have splurged on one myself! As it was, I deliberated forever (while Steve patiently waited) before buying a small pack of marbled papers and a journal with a traditional Florentine print on the cover. 

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Florence Day 10: Heart of the City Walk

After touring Palazzo Vecchio and the Bargello museum on Wednesday morning, we grabbed lunch and headed back to our B&B for a bit of rest and to wait out the rain. Lunch was panini from I Due Fratellini ("the two brothers")--a literal hole in the wall that has been in business since 1875. Twenty-nine kinds of sandwiches, only €3 each! Not to mention a large wine selection.
When the brothers saw me taking a photo of their shop as we walked away, they stopped and posed :)
We'd been told to expect long lines, but didn't have to wait at all. The sandwiches were so cheap that we chose three different kinds to try. Below, top to bottom: pancetta e peperoni arrosto (cured meat with roasted peppers--note that uncooked pancetta, while translated "bacon" in an English menu, does decidedly *not* taste or feel like bacon); bresaola e rucola (cured beef and arugula--or as the English menus translate it, "rocket salad"!); and crudo, mozzarella (ham and cheese). These were all just OK because, no salt in the bread! Ugh! I don't care how salty the meat is, The Bread. Needs. Salt.
The photo on the right is the view from the window of our B&B room--in the distance is Piazza Santa Maria Novella.

Thankfully the rain let up after a little while and we were able to go exploring again. Unfortunately because of our pre-scheduled wine tour smack in the middle of our time in Florence, we weren't able to maximize the use of our Firenze Cards. So that's another pro tip for you: If you are going to venture out into Chianti wine country or to Pisa or Cinque Terre (there are so many interesting day trips to make from Florence), schedule that on the first or last day of your trip. Firenze Cards are only good for 72 hours from the moment of activation, so after we'd activated ours on Sunday, we essentially "wasted" all of Monday while out in the countryside and then they expired at 2PM Wednesday, when we still had several more hours available for sightseeing.

So, since we didn't have time to do any more museums, we used our Lonely Planet pocket guide to go on a "Heart of the City" walk. The guidebook says:
"Every visitor to Florence spends time navigating the cobbled medieval lanes that run between Via de Tornabuoni and Via del Proconsolo but few explore them thoroughly, instead focusing on the major monuments and spaces. This walk will introduce you to some less visited sights and laneways."
The walk begins at Piazza della Repubblica, which was the site of a Roman forum back in the day and was also the heart of medieval Florence. The square in its current incarnation was created in the 1880s (quite controversially, as it involved displacing nearly 6000 people).

From there we walked to Chiesa Orsanmichele, a church created in the 1300s by walling in an old grain market. Unfortunately many of these smaller churches did not allow photography inside, so I don't have a ton of pictures. 


Next was Mercato Nuovo, which I shared about in my Mercato Centrale post. Apparently you're supposed to rub the nose of Il Porcellino ("the piglet"--a bronze wild boar) to ensure your return to Florence. Better safe than sorry, right? :)

Palazzo Spini-Feroni, a Gothic palace that houses the flagship store and museum of shoe designer Salvatore Ferragamo.

Chiesa di Santa Trinità // photo:

Chiesa dei Santissimi Apostoli--a Romanesque-style church, one of the oldest churches in Florence. It faces Piazza del Limbo, a sunken square that was once used as a cemetery for babies who died before being baptized.
The walk ended at Ponte Vecchio, so we continued across the bridge. It's so strange the way it doesn't even feel like you're on a bridge, with shops lining both sides. 

In the next two photos, you can see part of Cosimo (one of the Medici Grand Dukes)'s walkway, built so that he could travel between his home and office without mixing with the lowly commoners.

Just on the other side of the river, you find Palazzo Pitti--designed by Brunelleschi for a wealthy banker in 1457, but sold upon completion to...who else?? The Medicis. 

Since our Firenze Cards had run out by this time, we didn't end up touring the palace or the Boboli Gardens. We simply wandered around a bit, and then headed back across Ponte Santa Trinità to find an early dinner before our flight out the next day. 

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Florence Day 10: Palazzo Vecchio

Our last full day in Florence began with a tour of Palazzo Vecchio--the medieval fortress built from 1298-1314 as a home for the city government.

In the mid-1500s, members of the Medici family (yes, them again--you hear about them *everywhere* in Florence) lived in apartments here for a while before moving across the river to Palazzo Pitti.

The first thing to note is that you should learn from our mistakes and reserve a guided tour in advance. Somehow we hoped we could just show up and get in on the Secret Passages tour, but they had no openings all day. Bummer!

The first and most notable room to see in the palace is the Hall of the Five Hundred. This massive (174 feet by 72 feet) hall was built to house Florence's legislature.

 The walls are covered with these enormous battle scenes painted by Vasari...  

 Even the ceiling is covered with intricate gold molding and paintings.

From there we just wandered through the rest of the apartments. I feel like the Secret Passages tour would have been really amazing, but otherwise, we'd pretty much reached our limit in terms of being able to absorb or appreciate Renaissance art. Still, there were some interesting pieces of painted furniture and other extravagant furnishings in the apartments. 

The maps room, with a giant globe in the center and ancient maps of the world all over the walls, was fascinating:

Some of the most memorable art for me was in the Chapel of Eleonora. Eleonora of Toledo was a Medici duchess, and her private chapel (?!?) was painted by Agnolo Bronzino in the mid-1500s. What I appreciated about it was the way it seemed to recognize and celebrate the gospel in the Old Testament, the way the stories of Moses point to Christ. I loved seeing the centrality of Christ portrayed, seeing Old Testament scenes illustrated in an effort to magnify Him. When I read the  plaque in the room, there was this sense of, "Yes! They got it!":
"The dialogue between the altarpiece with its Deposition and the three walls with their stories of Moses presaging Christ's sacrifice and the mystery of the Eucharist, points to the link between the Old and New Testaments."
Deposition of Christ - Bronzino

Moses strikes the Rock

The people look to the bronze serpent for healing

After we'd seen enough, we set off for one last strenuous climb: 418 steps up to the top of the tower. It closes when it's raining, but we made it up just in time before the drizzle started! Amazing views of the Duomo and the rest of Florence. 

By the time we were done touring Palazzo Vecchio, it was pouring rain, so we ducked into the Bargello for one last Firenze Card admission and an opportunity to stay dry while sightseeing, hoping the rain would taper off for the afternoon.