BY SOPHIA DU BRUL
Normally, I do not do much for my birthday. While I enjoy receiving birthday wishes from friends and family, I prefer to have a quiet dinner at home. But I also love to travel, and 50, well, that was a great excuse to demand a trip! And why not Florence?! Thirty-two years had passed since I had walked the streets of that great city and my 50th birthday seemed the perfect time to change that, despite the fact that my birthday is in February. But as it turns out, that dreary winter month is the perfect time to visit Florence.
To begin, Italy (outside of Venice) is on sale in February. We decided to fly to Rome and then take a train, as the flight itineraries were better for Rome and it gave us a chance to visit The Eternal City. The flights and train fares were only $600 each, and the hotels were half-off high season.
Even better, the travel was so easy because nothing was full. I am not sure if I would have risked trains in the height of summer, where a late flight could have meant a lost and hard-to-change train reservation, but we could just walk up to the window and get tickets for the next train, no problem.
But here is the real secret: Florence is a winter city. That trip, 32 years ago with my parents, my brother and grandmother, was a typical bus tour to Rome, Florence, and Venice. It was a lovely trip. It began my lifelong love of Italy, but Florence was my least favorite of the three. Don’t get me wrong, I thought Florence was beautiful and the art amazing, but the city lacks green spaces, wide sidewalks with charming cafes, and gardens. Florence’s fortress-like facades overlook narrow streets. And I recall that while the food in Florence was good, I liked the food in Rome and Venice better.
Florence really is a rather small and compact city of brick and stone, which I can imagine being unbearable in the summer heat. The sparser winter crowds (there are still some tourists in winter, mostly other Europeans and tour groups from China) do allow one to admire the architecture and vistas and walk around even the most popular spots without being jostled. One should still buy reserved tickets for major sites like the Uffizi, but at minor (and not-so-minor) sites like the Pitti Palace and Santa Croce, there is little-to-no wait. Even the Uffizi was not overly busy, though sometimes we had to wait a minute for a group to move on to get a really good look at a painting. We had the Pazzi Chapel completely to ourselves.
But the real revelation was the food: Florentines love their beef, game meats, tripe, lampredotto, potatoes, polenta, and beans, all paired with robust Tuscan reds. It is stick-to-your-ribs winter food! One memorable meal from the last trip was a dinner at Cinghiale Bianco, where my father insisted on having the tripe, despite a two-hour wait. The tripe came in a rich, sticky tomato sauce, and it was good but heavy. Not what I was craving on a hot evening in July, but on a chilly day in February, it was perfect.
We did return to Cinghiale Bianco for my birthday, where Brad and I enjoyed a rosy platter of wild boar cold cuts, grilled vegetables, a boar stew with polenta and a sublime roasted rabbit with crispy potatoes. On a later night, we went to Cinghiale’s new sister restaurant, Osteria del Pavone, which was fabulous. Florentine cuisine tends to be wonderfully simple and rich. Pavone is trying to bring Florentine classics to the next level of elegance with lighter and more imaginative preparations and innovative cocktails concocted with liqueurs and bitters made from medieval recipes at Santa Maria Novella.
One of Pavone’s dishes takes humble lampredotto—a type of tripe that is normally served in a sandwich, utterly divine street food (Florence’s equivalent of Italian beef)—and put it into possibly the most perfect ravioli I have ever eaten. As a bonus, since it was a quiet winter night, we stayed until almost midnight with Marco, the owner, and Salvatore, the bartender, just chatting and sampling different medieval liqueurs—that could never happen on a busy night in high season.
A total contrast to the elegance of Pavone was L’Brindellone. This was the one spot where we did have to make a reservation. Brindellone was recommended by a former student, and it is in a neighborhood with a youth hostel and cheaper apartments. We arrived on a Sunday night, only to be told that they were full. We asked to make a reservation for Monday but were curtly informed that we could come back on Tuesday at 7:30, which we did. It was slammed. To say that Brindellone has a simple menu is an understatement: they offer bistecca Fiorentina, a veal chop, a fillet, a veg of the day, beans in tomato sauce, a salad, two pastas, and red or white wine in three sizes. Steak only comes rare, as a table of Brits near us learned (“Can I have my steak medium?” No. “Can you ask the kitchen?” No.) It is the best steak I have ever had and it is a bargain. No wonder you need a reservation in February.
Rome was more of the same: at the catacombs of St. Agnes and mausoleum of St. Constanza, Brad and I were the only ones there and got a private tour. One could actually go up to the Trevi Fountain to take a picture without any strangers in it.
A quick tip about winter in Rome and Florence: it does rain and nights can be cold, not Chicago cold, but damp and chilly. Bring two coats. I brought a vintage velvet raincoat and a leather coat with a warm fur collar, and I needed both. Also, dress in layers: Italians panic when anything dips below 50 degrees and crank up the heat, so have a light shirt under your sweater because interiors can be a bit overheated.
Well, Brad turns 50 in 2020. I am already thinking about his trip. Maybe Naples or perhaps a drive through the ham country of Spain?
MY TOP PICKS FOR ROME AND FLORENCE:
Just classic Florentine food—get the boar cold cuts, pasta with fresh truffles, Cinghiale with polenta or try one of the game specials.
Really elegant and creative approach to Florentine cuisine—the lampredotto ravioli and dark chocolate mousse with olive oil and shaved truffle are must haves, and get a special Negroni made with rhubarb bitters.
Piazza Piattellina 10/11R
+39 055 217879
This place is all about the beef. Get the bistecca Fiorentina with all the sides and bring your appetite. You must have a reservation.
Antica Gelateria Fiorentina
Via Faenza 2a
+39 320 8485018
These guys make a limited number flavors, made all in-house, with all-natural ingredients and the gelato is amazing, particularly the saffron option.
San Lorenzo Market
Full of stalls indoors and out. Fun place to browse and get lunch. There are lots little stalls specializing in tripe Fiorentina and lampredotto as well as trays of sausage and cheese. Great deals on dried mushrooms, spices, truffles, oils and aged vinegars. Closes at 2PM so remember to get in an earlier lunch.
It goes without saying that this is one of the greatest art collections in the world, but Leonardo da Vinci’s “Adoration of the Magi” has just been restored and is back on display (just this past January), and seeing it now is a truly spine-tingling, goose bump-inducing, tears-sparking-your-eyes brush with beauty.
Classic Roman cuisine at its best—get the spaghetti a la vongole, the fish of the day, and the Roman-style artichokes. It can get crowded, so you probably want to make a reservation.
We went here 10 years ago and had to go back. The proprietor is large, jovial, and casual, like his taverna. It is hard to make a reservation here, but if you just send a message to the owner through Trip Advisor, he will answer. Get the lardo with raw honey, the duck breast crudo, grilled vegetables, and the Piedmontese-style fondue, literally covered with fresh truffle.
The Albert Pub
Via del Traforo, 132
It’s an English themed pub. The crowd is a fun mix of friendly and chatty ex-pats and locals who have great restaurant recommendations, and the Negronis are huge and cheap.
The Domus Aurea was Nero’s palace, built after the fire. After Nero’s assassination, Vespasian filled in the gardens and built the Colosseum over the pool. Later, Trajan filled in the Domus Aurea and used it as the foundation for his bath complex. Rediscovered during the Renaissance and inspiring many artists, real excavation did not begin until the 20th century. In 2013 the Domus finally opened to the public. This is a great tour of a working archeological site just a stone’s throw from the Colosseum and Forum, but wear sensible shoes and bring a jacket. It is chilly down there.