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Five Days in Florence

Why go?

If you have any serious interest in good food and art, then Florence is somewhere you just have to go. This is the seat of the Renaissance and home to some of the world’s best art; the area of Italy that Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo came from. You’ll also find some of Italy’s best food and famous Tuscan wines like Chianti. But Florence isn’t just about food and art, it is a beautiful city that is quite compact and easy to explore on foot so a perfect destination for a short break.

 

Getting there and where to stay

Florence has a small airport but few airlines go there so usually people fly to Pisa and get a train from there. I flew with British Airways but Ryanair and easyJet fly to Pisa too. From Pisa airport take the shuttle train Pisamover to the central Pisa station – Pisa Centrale – which takes only about 5 minutes. A ticket from the ticket office just outside Arrivals at the airport includes this and there are clear signs to take you to the shuttle. At Pisa Centrale I managed to get a fast train into Florence’s main station – Santa Maria Novella – which took just 48 minutes but some trains are slower (fare is €13).

I booked my hotel through British Airways. Hotel Cellai is very central, just 10 minutes walk from the railway station and easy walking distance to all the main sights. It was a lovely, friendly hotel. To read more about it click here.

 

For the art lover

There’s so much for the art lover to do it would be hard to fit it all in in five days. Perhaps the most important place to go though is the Uffizi Gallery, a Medici palazzo built in the 16th century, which is situated by the Arno river. It is home to some of the world’s greatest masterpieces by artists such as Botticelli, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Titian, Raphael and Caravaggio. Right by the Uffizi in Piazza della Signoria you’ll see a copy of Michelangelo’s famous ‘David’. To see the original you need to go to Galleria dell’Accademia. To visit both these galleries it’s essential to book in advance (for more click here). A smaller place to go for more of Michelangelo’s work is Casa Buonarroti. This 17th century palazzo was built by the artist’s great nephew to house the family’s collection of Michelangelo’s work; mainly early works but wonderful to see. For more click here.

 

The Duomo

The city’s cathedral, Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, known as the Duomo, is a magnificent sight, its dome and campanile reaching up to the sky and a frequent guide when wandering round and you need to orientate yourself. Admission is free. I didn’t actually go inside during my recent visit as it was so crowded and I’ve seen it before. But just seeing the outside is wonderful.

 

Central Market

Any food lover likes to visit the local market and a trip to Mercato Centrale, a covered market in the centre of the city, is well worth a visit. Even if you’re staying in a hotel and don’t want to buy food to cook, just seeing the wonderful choice and displays of food is fantastic. Upstairs you’ll find lots of bars and cafes where you can eat too. (Click here for more.)

 

Cafes

There are cafes everywhere, of course, from old grand cafes like Caffè Gilli in Piazza della Republicca (photo above) and Caffè Rivoire in Piazza della Signoria with its famous view over towards the Uffizi and ‘David’ copy. But you’ll find plenty of small cafes from the older traditional kind to more modern ones. Wherever you stop for a coffee the chances are it will be a good one. Your cappuccino will come in a small cup, without chocolate, though as an obvious tourist you may be asked if you want some. Italians drink small coffees, often frequently during the day. A coffee is a fast thing. You stop at the bar and order a cappuccino (not after 11am or a meal!) or espresso, drink it and move on. They drink it at the bar, standing up, and quite cheaply. You have to pay and get a ticket at a cash desk before going to the bar. But if you want to sit down and be served you’ll pay a premium, perhaps twice as much or more.

 

Places to eat

I prefer most of the time to eat in modest trattorias and cafes rather than smart restaurants. It’s not just a question of cost but because I like to enjoy the simple, straightforward local food. The places I enjoyed eating in on my last trip were Osteria Santo Spirito, Trattoria Cibrèo, Cibrèo Caffè and Simbiosi, an organic pizzeria.

 

What to eat and drink

Tuscan cuisine is so great with so many famous dishes, I can only give you an overview of what I sampled on my recent visit and hopefully offer just a small guide to what to look for. A typical Florentine breakfast is a coffee – usually macchiato, though I ordered cappuccino – and a little pastry called budino di riso, which is like a creamy rice pudding in a pastry case. It’s really delicious. I discovered it on a food tour and ordered one with my coffee a couple of mornings at Caffè Gilli.

Bread is a big thing in Tuscany, more so than pasta and rice, so a lot of dishes have a bread base. Most famous are panzanella – a salad based on bread with tomatoes and other vegetables, a soup called ribollita made with lots of seasonal vegetables, usually including cavolo nero, which is then ladled over some bread. Tomatoes are used a lot too, especially at their tastiest in the summer months, and I loved pappa al pomodoro, a warm bread soup with lots of tomatoes,  garlic, olive oil and basil. I had a great one on my last evening in Osteria Santo Spirito.

The bread itself is unsalted, which can taste a bit strange, but then when put with the full, rich flavours of Tuscan cooking makes sense. It is anyway delicious and Osteria Santo Spirito served theirs with some lovely tapenade.

Those delicious little biscuits called cantuccini that are often served with coffee in Italian cafes even in London, come from Florence. I saw some being made on the food tour but they were everywhere in bakers, cafes and the market.

The Florentines like meat a lot, especially beef and their most famous dish is perhaps bistecca alla Fiorentina – a T-bone steak served in most restaurants. Usually it’s a dish for two so I didn’t order it, but had instead another famous Tuscan dish – Tagliata di Manzo. The steak is served rare, cut into slices, with rocket and thin slivers of Parmesan cheese. I had a fabulous one on my last night at Osteria Santo Spirito.

You’ll find delicious Tuscan prosciutto, a bit drier than from Parma with a deeper flavour, and wonderful salami spiced with fennel. Cheeses include Pecorino and Tuscany’s olive oil is thought by some to be the best in the world; it can be quite green with a peppery flavour.

You’ll find the most amazing wine in Florence for this is Chianti country. A good restaurant or trattoria will guide you when choosing what to go with your food.

 

Gelato

Ice cream has to have its own section here! Italy may be famous for its ice cream but there’s nowhere like Florence for eating it for Florence is where it was born, back in the time of the Medicis in the 16th century. Florence is where I had my first real Italian gelato experience and  I had to go back to where it all happened – at Vivoli, Florence’s oldest gelateria, which was once said to be the best in the world. Perhaps it can’t claim that now, but it’s certainly one of the best you’ll find and I think on my recent trip my favourite (click here). Also serving fabulous gelato is Gelateria della Passera, which again I was introduced to on my food tour. I discovered another good gelateria which won a prize at Florence’s gelato festival last year – My Sugar in Via de’Ginori. Two chains which are good are Grom and Venchi. But you’ll find gelaterias everywhere you go and I’m sure there are many more good ones to discover.

 

What to buy to take home

There are obvious things to buy to take home like the wine and olive oil from the region, but if you’re travelling with just hand luggage as I did, that’s not possible. It doesn’t bother me much as nowadays I can buy excellent Italian food and wine back home. I considered buying some cantuccini for gifts but then considered how they might get crushed in my small case. What I hadn’t intended to buy but did is some artwork and leather. You see artists setting up stalls all over Florence, especially near the Uffizi, but also in the piazzas. One evening in the Piazza della Republicca there were a few stalls and I took a look as I wandered round. I was attracted to the work of Sandra Bencistà (photo above) who was making beautiful watercolours as I watched. I talked to her and ended up buying a couple of small paintings which I thought a really lovely thing to bring home.

It was while walking to Trattoria Cibrèo on Wednesday evening that I passed a leather shop – Cuor di Pelle, in Via dei Pilastri. This is in the Santa Croce area of Florence, which is a bit away from the tourist area and more obviously a place where locals live. Leather is one of the most famous things to buy in Florence and you’ll see leather shops everywhere; indeed, sometimes just walking down streets you smell the leather and around Mercato Centrale there are lots of leather stalls. I have to confess to being a bit suspicious. It’s a bit like buying glass in Venice – much of it isn’t really from Murano, just as I suspect much of the leather sold in Florence isn’t really from Tuscany. However, I could see a man working at a table inside and it looked to have some nice things, so I went in.

 

I got talking to the owner who told me he designed the goods and some were really creative. He said local people made them up; two women living just outside Florence made the purses. He showed me how to find out if your leather was genuine too. I ended up buying some little gifts and loved that this was clearly an authentic place.

 

Escaping the crowds and finding some peace

Much as I love cities and as much as I was really happy to be in Florence again, having not been there for many years, I did crave a little peace and tranquillity away from the crowds for a bit of the time. There are two wonderful places to go: Fiesole and the Boboli Gardens. I went to both. Fiesole is up in the hills outside Florence and just a 20-minute bus ride from the centre (click here for more info). I’ve been before and it has to be said that in peak season you’ll find coach loads of people heading there for the famous view across Florence. But as you can see from the photo above, by going early in the morning outside peak season I had the famous view all to myself!

I spent about 3 hours wandering around and having some lunch. It was a really nice thing to do.

The Boboli Gardens are fairly central and a short walk from Ponte Vecchio, behind the Pitti Palace. It costs €7 to get in. The views across the city are magnificent.

 

Oltrarno

Oltrarno – literally, on the other side of the Arno – is known as the ‘Left Bank’ or ‘Soho’ of Florence. This is where you’ll find artisan workshops, cafes and food shops. It’s also where my favourite restaurant of the trip, Osteria Santo Spirito is, in Piazza Santo Spirito. When I went there on my first evening there were lots of artisan craft and food stalls set up. The next day I explored the area more with the food tour. Again, if you’re looking for a quieter place to escape the crowds for a while, then cross Ponte Santa Trinita (one down from Ponte Vecchio) and enter a different world in Oltrarno.

The food tour I did was with Eating Italy – click here.

 

Florence 2017: Hotel Cellai

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Most of my holidays are short breaks, usually a 3-night weekend break, or in the case of Florence this week, 5 nights. I’ve got into the habit of booking flight and hotel through British Airways as the package is usually a good deal and living so close to Heathrow I always prefer to fly from there. This is how I came to find Hotel Cellai in Florence. It describes itself as a ’boutique hotel’ and from some research online, as well as the BA recommendation, it sounded very nice. But of course you can never really tell what a hotel is like until you experience it.

Hotel Cellai sounded friendly and when you’re travelling alone that’s very important. It’s nice when hotel staff bother to greet you as you come and go, ask how your day’s been, be happy to give advice or directions. Hotel Cellai went even beyond this. I’ve only experienced such friendliness before at my favourite hotel in Venice, where I’ve been many times, and the hotel I stayed at in Bologna three years ago. All the breakfast staff would greet people with a big smile and buongiorno, the maids cleaning rooms would give a big smile and say hello. The reception staff were friendly and helpful. For me, being on my own, it gave me a little feeling of ‘going home’ each time I went back and I felt it a cosy haven in the wonderful but rather manic centre of Florence.

I’d been in touch before I arrived. Firstly to upgrade my room. When booking I wasn’t given the chance as usually happens to choose a standard double room for single use, and I wasn’t keen on sleeping in single bed and fairly small room for 5 nights. So I emailed the hotel and it was all sorted to reserve a bigger room for me. Obviously at an extra charge. I continued the correspondence to ask if they could recommend some restaurants, explaining I wrote the blog and hoped to find some nice restaurants, preferably not the usual tourist ones but also simple trattorias rather than posh restaurants. They sent me a list and one of them ended up being my favourite restaurant of the trip.

The hotel has nice touches. My room – I think I ended up with one of the bigger ones! – had a kettle which I always love. It’s so nice to be able to make a tea when you wake up, have a nighttime tea as you go to bed; make a hot drink when you go back for a rest in the day. The bathroom had the usual shampoo, shower gel and soap but also toothpaste and a beauty kit with things like cotton buds.

The only negative to the room was it was at the front with a busy road outside so it was never really very quiet, other than in the night. But then I was in the middle of a major city. There were though double windows to block a lot of noise out and air conditioning to keep the room cool.

Breakfast was included and it was one of the best breakfast buffets I’ve seen. Juices, cereals and yoghurt; steaming platters of scrambled egg brought regularly from the kitchen; pastries and freshly baked cakes; platters of meat, cheese and tomato bruschette. There was a big urn of hot water and choice of teas, coffee with the option of asking the staff to make a cappuccino if you wanted.

  

You could sit in the dining room but they also made up more casual small tables in nearby sitting areas.

   

There were lots of cosy little seating areas with artworks, books, paintings, all around the hotel which added to the attraction. You often read about hotels being ‘charming’ but Hotel Cellai really is.

One of the really special things was that between 5 and 6pm complimentary tea was offered in a sitting room with a big choice of teas and some cake. Just perfect for an afternoon rest after a day of sightseeing before going out again for the evening.

The hotel is very conveniently situated, just a 10-minute walk from Florence’s main railway station, Santa Maria Novella. And it’s only about a 15-20 minute walk to the Uffizi and Ponte Vecchio; a 10-minute walk to the Accademia to see Michelangelo’s ‘David’. It really couldn’t be much better – unless very posh and expensive is your preference – and I’ll certainly go back to Hotel Cellai next time I go to Florence.

Florence 2017: Dinner at Trattoria Cibreo & Visit to Boboli Gardens

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I decided to eat at Trattoria Cibreo last night. It had been recommended to me by both my hotel and the food tour I did on Monday. It opens at 7.00 in the evening. There are reports of long queues and you can’t book so I decided to get there in time for opening. As it happened there wasn’t a queue but then it’s not really peak season in Florence yet. The trattoria is the more simple, cheaper version of the Cibreo restaurant next door. There’s also a Caffe Cibreo nearby but on a grand cafe style and also quite expensive. When the trattoria opened I opted to sit inside rather than on the terrace outside.

It was very much a typical Tuscan trattoria inside; just the kind of place I love. The menu was quite short and handwritten. The staff were really friendly and helpful. Soon I’d ordered and had some wine before me.

I had some chicken liver pate to start and it came with little pieces of toast and some wonderful integrale bread they make themselves. The pate was deliciously light and creamy.

For my main I chose chicken and ricotta meatballs in tomato sauce. It was such a simple dish but wonderfully done with incredibly light and delicious meatballs and fabulous, deep tasting tomato sauce. They served it with some chickpeas dressed in olive oil on the side.

I finished with a slice of gorgeous flourless chocolate cake and an espresso. My bill for food and wine was €38.

Before returning to the hotel I walked down to the Ponte Vecchio and saw a wonderful sunset.

I woke to another gorgeous day of sunshine and a temperature in the 30s. The plan of the day was to go to the Boboli Gardens. I hadn’t been before and was keen to see them. I had to cross the Ponte Vecchio to get to them. The Gardens lie behind the Pitti Palace, the main seat of the Medicis in the 16th century. The Gardens are some of the first formal designs of the time and are more about design than colour; there are few plants. There are however magnificent views across the city, requiring quite a hike up steep paths, but definitely worth the effort. The entry fee is €7. Here are some photos:

   

It was very quiet in the Gardens – I’m sure it won’t be in July and August! – so a lovely peaceful place to pass a couple of hours this morning away from the crowds in the centre of the city.

It was approaching lunchtime and I decided to head back to the Santa Croce area I was in last night. It’s less touristy and more a local place. I wanted just a salad for lunch and thought I’d be sure to find a good one in Caffe Cibreo – part of the restaurant-trattoria family from last night.

I sat on the terrace, which was pleasantly shaded from the hot sun. Their delicious homemade bread came with some almond cream and a glass of white wine I’d ordered.

Then my tuna salad, absolutely perfectly fresh with crisp vegetables and the dressing put on in front of me at the last moment. All very simple and exactly what I wanted.

From the Caffe it was a short walk to Gelateria Vivoli where I went yesterday. I indulged in 3 flavours as it’s my last day, at a bargain €3.50 (it would have cost a lot more in London): pear + caramel, orange cream and stracciatella.

It was SO good! Really incredible.

A bonus and unexpected delight was by chance coming across Casa Buonarroti as I walked along Via Ghilbellina on the way from the Caffe to the gelateria. This palazzo was built in the 17th century by the great nephew of Michelangelo (Buonarroti) to house the artist’s work still owned by the family. It contains two of Michelangelo’s most important early works – 2 bas-reliefs – and a number of very early sculptures in terracotta and many drawings. For €6.50 it was great to go inside and get a close-up view of some of the great artist’s work.

Florence 2017: Early Morning at Mercato Centrale & Bus to Fiesole

Unusually it’s taken me three days to get to the local main market. But there’s so much to do in Florence with my time divided between art and food, not to mention just wandering round and appreciating how beautiful Florence is, that today was the first chance to go. I’m always up early and it turned out to be a great bonus for the market was fairly empty still when I arrived. I’ve been there before when it’s packed. It’s a large covered market although there are lots of stalls surrounding it outside selling mainly leather goods, for leather is one of the most famous things to buy in Florence.

The market has been there since the late 19th century. It sells every kind of food you could possibly want to find from meat and fish and vegetables to the best olive oil and cheese. You’ll find local cantuccini and huge fresh porcini. Here are some of the photos I took.

   

Through some windows I could see people making fresh pasta.

Upstairs there are lots of cafes and stalls selling all kinds of food so it’s a great place to head to eat. There’s an Eataly outlet too.

My plan for the next part of the day was to take a bus to Fiesole. Fiesole is up in the hills above Florence. It’s just a 20-minute journey on the No.7 bus from Piazza San Marco to Piazza Mino in the centre of Fiesole (€1.20 each way). I partly wanted to escape the madness of busy Florence for a while but also wanted to see the stunning views across the city. Again. I’ve been to Fiesole before but many years ago. In the peak season coach loads of tourists go there for the views but luckily it was fairly quiet, and again, arriving early I had the famous viewpoint to myself for a while.

I walked a bit further up to Chiesa di San Francesco, a 14th century church.

It was a lovely little church and a wonderfully peaceful place to sit for a while. Then it was time to head back down the steep narrow road to the centre of town for lunch.

I’d remembered having great pizza in Fiesole before. Unfortunately what I ended up having was one of the worst pizzas I’ve ever had! However, it wasn’t really a big deal as I’d otherwise spent a wonderful three hours in Fiesole. I took the bus back down to the centre of Florence and decided to seek out Vivoli Gelateria for some ice cream. Well, when in Italy you need gelato every day! Vivoli is the oldest gelateria in Florence – and Florence is where modern gelato was born back in the days of the Medicis in the early 16th century. Vivoli is where I first experienced the wonder of Italian gelato – 40 years ago! And I’ve never forgotten it.

It was mind blowing. I’d never had anything like it. Vivoli once claimed to sell the best ice cream in the world. Perhaps it wouldn’t be able to now for even in Italy there’s been something of a gelato revolution with new artisan gelaterias popping up all the time, but Vivoli can still claim to serve some of the best.

I had chocolate + orange and zabaione (€2.50). I had to have the zabaione because I do actually remember that’s what I had 40 years ago! It was still wonderful. The chocolate was rich and deep in flavour with gorgeous slightly bitter pieces of candied orange peel; the zabaione deliciously creamy. They serve the gelato only in cups; no cones. This is because Italians think you shouldn’t taint the taste of good gelato with a cone! Vivoli’s great ice cream lives on.

Florence 2017: Food & Art

Like most other visitors to Florence, I’m here for the food and the art. The Renaissance was born here but so too was gelato. Both Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo were born in Tuscany and modern gelato was born in Florence at the time of the Medicis in the early 16th century. I’ve been doing a good job of enjoying both my love of art and my love of good food since arriving a couple of days ago.

Yesterday I did a brilliant 4-hour food tour with Eating in Italy. Our guide Omar was half Italian and half Egyptian but having been brought up in Florence he knew it better than most people and was an excellent guide – well informed and knowledgeable but fun too. The tour was based in Oltrarno – literally ‘the other side of the Arno’ and away from the main tourist areas. This is where you’ll find locals and artisan shops, cafes and restaurants. We began with a typical Florentine breakfast of coffee macchiato and budino di riso (a delicious little cake with a rice pudding filling) at La Nuvole cafe.

We watched 80-year-old Roberto make cantuccini in Pasticceria Buonamici (he’s been working there since he was 13!) and sampled some straight from the oven. Roberto only cooks them once rather than double-baking them, so they’re deliciously soft and chewy in the middle.

We visited a typical deli – Sandro & Ivana – and tried Tuscan prosciutto and fennel salami and fantastic cheeses.

We sampled lampredotto – a kind of tripe; cow stomach – at a street stall, which apparently the Florentines love but Travel Gourmet wasn’t too impressed by. We then stopped for a glass of Chianti Classico at a wine bar – Fiaschetteria Fantappie – which I was definitely very impressed by.

We then moved onto Trattoria I’Raddi for a 2-course lunch. We finished with some of the best gelato I’ve ever had anywhere (and I’ve had some pretty amazing gelato in my time) at Gelateria della Passera.

They had some really exciting and creative combinations of flavours. I had chocolate & orange and elderflower berries, blackcurrant & cranberry. They were both fabulous. Such rich, deep flavours yet refreshing in the heat outside.

Today has been a cultural day – but only after a cappuccino and delicious croissant at Gilli, one of the city’s oldest cafes. Remember to always stand at the bar. I paid just €2.60 for both but it can be well over twice as much to sit down in cafes.

Then I went to the Uffizi. Not only does it house some of the best Renaissance artwork you’ll find but the building itself is great to see and offers fantastic views across the city and down the Arno river.

Do book in advance or you may not get in or face a horrendous queue.

I took a break for lunch at a pizzeria I’d passed a few times which is totally organic. I enjoyed a delicious pizza and organic Tuscan wine at Simbiosi in via de’ Ginori (€19.50 for pizza, wine and coffee).

I came out and crossed the road to My Sugar, an artisan gelateria, which was winner of the Florence Gelato Festival 2016. A small cup was €2 for 2 flavours. I had watermelon and honey & ginger.

Then it was time for Michelangelo and David. Again I’d prebooked saving myself from a huge queue and I heard someone being told there were no tickets available until next week. David is such a symbol of Florence and indeed a symbol of freedom and civic pride to the people of Florence. I’ve seen him before but even so I was still awed by his beauty.

Also I liked seeing the few unfinished works which show you how Michelangelo worked. He believed the carvings, statues, were inside the blocks of marble and it was his purpose to release them.

After a busy morning and early afternoon it was time for a rest back at my cosy hotel before venturing out again.

Return to Florence & Dinner at Osteria Santo Spirito

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It was while enjoying some Tuscan bread at Osteria Santo Spirito last night that I wondered why on earth I’d waited 15 years to return to Florence. It’s easy to be put off crowded, touristy Florence, especially in the heat of summer but then I’d forgotten how beautiful it is – and how glorious the food.

Eight hours after leaving my home I was checking into the lovely Hotel Cellai, situated fairly centrally so an easy walk to all the sights. I’d flown into Pisa and caught a train (48 mins on the fast intercity) to Santa Maria Novella station. From there it was an easy 10 minute walk to the hotel. I’ll write more about the hotel another time but it’s a friendly cosy place to stay. I headed straight out to enjoy Florence’s most famous sights, happy just to wander in the beautiful weather. It’s crowded but nothing like July and August would be and it’s an inevitability of choosing to visit a popular city.

I’d asked the hotel for some restaurant recommendations before I came. Of course arriving on a Sunday is a bit tricky as so many restaurants are closed in the evening but I saw a couple located on the other side of the Arno river in Oltrarno (literally the ‘other side of the Arno’) were open so I headed that way. I entered the pretty Piazza Santo Spirito and was met by the sight of a market still going – food and crafts – and tables outside restaurants and cafes around the edge of the piazza. It was very attractive and despite all the people and buzz, peaceful and welcoming.

I’d intended to take a look at both restaurants as it was quite early but arrived at Osteria Santo Spirito first and it was so busy with people being asked if they’d booked, I went inside and asked if they had a table for one. I just about made it! Soon after people were being turned away.

There is a terrace but I liked the inside so was happy there. Huge fans spun above bringing welcome cool relief from the 30+ degrees heat. I didn’t want a huge meal so chose a starter and starter size risotto to follow. The waitress was really helpful and recommended a glass of local white wine. My starter was Panzanella. A lot of Tuscan dishes are based on bread and this bread salad is a classic, best made at the peak season for tomatoes for the supberb taste. It’s really just simple salad of pieces of stale bread and chopped tomatoes dressed with extra virgin olive oil, and sometimes other things will be added like onions and basil.

It was glorious. This salad sums up so much of what is great about Italian cooking – using the finest ingredients, in season, and keeping things simple.  A basket of bread and tapenade was brought to the table too.

Tuscan bread is unsalted. There are various theories surrounding this. Whatever the reason, it’s delicious and the tapenade that came with my bread yesterday was fabulous too.

My risotto main dish was made with courgettes and ‘heart of Parmesan’, which turned out to be chunks of Parmesan.

It was wonderful, so delicious and the smaller size the waitress thought was probably enough for me, perfect. Especially as it left room for dessert. I hadn’t planned on dessert but the food was so good and I liked the lively atmosphere and sitting there, so wasn’t in a hurry to move on. I opted for ‘Budino di panna’, a rich cream dessert a bit like panna cotta that came with peach sauce.

This was so good – rich, thick and creamy and thoroughly delicious. The peach sauce was a great accompaniment too. A nice touch was they also brought me a complimentary plate of fresh cherries while I was waiting for my dessert. I finished with an espresso and then paid. It came to €29.50 for the food and wine. I liked it so much I booked a table for my last night so will go back on Thursday evening.

 

Restaurant Review: Honey & Co.

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Annie and I loved our visit to Honey & Smoke a few weeks ago, so she suggested we try out their ‘mother’ restaurant, Honey & Co., and kindly offered to book us a table. It’s a tiny, unassuming place which you’d easily pass by unless you were looking for it, located down the far end of Warren Street away from the Tube station, just north of Fitzroy Square. This Israeli-run café, serving Middle Eastern food, has been such a success and so highly acclaimed you couldn’t really call it a café. And like Honey & Smoke, it’s necessary to book well in advance.

It still feels like a café inside, just a few tables lined either side and quite close together; kilim-style cushions along the back a reference to its owners’ Middle East origins. At Honey & Smoke, Annie and I had the fixed price menu with its starter of a large mezze selection but you have to be really hungry to want that. Also it was a particularly warm day yesterday, which made us feel we wanted something more modest. We therefore decided to order two starters but share them, and follow it with a main course.

Our first choice of starter was Broad Bean Hummus with Fresh Broad Beans, Marinated Asparagus and Soft Boiled Egg.

It was really wonderful: gorgeous smooth broad bean hummus, a perfectly soft-boiled egg, asparagus retaining the right amount of bite; delicate little broad beans that had (quite rightly) been podded of their tough skins and shining bright green on top. We could have done with a little more pitta bread with it – you could order more as an extra but it would have been nice to have been served a little more and on the side rather than put on top, but other than that it was a brilliant starter. I said to Annie that (with more bread!) it would make a great light meal.

Our other choice of starter was Yemeni Style Falafel with Coriander & Cardamon, served with Tahini Sauce & Cucumber & Sumac Salad.

These were fabulous falafels, quite large, lovely texture and great taste. I liked the tahini with them and the fresh-tasting cucumber salad.

We both chose the same main course: Chicken Shish with Sweet Garlic and Parsley, Freekeh, Pea & Herb Salad & Feta Dressing.

Like the starters, this was superb. The chicken was wonderfully tender and very tasty. I loved the freshness of the freekeh salad with it. It was perfect for the warm day. Freekeh is such a tasty grain, it’s become a favourite of mine, but with the sweet peas and lots of fresh mint it worked brilliantly with the grilled chicken.

Portions were very generous and neither of us had room for dessert. I’d had a glass of white wine, Annie some mint tea, and the bill with service came to £63 for the two of us. We agreed on our way out and back to the Tube station that we’d thought the food excellent but preferred the atmosphere at Honey & Smoke in the evening; it’s larger and we also thought the service a touch more efficient a friendly at ‘Smoke’. But I’m splitting hairs a bit here: the food at Honey & Co is brilliant and definitely worth a trip to the top end of Fitzrovia to try it.

Honey & Co. Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Valentino’s Ristorante, Isleworth, TW1

People are surprised, indeed even shocked, when I tell them that my book group meet once a week. Most book groups meet once a month to discuss a novel, so for most people the idea of having to read a book a week is a bit much. But then I explain it’s not quite like that: we read one novel a month to discuss on the 1st Tuesday of the month; on the 2nd we discuss books based on a theme (the last was Writers from Hull to celebrate that city being this year’s City of Culture); the 3rd Tuesday is poetry night when we might discuss a particular collection of poetry or maybe just more generally the poetry of a chosen poet, and we always read the poetry aloud, which I really love; the 4th Tuesday is our short story evening. The last three choices don’t necessarily take up much time if we’re busy that week; maybe a quick search on the internet to find a poem or two; reading just a couple of the short stories. Then, of course, four times a year we find we have a 5th Tuesday to fill and in the last year or so that’s been turned into our ‘meal night’.

I’m not sure who first suggested it but now we have an occasional evening out at a local restaurant. We might talk about books, but really lots of others things too. Louise has been telling us about her new local Italian which she likes and so four of us ended up going there last night for our book group gathering.

Valentino’s Ristorante is on the main road running up from St Margarets to Isleworth. I knew the little parade of shops from when my son lived nearby but to be honest, it’s not a particularly attractive setting. Buses and other traffic hurtle by and it’s not really somewhere you’d think to go in search of a nice meal. But a nice meal can indeed be found there. So too can breakfast and lunch. Valentino’s open from 8.00am – 11.00pm Mondays to Saturdays; 8.30am – 10.00pm on Sundays. Their breakfast menu shows a range of cooked breakfasts as well as pastries and muffins to have with your coffee or tea. The lunch menu offers sandwiches, pasta and pizza. The dinner menu is more extensive.

Valentino’s is a family-run Italian restaurant. Inside its decor is an informal rustic style with bare brick walls but nice linen tablecloths and napkins. I was the first to arrive and so had plenty of time to look at the menu. There was the usual Italian choice of antipasti, but also some small plates to share; pasta or rice dishes, and then meat or fish main courses. The dishes are quite complex and had more ingredients than I expect to see on an Italian menu as Italian food tends to be very simple; there was also a touch of ‘fusion’ with ingredients like lemongrass, chimichurri sauce and miso. I also spied an offering of ‘goat ragù’. I have to confess it all made me a little nervous – would I like it? It’s so nice when friends take you to their new restaurant discoveries but it’s so embarrassing if you don’t like them too! Thankfully, my fears weren’t realised and we ended up having a delicious meal.

We divided into ‘reds’ and ‘whites’ for wine, so Tim and I shared a bottle of Primitivo, which was very good, while Louise and Margaret had a bottle of Orvieto.

We began with two ‘small plates’ of Bresaola with soft goats’ cheese, pink grapefruit and balsamic vinegar to share as our starter. The grapefruit worked surprisingly well – although Tim did say at the end he would have liked a little more of it with the beef, it was so good.

I chose a seafood risotto for my main – Gran Risotto di Vahide – made with Acquerello carnaroli rice and squid, prawns, monkfish, mussels, clams, baby spinach and Pachino cherry tomatoes.

I had felt slightly overwhelmed by the list of ingredients when I chose it, but when it turned up, as it was put before me there was a wonderful aroma. The rice was perfectly cooked (Acquerello rice is a chefs’ favourite for the wonderful way it cooks, retaining its shape and bite but cooking through, and you’ll find it offered in the best restaurants); the risotto was rich and delicious.

Margaret also chose a risotto – Risotto di Mamma Deza – with porcini mushrooms, beef fillet, rocket and parmesan shaving.

She said it was very good, though didn’t quite manage to finish it – they were large portions! Tim meanwhile was tucking into Ravioli via Condotti – homemade ravioli filled with burrata, pumpkin and pecorino, served with butter, sage and baby spinach.

It looked good and Tim said it was. Louise was the only one to choose from the ‘main’ list and had Polletto Gallery – corn-fed chicken stuffed with Tuscan fennel, salami, tarragon and fontina cheese, served with shiitake mushroom sauce.

This was good too. All the portions were quite large so none of us wanted dessert and we just asked for the bill. It came with glasses of complimentary limoncello – to help our digestion, we were told.

The bill for food and wine came to £35 each, including a tip. It had been a great evening of good food and good company in a nice informal and relaxing setting.

To find out more about Valentino’s visit their website: click here.

To find out more about the Richmond Hill Reading Group, click here.

Valentino's Ristorante Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Nordic Bakery, Covent Garden

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I’ve read a lot of good things about Nordic Bakery and a few weeks ago I passed their newest (4th) branch in London in Neal Street, Covent Garden. I made a mental note to go back some time and today was the perfect opportunity. I’m doing a series of art history courses at the National Gallery on Tuesday afternoons and the timing means that I tend to take the train into central London in time to grab a snack for lunch before the art session begins. I sometimes eat in the gallery’s own café; often the one at the National Portrait Gallery just round the corner, which I prefer. But today I decided it really wasn’t that far to walk from the top end of Neal Street, down St Martin’s Lane and into Trafalgar Square and the gallery, so I’d try lunch in the Nordic Bakery. And I’m so glad I did.

Scandi cafés and food are all the rage at the moment and one of the attractions – apart from things like cinnamon buns! – has to be that laid-back calm one associates with Scandinavia. On their website, Nordic Bakery describe their cafés as ‘a peaceful meeting place in a frantic city’ and that manifested itself not only in the calm interior decor, but the calm friendliness of the staff. They serve, they say, ‘simple and savoury Nordic bakery products … with uncomplicated and honest attitude’.

They offer typical Scandinavian fare of open sandwiches on rye bread, a lot with fish popular in Scandinavia – smoked salmon, gravadlax, prawns, herrings; there’s liver pâté, Jarlsberg cheese, even Swedish meatballs as a sandwich filling. The ‘sandwiches’ are rye bread rolls, some open and some with fillings between two halves. But if you don’t fancy rye rolls for lunch, then there are quiches and salads too.

At breakfast time you might come for oat & rye porridge served with blueberry jam (£3), or one of their gorgeous pastries, perhaps a croissant filled with smoked salmon & egg (£4.20).

For my lunch, I chose a prawn & egg sandwich (£4.80) and a blueberry & raspberry oat bake (£3.20) to follow with an Americano coffee (£2.70).

   

What was really nice was that after I’d paid, they told me to sit down and they’d bring it to me.

It really was in many ways a very simple lunch but it was absolutely gorgeous; so delicious. The roll was lovely with its dark rye, nutty-tasting bread; a generous filling of prawns and egg in a mayonnaise-type dressing. The cake was delicious too and again had a generous filling of fruit – which made me feel less guilty about a dessert at lunchtime because I could mentally claim it was quite healthy! I asked about it after and was told it was made with oat bran plus a little wheat flour to lighten it; a kind of cake-batter base on which the fruit was laid.

If you’re looking for a simple snack or maybe just a coffee with a nice pastry, then Nordic Bakery is a great place to go, and different to the usual café offerings with its Nordic take.

The their website for other locations: click here.

Nordic Bakery Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Black Squid Ink Pasta with Salmon & Slow-roasted Tomatoes

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I love salmon and try to eat it once a week, not only because I like it but because it’s full of healthy fatty acids so is good for me. I always buying organic as the poor salmon has been much abused by the fish farming industry in recent years and most specimens are chemically-infested, bland-tasting fish, which I prefer to avoid. Of course there’s nothing like wild salmon for taste but that’s available for only a few months of the year – and at a price, but a wonderful treat. So I settle for organically farmed salmon most of the time.

I don’t usually do anything fancy with it, just simply grilling or roasting it and serving with nice vegetables. I always put it into a fish pie with some white fish and prawns and it makes excellent fishcakes. However, this evening I decided to be a little more creative; not massively creative and something very simple, but still a little bit more of a treat. Well, it is Sunday!

I had the last of a packet of black squid ink pasta in my cupboard and thought I’d use that with the salmon.

Eating seppia pasta always make me think of Venice, where I first remember eating it, at the wonderful Corte Sconta restaurant (although sadly the last time I went the lovely Rita had gone and it wasn’t quite so wonderful). The first time, with my daughter was magical, and we went back often for a while, whenever in Venice. I wanted to keep my dish simple so decided to add roasted salmon, which I’d break into large-ish pieces, slow-roasted tomatoes, some mint basil from my garden, and lots of olive oil and black pepper.

   

   

First of all I cooked the tomatoes. I’ve been buying some gorgeous cherry tomatoes on the vine from Sainsbury’s which are full of flavour. I knew the slow-roasting would bring out the flavour more, so I cut them in half (enough for one portion), covered them in a little olive oil and sprinkling of sea salt, and put them in a slow 150C/130 Fan/Gas 2 for an hour. This brings out the depth of flavour – the smell from my kitchen was fantastic! – but doesn’t dry them out.

   

Near the time I wanted to eat, I covered a portion of salmon in a little olive oil, seasoned and then roasted in the oven at 220C/200 Fan/Gas 7 for 12 minutes. I like it to be still pink and slightly underdone inside, which is also perfect for this kind of recipe where it will get a little more cooking when added to the pasta. With a fork, I broke the salmon into large-ish pieces ready to add to the pasta.

While the salmon was in the oven, I cooked the pasta. Mine needed 10 minutes (check the instructions on your packet) so I timed it to be ready at the same time as the salmon. When everything was ready, I drained the pasta, put it back in the saucepan and added the salmon, the tomatoes with all their gorgeous juices, some whole leaves of mint basil, a good glug of olive oil and plenty of black pepper.

   

I stirred over a medium heat for a couple of minutes to bring everything together and make sure it was nicely warm, then I transferred to a bowl. I served it with a simple green salad. Don’t be tempted to add Parmesan! The Italians don’t add Parmesan to fish pasta and it really doesn’t need it; it would spoil the taste.

It was very delicious; incredibly simple but wonderfully special in flavour. The mint basil, which I’ve just bought, it quite strong so check you like it if you have some, but otherwise some ordinary basil would do just as well, or even some chopped fresh parsley. I just felt it needed a touch of freshness from a fresh herb to make it really sing. I was very pleased with my supper and if you try it, I hope you enjoy it too!