Food & Wine, Travel Italy, Travel: Beyond Rome
Irene: Sassy Tuscan dining in the very heart of Florence
The first time I visited Florence I was in my early 20s. (I won’t say how long ago that was.) Traveling through Italy, I wanted to eat local and back then, Italian cuisine kind of meant this homogenous term, loosely defined by pizza and pasta. Those were the days when the term foodie wasn’t even part of the vocabulary and chefs like the celebrity ones of late weren’t household names. Apps didn’t exist and going ‘online’ to find the best places to eat wasn’t a hobby for what now seems the majority. So how would you find the best places to eat in an Italian city you didn’t know? You would rely mostly on your hotel concierge and the long-held belief in tourist cities like Rome and Florence of: “Walk away from the main piazza. Don’t ever eat in a piazza“. That myth clearly does not apply to all. The Hotel Savoy’s sassy streetside bistro, Irene is in a piazza. A big, famous one at that. Right in the heart of Florence’s Piazza della Repubblica, this is a piazza in Florence that you should absolutely eat in!An ode to Sir Rocco Forte’s (of the famed luxury hotel empire Rocco Forte) mother Irene, this place will make you feel like you belong whether you’re walking in off the street or have been a hotel guest for days. In fact, their philosophy challenges the often boring hotel restaurant formula. They want to make hotel guests feel as though they are “going out for dinner” and welcome other diners off the street, locals and visitors alike, for an authentic Florentine experience without exorbitant prices. The menu is Tuscan but with a contemporary wash and head chef Giovanni Cosmai brings a touch of his international travels and cuisine of Puglian heritage. While the classics like the famous bistecca alla fiorentina (their 1.5 kg Chianina steak) are on the menu, some other staples are presented with a twist. Like the ravioli con pappa al pomodoro for instance which are filled with this Florentine family favorite of thick tomato soup and bread. In fact, the chef’s starter was inspired by this very traditional family dish. A plate of local tomatoes, a knife and Tuscan bread. I then feasted on the red prawn carpaccio served on zesty herbed ricotta and a perfectly citrus seasoned raw artichoke salad, and then the lasagna made with the prime Chianina beef that Tuscany is famous for. Freshly made pasta sheets, laden with a deliciously rich ragu that I couldn’t get enough of. And thanks to the extra portion the plate came served with, I got my fill. Dessert was a no-brainer for me. I see apple on the list and the decision is made. I had the apple filled crispy filo pastry served with the chef’s secret spiced gelato. The mixed spice, star anise and cinnamon literally blew my mind. Here, Chef Cosmai’s dishes are exceptional, the local and international wine list impressive and cocktails at the bar are prepared by talented mixologists. But the other aspect which made my night, was the outstanding service. Our waiter Paolo carefully explained the entire menu in detail, helped us make a few decisions and was just a general font of information on the food of Florence. His personality and passion for his work was infectious. So the next time you are in Florence, head to the piazza and not away from the piazza! That is to Piazza Della Repubblica. Irene will envelop you with her charm and spunk and you’re in for a meal you won’t forget. And so yes, just a stone’s throw from the stunning Brunelleschi dome of the duomo that has come to be Florence’s international identifying symbol; one of Italy’s most popular tourist sites, not only can you eat ridiculously well, you will make a meal at Irene a must, time and time again. I’m sure of it. Irene (Piazza della Repubblica 7, Florence) Website Signing off from Trastevere (with a bit of a crush now really) Baci, Maria Acknowledgements: I was an invited guest of Irene at the Hotel Savoy, but all opinions and comments are my own. Nobody tells me what or how to write.