“Don’t blog this one,” my Omnivore says flatly.
But I can’t help it. This was the best food we’ve had yet in Italy, and in the top ten of best experiences eating ever. I speak of course of Cibreo. No, not THAT Cibreo. The other one. The open-secret one. The one we will return to again and again.
If you seek Typical Tuscan Cuisine, this is not the place for you. There’s no bistecca or pasta on the menu. No spaghetti Bolognese or pici with wild boar ragu. However, if you want the best food in Florence, Michelin-star quality at about a third of what you pay at the Michelin starred restaurant around the corner, Trattoria Cibreo (Via dei Macci 118/r, off Piazza Sant'Ambrogio, 011-39-055-234-1100 – you can call all you like, but the trattoria does not take reservations) is it.
A favorite refrain for my Omnivore through this trip has been that he wanted to find the “L’Ardoise of Italy.” L’Ardoise is our favorite joint in Paris--Pierre Jay’s little place tucked away on 28 rue du Mont Thabor, where he serves up a market menu of fantastic Michelin star level food in a plain table, no-frills setting for a ridiculously low, three-course, prix fixe price. (Call ahead because it’s now totally overrun with American tourists who’ve discovered the secret, 011-33-1-42-96-28-18.)
Well, after some—I am happy to admit, not exhaustive-- eating around, we believe we have found It.
This is not to be confused with the white tablecloth Ristorante Cibreo around the corner, where you can make reservations, you get a larger range of choices and probably will be greeted in English. This is the small living-room sized place (there are only about 30 seats) behind the ristorante, where there are paper placemats on rustic tables, you’ll probably end up sharing a table with strangers and you’ll get a penciled menu in Italian only. But though the number of selections will be smaller, it will be food from the same kitchen. You’ll wait in the breezeway in the door as food passes you by, and you’ll wait. And you’ll wait. But it will be worth it.
We enjoyed it so much that we went back there a second night with Ms. Five-and-a-Half and Mr. Thirteen—that’s how good it was.
The first night, not quite knowing what to expect, we sat next a pair of Japanese women who, much to my delight, took pictures of all their food. I had no need to feel self-conscious about sneaking a photo--these two were happily exchanging cameras back and forth before each bite.
I started with Passato di Zucca, which translates roughly as The Best Pumpkin Soup You Will Ever Have in All Your Years On Earth. A French-style twist on an Italian favorite—which is really what much of the menu is—the silky smoothness of the pumpkin puree veiled what must have been an infusion of nutmeg and perhaps even a hint of cardamom, Ms. Five-and-a-Half thought. It came Italian-style, with a drizzle of olive oil for added smoothness, and a stripe of cinnamon sugar – a brilliant stroke.
My Omnivore had the porcini soup—also beautifully smooth in that way that says pureed, then through a food mill, then a tamis, then a chinois. Delicately aromatic, it had a base of superb broth that didn’t overwhelm the porcinis, but gave it a heightened flavor.
This place is the sort of trattoria where everyone is craning their necks to see who has what, and my Omnivore’s dish—which Ms. Five-and-a-Half tried the next night—was the irresistibly strange vitello tonnato, or veal cutlet in tuna sauce. The veal is served cold and is very tender, but it’s the bizarrely compelling tuna sauce that is most unusual because it has tuna flavor with absolutely no fishiness. We think Ms. Five-and-a-Half hit it on the head when she surmised that it was a modified, thickened aioli made with the oil that tuna is often packed in. Finished with lemon and dotted with capers and parsley, it was by far the strangest but also most inventive dish we had there.
On my first night, I had the Stoccafisso all’Elbana, which turned out to be a stew of salt cod, not too unlike the brandades you can get in Spain. Warm and tasty, but overshadowed by the next evening’s choice, Polpettone di Vitello, which our server described as “veal meatloaf.” This ain’t your grandma’s meatloaf. Served cold, it’s a finely-minced, almost firm pate studded with pistachios and served with a tangy lemon aioli, which I might add, was a different texture from the tonnato sauce on the other veal, and played with the flavor in a totally different way.
My Omnivore had the Polpettine di Pollo on his second night, two heavenly chicken meatballs in a rich gorgeous tomato-based sauce.
Mr. Thirteen opted, for his part, for the Salsicce e Fagiole, or the upscale version of Franks and Beans, which had a lovely rosemary aroma and a thick rich sauce.
The contorni, which come with your secondi automatically here, are also fantastic. The cauliflower stew was terrific—and I don’t even like cauliflower—the beets were tender and sweet, and the sliced zucchini had that great autumnal darkness with a hint of the last green of summer.
If their main courses were wonderful, the dolce were no less surprising. The first night we had what they called panna cotta, but which really was a flan, though made with a deep caramel that stopped just short on the right side of being bitter. The second night I ordered the vanilla bavarois, which came with strawberry sauce, and was, I thought closer to the texture I associate with panna cotta.
The flavor was more intense in my Omnivore’s caffe bavarois, but the clear winner of the night was the chocolate budino, a chocolate with chocolate on rich lovely chocolate excursion. Probably best tasted by sampling with your finger and licking it off, it was certainly the finest dessert we’ve had yet in Italy.