Friday, October 26, 2007

Firenze: Gelato Frenzy

Good morning, rain. We have only one day left in Firenze, and we seen a lot, but we have a few things we still want to see, and then there's shopping to do, by gum!

I had sort of half given up on the Brancacci Chapel since we hadn't called ahead to make the "mandatory reservation" (See my earlier post for opinions on "museum reservation systems"), but then another guest at our hotel said that they had just walked into the Church of the Carmine without one the other day. Hmmm... maybe it is off-season after all...

So we hotfoot it over to the Oltrarno, dodging puddles as we go...

After braving the (I think) unseasonably large crowds at the Uffizi and the Accademia, I'm quite surprised to see so few people at the Brancacci Chapel. We have absolutely no problem getting in, and there's even a video introduction in three languages on offer.

The video, while slightly cheesy, is actually kind of informative. In fact I might go so far as to say that I'd recommend it as a first stop and intro to the Florentine Renaissance history for anyone who's never been to Florence before. It flies through reconstructed streets past familiar landmarks and introduces the characters who made Florence a capital of art and learning.

It was also here that I realized I was in the presence of the patron Saint of Technology.

"How the freaking ... does this thing..." I mutter as I try to figure out which side of the headphones belongs on the right ear.

In the mean time, my Omnivore has donned his translator headphones, flipped a couple of buttons, found the English-language channel and is idly tuning it and adjusting the volume.

"I can't hear anything," I fuss, still messing with the wires.

The Patron Saint of Tech smiles beneficently, tunes my unit and tells me to be patient, "We won't hear anything until they start the DVD."

After the video, we head up to the chapel itself, which is magnificent. I'm terribly excited for my first viewing of the famous Masaccios. The last few times I've been in Florence the chapel was inaccessible-- filled top to bottom with scaffolding for literally years--but now it's clean and restored and what's revealed is incredibly beautiful.

What I'm most amazed by is the rich panoply of textiles parading through the streets of Florence -- the russet silk that St. Peter wears, the heavy golds, the elaborate patterning, these are the same fabrics we saw in the Setificio that we visited the day before.

The day is starting to clear a bit and we head back along the river, which now looks as placid as glass.

In fact one young couple is taking advantage of the view to perch on what might be the most imaginative, if somewhat dizzying picnic location in the city.

We don't get a lot of news since there's no TV in the room, and so we've been blissfully ignorant of the strike planned in Italy.

Until we passed the Uffizi and noticed that there were no lines.

No lines?

We ventured closer to the sign, which announced that due to the strikes, the museum was closed. I felt for all those people clutching their small shreds of paper with reservation numbers on them.

We moved on to Santa Croce, one of the loveliest churches in the city.

I'm always a little irritated that tickets are sold to enter a working church. I understand that they need to raise money, especially for all the restoration work going on, but I also can't help envisioning Christ coming down with a whip to cast out the moneychangers.

Of course there's renovation work going on inside -- in fact, the high altar looks rather like the way the Brancacci Chapel always looked when I visited in the past.

We're marvelling at the beauty of the interior architecture when suddenly a screech of metal against metal cuts through the air, shattering every conversation. A generator? the scaffold elevator? A chainsaw? Who knows. It continues intermittently as we walk through the church.

Anyway, in the afternoon, I suddenly realize that this was our last day in Florence and that we had done precious little gelato sampling. Grom was a worthy entrant, but what about the other ten places on my list?!?

After consulting our map, we decide that we can get to... well, at least two other places: Vivoli (via Isole delle Stinche 7, +39.55.292334), which comes with the tempting title of "Best Gelato in Italy"; and Vestri (Borgo Albizi 11r, 055-234-0374) known for their high quality chocolates.

First, Vivoli. We have a new theory, which so far has been borne out: If a gelateria has crap stuck in the gelato-- strawberries on top to show that it's strawberry gelato, chestnuts for chestnut gelato, peach halves for peach, pineapple for pineapple gelato
(???) ... well, you get the idea-- just turn and walk away.

There are other hints. Is the gelato in covered bins, or sitting out? Are they selling flavors that are totally out of season, such as strawberry in November? Is the smell of sugar sweet enough to knock you over before you've even walked through the door? Walk away. Just walk away.

Vivoli, apparently very popular and mentioned in many guidebooks, had crap in their gelato. Aw jeez. Okay, this is all in the name of truth. We get a couple of flavors, but include our benchmark hazelnut, a flavor that was delicious at Grom and moved us to tears at Amorino.

I am saddened to report that Vivoli just didn't stack up. Not that we spit it out or anything, but frankly, the quality and consistency of the gelato we had at Vivoli could be found anyplace. Average, very average and not worth the price.

From Vivoli, we walked over to Vestri, hoping at least for good chocolate. Interestingly enough, Vestri does not offer many flavors. However, they did have chocolate and hazelnut. In covered bins. No crap lodged in it.

The hazelnut was far superior to Vivoli, and approached Amorino in texture and flavor, though it was not quite as intensely nutty. The chocolate, however, was a total winner -- rich smooth, and deeply chocolate, we adored this gelato.

Bottom line: If you're standing in front of Vivoli, just turn north and walk two blocks up Palmieri to Vestri. Much better.

On the way, you might pass one hundred million Vespas.

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