Even the most adventurous wine travellers have a breaking point. I was standing on the kerb in a narrow street in Florence studying the façade of a restaurant that showed nothing if not promise. Empty wine bottles lined the window, a statue of Bacchus squatted in the corner and gold font unfurled the name on the glass. It was the third place we had tried on our first night in the city; the first wasn’t special enough, the second too modern. But while all the signs were promising, I had no idea if they were real or not.
I had arrived a few hours earlier with a colleague after spending the week wine-tasting in the bucolic hills of Piedmont. Our senses were finely tuned and, thanks to the pleasures of Barolo, our benchmarks for beauty elevated. Our gastronomic lodestar for dinner was something authentic that had a great wine list. But as strangers to the city, and with nothing but a Merchant Ivory montage as our guide, it was hard to know what authentic was.
It should come as no surprise that finding a non-touristy experience close to the Ponte Vecchio was like asking for an unsponsored product at Disneyland. Italy receives almost 50 million tourists a year and Florence 15 million of them — we were ground zero for the icon-turned-into-a-gift. We bumped around the streets from one restaurant to another until we landed at the ode to Bacchus.
We were still staring at the menu in the window when the doors burst open and a group of five diners surged forth like children exiting school for the day. They looked happy enough, I thought. Perhaps recognising our quandary, one of them smiled, looked back at the entrance of the restaurant and then sort of shrug-nodded in a gesture of semi-approval, as if to say: “Sure, it’s not dinner with the Medicis, but it’s not salmonella either.”
We stepped into the restaurant, which was bustling with a dinner rush, and a chorus of waiters greeted us with a reprise of Buona Sera. Not just one, but the whole staff. It was sung with so much gusto I thought they had mistaken us for someone else. Displays of cheese, salami and flowers arrangements were ornate and bountiful, as if Caravaggio himself had merchandised them.
“Buona sera,” belted out a young and chubby man who was shiny with hard work and clearly our lead for the night. He spread and swept his arms in front of him and sang. “Anywhere you like signora and signor!” “Here?” I asked, gesturing to a table. “For you, annn-y-where you like!”
The performance was infectious and within seconds we joined our waiter in his repartee and played our bit parts. We laughed at anything before it was said, threw theatrical head tosses to show we were gripped, and dismissed overt flattery with the flick of a hand. “You are a magnificent couple,” he bellowed his flattery to nearby diners. We were in fact neither but, desperate for some great wine, we wanted this relationship to work as much as anyone and were not ashamed to sing for our supper. As he walked away, perhaps sensing my thoughts, he turned back and said: “And I mean that.”
As I contemplated aloud why he would say that …
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