A day in Italy. Dinner and a show in Florence(continued from previous blog)

We came early (7:30. Early on Italian Standard Time) and it was a bit like being at a symphony hall watching the musicians setting up, getting instruments organized and tuned. The laughing happy people blessed with reservations keep trickling in. Which, with the door really being shut and locked, is a bit of a trick.

Part four. No rest for the restaurant goers.

FLORENCE, Italy – On your feet, walkers. Museum walking done, we do shopping walking and then head off to “the bad side of town.” Here we find our Aussie friends to have a far better grasp of Florence than the two locals we have met so far. Midge thought the part of town was questionable, but all I saw were businessmen in suits, gentle old people holding each other up, people pushing, not drugs but baby carriages.

dinner in florence, italy. The street where we find this unique Italian restaurant is not really even what I would call a street. It is more of a tiny tunnel connecting two streets. The restaurant and its sister sandwich shop are the middle two stores of the four stores that make up their entire “street.” Hey. Door’s locked. Lights are on. People are inside. We’re not. But here comes a demure, deferential waiter. He opens the door about oh, three inches and lets out part of a nose and one eyebrow to ask if we have a reservation. And adds, “se, no . . .” We get the drift, we know the drill, yes, yes we are Mr. Stuardo. He blanches a bit, probably dazzled by my Italian (humor), and says they only have a reservation for an Eduardo. Ok, sure, fine, that’s me too if it gets me fed. “Yeah, that’s him, I talked to him on the phone” says a rough sand paper voice from behind the waiter. Oh, there he is. Face is twice as tough as the tough voice. A reformed boxer? Rough shaved head, classic four o’clock shadow, widely gaped teeth. It would be off-putting but for the mischievous eye twinkle and half grin. Which is good. We’ve pretty much got to be friends here. This place is small and packed already. No chairs. They were surely considered and rejected in favor of small, rattan topped square, backless stools. And those are packed in here with hardly any space between them.

Now that we’ve broken in here, we thread our way past an old red metal Coke cooler, an even older wooden madia (an Italian standard, sort of a large, freestanding bread box), crates of dark purple artichokes, and baskets of Tuscany’s best looking porchini mushrooms. These were all where an aisle really should rightly be – so it is really crowded. Stepping over and around obstacles like this brings us to a tiny balcony two steps above the main level. Wrought iron railing, our table and three other dinky tables complete the entire “balcony.”
plates of fine tuscan food. florence, italy
We came early (7:30. Early on Italian Standard Time) and it was a bit like being at a symphony hall watching the musicians setting up, getting instruments organized and tuned. The laughing happy people blessed with reservations keep trickling in. Which, with the door really being shut and locked, is a bit of a trick. Everyone gets the same quiz we got. No reservation? No entry to the kingdom. Consolation prize is that sometimes the door watcher fights their way back to the counter and grabs a business card and passes it though the narrow opening, with a polite, non-judgmental, Try Again. Maybe Next Time. With Reservations.

A quietly elegant black man, in sport coat and turtle neck comes in and stands calmly by the counter. Doesn’t say a word. And is instantly poured a glass of wine. Brandy? Then he becomes for a while the designated doorman, vetting the hopeful and hungry applicants. It’s futile for the hopeful applicants to ask. Every tiny table either has a name on it or someone already sitting there. Midge looked at me, looked at the man, and cut her glance to an old photo on the wall. A younger version of him and the rough character that let us in. Arms around each other, posed, smiling out at us from the black and white world of some long past event. Wine finished, the volunteer doorman nods, waves goodbye and a huggy young couple takes his place by the counter, drinking wine and eating the house rolls, sort of a biscuit-like thing. They do door detail now. And dozens are turned away. One couple, by the grace of god, got in because a person with a reservation had not shown up. Of course those late people showed up as soon as the fill-in people had been seated. And now there really isn’t anyplace even to stand, let alone an aisle for the waiter to work. But he and the owner seemed to have a real zen way about them and took the chaos in stride even though you could hardly move or hear orders being given.

dinner in tuscany, and music too. The food is great and plentiful. And random. We didn’t order either of the first two courses. One was hot salted focaccia drizzled with fresh, green olive oil. The next course to arrive unbidden was a huge plate o’ meat. All sweet treats served under balsamic. I told the waiter they were great and all but I was worried that we had eaten what we had not ordered. Was this meant for some other table? Note, Concerned Citizen Stew reported this AFTER he gobbled it all up. “No, no” the angelic waiter smiled. “It was a surprise for you.” Thank you very much.

Funky place. White marble walls and big hooks in the ceiling. Meat curing? Local torture chamber? Be easy to hose down at night for sure. But the austere aspects of the cold hard white marble were off set by old radios, beat up old guitars, and I can’t remember what all because the people-watching was just too insanely interesting. I’d stay tuned to this channel round the clock if they had a remote cam. Ooop. There goes the chef. He’s just a blurr. He’s a burnished mahogany, shaved head kind of guy who knows half the people here and has a word and a wave and a wink for each of them but never breaks his stride coming zipping in or zipping back out. High theater plus good eats makes this a big big favorite with me. I say to Midge several times I feel like I am in a stage production and have a tiny part in it. Can you see it in the credits: “Annoying Tourist No.7”?


Look at some the other characters in this Italian movie. We’re seeing their act at just the next table. I’m so trying to act like I’m not Totally Into It. The man there, you remember the lucky duck who scored the only non-reservation seat of the night? Ok. He is holding forth on who knows what subject. I can hear him and hear parse out that it seems to be Italian but it is just noisy enough to not be able to pick up the drift of it. His lady friend has that long-suffering, furitive hang-dog look about her and never gets two words in between his constant, modulated, unhurried but never-ending, flowing like a river of words, monologue. She’s dark and moody. He’s youngish (40?) but with a silver lamb’s wool head of shaggy hair. And patently clueless. He has an open book in his hand. Here? Yes, here. And he is making eye contact with the girl and talking all the time. I can hear enough to know it’s Italian but not enough to tell if he is reading it out loud, but he looks at it every now and then. And never stops moving his lips. Oh, oh, what’s this? Still talking but now it’s to the hurried but infinitely patient single waiter for this circus. Wool Head is pointing at his bottle of wine. And pouring the waiter some in a spare glass on their table. The more patient than average waiter swirls it, he smells it. He drinks. He thinks. Drinks again. Both hands on the edge of their table, leaning into it in a thoughtful, engaged way. Says not a word. If ever there was going to be a cartoon balloon over a guy’s head it would be this guy, now. And it would be saying “Buddy. We let you in. You scored this aces corner table. You’ve drunk 2/3 of the bottle. It’s wine. This ain’t The Ritz Carlton.” He shrugs, leaves. A few minutes later he is back with a bottle they are all touching reverently and wide eyed. He insists they take it and keep the other one too. Does killing with kindness ever really kill? Would that it could?

Florence By Night No WayOk, ok, it is crowded and more crowded and we’re going to do something helpful. And leave. The show must go on, and we hate to go, but it’s the right thing to do. I mean the food was great, but it’s gone. Plates are shiny clean where minutes ago artichoke on pasta was sitting. The porchini on chicken plate looks the same. We give up our table and take the few steps to cash out. There is absolutely no space to move here. And yet, somehow, there is now an old accordianist playing away. Music to pay by. The bill, with wine, is 65 euros. They already threw in two courses and, unasked, the waiter rounds it down to a nice round 60 with a raised eyebrow sort of “is that ok?” look. For dinner and a show? You bet. We unlock the door and let ourselves back out into the real world. Someone inside flips the key and now we are on the outside looking in. Was that real? Must have been. Don’t think I could have made all of that up. Here’s an attempt at a mini movie to prove we were there. And help us stretch the moment out and relive it from afar.

Good night, Florence. Lets do this again sometime.

See you in Italy,

Stew Vreeland

A day in Italy. An afternoon with Florence. (continued from previous blog)

I use to be in love with the Florence airport, I was a bit cool to Florence herself. Too crowded, too noisy, too much traffic, all the usual blather. So now, in my fickle way, I find myself newly in love with the city of Florence and in hate with the airport. Mood swings? Love on the rebound?

bronze of florence. croatian warrior, greekPart three. An afternoon and early evening in Florence

FLORENCE – Boy. I am all over the map here. You remember my undying love for the Florence airport? Well, it died. Hate is such a strong word, but I have thought about it and decided that, yes, so far I think I do hate the new renovation there and what they did to the car rentals area is just beyond contempt. And at the same time, while I use to be in love with the Florence airport, I was a bit cool to Florence herself. Too crowded, too noisy, too much traffic, all the usual blather. So now, in my fickle way, I find myself newly in love with the city of Florence and in hate with the airport. Mood swings? Love on the rebound?

So, there we were at the ugh airport dumping off our rental car. We squeezed our keys into the not quite key-sized window slot to the agent. She has a mini rebellion going on, in what is surely a reaction to the mess they’ve made of those offices. All she can see out her window is a legion of cranky and confused customers. STANDING IN LINE OUTSIDE. Is it any wonder that she has blocked out that view with computers, notices, warning, and instructions about what you can do with your problem. And what you will and will not do at this window. OK, stepping away from the airport.

And into a taxi waiting to whisk us into the city. I usually take one of the reliable every fifteen minutes like clockwork buses. But with two people it starts making sense to grab a taxi. Plus Midge said “we are taking a taxi.” We give him the street address of our hotel and know we’ve got a good driver when he instantly processes the address and says “Orto di Medici” before we add that. Cool. We’re good to go. And because he knew our hotel we ask about our restaurant for tonight. We think they are somewhat near each other. He’s not as solid on that but thinks he knows about it. “Terrible neighborhood? Good food but people doing drugs on the street? Don’t go after dark? Is THAT the place you are talking about?” Oh cripe. What have we done now? Innocents abroad.

Midge at Orto di Medici, Florence, ItalyA few minutes and a few euros later (20 euros) we are in the hotel and I see why Midge says it is her. Note that Orto di Medici is the only hotel we have on our recommends list in Florence. It’s a three star, convenient, and clean as a whistle kind of place. Very pretty. Our room is very nice, on the top floor with a big terrace with topiary trimmed trees framing a city/roofscape view that includes old palazzos and even a duomo. The duomo or a duomo I never could figure out. Anyway, nice view. Per noi? Why thank you. Riccardo at the desk, the man who handled our phone reservations, remembers us from that and we get on famously right from the start. Does he, as a hep young man about town, know about our restaurant? He says yes, that address is only a couple minutes’ walk away but he’s sure he’s never been there. And he isn’t any too positive about that part of the neighborhood either. Oh, fine.

Gentlemen. Start your pedometers. Ours is an Omron. Our office’s physical trainer, Liz from Enerjoy Studios, got everyone on Team Vreeland back in Maine one of these gadgets and we wear them constantly. I’ve had mine on the whole trip and it’s on right now. Whoa, wait where is it? When did I take that off? Can one have too many pockets? Ah, there it is. Well, we put some miles on it during our afternoon and evening in downtown Florence. Florence was fun to the brim with happy campers shoulder to shoulder up and down its streets. We have short and long term walking goals for these streets and here they are:

pop up map of Florence, ItalyShort term walking goals: find the museum named Palazzo Medici Riccardi. Medici hotel, Medici museum, the name is everywhere. They’ve been dead and gone for centuries and wouldn’t they be happy to know how omnipresent they still are today? We want to find that museum because that is where the recently discovered and newly restored full size Greek bronze is being shown. Apoxyomenos, the athlete of Croatia, was found in the waters off Croatia but Italians did the restoration so it seems only right that they get to show it off first.

Long term goal: Find the restaurant where we have reservations. Guess we have to check it out in broad daylight.

The art show is in a fine big old palazzo. We get totally turned around and around finding it but hey, more miles for our pedometer and we’re seeing Florence. Our pop-up map has saved us once again. If you don’t have one, get one now. We’ll wait. Aren’t they cunning? They fit in your pocket and snap open and snap shut somehow and are a few inches wide when open rather than bedsheet-size. So very hard to look cool with a map wrapped all over you on any given windswept foreign street corner. So, all set? Start walking.

lancia limo in museum in Florence, ItalyThe palazzo is as good as the show. We’ve never been in this museum before. Which just goes to show, you don’t have to go to the Pitti Palace with lines going down the block to have a good time here. There are a million things to do. Pick one without a line. This one is covered with massive stone plaques, oversized historic busts, and all that is just in the courtyard. And what is this sitting inside the walls of the palazzo behind eleventy foot tall wrought iron gates? An appropriately large and grand long black limo. The Lancia Thema. Who names these cars? Wikipedia says Themes (singular thema) were “administrative units of land in the Byzantine Empire”. You mean, like “acres”? And I find that name in the web world and it is a real Lancia name but nothing I find on the web looks like this one. What a whale. A rather graceful whale but still a surprise considering we are not in Dallas but here in downtown Europe. Assume it is a homage to Mercedes’ Maybach.

While we are waiting for our group to be let into the featured show (every five minutes) the place sprang to life around the limo. As the driver with headset and black shades stepped out of the car, a Carabinieri stepped smartly from a guardhouse. The doors appeared to open elegantly by themselves in some automatic way. Is that possible? Did I dream that? Regardless, a guy in a suit disappeared through one back door, all the doors closed, the giant iron gates opened. And they were gone.

Now, where were we? Right. Art stuff. The bronze was fine. But nothing bronze will ever match the rough shock of entering the presence of the Bronzes of Riace. Certainly not this relatively polite, passive Croatian warrior. The Riace ones would run this one around the school yard and take his lunch money for sure. They just had Do Not, repeat NOT Mess With Me written all over them in the most stunning and heroic way possible. They are in Reggio di Calabria. If you are ever on the tip of the toe of the boot that is Italy where you take the ferry across to Messina in Sicily stop in and see them.

tiny yellow car in Florence, ItalyIn spite of preferring the Riace bronzes we were glad we saw this museum and this bronze. There was a great crowd and they were managing it well and being accommodating. Signs said they were open till 11 pm. And it is always fun people and car watching on the streets of Florence. This tiny yellow bird of a car was at the exact opposite end of the auto spectrum from the giant limo in the museum isn’t it? Stay tuned for the rest of the story: Dinner in Florence. Coming up next in Part Four.

A day in Italy. A story in several parts. And in several parts of Italy.

I cleaned madly and ceremonially closed one set of shutters after the others, and as a final act of love, I talked to the mason about a wall that needs fixing. See, house? We do care, even though we are leaving you here by yourself. Then it is off to the piazza for coffee and hugs goodbye, “tante cose belle!” and we are Siena bound.

cuppa Joe, Simone? coffee at bar gallo, panicale, italyPANICALE, SIENA, FLORENCE – Or, as we say: Breakfast/Lunch/Dinner.

Part one. Breakfast in Panicale.

Today really is the proverbial Movable Feast. Lovely, busy, interesting day. Slightly on the maudlin side to start with because the trip had wound down to these final moments. But, onward and upward, there are many fun things to do today. I cleaned madly and ceremonially closed one set of shutters after the others, and as a final act of love, I talked to the mason about a wall that needs fixing. See, house? We do care, even though we are leaving you here by yourself. Then it is off to the piazza for coffee and hugs goodbye, “tante cose belle!” and we are Siena bound.

spannocchia in the sunshine, tuscany, italyPart two. Lunch in Siena.

Pulling into Spannocchia, I see Midge in the midst of a sundrenched tableau. Sitting on a stone bench, her back to a warm stone wall, her friend Gail beside here, other friends left and right, a big shaggy white dog dozing at their feet. I hated to break the spell.

But what the heck.

It was lunch time.

We filled our plates in the kitchen and moved this Magic Moment to the veranda in front of the main villa and just let the sun wash over us. Cukes freshly cut from their vines lying in the warm Tuscan dirt that morning, plus fennel also from the garden and pieces of oranges made up the salad. And see the pasta in red sauce in the photo? Not at all. It’s just not pasta. It is eggs, if you can imagine, cooked like a thin omelet and cut in strips. What will these people think of next? Well, that was all swell but we have places to go and yet more food to eat. And plus, it is time to go. Midge and the Spannocchia board have been to so many meetings they must be getting punchy. Over lunch the conversation turned to cats. Not a good sign in the best of times. And that turned to the potential of cat-a-pults as a way of effecting population control. Everyone slaphappy, we pack and exit stage left.
egg pasta at spannocchia, tuscany, italy
Pulling out we take a minute to see if we can get into a restaurant in Florence we heard about when we were olive-picking. It is Saturday and some Australian friends said it was great, but tiny and reservations were sort of mandatory. Ok. We’re in. They are expecting a “Mr Stuardo” at seven thirty. That’s me. Stuardo T. Vreeland. And we’ll do that story in an upcoming blog. Stay tuned to this channel for Part Three and Part Four in this Day in the Life series.