Tuesday, 6 October 2009

In, out, upside down

Living as a student in a small village for the most part of the year meant mostly eating at home, with friends. Restaurants proved few, mediocre and pricy, while the pleasures of cooking with fellow food fanatics was pleasant, budget friendly and most importantly, educational. Now that I am in Florence I, along with leading buyers, all head down to the near by St Ambrogio market, where the latest autumn season has just arrived. Last season’s Italian prune plums, fresh beans and zucchini are exiting, making room for the first persimmons, pomegranates, and pumpkins. There is no escaping the end of summer, and counting the mosquito bites I am parading its not coming quick enough. Buying in the market is one thing, but Florence has more to offer. Kate’s weekend in Florence was, as is every weekend, dedicated to food., both cooking as well as researching the local offer of dining establishments.

There was an Oktoberfest alternative festival in one piazza selling beers, sausages, sauerkraut, knodels, pretzels, doughnuts and Sacher torte (not German, but there you go), porchetta sandwich in a hole in a wall, gelato, granita, wine bar and café, but two particular places made a lasting impression.

They had a system.

Allow me to explain.

It seems the food scene in Florence has distinctive characteristics that one can only assume are a direct response to its inhabitants’ customs, habits and preferences. The local favorite, Il Pizzaiuolo, looks from the outside like any other pizzeria. Apart for the patient hoverers outside, one would never guess it is absolutely crucial to make reservations here for any chance of a taste let alone a seat. I had learned this the hard way.

The pizza dough is worth it. We’re talking a mouthful of freshly baked yeasty dough around the edges with a thin centre that has a slightly charred bottom resembling a flat bread that is soft and soggy(as opposed to dry and crispy) from the spicy salami, mozzarella, black olives and basil juices that adorn it. This is enough to distract the most concentrated of minds, however, one look around reveals a crowded, noisy room that minutes ago was all but quiet and empty. Being one of the most popular local venues, a system had to be devised to ensure structure and order, Italian style; the place opens up at 19.30 taking 3 rounds of reservation only, at the time of opening, 21.00 and 22.30. There is no time for hanging around, so if you finished your pizza its dessert or the bill. Its pretty simple and the beauty of this system is that it is indigenous to this restaurant.

The system at Il Vegetariano proved to be the real challenge. Set in a residential street, this restaurant is a pre-planned destination as opposed to a place you stumble upon. Suppose you found the place, once you enter through the undistinguished threshold you will find yourself in a small room with 5 tables. And that’s it. No bar, no kitchen and no staff to be seen. Another door way across the room leads the way through a corridor to the back of the restaurant, which is in fact, the front of the restaurant. The entrance is the back. Hang tight, this is about to get even more complicated in an attempt to simplify things. The menu is up on the wall, and underneath it is a desk with a bearded man that takes the orders. The customers write down their orders on one of the several notepads laying, that are then chosen, in no particular order. The bearded man then copies the order to an order from, that is, if he can decipher the incoherent handwriting. The bill is added and the meal is paid for. It is now time to turn around, reach for a tray and stand in another line. The two pieces of paper- the notepad order and the copied are handed to a woman behind a counter, and she prepares the food.

Ok, so we’ve stood in line, ordered, paid and picked up the food. Now the only thing left is to find a place to sit. This is a fascinating system. In an attempt to eliminate the concept of waiting on tables, this venue pulled out all the stops. It is not a buffet or a self-service canteen, but a restaurant, and a popular one at that; a home made, nonna run veggie establishment packed floor to ceiling, with people waiting spilling to the street, and the majority of diners are men who choose not to have a Bistecca Fiorentina or a tripe stew on a Saturday night. This is what eating out is. Education.

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