Friday, February 21, 2014

RESTAURANT REVIEW: Il Santo Bevitore, Firenze, ITALY

In many ways, I feel romana (Roman) at heart. Like many Romans, I certainly adore eating out in the Eternal City, always a convivial and interesting social experience. But I cut my Italian denti (teeth) in Firenze (Florence, in English), as a college student studying abroad. And though I'm a huge supporter of all that Rome has to offer, sometimes I just have to go Tuscan. 

In comparing the restaurants on offer in the two cities, the overall dining scene in Firenze seems much more refined to me. I'm not discussing high-end restaurants, which are a category unto themselves. But for me, in the Tuscan capitol, the classic trattoria feels more cozy and inviting. The bars are more pleasant places to sip an espresso or grab a panino. And the mid-level restaurant's menu is more varied and accomplished, the staff more personable than the brusque Roman waiters and proprietors, the lighting a touch dimmer and more atmospheric. So it was no surprise to me that I found Il Santo Bevitore in my beloved Oltrarno section of town (the "other side" of the Arno River -- the slightly alternative side of town that most European cities have...think Left Bank in Paris or Trastevere in Rome). And I found it to be one of those exceptional mid-range spots for which Florence is renowned.

I've been to Il Santo Bevitore in smoldering summer weather, and I've been here in cold, wet winter. And though most Italian cities are preferable when you can soak in the sun by day and linger in the piazzas by night, I'll admit that I love Florence, and Tuscany in general, in the cooler months of the year. The food here is so hearty that being somewhere cozy and indoors, with dark wood furniture and candlelight and a warm hearth going (oftentimes used for searing enormous Tuscan steaks and slow-cooking cannellini beans), just feels right. Which is why I especially loved Il Santo Bevitore when I returned this January.
The place is sprawling, and hopping, and you're immediately greeted by a friendly face -- in fact, the restaurant is run by a young team of men and women who excel at warm service (another thing often missing in Rome). The place is usually packed, though waiting is never an unhappy circumstance as there are seats at the bar here, where you can sip a prosecco and watch the barmen slice prosciutto on the antique meat slicer, or you can nip out for a drink at the owners' enoteca next door. 

Once you're seated, you'll need some time to peruse the expansive menu, as there are lots of antipasti and "specialties" that can be eaten as starters or mains. In fact, cobbling together a meal here is a little different than at your classic trattoria, as the structure of antipasto-primo-secondo is a little more fluid. Basically, just select what tempts your palate, and the servers will help you navigate. The same could be said for the wine list, which offers the classics, plus a lot of lesser-known labels, and variations on a theme (the theme? Tuscan reds). Server suggestions are a great help, and you can find some unusual blends and interesting Super Tuscans along with the classic Chiantis. I always enjoy beginning a meal with a glass of prosecco or spumante, which opens up the palate and the appetite. Then, once I've selected the food I'll be eating, I select a wine that will compliment the courses, and not vice-versa. I've always found it strange when, in the States, servers ask you for your wine order right off the bat, before you've even had a chance to look at the cuisine on offer. Servers in Italy don't even normally take your wine order until you've had a chance to consider the menu. A really interesting food-wine pairing is one of the greatest pleasures in life, and opens you up to wines you may never have tried otherwise.

So, then, what to eat? Like most ristoranti in Italy, the menu here changes according to the season. There are Tuscan specialties aplenty, including a riff on the most ubiquitous antipasto in Tuscany: chicken liver crostini. Here, the chicken livers are whipped until smooth and formed into a luscious terrine, which is served warm in a fortified wine sauce, the aroma of rosemary wafting from the plate. Smear a bit on the accompanying brioche toast points for some of the best cool weather comfort food ever imagined. Here too, the classic Tuscan bread soups are on the menu: pappa al pomodoro in summer, when tomatoes are at their finest, and ribollita in winter, when Tuscan kale and hearty white beans add heft to the bread-thickened minestrone. Both are perfectly, classically delicious, and are improved with a glug of green Tuscan olive oil drizzled on top. 

The kitchen does, however, look to outside the region for inspiration, as well. To wit: a gorgeous plate of fresh riccioli pasta with a tomato-'nduja (spicy soft Calabrese sausage) sauce and shaved aged pecorino cheese. It's incredibly more-ish with its unctuous, stinging bite. Another specialty is the burrata -- a rich, cream-filled mozzarella from the southern Puglia region, here served on sauteed spinach (very Florentine) and drizzled with pesto (classically Ligurian).
And bringing various regions together on the plate is the summer offering of borage (a green vegetal herb) ravioli on a burrata sauce with marinated leeks, topped with shaved Sardinian bottarga (cured mullet roe). This dish is a wonderful balancing act of creamy, verdant, briny, and acidic -- and unlike anything you'd find in your average trattoria. Another interesting specialty is the vegetable tortino -- basically a crustless tart, somewhere between a souffle' and a vegetable frittata, done seasonally to highlight a single ingredient. This January it was a tortino di cardone, or cardoon tortino, which is just as Tuscan as it is Sicilian or Piemontese.The vegetable looks like a big, craggy stalk of celery, but tastes more like an artichoke (they're members of the same vegetable family). The tortino was topped with red wild lettuce and a  piece of frica (Friulian baked parmigiano crisp) to mirror the taste of the cheese fonduta sauce on which it sits, making this a perfect warming winter veggie dish.

Secondi include a "crispy" octopus on a puree' of celeriac and sunchokes, with hazelnuts and turnips. The octopus was not, in fact, crispy, and could have used some sauce to improve a dish that tended toward dry. But the elements themselves were tasty and the flavor combination quite interesting. Better, and certainly more Tuscan in feel, was the roasted duck leg.
Wild fowl and game and wild boar are what leap to mind when I reflect on great cool weather Tuscan food, and this duck dish fits the bill. It's braised and roasted and served with a jus with red wine added, and accompanied by a foie gras mousse and sweet-sour radicchio -- a great foil which cuts the richness of the dish. And of course, when all of these are accompanied by interesting wines paired well, the whole experience is elevated.

I'm always so stuffed after eating here that I can barely think about dessert. My theory, however, is that something rich and chocolate-y is always worth trying. If you have room and it's on the menu, try the chocolate mousse: I had it paired with avocado sauce and bruleed bananas on a recent visit. Often in Florence, however, I'll just go for a vin santo, the classic Tuscan dessert wine, amber in color and musty-sweet with notes of dried fruit and toasted nuts. The tradition in many places around town is to serve it with tozzetti, little almond biscotti, though I like the dessert wine on its own as well. It's the perfect way to cap off a great meal at a warm and inviting restaurant in the Oltrarno, this always-interesting and picturesque quarter of the lovely flower of a Renaissance city that is Firenze.

IL SANTO BEVITORE
Via di Santo Spirito 64/66, Firenze, Italy
+39 055 211264
www.ilsantobevitore.com
Open daily 12:30 - 2:30 pm, 7:30 - 11:00 pm (no lunch Sunday)

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