Part I: Back in Florence
Florence, capital of Tuscany and my favorite city in all of Italy, is a place I’m always happy to come back to. After flying all night under a great big full moon, I’m not tired at all. In fact, I’m energized by all the familiar sights and smells.
I’m here to meet with Tuscan wine producers who have become my friends over the years, people who love what they do and always send me home with something new to introduce to the fine restaurants and retailers in my book of business back in the States.
But I always plan my trips to include some time to wander around Florence, discovering and rediscovering all the city has to offer. For Florence is like no other city, just one square mile in area, and much of it unchanged for centuries. It’s February and cold this last trip, but you can walk everywhere, which keeps you warm.
I’m here so often, I’ve developed my own little routines. For instance, I usually have breakfast at this little coffee house off the Santa Maria Novella, near the train station that first opened in 1848. I like to watch all the small businesses setting up shop for the day, and as the restaurants accept their deliveries of fresh supplies, I daydream about what their dinner specials might be that night.
Over the course of my day, I always I keep my phone handy to take notes and the occasional photo so I can remember what my eyes, ears – and nose – are constantly taking in. The aromas of coffee and fresh pastry and breads are in the air much of the morning; later in the day I’ll smell pizza and get the occasional whiff of leather, all of it impossible to ignore. Florence is a feast for the senses in many ways, but especially the food.
The bistecca alla Fiorentina (t-bone steak) gives Texas and Argentina a run for their money any day. Ribollita (Tuscan bean stew) and pappa al pomodoro (“bread soup”) always brings back favorite childhood memories. It doesn’t matter how many times I come back to Florence (more times than I ever would have dreamed) – these are the foods I look for every time.
But I also check out the latest from the new wave of Italian chefs who have emerged, marvelous inventors who are taking the classics and putting their own spin on them. The different styles of wild boar salumi and wild pork ragu with pici pasta (hand-rolled, fat spaghetti) are among the dishes that stand out in my memory for both flavor and texture.
The people watching is also outstanding. I love to watch Florentines sitting at a café, often for lunch (“pranzo”), just eating and talking on their phones or with others at the table. One of my favorite aspects of the Italian lifestyle is the late afternoon and early evening ritual known as “la passeggiata.” These are ritual walkabouts that can go on for hours with or without an ultimate destination. It just seems to me that Italians do even the most mundane things with a little more gusto than I see elsewhere in the world.
Florence is also heaven for history buffs. Florence’s cathedral, the Duomo, and the Statue of David may be the best-known tourist attractions, but so much renaissance art can be found throughout the city, it’s in the architecture and all of its monuments. And so many churches! My favorite is Santa Croce, where notables such as Michelangelo and Machiavelli are buried. Every time I go in, I learn something new. The Santa Maria Novella Pharmacy is the world’s oldest pharmacy, once run by monks who began experimenting with garden plants to create herbal concoctions beginning in 1221. Still in business today!
I often think of my “uncle” Jet when I’m in Florence, who had a close and lifelong friendship with my grandfather Damille, nicknamed Jet because he was a world traveler. He was the type of person who knew everyone, and everyone knew him, which was not as common back in the day as it is today. He was always impeccably dressed and the epitome of style in both appearance and wisdom. When I was growing up, some of the best conversations happened around the dinner table, especially when my grandfather and Uncle Jet were presiding.
I attribute some of the success I enjoy in the wine business today to their influence. I remember how they would always talk about the treasures of Italy, which was how Jet referred to Florence, Rome and especially Naples. Needless to say, he was an influence. And at the tender age of 14, it was Uncle Jet who encouraged me to spend the summer of ‘72 traveling the United States. That was my first time traveling any distance away from home, and the beginning of really understanding how big the world is. From that point on, I was hooked.
Jet used to always say, “look, learn, but especially listen. There is so much out there. A lifetime of adventure. Understand your country first, but also understand where you come from. Never lose your culture.” This is the type of influence that ignited my love affair with Italy and Europe, and abiding passion for food and wine. Writing about it is my way of sharing it with you.