April 23 2010
There is one problem with which, I think, restaurant interior designers struggle: the simple truth that the nicest place to eat on a warm day is a sunny terrace with a lovely view. It perhaps explains why more care seems to be lavished on dining rooms in northern Europe than on their southern counterparts.
The vernal stampede (well, a rather genteel, Chelsea version of a stampede) at La Famiglia, in Langton Street, is a case in point. There is nothing wrong with the restaurant’s interior – two rooms decked out in soothing cream and blue – but, come springtime, it is the terrace at the back that is most prized.
Tables on the terrace – heated and canopied – are first-come, first-served, a concept with which Chelsea types tend to struggle. Nevertheless, from salon or sunbed, they troop blearily out to the garden from midday onwards, mobiles in hand; meanwhile, their lunch companions cruise local streets in a holding pattern of 4x4s, waiting for confirmation of a table. The genial, ever-so-slightly despotic Alvaro Maccioni keeps an avuncular eye on proceedings, as he has for decades.
The menu has aged as gracefully as Alvaro: modernisms (puddles of olive oil and balsamic vinegar, veal cooked pink, deconstructed tiramisu) are studiously shunned in favour of classic Tuscan cooking and an old-fashioned dessert trolley.
Tuscans have a way with meat. I am particularly fond of fegatelli: pig’s liver, wrapped in caul fat, cooked very slowly in pork fat, skewered with a branch of wild fennel and then grilled. Simple, but wonderful, as is roasted cinghiale (wild boar) with garlic, rosemary and Tuscan olive oil; sea bass, meanwhile, is dressed with lighter Ligurian oil and is divine.
Lovely though Langton Street is, there are even more scenic places to eat Tuscan food: not least the terrace at the Villa San Michele, in Fiesole (pictured), perched high above Florence. It is a smart international hotel, but the food is rooted in the local soil, even if chef Attilio di Fabrizio’s menu is – by Tuscan standards – delicate and elegant, as you might expect from someone whose CV includes Hotel Cipriani and Enoteca Pinchiorri.
Wild Tuscan herbs (you can buy bundles of them in the Mercato Centrale) feature in his insalata Caterina de’ Medici, made piquant with capers, walnuts and Parmesan; cannellini from San Ginese, near Lucca, make their way into a silk-textured scampi risotto; local cheeses include a particularly fine blue cheese from coastal Maremma.
The menu is, admittedly, rather pricey, but the panorama of Florence justifies the extravagance. You are also far enough away from the swanky boutiques of Via de’ Tornabuoni to feel as though you might actually be saving money as you eat: that, in any case, was my view.