February 14 2013
When the French author Stendhal visited Florence in 1817 and encountered her Renaissance treasures, he was “seized with a fierce palpitation of the heart... and I walked in constant fear of falling to the ground”. He has lent his name to Stendhal syndrome – a range of deleterious symptoms brought on by exposure to a surfeit of great art.
Actually, just queuing for the Uffizi in high summer is likely to bring on similar symptoms, which is why it makes sense to visit Florence in spring, and to book one’s tickets for the city’s sights in advance. I would also avoid its grand, flouncy restaurants: try instead the cramped but atmospheric Trattoria Mario, where hearty local dishes such as bistecca alla Fiorentina have been served since 1953. No bookings are taken; arrive at midday to get a table, and bring a healthy appetite.
You might also lower your stress levels by staying a few miles from the city. I can think of no better place than Villa La Massa, a 16th-century Medici mansion on the banks of the Arno, open between March and November. Its diversions include visits to nearby wineries – such as the beautiful Querciabella estate – and truffle hunting in the nearby hills. Epicures of a more sedentary persuasion can stay put: this a terrific spot for food and wine lovers, with a fine cellar that’s perfect for sampling salumi and local cheese, and a terrific restaurant, Il Verrocchio, named after the Florentine artist whose pupils included Leonardo da Vinci.
Its excellent cuisine comes courtesy of Andrea Quagliarella, an old-style chef who enjoys his food; his gift is to smarten up the rustic Tuscan table without losing its soul. Witness a purée of cannellini beans with sweet little prawns and lardo di Colonnata, unctuous pork back fat cured with herbs and spices. Or fillet of Chianina beef with a perfectly cooked escalope of goose liver and shavings of truffle. And you might finish with zuccottino, a sort of Florentine ice-cream cake, served with zabaglione made with vin santo, the viscous local nectar fermented from dried grapes.
Tuscan food is a delight; I have, however, never quite understood Tuscan bread, made without salt and, in my view, best used in soup (pappa al pomodoro, for example) or salad (panzanella, the heavenly summer assembly of soaked and squeezed-out bread, tomato, basil and onion). I once asked an American food writer friend who lives in Florence about her saltless local bread. “It’s like Dante,” she shrugged. “You get used to it.”