Pride of place
Author: Fergus Henderson
Photography: Antonia Pesenti
3:12PM, Feb 12, 2013
I don't want to shock you, but if I had to choose a single cuisine to stick with for the rest of my life, it'd be Italian. Yes, there would be times when I'd have to suffer cravings for Japanese food that I'd be unable to satisfy with spaghetti, and lunch without the possibility of dim sum would be a wrench, but I stand fast. There's a sureness to Italian cooking that puts me in mind of the confident calm of Glenn Miller at his peak. But Fergus, what about "a kind of British cooking", this thing you champion at your restaurants, you ask. Once again I cite Glenn Miller - in terms of food, in England we've lost that unshakeable connection to place that sets Italian food apart, and we haven't managed to entirely grasp it again.
Pasta is almost a reason in itself to commit to the One True Cucina, but we certainly can't neglect the arguments put forth by wonderful wine, the benchmark of good coffee, and grappa, not to mention the N-bomb: the Negroni. Italy has such an embarrassment of culinary riches that it seems as though the roots of the trees and the very earth itself want to do their bit, thrusting their white truffles into the hands of the farmers of Piedmont with a merry "way-hey".
Let's pull focus for a moment on just one of the great centres of edible Italian excellence: Florence. Breakfast in a little bar is espresso, Fernet-Branca and a little sweet rice wrapped in pastry. The food itself is good, but what makes it is the Italian sense of timing: you're in, you're out, and you're on with your day. A peckish moment later is countered with a stop at Procacci, a century-old landmark on the Via de' Tornabuoni, famed for its little truffle buns. (And, curiously enough, they also sell Bath Oliver biscuits - a homesickness hangover from the Grand Tour, perhaps?) A plate of them barely lasts a moment washed down with a glass of wine.
Near the San Lorenzo market, meanwhile, is a restaurant on a corner that stretches a plate of pasta over and over by adding stock and juices from other dishes cooking in the kitchen. It's comfort food at its truest. Steadied against Stendhal syndrome for the afternoon, it's time to take in a sight. It was Brunelleschi's Ospedale degli Innocenti that set me off on my early architectural adventures. It was here that I suddenly understood the effect a designed space could have on your mood.
But let's not do too much sightseeing when the dinner hour is so close upon us. We're off to Sostanza for a Florentine beefsteak, once cut from the big white cows that roamed the valleys of Chianti. The steaks are still very substantial, and they've got them all laid out in the kitchen so they're at room temperature - all the better to cope with the shock of the coals, and as a result they're most tender. Before you lose yourself in this beefy reverie, though, don't forget to order an artichoke omelette first. It's a miracle of timing - the eggs somehow frozen in time, just-whisked, set by the pan, and, defying gravity, the tiny artichokes nestled inside.
Florence. Even lunch on the run here can be a thing of joy, far removed from the grim chain stores back in England, the cheerless modern pubs lit with screens of sport. Here, little stands that are barely more than a scooter with a hotpot on the back dispense white buns stuffed with braised tripe and glasses of wine.
We change our scene to Rome and the picture is completely different. Attempting the dishes of Florence here would be frowned upon, of course. Lunching at Mario's is all about old Roman specialties. There's the puntarelle salad, which is like a Platonic meeting of the pale green chicory of Britain and salted anchovy. Wow! And their version of carbonara, rich with cured pig's cheek - double wow. Topping it all off, we've got a monk barefoot in his robes friar-tucking into his lunch next to us. Italy uses sense of place like a Jedi uses The Force. And The Force, as they say, is strong in this one.