What I love about Italians is that they give a damn. They give a damn about the way they look, the way they talk and, above all, the way they eat. To me, this attitude indicates that they understand that every day is precious, and we all have a duty to at least attempt to experience something exquisite, even in the minutiae of everyday life. Over the past few weeks of exploring Florence, my partner and I experienced this passionate attitude in the shops that offer a lifetime guarantee for their handcrafted leather shoes to our favourite pasta joint that serves ludicrously good pasta for just €5 a bowl. As I usually roll out of bed to don the same hoodie and joggers that I perennially wore yesterday and mumble my way through the morning, I can’t claim to give much of a damn about sartorial elegance nor expressing myself in a passionate manner (pre-morning coffee, anyway). However, I can certainly relate to any devotion to the comestible and it’s this give-a-damn passion that we sense as we sit down to eat at the Michelin-starred La Leggenda dei Frati.
We cross the Arno over the Ponte alle Grazie just in time to witness the burnt orange sunset coating the city, meaning that we must play dodge-the-American-gap-year-kids-taking-selfies, a game played near-constantly throughout Florence (although we couldn’t resist snapping one of ourselves, my partner clearly wanting to commemorate the occasion of me wearing a shirt and jacket). Traversing the steep hill that takes us up near the world-renowned Boboli gardens (the restaurant borders the equally lovely Bardini gardens), we discover a superior vantage point over what we’ve discovered to be one of the greatest cities on earth in terms of food, culture, and people…and what else does a city really need?!
We’re greeted by a team of friendly waiters who check our jackets and then lead us through to the L-shaped restaurant that’s set out in the style of a modern art gallery, heavy shadowing and white walls stretching up to the tall ceilings. There are cherry blossoms in bloom in the courtyard outside and soft jazz completes the soft yet spirited ambience.
Our friendly sommelier introduces himself with a glass of dry sparkling wine (2008 Berlucchi) to kick off our piscatorial-themed menu, which matches our trio of amuse bouches to a tee. There’s a miniature falafel that my partner describes as “bitchin’” (she’s Australian) alongside a crisped wafer topped with blobs of herbaceous mayonnaise, which is so light that its crunch echoes audibly in our cave-like mouths. The third morsel of ‘panna cotta’ is completely bonkers, a ramekin of intensely rich whipped cheese sprinkled with cacao nibs. When paired with the 18-inch breadsticks that were served as an appetiser, it’s somewhat reminiscent of the childhood snack Dairylea Dunker…should your formative years have been spent whisked between private schools, tennis clubs and luxury restaurants like some precocious enfant in a Wes Anderson movie.
Continuing the molecular gastronomic theme, the next pre-primi is a bright green sponge made of rocket topped with homemade kaffir yoghurt that tastes just as crazy as it sounds; two very potent flakes of black salt serve as a catalyst for the other more subtle flavours. The accompanying Sauvignon is delicious, all gooseberry undertones with a bone-dry finish and served in a beautiful, flying saucer-esque glass.
A beetroot carpaccio is so pretty it almost looks as if it should be hung on the wall rather than set on our table, its vivid purple discs flecked with edible flowers and microgreens; the sweet tang of pear brunoise cuts through the tarter taste of the vegetables.
Possibly my favourite dish of the night arrives in the form of a focaccia that is so soft and pillowy it feels like hot cross bun dough before it’s put in the oven. Served with a ramekin of pork fat butter, the side dish takes centre stage and I would happily eat nothing else until I couldn’t fit out of the door.
Up next we have a violent splodge of flavours, with a few uber-creamy Sicilian red prawns hiding amongst a rich yet delicately flavoured mousse; a sprinkling of lemon zest lends a citric punch to the saltine pummelling delivered by a spoonful of salmon eggs, with a haymaker of hazelnut praline thrown in for good measure. Not for the faint-hearted, this is certainly one plate that will leave an impression on anyone bold enough to try it, especially if they wash it down with the outstanding Castel del Monte Chardonnay that our sommelier recommends; its burnt caramel and apricot bouquet seems as if it’s been tailored specifically to the dish.
I’ve just drained the last of the Chardonnay when another equally impressive vino is set down on the table; a Northern Italian Pinot Noir smells like a bonfire in a woodshed yet has the smoothest finish with just a hint of tannins. The wine’s berried, juicy mouthfeel suits the linguine and fennel cream perfectly; this is the most understated of the main courses yet probably my favourite. Strips of squid have been cut short like the pasta and has the pliable texture of young coconut; a lemon zing permeates the dish and there’s a faint crackle of herbed breadcrumbs that provide a pleasant crunch.
An organic Rampa di Fugnano at La Leggenda dei Frati is served in a gorgeous glass with a stem as thin as angel’s hair; the taste is less like wine and more like nectar, a gorgeous infusion of apple and honeysuckle that arrives with a real full stop at the end. It’s matched to the ‘main’ main course, an adventurous swirl of monkfish, cauliflower and white sauce, the two chunky fillets individually crowned with a miniature lawn of diced black olives and toasted almonds. Once again, the presentation is mesmerising, the seared dark of the crisped cauliflower offering a stark contrast to the light of its raw counterparts.
Combining drinks with dolci, we receive an Aperol Spritz pre-dessert, which is exactly what it sounds like, the Prosecco foam covering a bitter, vibrant yolk of Aperol sorbet. The main dessert has been given an Enid Blyton-esque title of ‘Return To Baklava’ and comprises a collection of honey and butter ice cream splodges dotted amongst tiny dollops of wildly potent lemon curd. Along with the honeyed pineapple finish of the Moscadello di Montalcino dessert wine, this is a splendid end to the meal.
After coffee drunk from more whisper-thin crockery and a panoply of sybaritic petit fours, my partner and I weave our way back down the hill and into the heart of a city where its citizens are proud to give a damn. Frankly, my dear, I’m beginning to as well.
La Leggenda dei Frati, Costa S. Giorgio, 6/a, 50125 Firenze, Florence, Italy.
Tel: +39 055 068 0545
The restaurant is located on Costa S. Giorgio next to the Bardini Gardens. The nearest bus stop is the Ponte Alle Grazie stop for buses 23 and C4. It is open for lunch from 12:30 to 14:00 and dinner from 19:30 to 22:00 every day except Mondays when it is closed all day and Tuesdays when it is only open for dinner.
Type of Restaurant: Michelin-starred Italian Restaurant
Price Band: Expensive
Insider Tip: Arrive early for an exquisite view of the city and save room for their legendary petit fours and pannetone.
Reviewer’s Rating: 8/10
David Harfield is the director of PepperStorm Media and writes about his three passions: food, booze and travel.
Photographs courtesy of La Leggenda dei Frati