Being naturally prone to superstition, I mainly channel my OCD into avoiding ladders, dodging black cats and enthusiastically knocking on wood whenever my partner remarks that our travel plans seem to be running smoothly. I’ve got it under control most of the time but I can be a real fidget of a dining companion, especially if we’re at an airport and the table is made of marble (“Flight seems to be on time…” “Why say it?!”). So when I meet someone that uses their obsessiveness for a higher purpose than anti-jinxing themselves against flight delays then I’m inspired, especially when I get to taste the fruits of their labour in the form of delectable cuisine.
The distinguished polymath in question is the chef and owner of the marvellous Ristorante Arà: è Sud, Carmelo Pannocchietti, a hyper-creative Sicilian who likes to learn everything about his craft to such a granular level that he once bought an archaic gelato maker to craft his entry into a nationwide gelato competition (in which he came first in Florence and second out of the whole of Italy with his Aztec Ricotta & Bergamot creation). As my partner and I plan a route to his renowned eatery I make sure that there’s plenty of timber within arm’s reach; this is one meal that I don’t want to miss.
Located on Via della Vigna Vecchia, a small side street near Florence’s bustling cultural hub of Santa Croce, the restaurant is easy to find, mainly because we were running late and had to hail a cab who dropped us outside – “Bus should be on time…” “Seriously, why say it?!” – and we spot Carmelo out front, who pauses his animated chat on the phone to smile and wave to us as we open the front door. The décor is bright and fresh with hints of Sicily dotted throughout in the form of hand-painted wall tiles. Tranquil music sets the scene for a relaxed meal and we learn that lunchtime passersby can still walk in and grab a table with ease, while the nighttime is a much busier, ‘make a reservation or be very lucky’ type of affair.
The friendly waitress serves a plate of fresh bread that has the sort of spongy, glutinous texture of which you can almost taste the kneading process with each bite. The Marmite tang of the wholemeal slice is delicious and it’s no surprise when we later find out that Carmelo handcrafted it himself.
On a menu filled with intriguing prospects, the one that jumps highest off the page is the Il Risotto Vestito – not least because Carmelo made a name for himself in Florence with an arancini stand in the nearby Mercato Centrale – so we decide to have the menu tailored around the flavours of the fried risotto.
A floral and fruity Etna Bianco Murgo vino bianchi is poured and used to toast the heavy rain outside (I also offer a silent prayer of thanks that we made it to the restaurant before it started pouring so I didn’t have to contend with an ‘umbrella indoors’ situation). We begin with a caponata, a traditionally simple vegetable dish that’s given a new lease of life by the kitchen team who have encouraged each ingredient to stand out in their own unique way. The carrots and celery are cooked perfectly al dente while the aubergine is so soft and caramelised that it’s almost like custard. A flash of mint and pine nuts add an extra level of depth to the dish and a healthy glug of olive oil allows us to mop up the plate with the leftover bread, scarpetta style. Olive oil is actually a key focus point for Carmelo as he’ll soon be launching an olive oil tasting menu; the idea is that guests will not only receive a wine pairing with their food but also a matched olive oil to represent different areas of Italy: next-level bespoke dining.
Carmelo has a reputation of expecting nothing but the highest standard of fresh produce, especially when it comes to fish and has been known to send back any piscatorial orders that he deems unworthy. We can taste this commitment in the next course of raw fish, the highlight of which is the diced flesh of a snapper that’s beautifully presented in its own hollowed-out body; the soft cubes have a pillowy consistency and the light seasoning of thyme, salt chunks, black pepper and a grassy olive oil create a simple yet unforgettable flavour. Another plate is artfully arranged with long strips of mackerel interspersed between gambero rosso di Sicilia, large red prawns that are particularly notable for their vibrant colouring and rich, creamy flavour.
Our second wine is a Sicilian organic Baglio di Pianetto that’s fragrant, zesty and a gorgeous pale yellow colour; it complements the main course of fish and saffron risotto to a tee. The rice has been rolled into a large, fried ball and paired with a light burrata sauce and covered in a dusting of pistachio. The crisped outside gives way to a soft and intensely flavoured interior, a sprinkling of saffron and lemon peel lending a faint citric tang to the overall ambrosia of the dish. It’s a nuanced creation that gets more complex yet satisfying with every bite and I’m half-tempted to request another one for dessert.
However, I’m glad that we opt for cannoli, a classic Italian dessert the moreishness of which has been responsible for many a tourist’s expanding waistline – one bite and you’ll see what I mean. True to form, once he had created his perfect recipe of cannoli, Carmelo was so insistent that the ricotta stayed the same that when his supplier suffered a tragic loss in the family business, he travelled to the farm and helped make the cheese as well as guaranteeing future purchases that would keep the widow afloat (and Arà: è Sud in ricotta). The result? Sensational. Leaning towards the savoury end of the dessert spectrum, a delicate unsweetened ricotta cream is freshly piped through a crunchy fried pastry shell and finished off with a soft powdering of icing sugar and a scattering of pistachio. We notice and absence of cutlery and are told that Carmelo prefers his guests to eat the street snack in the manner that it was intended, i.e. with our hands. No problems here. Although the cannoli are fairly gigantic, we have no problem polishing off one apiece along with a honeyed Sicilian sweet wine.
The rain has finally stopped and so we draw what has been an incredibly enjoyable meal to a close before heading towards the Arno River, along which we plan to take an afternoon stroll because apparently it, “Looks as if it might stay sunny…” “AAAHH, WHY SAY IT?!”
Ristorante Arà: è Sud, Via della Vigna Vecchia, 4, 50122 Firenze, Florence, Italy.
Tel: +39 331 217 0926
Arà: è Sud is located on Via Romana in the Oltrarno district right behind the Teatro Verdi. The nearest bus stop is Verdi serving lines C1, C3 and 23. The Restaurant is open for lunch from 12:00 to 23:00 every day except Tuesdays when it is closed all day.
Type of Restaurant: Contemporary Sicilian Restaurant
Price Band: Medium to High
Insider Tip: Head over in the lunchtime to guarantee a last-minute seat and ask about their olive oil pairing.
Reviewer’s Rating: 8.5/10
David Harfield is the director of PepperStorm Media and writes about his three passions: food, booze and travel.
Photographs courtesy of Ristorante Arà: è Sud