22 May 2014

Food, shopping, art in beautiful Florence

As we planned our Italy vacation, there never was any question that we’d go to Florence. But we had been there once before.

It was 15 years ago. We were on our first ever European vacation. Our jam-packed itinerary included Paris, Provence, Nice, Florence, and Prague. We boarded a train in Nice, bound for Florence. But when our train crossed the border into Italy, we stopped. The railroad workers in Italy were on strike. So we spent the day wandering through Ventimiglia. We probably would have enjoyed it more if we weren’t worrying about when (or even whether) we’d get to Florence. We even went so far as to find a travel agent in the town who spoke English and had him cancel our hotel in Florence.

Later in the afternoon we learned that it was just an 8-hour strike. Sure enough, at 4 p.m., we all got back on board and continued on our way. We finally arrived in Florence at midnight. Fortunately, the hotel still had our room for us, even though we’d cancelled the reservation.

So on that first trip, we saw all the BIG things that you’re supposed to see in Florence – the Duomo, the museums, the David statue, the Pitti Palace, Boboli Gardens, Ponte Vecchio – as much as we could pack into a two-day stay which was shortened by the travel delay. And since we’d seen so much, we felt we could be more relaxed about this year’s stay.

Which is not to say that we weren’t busy. We still did a lot. It’s just that we didn’t feel compelled to stand in line to see the David statue again.

One thing we did was shop. We walked through the San Lorenzo outdoor market several times. I bought a leather jacket. Linda bought a purse and a wallet, plus novelty items for the grandkids. We also went to the Central Food Market. In my post about Emilia Romagna I said that we enjoyed the food market in Modena. But I really think the market in Florence was just as interesting, and it was bigger. I saw one stand that sold horse meat.

Our big adventure during our stay in Florence was a day trip to Fiesole. It’s a town high up in the hills above Florence. We took a city bus to the town and walked around. The town offers stunning panoramic views of Florence. But then we walked all the way back to the city. In total, it was only about 5 miles. We’ve often walked more than that on other vacations. But it was a notable experience nonetheless. IMG_0203

Another interesting site that we visited was Piazzalle Michelangelo. We expected to see more public art there. Other than yet another David reproduction, there wasn’t that much. But it did offer more beautiful vista views of the city and much closer than Fiesole. As we walked down from the piazzale, we came upon a public rose garden. We took the time to walk through and enjoy it. It was beautiful.

During our Italy trip, we made a point of finding various sites of Jewish significance. But the synagogue in Florence was particularly noteworthy. It was fascinating to learn about the architectural influences that went into its design. It also was interesting to learn that the community was able to protect and preserve so much of its artifacts and Torah scrolls during World War II and the Nazi occupation only to lose much of it in 1966 in a horrendous flood that struck Florence.

Our hotel in Florence was the Paris Hotel. It was the same one where we stayed 15 years ago. There are many good things I can say about the hotel. It’s very nicely located, only a few blocks from the train station and very close to the Duomo, museums, and markets. The staff is very friendly, helpful, and accommodating. And it was a good bargain; we booked our 4-night stay online and besides a reasonable rate, it included Wi-Fi, two fruit baskets, and a bottle of wine. We enjoyed sitting on the terrace overlooking the street below, sipping wine and planning our activities. However, we still were somewhat disappointed. We remembered the hotel as being stately and elegant. Regrettably, it has not aged well in the intervening years. We enjoyed our stay, but it wasn’t as pleasant and memorable as our first stay.

Here are the restaurants where we ate in Florence:

La Posta: We ate at a sidewalk table on our first night in Florence. We picked the restaurant because we liked the menu and wanted to eat outside. It was a little chilly, but they did have heaters that helped to keep us warm. The food was very good.IMG_0620

Ristorante Paoli: We actually ate here twice. The first time, we went in because of the beautiful décor. We had a very nice meal and the service was friendly and helpful. As we finished our meal, we saw a service cart with a display of gorgeous marinated vegetables. When we asked about it, we learned that one of the antipasti on the menu is a selection from the service cart. The next night, we hadn’t decided where to eat. As we talked about it, we both decided that we really wanted to try those marinated vegetables. So we went back for dinner the second night. It was well worth it.

Vecchio Mercato: As you might surmise from the name, this restaurant is located right across the street from the central food market. We saw it on our first day in Florence. I didn’t have high expectations. I figured that it primarily appealed to shoppers and perhaps workers from the market. But the thing that appealed to us was that it offered live music – a Polish piano player who performed jazz. We were told that he appeared on Mondays, but that sometimes he’d come in other days as well. We stopped by every night we were in Florence, but he never showed up. Still, we did decide to eat there on our last night. What a pleasant surprise. It was one of the best meals we had on our vacation.

Overall, I’d say that we enjoyed our stay in Florence because we took the time to just relax and see things at our own pace. It’s a beautiful city and we certainly had a great time there.

06 May 2014

Haughty service spoiled dinner at Fiola Mare, DC

I love how Washington, DC gets attention as a city with a vibrant restaurant scene. It makes sense. The city has a very cosmopolitan and diverse population. And there are plenty of people on expense account who need to make a favorable impression on customers, clients, and colleagues over a memorable meal in a comfortable setting.

Even though I’m retired, I still try to keep up on the DC food scene. It is frustrating, however, to read about great new restaurants knowing that I won’t get much opportunity to try them. (And no expense account if/when I do get to try them.)

In late April I went to DC for a board meeting of Mazon, the anti-hunger advocacy organization. The first night I ate at Fiola Mare. I had yearned for an opportunity to eat there since I’d read that it opened earlier in 2014. I had eaten at Fiola DC, Fabio Trabocchi’s restaurant in Penn Quarter, in 2012 and loved it. (Click here for that Krik’s Picks blog post.) So I had high expectations for the fish and seafood iteration that’s Fiola Mare. IMG_0307

There is a lot to like about the restaurant. Start with the location. It’s on the Potomac waterfront in Georgetown. I arrived as the sun was setting on a beautiful Sunday spring evening. If it had been just a little warmer, I might have asked for a table on the outdoor patio with relaxing views of the river and Kennedy Center across the way. Inside, some of the tables are in an enclosed porch; those windows can open to let in the fresh air and murmur of the pedestrians strolling along the waterfront. (They’re probably looking wistfully at the diners in the beautiful restaurant.) But if views of the Potomac don’t interest you, you can choose a pleasant and comfortable table in the main dining room.

Then there’s the food. My meal was sublime. I started with burrata with baby artichokes and radishes dressed with a delicious basil pesto. The burrata was heavenly. It was rich and creamy, and each bite was delicately bathed with the pesto. For an entrée, I ordered pan roasted branzino. I’d had branzino a couple of times in Italy and as much as anything, I wanted to compare Fiola’s version to the fish I’d eaten in Italy. It compared very favorably, though the whole, oven roasted fish I had in Venice was better. (Maybe not even better, just more enjoyable, for reasons that I will now explain.)

There was just one thing that keeps me from raving about this dining experience, and that was the service. Even though it was a Sunday night, the restaurant was very busy. I’m sure my server was tired. He actually made it pretty clear that he was very busy. Maybe he thought it would be okay to neglect my little table for one. Or maybe he thought I was lucky that he was serving me at all. In any case, here’s what bugged me about his service:

  • I asked for a black napkin. (I didn’t want lint from the white napkin on my black dress slacks. The restaurant’s web site requires “casual elegant attire.”) He said he’d look for one. Never got back to me on that.
  • I had to ask for a glass of wine to be served with my entrée. (Timing of wine seems to be a problem. At the next table, different server, I heard the couple complain that their dinners were served before they got their bottle of wine.)
  • But the most annoying thing – I was savoring my burrata, only about half finished, when another server arrived with my entrée. “I’m not ready for it,” I said and sent it back to the kitchen. After I finished the burrata, the entrée was delivered to my table. It didn’t appear to have suffered from being held. When my primary server stopped at the table, I told him about the miscue from the kitchen. He did apologize. But the apology came with a pass-the-buck excuse that he hadn’t ‘fired’ the entrée.

Sorry, but a restaurant that’s trying to convey a high class, sophisticated vibe like Fiola Mare has to do a better job of pacing the meal without falling back on self-serving excuses.

So here’s my bottom line on Fiola Mare. I wouldn’t recommend it for a business dinner. While the location is beautiful, it’s a little inconvenient to get to, and I wouldn’t want to take a chance that a server’s mistake could get in the way of a successful meeting. And I probably wouldn’t choose to eat there on my own again. I would return to Fiola in Penn Quarter and I would like to try Fabio Trabocchi’s other DC restaurant, Casa Luca.