“We’ve searched all the markets in and around Florence to find the best”, says the Maitre’d, wafting a small plate of diminutive red jewels under our noses before setting them down. We pick one each and take a bite. These are, without question, the most sensational cherry tomatoes we’ve tasted – ever. And with that revelatory experience casually dispensed, he’s cooed over our one year old, pinched obligatory chubby cheeks and whisked her off for a private tour of the kitchen with the chef so that we can enjoy our starters for a rare moment of not tailing a wild toddler – all while coolly blowing our minds.
This, in microcosm, sums up Irene, the winningly breezy and informal dining concept at Rocco Forte’s The Savoy in the heart of Florence. By design of celebrated Italian executive chef Fulvio Pierangeli – best known for his two-Michelin-starred Gambero Rosso in San Vincenzo – the driving belief here is in simplicity. The ultimate Tuscan bistro, it works on the notion that the region’s much-celebrated cuisine is, in fact, that of humble components used resourcefully and – yes, ingeniously – to create dishes that form the stuff of lasting food memories.
Those cherry tomatoes, then – along with sublime olive oil and asparagus when we visit – form one of the key ingredients on this menu. All of which is why head chef Giovanni Cosmai’s daily-changing menu relies heavily on his morning finds from the best local markets and farms. And the baby cheek pinching? It’s wholly sincere. Just as any modest countryside trattoria tends to be welcoming to i bambini, so too is the attitude genuine at the higher end of the scale. The “casual” concept is not just a buzzword foisted on the restaurant by a remote marketing team here. Trite as it sounds, the Italian way is that of inclusion; la dolce vita here does not preclude children, no matter how noisy they might be. Noise is part of life, and children are to be rejoiced in.
But back to the food. When we ask our waiter for his recommendations, he doesn’t hesitate to eulogise the tomato pasta. “Try it,” he urges when we wonder aloud whether we shouldn’t pick something more… unusual. “It is everything a tomato pasta should be. It’s easy to create a complicated dish,” he says. “To make something very, very simple beautifully – that is the art.” Simplicity, as they say, is the ultimate sophistication. We do not resist – how could we? It’s hard to describe why so uncomplicated a dish is so special, but that it is the seeming effortlessness of it all. Suffice to say, it’s a course that we won’t forget in a hurry – in all its perfect balance of sweetness with basil and flawless al dente pasta. He’s right. You should just try it.
We also tuck into a mouth-watering deconstructed panzanella with mozzarella, sublime bruschettone, and a beautifully light seabass with olive oil mash and sautéed artichokes – all served up in a fresh modern room, with open doors overlooking the couldn’t-be-more-central Piazza della Repubblica, with its carousel and handful of hopeful buskers. There’s something wonderfully decadent – and undoubtedly dolce – about whiling an afternoon away eating Tuscan morsels washed down with gloriously minerally local white wines here – so much so that it’s a genuine wrench to leave.
Or at least it would be if we hadn’t booked in to stay for a couple of nights at the hotel. So up we zip in the lift to our resplendent three-room suite, where Rocco Forte’s director of design Olga Polizzi has once more worked her magic to create a sumptuous and contemporary cocoon in marble, mosaic and parquet floors. Two balconies overlook Piazza Della Repubblica’s throngs, drinking coffee and gliding around and around the carousel and, inside crisp white sheets stretched over an enormous bed, mirrored trays adorned with posies of flowers and welcome fruit trays – to say nothing of a delicious bottle of Chianti – make for seductive and infantilising luxury touches.
The obligatory long soak in the marble tub is rendered all the more compulsory by dint of the beautiful Lorenzo Villoresi products supplied for one’s ablutions. Meanwhile, said wild toddler is at her wildest, seemingly revelling in the luxury and scale of it all (an alarming proposition for future expectations). The hotel has outdone itself in its provision for her; there is not only a cot, but a changing mat and all manner of heavenly smelling baby products. No wonder she’s happy.
After some chasing of the wild child around the expansive room, it’s time to step outside into the exquisite elegance of Florence, arguably the most refined of all European cities. But not before an ice-cream stop. We turn into a seductive looking parlour, with gelato piled so high it’s practically hitting the ceiling and ask, in faltering Italian, for a scoop each. What is handed over is an eye-popping veritable mountain of stracciatella, an Everest of nocciola – all in return for €20 of our cold hard cash. Stunned, we hand it over, and retreat like dupes with our comically enormous creations dripping down our hands. We beat a sticky retreat back to the safety of the hotel. Future Florentine travellers – forego the famed gelato. It’s all about the humble cherry tomato chez Irene.
The Savoy, Florence, is part of the Rocco Forte hotel group. For more information, including details of their bespoke service, fashion experience and the Ferragamo and Gucci museum, visit www.roccofortehotels.com.