Regardless of whether or not you’re lucky enough to be staying in the five star Four Seasons Hotel in Florence, their one Michelin star restaurant, Il Palagio, is a must for both local and visiting lovers of fine dining. The opulent dining room is located on the ground floor of the hotel in what was formerly the stable block of the Renaissance Palazzo della Gherardesca, but this space is mainly used in the cooler months (besides being where breakfast is served to hotel guests), with the additional lantern-lit terrace considered one of the most romantic summer dining venues in the city.
Complete with an impeccably trained front of house team and live music from a pianist/singer, the ambiance marries elegance and sophistication with just enough informality, and either a lone table on the lawn (the hotel boasts one of the largest gardens in Florence at 11 acres), or the private Altana roof terrace can be requested for couples desirous of a more secluded spot. For the ultimate romantic setting however, and something even more unique, the Four Seasons have recently secured exclusive access to the Ponte Vecchio’s only open-air terrace, located above the glittering jewellery boutique, Dante Cardini. Available from April to October, as the sun sets, diners get to enjoy unparalleled views of the Arno before indulging in a four-course gourmet meal designed by Il Palagio’s Michelin-starred chef Vito Mollica and prepared on-site. With the Ponte Vecchio famous for being home to so many jewellery makers, Mollica’s decadent menu also features an unexpected ingredient: gold.
Content to dine on the terrace, I was looking forward to another memorable evening at Il Palagio, having last visited a couple of years ago when I enjoyed an exemplary tasting menu, complete with plenty of table-side theatrics. The restaurant has succeeded in becoming one of the few ‘destination’ restaurants in the city thanks to the reputation of Basilicata-born Mollica, who regularly leaves the kitchen in order to greet diners in the restaurant and is now something of a celebrity chef in Italy. Having held a Michelin star since 2011 for his refined take on authentic Italian cuisine, he was also voted ‘Chef of the Year’ by Italian newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore, and his signature dish of cavatelli pasta, Cacio e Pepe, combining perfectly al dente pasta with sweet red prawns and marinated baby squid, won ‘Dish of the Year’ in the 2013 edition of the influential Italian restaurant guide Guida Ristoranti Espresso.
Mollica ensures the restaurant fully utilises the finest seasonal Tuscan ingredients available from local producers and constantly strives to do justice to one of the most abundant lands in the world through an ever evolving menu, whilst his style of presentation proves that even the most rustic of Italian dishes can look and taste just as refined as French haute cuisine counterparts. Nor is he too Italian-purist to deny putting typically French culinary techniques, such as flambé, velouté or soufflé on the menu, all of which you’ll find as well executed as any restaurant in Paris due to Mollica’s many years of experience working in other notable European restaurants. But whilst displaying these recognisably challenging skills, Mollica is also keen to rein back overly pretentious food through his proud advocacy of ‘slow food’, and by making sure that the humble ingredient of dried salt cod known as baccalà which his village of Avigliano in southern Italy is famous for, almost always appears somewhere on the menu.
Meanwhile Il Palagio holds the key to over 400 great wines, with an understandable focus on Super Tuscans, the natural partners to many of the regionally-inspired classics on the menu such as home-made Pici pasta with guinea fowl ragout and Pecorino cheese, a hugely satisfying second course which came hot on the heels of a sublime roasted scampi with smoked aubergine crème, Iberian guanciale and hazelnut oil. The main course of line-caught sea bass fillet with an olive crust, datterini tomato velouté and dried broad bean cream was rich in Mediterranean flavours, yet beautifully balanced and light, allowing me to enjoy to the full the exquisite dessert of crunchy caramel bar with a crisp nougatine base and hazelnut ice cream; pastry chef, Domenico Di Clemente, having ensured that the final course was as memorable as the preceding dishes. When I’m next in Florence, Il Palagio will be the first restaurant on my list.
Il Palagio at the Four Seasons Hotel, Florence, Borgo Pinti 99, Firenze. For more information and reservations visit the website.