World ? Europe ? Italy ? Florence

Florence: Restaurants

Florence is thick with restaurants, though many in the most touristy areas (around the Duomo and Piazza della Signoria) are of low quality, charge high prices, or do both. I'll point out the few that aren't. The highest concentrations of excellent ristoranti and trattorie are around Santa Croce and across the river in the Oltrarno. Bear in mind that menus at restaurants in Tuscany can change frequently: weekly, or even daily. Note, too, that reservations at the following restaurants are not required unless otherwise indicated.

A Big Step above Ice Cream: Florentine Gelato

Gelato is a Florentine institution -- a creamy, sweet, flavorful food item on a different level entirely from what Americans call "ice cream." Making fine Florentine gelato is a craft taken seriously by all except the tourist-pandering spots around major attractions that serve air-fluffed bland "vanilla" and nuclear-waste pistachio so artificially green it glows.

Here's how to order gelato: First, pay at the register for the size of coppa (cup) or cono (cone) you want, then take the receipt up to the counter to select your flavors (unlike in America, they'll let you stuff multiple flavors into even the tiniest cup). Prices are fairly standardized, with the smallest serving at around 1.50€ ($1.95) or 2€ ($2.60) and prices going up in .50€ (65Ţ) increments for six or eight sizes. Warning: Gelato is denser than ice cream and richer than it looks. There's also a concoction called semifreddo, somewhere on the far side of the mousse family, in which standard Italian desserts such as tiramisɉ are creamed with milk and then partially frozen.

There are plenty of quality gelaterie besides the ones listed here. A few rules of thumb: Look for a sign that proudly proclaims PRODUZIONE PROPRIA (homemade) and take a look at the gelato itself -- no matter what kind you plan to order, make sure the banana is gray, the egg-based crema (egg-based "vanilla," though there's nary a vanilla bean in it) yellow, and the pistachio a natural, pasty pale olive.

Of all the centrally located gelaterie, Festival del Gelato, Via del Corso 75r, just off Via dei Calzaiuoli (tel. 055-239-4386), is one of the few serious contenders to the premier Vivoli , offering about 50 flavors along with pounding pop music and colorful neon. It's open Tuesday through Sunday: summer 8am to 1am and winter 11am to 1am.

Vivoli, Via Isole delle Stinche 7r, a block west of Piazza Santa Croce (tel. 055-239-2334), is still the city's institution. Exactly how renowned is this bright gelateria? Taped to the wall is a postcard bearing only "Vivoli, Europa" for the address, yet it was successfully delivered to this world capital of ice cream. It's open Tuesday through Sunday 9am to 1am (closed Aug and Jan to early Feb).

One of the major advantages of the always crowded Gelateria delle Carrozze, Piazza del Pesce 3-5r (tel. 055-23-96-810), is its location at the foot of the Ponte Vecchio -- if you're coming off the bridge and about to head on to the Duomo, this gelateria is immediately off to your right on a small alley that forks off the main street. In summer, it's open daily 11am to 1am; in winter, hours are Thursday through Tuesday 11am to 8pm.

A block south of the Accademia (pick up a cone after you've gazed upon David's glory) is what some local purists insist is Vivoli's only deserving contender to the throne as gelato king: Carabȳ, Via Ricasoli 60r (tel. 055-289-476). It offers genuine homemade Sicilian gelato in the heart of Florence, with ingredients shipped in from Sicily by the hardworking Sicilian owners. Taste for yourself and see if Florentines can hope to ever surpass such scrumptiousness direct from the island that first brought the concept of ice cream to Europe. May 16 through September, it's open daily 10am to midnight; February 15 through May 15 and October through November 15, hours are Tuesday through Sunday 10am to 8pm.

In 1946, the first ice-cream parlor in the city's heart, Perche No?, Via dei Tavolini 19r, off Via del Calzaiuoli (tel. 055-239-8969; bus: 14, 23, or 71), introduced a novelty: the glass display case filled with tubs of flavors that have become standard in ice-cream stores the world over. Wedged into an alley off Via dei Calzaiuoli between Piazza della Signoria and the Duomo, Perche No? has done an admirable job over the years of being many a harried tourist's first introduction to quality Florentine gelato. During World War II when the American army reached Florence after the Nazi withdrawal, they had the power grid specially reconnected so that Perche No?'s gelato production -- and G.I. consumption -- could continue. Try their ciocolato bianco (white chocolate studded with chunks of the main ingredient) or one of the semifreddi, a moussing process they helped invent. It's open Wednesday through Monday from 10am to midnight.

Cook Like a True Tuscan

Take a walk down Via dei Velluti in the Oltrarno, peek into the furniture restoration studios, watch the artisans practicing their ancient craft, and soon you'll stumble upon another studio devoted to a time-honored art: cooking. For 25€ ($33) per person, "In Tavola," Via dei Velluti 18/20r (tel. 055-217-672; www.intavola.org), will get you started on your Tuscan culinary quest by showing you how to prepare such staples as crostini, zuppa di faro, and cantucci, while you work your way through a complimentary bottle of chianti.

In Tavola has taken to the city what agriturismi have been doing for a few years now in the countryside, especially in Chianti. Another good beginner's course is offered by the Villa Rosa di Boscorotondo, Via S. Leonino 59, Pannzano Greve in Chianti (tel. 055-852-577; www.resortvillarosa.it), near Radda-in-Chianti. For 90€ ($117) per person, Vincenzo Regoli shows you the in's and out's of bruschetta, panzanella, spezzatino del Chianti and tiramisɉ.

At the high-end of the spectrum are programs offered by Villa San Michele, Via Doccia 4, Fiesole (tel. 055-567-8200; www.villasanmichele.com). These are weeklong seminars with famous chefs, incorporated in a package deal with the luxury villa: a 5-night stay and cooking class runs about 3,200€ ($4,160) per person.

For a full-immersion course in a place that raises its own meat and vegetables, check out La Petraia, 53017 Radda-in-Chianti (tel. 0577-738-582; www.lapetraia.com), where award-winning chef Susan McKenna Grant will help you make an elegant Tuscan dish with whatever vegetables and herbs are in season. The price is 150€ ($195) for visitors, 100€ ($130) for guests of the agriturismo.

Most farm resorts and luxury hotels throughout Tuscany and Umbria are affiliated with some sort of cooking class these days -- be sure to inquire at the front desk.

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