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[whitespace] Florentine Natale

First-class dining abroad

By Christina Waters

SPEAKING OF ADVENTURES, the theme of this issue, everybody says they want to refresh holiday traditions, but not many people go as far as we did last year--and spend the holidays in Florence. In between the rainy weather and a brisk schedule of museum-going, we enjoyed some terrific food. Breakfast was invariably cappuccino and some soft brioche--lunches involved gossamer gnocchi, sensational pastas with impeccable Bolognese sauces and insalate miste composed of tender arugulas and endive tossed with shaved white truffles and fresh porcinis. I'd wisely booked our Christmas Eve meal several months in advance, at a celebrated dining room much loved by Florentines as well as international foodies. Even cookbook author and Italian travel writer Faith Willinger (an American married to a Florentine) admits that Il Cibrèo is her favorite restaurant in the fabled Renaissance city. With reservations in hand, we braved the cold, wet weather and took our table at 8pm. The proprietress consulted with us at length about the menu and after making our choices we toasted with glasses of a lovely La Casa 1995 Brunello di Montalcino while watching the cooks in red berets through the kitchen double doors. Decorated simply--bits of copper and brass amid the 15th-century wooden beams and tiles--Il Cibrèo is the showcase for chef/owner Fabio Picchi, who likes to get inventive with the classic cuisine of Florence.

Each course was thrilling, very beautiful and perfectly presented. Opening bites--each 1-inch across--included a tiny cheese mousse on a square of prosciutto, a perfect cube of tomato aspic with tomao sauce, shavings of pecorino with whole walnuts in oil. Two perfect, crusty rolls were brought, along with complimentary glasses of a house white Veronese that tasted like Gewurzträminer.

Next came an appetizer of creamy polenta, a pool of oil in its center, served with a flan of potato and Gorgonzola. Unbelievable combination, these two starches. A complex minestrone with housemade sausages arrived along with a pumpkin soup, topped with oil and an island of brown sugar, nutmeg and black pepper. This is definitely conceptual cookery, yet without any sacrifice of flavor or pleasure. Highly spiced entrees, one of balsamic-marinated calamari and spinach served in a copper tureen, and another of spiced veal and sausages with classic Tuscan white beans, finished us off.

But the kitchen keeps it coming--a tart of pears and pine nuts was lovely, but another of bittersweet chocolate was better. A thin slice of ethereal, barely sweet cheesecake made the ultimate Christmas present. All of this, including wine and tip, for $150.

Last Chance

On March 9, 2001, at 7:30 pm, The Grill on the Alley continues its wine dinner series with a pairing of foods and wines of Northern Italy. "This is the last chance of the winter to serve some hearty dishes, such as those cooked in Italian homes when the weather gets cold" says Grill GM and Wine Director Philippe Azoulay, who's chosen some "friendly and well-known, yet unique, Italian wines to pair with these dishes." Space is limited, but if you can score reservations the following menu might prove well worth the $130 per person plus tax and 20 percent gratuity cost. The Grill's Northern Italian Wine Dinner begins with carpaccio paired with Aneri Prosecco. Next comes a salad of mache, endive and radicchio with pears, walnuts and Gorgonzola in pear vinaigrette, served with a Bolla Pinot Grigio Riserva. Soup of cipollini arrives with a Marchesi di Gresy Dolcetto d'Alba, followed by a penne with porcini and Amarone della Valpolicella Classico, from Marano. The main course of Osso Buco alla Milanese will be joined by a 1993 Barolo Cannubi from Marchesi di Barolo, and dessert of peach soufflé will be presented with a Moscota d'Asti, Nivole, Michele Chiarlo. Call The Grill, located in the Fairmont Hotel in downtown San Jose, at 408.294.2244.

Email me! Readers restaurateurs, chefs: Please send any news items, tips, menu changes, openings, special events and juicy gossip to [email protected]

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From the March 8-14, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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