Florence isn’t short on busy little Trattorias that come with love letters posted on blogs, in magazines and review sites from all around the world claiming to have found the best cuisine in the city. Most of these claims are ridiculous. Lazy reviewers who couldn’t help but fall in love with everything that they encountered on their visit to Italy. People eating an overcooked half an inch thick Florentine steak with pasta and describing it as authentic. Because everything has to be authentic. While I admit this same hype is present at Trattoria Sostanza, the restaurant has one or two redeeming factors, most notably the somewhat unique dish of Butter Chicken or Petti di pollo al burro. But more about that later…
The restaurant itself is small, old and noisy. It’s the kind of place where the clanks of old pottery, metal and the metallic clangs of heavy cutlery provide the ear piercing soundtrack of authentic Italian trattoria dining. The menus are messily scrawled in pen, in both English and Italian on pieces of A4 paper masquerading as menus – exactly how the restaurant likes it. The walls are covered in black and white and faded colour photography, celebrating the many Italian and international celebrities that have sat and eaten on the 20 or so seats inside. People love the food here. Rightly so too. It’s old fashioned, basic cuisine that’s lovingly prepared and perfect pairing for a charry, rustic glass of house Chianti. We eat light when we’re there. Just a dish each. Last time we chose a simple bowl of meaty pasta – cooked al dente as it should be – and the excellent butter chicken.
Butter chicken is a simple dish. Two chicken breasts still encased in their thick flavoursome skin, served in a metal serving bowl, cooked in swathes of thick butter until everything is a tantalising golden brown in colour. There’s a few cloves of garlic and a wedge of lemon to bring out the salty flavours. The flavours are rich and complex, the skin baked at a high heat, steaming the thick flesh within and finished with a generous touch of salt. It is not typical Tuscan cuisine by any means, but it is very good. Interestingly though this dish has led some reviewers to say things like this:
This is Italy, save the fried butter chicken for a fast food joint. Tripadvisor reviewer extraordinaire
Because Italian restaurants, in Italy, are supposed to only serve the dishes that tourists want, right? If a restaurant wants to do something different to almost every other single Trattoria in town, then damn them. Overcooked pasta, more mozzarella than you can shake a tourist at and pizza it is then. Because Pizza is just so Tuscan. Apparently unbeknownst to at least that reviewer, intense butter dishes like this one are quite popular in the north of Italy – not just KFC (because buttery is clearly a good way to describe the Colonels offerings) – who’d have thunk it?
Herein lies a horribly clear problem to Florence’s dining scene, and perhaps Florence proper. It is dominated by outsiders. Tourists demanding what they know to be authentic. What has been romanticised to the extreme. There is no room for anything different in this Hollywood vision of ochre-shaded perfection. There’s very little room for experimentation. Florence has been at the whim of tourists for too long. Creatives in the city are only now starting to fight against it, and fight against it and those that perpetrate it they should. For Florence, as it stands today, is little more than a resort town for North Americans. It has been kept from modernity by the very thing that has kept it afloat and it dares not to bite the hand that feeds. The Disneyfication of this great city, is almost complete.
Of course things are changing. People, particularly Florentines, are beginning to notice this backwards mentality. The city is attempting to (in its words) “attract a better class of tourist”, and restaurants and chefs alike are beginning to fight back against the restrictive boundaries of the imagination of Florence’s tourists and opportunists. There are interesting concepts such as Il Locale and the wonderful Gurdulú – and I’m sure many more, but for now, the hive mind of tourism is still very much keeping the city’s culinary offerings behind in terms of progress. The city itself is trampled by hundreds of thousands of tourists each day, but who, as one of the numbers of foreigners that has done the trampling, am I to criticise the volume of visitors? That’s for the city officials to decide.
What I can say, after a year living in Florence, is that it has been suppressed by a lack of imagination and an influx of tourists who seem to think that they have some say in Florence’s future and the city’s identity. We should allow our cities to be shaped by their free-thinkers, by people with vision, creatives and businesses, but we should fight back with every fibre of our beings when we see the burgeoning of Disneyfied insanity. When we see our cities being forced to bend to the whims of those chasing some improbable storybook romance, we should not allow it. Florence is more than the sum of its renaissance parts, and it has more to offer than Chianti and steak. Underneath its thick, fake veneer of pedestrianised “tourist zones”, it is a rich modern city, fashionable and artistic, beautiful and enchanting.
We must fight back against the creation of Firenzeland. Because it’s only a matter of time until tourists get fed up eating inauthentic Tuscan cuisine and scream for THIS to become a reality.
Until then, if you feel like some exceptional chicken (there are much better restaurants for steak) then go to Trattoria Sostanza and forget everything you know about Florentine Trattorias.