Nineteen years ago today my wife and I were on honeymoon, taking it easy by the swimming pool in a converted farmhouse in Tuscany. The previous evening we had dinner in Florence, about an hour’s drive away, one of the most enjoyable meals we have ever shared. It was at an unpretentious family-run restaurant.
When I began drafting this piece it looked like I would be unable to direct you to it. I had marked the relevant page in our guide book (The Lonely Planet Guide to Tuscany), underlining the restaurant name, putting an asterisk in the margin (a rare example of 21st century marginalia), and flagging it with a small Post-It Note. I never lend or borrow books, or almost never. The handful of volumes that people begged me to lend them, with so far unfulfilled promises to return them, include Jon McGregor’s “So many ways to begin”, Deborah Lawrenson’s “Idol Chatter” and this Lonely Planet Guide to Tuscany.
We still have our Lonely Planet and Rough Guide volumes about Italy as a whole, but I had not made any notes in them about eating out in Florence. Fortunately, my pocket diary for 2001 had both the restaurant name and (far less legible) the address, which TripAdvisor confirms as: SOSTANZA, Via del Porcellana 25/R, 50123, Florence Italy+39 055 212691. I cannot recommend it highly enough. If you are ever in Florence, check it out. It looks like it’s still in business, and as good as we remember. Right now the most recent review on that TripAdvisor page comes from a few days ago, and asks “How to give more than five stars?” Just like that reviewer we had the Florentine steak, served with beans and not much else. The dessert was even simpler, and gave us a catchphrase which we still use.
We were lucky to get into Sostanza. Our guide book recommended booking ahead. We were day-tripping in Florence and only booked our table mid-afternoon, in person. The couple in front of us, who appeared to be English, walked away disappointed. It looked like we had left it too late and would have to find somewhere else for our Florentine steak, but we went ahead and asked the maitre d’ if he had a table for two.
“English?” he asked.
“Irish,” I said, pointing to the Kilkenny cap on my head.
It turned out that they could just about squeeze us in. If he had asked to see our passports, we might have been turned away (Irish blood, British passport, to paraphrase a singer whose work I rarely listen to these days), but we were in.
When we returned that evening it felt like we really had been squeezed in: our table was smaller, and closer to neighbouring tables, than we expected, but we were happy to be there. Other diners were seated at long communal tables, many of them beside people they had never met before. One of these communal tables was filled with a party of young American women, students I assumed. By the time we had all finished our main courses there wasn’t much going on in the kitchen. Chefs and other kitchen staff had already packed up and gone home. Only the waiters remained. We asked about dessert, but instead of presenting us with menus the waiter said just one word:
A few minutes later he relayed the same information to the young American women nearby. One of them placed her order.
“Okay, I’ll have raspberries with cream and a decaf cappuccino..”
The waiter replied, firmly, and in his strong Italian accent, “No decaf. No cappuccino. No cream. Only raspberries!”
My wife and I spent the next few days replaying this scene, and the waiter’s words became our Catchphrase of the Year. We would take it in turns to place our dessert order (raspberries with cream and a decaf cappuccino), and to give the waiter’s unambiguous reply.
We had taken my wife’s car on honeymoon with us. A few days after our dessert of raspberries at Sostanza we left Italy and began our drive through France to get home, stopping in various places en route. The first of them was the hotel in La Napoule, just outside Cannes, where my parents-in-law spent their honeymoon. It was the first time in over a week that we were in a room with a TV. It was Tuesday September 11, 2001. But that’s another story.