I don’t make a habit of eating in hotels. I think this bias dates back to my days driving around Europe with my father in the back of our Fiat 128. Although I was only 12, I was already the master of learning how to navigate our family to the best places to eat using the Michelin Red Guide. I knew all the arcane symbols by heart, and could usually yell out several possible lunch or dinner stops to my parents in the front. The one thing I learned, early on, was to stay clear of hotel restaurants.
Back then, hotel restaurants meant three things: Fancy service, high prices and boring food. In other words places for non worldly tourists who were too scared to venture off the beaten track and explore where all the good, authentic food (at good prices) was really going on.
Although a lot has changed since then, I find myself having to deal with my ingrained bias all the time. I admit it: when I think of where to go out for dinner the restaurants located in hotels are just about last on my list. For no good reason at all.
Over the last 15 years or so there has been huge changes in Italy regarding hotel restaurants. And in fact, you can’t even really call them hotel restaurants anymore. They are more like destination restaurants that feature starred chefs with truly cutting edge, exciting cuisine. And they just happen to be located in hotels.
While the food has changed oh-so-much for the better, the fancy service and high prices have pretty much remained a constant though. Which helps explain, at least a bit, why you won’t find me there very often.
And let me take a moment to explain a bit about how I work when it comes to writing about restaurants on my blog and on my apps. When I go to a restaurant to try it out, I only end up writing about it if I like it and I think you would like it too. I don’t write negative reviews of a place since I think it’s a waste of my time as well as yours. If you want to know where to go it’s easy: just follow my advice. If you can’t find mention of a place on my blog, books or apps I either a) haven’t been there or b) been there and don’t like it.
Another thing: I pay for 98% of all my meals myself. I don’t get comped on a regular basis, but when I do, I make that very clear. I get invitations to restaurants almost every day, which I turn down almost every day. But every so often? I do accept an invitation. And mostly they are to places which I have heard are very good, but are at the expensive end of the spectrum and so are way out of the range of my daily budget.
And this is where hotel restaurants come into play.
So, yes I do accept these invitations. But if I don’t like them? Even though I was a guest? I don’t write about them. End of story. In other words, you can’t pay me to write about your restaurant.
So now that I’ve explained way more than you asked for in terms of where I’m coming from, let’s get down to business.
Recently I had the pleasure of dining at two restaurants that happen to be located in hotels in Florence.
And I loved them both.
Il Palagio is, arguably, one of the best of this exciting new breed of hotel restaurants in Italy. Located in the opulent dining room of the Four Seasons Hotel, it is expertly overseen by one of Italy’s best known chefs, Vito Mollica.
Between the two of us, Domenico and I were able to try some of his most well known dishes. Before we got started the amuse bouche of lentils and octopus summed up the approach to the entire meal: humble, local but top notch ingredients combined in new and creative ways that insured each bite was perfect.
I started off with a dish as fancy and delicious, as it was beautiful: carpaccio of sea scallops with fois gras and caviar. My favorite dish was one of the most memorable plates of pasta I’ve ever enjoyed. Chef Mollica outdid himself. Linguine pasta ‘Benedetto Cavalieri’ with garlic, butter and chilli pepper, raw scampi and Cetara anchovy sauce. Really extraordinary and beautifully plated.
For dessert I couldn’t resist the Crunchy Caramel Bar with hazlenut gelato which I could easily have eaten two of instead of sharing my one portion with Domenico.
With one of the best cantina’s in town, we had a truly excellent pairing of wines chosen by head sommelier Marco Lami who chose expertly, and always surprisingly, introducing us to wines by small producers we had never heard of before.
I had a completely different kind of hotel meal during the heat of July at Irene, located in the Savoy hotel. Although I tend more towards the rustic when I’m in Florence for the day, I figured that enjoying a bit of pampering and air conditioning was in order for a hot summer’s day.
Irene is the chic and stylish bistrot in the Hotel Savoy that has been given a complete overhaul about a year ago. The design is now refreshingly retro (and by retro I mean mid century modern) and the menu has been designed by star chef Fluvio Pierangeli.
This is not the place to go if you are in the mood for rustic Tuscan fare. It is, however, perfect if you are looking for something lighter, more vibrant and just a bit different. I was there with a couple of friends and so we started out with several of appetizers to share. The crudo di ricciola con sorbetto di lime was cold, perfect and served atop a slap of pink himalaya salt was pretty to look at too. I also loved their spin on Vitello Tonnato, which tender and served with extra tonnato sauce on the side (that won my heart).
The Ravioli stuffed with pappa al pomodoro was a great idea, and actually worked deliciously. And the salads (remember I said it was hot out, so this was about all we could handle for a main course) were full of fresh greens. My only critique was the lack of real vinegar to dress the salads. I know most foreigners prefer balsamic, but if you’re going to aim this high then you should have true vinegar as well, right? But I didn’t let it make me that cranky. Because, well, we were well into an excellent bottle of rose’.
I’d actually been to Irene over this past winter, with my friend Georgette, to share a few cocktails. And while they do make all the classics it was fun diving into some of their house creations as well.
Four Seasons Hotel
Borgo Pinti, 99
Piazza della Repubblica 7
I was a guest of both of these restaurants.
For more information on dining in Florence and Italy download my app, EAT ITALY. EAT ITALY is a free app, and contains guides to Venice, Milan, Rome, Florence and Umbria (and an ever expanding list of regions and cities) available as in-app purchases for both iPhone and iPad
After your stay in Florence, if you are heading out on a road trip through Tuscany (and why wouldn’t you be?!) there is here the perfect itinerary, courtesy of Avis. (sponsored link)