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Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Osteria Vini e Vecchi Sapori ... A Hidden Gem Near Palazzo Vecchio

Osteria Vini e Vecchi Sapori
Via dei Magazzini, 3R
50122, Firenze (Florence, Italy)
Prices:  € €  €  

We, literally, stumbled upon Vini e Vecchi Sapori while heading for the Palazzo Vecchio and Piazza della Signoria, the busiest and most famous square in Florence. The streets in Florence are made of large stones, not so evenly laid and sometimes causing tourists to stumble. I had heard of this restaurant through word of mouth and reviews on Yelp, but was not sure where it was. We almost missed it if not for my clumsy feet, hurling me toward the menu outside the door.

The menu says, in English, “NO PIZZA NO STEAK  NO ICE” and consisted of five to seven each of the antipasti (appetizers), primi (first courses), and secondi (second courses) followed by a few contorni (side dishes) and dolce (desserts). The menu changes each day depending on what the chef feels like cooking and the fresh ingredients available. The choices on our first visit were enticing, so we asked if we could get a reservation that night…WRONG!

Thomaso, the 3o something owner and front man, is thin with Harry Potterish glasses and wavy brown hair. He was extremely nice as he explained that the restaurant was sold out for the next week, so we asked for the first available table, which was seven days away on the following Saturday at 9:00PM (fairly early by Italian standards). We snatched the reservation quicker than turtle tucks his head and waited, and waited, and waited…

When Saturday rolled around, we arrived at the appointed hour and Thomaso greeted me at the door…Signor Sorrentino, welcome! Impressed that he remembered my name after only one encounter, the festivities began. The restaurant is very small in a very old building with tall (18 foot) ceilings and tile floors. Beside the five or six tables, there is only a glass refrigerator case, like you would see in a deli, a small counter, and the door to the bathroom and to the kitchen (different doors). The walls are smothered, but tastefully so, with an eclectic variety of original art and prints, making the small room, I mean restaurant, warm and inviting.

pappardelle con ragu di anatra
The restaurant sits on a short, narrow, quiet street just north of the Piazza della Signoria and has five tables or so, holding about 20 people. It reminds me of my favorite Italian restaurant in Los Angeles, Palermo, run by my old friend Tony, an immigrant from Palermo, Sicily and a warm, wonderful person. When Palermo opened back in the late 1970’s, it was just as small and quaint. Now Palermo is huge and packed every night of the week, a few blocks west of its old location. I hope that the same does not happen to Vini e Vecchi Sapori for it will lose much of its charm.

paccheri con fiori di zucca e zafferano
Thomaso sat us, then sat with us to explain the night’s menu. My wife’s dear friend Maddalena was with us and we were celebrating her birthday. We had visited Pistoia and Lucca by train that day, and had eaten foccacia con mozzarrella, prosciutto cotto, e carciofi (thin, herb covered bread with mozzarella, cooked ham, and artichoke inside) in Lucca that was larger than expected, so we decided to skip the antipasti and save room for the wonderful selection of primi and secondi. We started with the pappardelle con ragu di anatra (pappardelle are very wide fettucini-type pasta and they were covered in a rich minced duck sauce - €9) and paccheri con fiori di zucca e zafferano (yellow zucchini flowers and saffron - €8). The papparedelle con ragu di anatra was out of this world, just enough to satiate the palate for the time being, but never to be forgotten.   The paccheri con fiori di zucca e zafferano was delightfully done in a rich, creamy sauce and the pasta was thick and al dente, just firm enough to hold all of the wonderful sauce. I had never had saffron, a spice used mostly in the Middle East, in an Italian pasta sauce before, but it was creamy and dreamy. I hinted to Thomaso about obtaining the recipe, but will wait until we establish ourselves as regulars to make such a proposition.

ossobuco con piselli
Having trouble deciding whether to have the scaloppine alla pizzaiola (similar to veal parmigiana, but much better - €14) or the ossobuco con piselli (veal shank - slow cooked with peas), Thomaso decided for me, it was the ossobuco (€14) and I was not disappointed! The veal shank was cooked to perfection, not huge by American standards, and falling off the bone with a hint of marsala wine sauce. It was delicious, the best ossobuco I have eaten and I have had a few. My wife had the torta ai carciofi (artichoke omelette - €8), but she wolfed it down while I was talking to the couple from Shang Hai at the table next to us, so I did not have the opportunity to get a taste.

 Friends from Shang Hai & Jordon...Thomaso (back)
Our meal was accompanied by a litre of sparkling water (€2) and a litre of Chianti wine (€14), which was dark, rich, and flavorful with hints of berry and chocolate. Being so small, you easily fall into conversation with the table next to you. The first diners were a couple from San Francisco, she a teacher on break, and very nice, he a silicon valley marketing executive, seemingly very impressed with himself and eager to end the conversation. The next couple was from Shang Hai and it turns out that his family was from Glendale, California where I spent much of my childhood and college years, moving to Hacienda Heights after his graduation, where I had spent all of my school years. What a small world! Emma is Chinese, a native of Shanh Hai, and extremely engaging and sweet. The couple on their other side, I thought were from Holland by the accent, turned out to be from Jordon and were equally as warm and engaging. It was one of the most delightful dinners I have experienced in a long time.

Front Door & Tall Ceilings
Finally, the dessert was ordered, while I was talking to Emma about her soon to be baby (due on Christmas day), so I did not have a choice in the matter. We tasted the tiramisu (€5), which was light and refreshing and minus the coffee, which by this time in the evening would probably have kept us awake all night, and the meringato (“big meringue” with cream and chocolate - €5), which was good, but not outstanding.

The bill came to €86, but Thomaso rounded it off to €80 even, so we left a generous tip, which usually is not required in Italy. On the way out we met the chef, Thomaso’s mother, and congratulated her on her wonderful meal, telling “ritorniamo prossima Sabato” (“we will return next Saturday”) and the Saturday after that, and the one after that…'s the "BOMB"!

Vini e Vecchi Sapori gets 9 BOMBS OUT OF 10 (“bombs” are good) from CombatCritic…my highest rating yet!

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