Welcome to the very first post of Better Ask a Chef! This new category of posts where I interview my favorite chefs in the world, starting with Florence, to get tips on eating in the city to how to do things in kitchen better according to a chef. When I requested to meet with the chef of Club Culinario for this interview, I had prepared a series of questions, only for them to be crumpled by the wayside and totally taken through the ringer for anything having to do with the current state of Florence’s dining art.
Through this series, the hope is to better understand the culinary stage of Florence, the people behind the scenes and to get some kitchen tips from the pros. Like anything, I wanted to get to the belly and heart of these eateries through the passionate purveyors themselves.
Questions like “what is your must-have ingredient in your arsenal” “the tool you couldn’t cook without” all seemed frivolous and amateur after having spent an afternoon in Damiano’s culinary den.
Damiano Vigna started his career formally by studying culinary arts at the CFP (center for vocational training) in Florence and for the last 20 years he has worked his way up like most aspiring chefs until he bought the Club in 2012, now directing a team who ardently works to serve stellar plates tied to tradition.
In a recent post, I listed Club Culinario as one of my favorite restaurants in Florence of 2015. Considering the weight of their culinary might, I reckon this place is set to stay on my top 5 for years to come.
Originally a sort of “Arci”, diner dive in the 80’s called “Club Vivaldi” that had nocturnal hours from midnight to 8am, a refuge for night workers and students who wanted to blow off some steam playing cards, getting a late night snack and slugging down some hooch. The locale closed and was spent the 90’s as a more upscale bistro style eatery “Da Osvaldo” influenced by nearby Enoteca Pinchiorri as their former maître was in charge. The spot went through another transformation in June of 2012 when Damiano resurrected the club from its ashes. Club Culinario has retained its name in ode to Toscano da Osvaldo, but does not limit itself to Tuscan offerings. The heart of the menu are tortelli (large ravioli-like stuffed pasta, usually with potato filled in) and takes off from there. You will find the menu rotating seasonally (a given) or based off of new recipes the chef and staff discover along the way. Hunter’s rabbit simmered and marinated in a soulful, layered savory bath and adorned with meaty olives and flavor-rich carrots. Fried meat croquettes, truffle shaved burrata, sautéed greens and fava bean puree are appetizing winners. Choice of ragu’ for each tortelli option, goat ragu’ being my favorite. All pastas are made fresh in house, even hand rolled pici and hemp seed flour pastas. What Damiano has managed to do, is construct one of the only quality eateries in Florence, dedicated to regional, Italian food utilizing mouth-handed-down recipes from culinary gatekeepers across the country including nonni, places, cooks, family members and Michelin-starred chefs.
Damiano an Umbrian native and son of a pilot, has spent chunks of his life living in various corners of the country. His menu is primarily influenced by Liguria, Emilia-Romagna, Lazio and Umbria. A common assumption of the food here is that it is inventive. I should underline that there is nothing invented here, all dishes are based off of experience, tradition and memory. He notes that he wanted to create food that reminded of how he ate at his grandparents, while having a firm emphasis on insanely genuine ingredients. He’s got a few feathers in his hat and has worked throughout Italy, Spain, France and England, even working under the excellent chef/figure Gianfranco Vissani.
I was in a state of delightful trance for the hours I spent speaking with Damiano, bringing me in the back of his kitchen. And with an enthused fire, showing me all his precious goods he trucks in from obscure producers in remote corners of Umbria willing only to sell to him and a few others. “These cheeses are hand milked by pastorals until their forearms get sore, ageing in caves formed by volcanic eruptions from over 3000 years ago. Can you imagine we can eat cheese that was made exactly as the Etruscans made?!” His passion, his enthusiasm was undeniably contagious. His drive to procure regional comfort and soul food to Florence is astoundingly respectful.
After a hearty afternoon of food for thought, I finally started to hear the subtle ticks of the local food scene and what it’s potentially lacking.
The fine dining scene in Florence, attempts to incorporate technology into cuisine with sous vide, gels, foams and molecular gastronomy. Damiano refutes these techniques and says Florence needs to first get some basics down right. “Make me cry with your ribollita or cappelletti in brodo and not when the check comes!” Cooking with fire stoves- this is the stuff cooking is made of, not boiling food in plastic bags. Club Culinario is a culmination of over 60 carefully selected producers from butchers to truffle foragers. He spends his days off driving to pick-up these selected goods, including visiting farmers who name their pigs and Damiano knows exactly how these animals have been raised and fed.
While I learned what Damiano says is the most useful tool in the kitchen (a sieve) and the most important ingredient (good olive oil), it was much more than that. I realized that Florence has a long way to go and there are a lot of commercial scam artists in the restaurant arena. The mentality that looms over it is that “tourists won’t know the difference so we can feed them sub-par fare at exorbitant prices Italians would never pay.” Tourists aren’t garbage disposals. Owners shouldn’t profit from the fact that countries like the US have polluted our palates and culture for taste. They should be providing us with quality so that our palates can grow. Damiano has a progressive attitude towards foreign clientele. He places importance on promoting the memory of taste through serving quality food and being there to educate his diners, to everyone regardless of where they are from. I’d only wish more restaurateurs held this sentiment. Sadly, many eateries in Florence attempt to recreate what tourists would find at home and consequently they are contributing to the erosion of the city’s artisanal identity.
I’ll close this post by giving some additional tips about eating in Florence, according to the interview I had with this wholly talented local chef.
The steak. The Bistecca Fiorentina. The thing every single person asks about (unless they are a vegetarian/vegan/red meat avoider): where to get the best bistecca fiorentina, the Florentine steak in Florence.
It’s not even all about where to get it, it’s about where the chefs have found it. If you see a restaurant touting 500 grams of a personalized sized steak- it’s not worth it. Turns out, these small steaks usually come from young calves in Holland. According to Damiano, this meat is also pretty tasteless. Also, the whole Chianina craze has some holes in it. Chianina, is the name for the heritage breed of cattle native to the Etruscan and Roman settlement of Val di Chiana (a valley which spans through the territories of Arezzo and Siena). This breed has been in existence for thousands of years, thus one of the oldest breeds in the world. There is no possible way that hundreds of restaurants in Florence can boast 100% pure bred Chianina in their steaks. And this is why: this cow is massive weighing up to a ton therefore there is a limit on how many can be butchered per month since they need time to grow. Once butchered, a good slab of meat needs a minimum of 45 days of dry aging in order to soften. Since they are about a ton, they need a huge amount of land and feed to be sustained. Have you looked at Tuscany on a map recently? It’s not that big to house free range heritage cattle for the whole country to eat. Also, think tagliata is the solution to getting a smaller steak portion? Well, first of all it’s the sirloin cut controfiletto invented for tourists, and most sirloin cuts you’ll find in Florence come from Brazilian or Argentinian cattle. The solution that many farmers have adopted in order to keep up with the demand for Chianina is to cross-breed.
Why is this a problem? Because there is a certain denotation of quality and premium with Chianina beef. If they tout “Bistecca Fiorentina” or Chianina and charge premium prices for it, you should be getting a genuine slice of meat.
How do you know just by going into a restaurant? Better ask a chef! Ask what breed the cattle is and ask where it came from. The UK and France are second best bets for quality beef, but generally avoid meat from Central Europe and the Netherlands, only in terms of taste and quality. If a place is charging 70 and up euros a kilo for steak, it better be from local Chianina and the chef/staff should know how it ate and lived. If you find a steak at a restaurant in Florence for 30 euros a kilo, I guarantee it is not 100% Chianina. And honestly, unless the farmer has done a careful job of rearing, feeding and eventually a butcher’s final dry aging touch, the Chianina is not necessarily the holy grail of meat. I’ve heard and read that it was originally a working cow so the muscular structure have evolved to be tough and strong- which could mean a not so tender steak unless proper measure were taking during life like resting, diet, aging etc. Where we get our food from is just as important as the ingredients themselves.
Another observation that we should keep in mind when dining out is how memorable is it? While you may not be able to remember everything you ate, you should remember that it was amazing. Crying ideal.
Club Culinario Toscando da Osvaldo. Address: Piazza de’ Peruzzi 3/r Florence, Italy. Open: Daily for Lunch and Dinner. http://www.clubosvaldo.com/ Reservations encouraged. Tel. 055217919
In tears of food joy,
If you’re coming to Florence, consider a private curated dinner at one of the best restaurants in Florence and with wines to match! Contact me for more info. Buon appetito!
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