I’ve decided to make my last post of the year dedicated to the heavily praised Trattoria Sostanza (il troia) in Florence. I’ll cut to the chase, I don’t agree with all the praise out there. Although the service was genuine, the staff sweet, the interior and ambiance totally authentic- I found some of the food mediocre, overpriced and incomplete based on my personal expectations of Tuscan & Florentine cuisine.
Tourists usually out number the locals (as is with most restaurants around town). Ultimately, there are better places to spend your limited meals on when in Florence. It’s a vintage, trendy trattoria which many Florentines and haute expats love- doesn’t mean everyone does or that you have to. I thought the wine list was rather lame, dominated by industrial producers. The point is, there is more to Florence’s food scene than butter chicken at Sostanza.
Here is what (I think) Sostanza is trying to do and why it is so raved about:
Sostanza perhaps is considered a place for Florentines/Tuscans to nostalgically experience their home-style food traditions, where they can taste a menu like nonna made and a decor that hasn’t changed in 60 years.
This trattoria has a menu unlike any other in the city- pasta-heavy primi (first course) menu complete with a cup of just broth as one primi offerings, simple meat-based mains including this infamous butter chicken which used to appear on old-fashioned trattoria menus several decades ago and has since vanished from menus across town except at here ol’ Sostanza and simple Tuscan sides like beans & greens. Plus everyone loves their hand-written menu.
I wasn’t into seeing all the pasta on their menu, as I thought they were overpriced and done in a way which reminded of me of my Italian friend’s dorm dinners. i.e. Tortellini Bolognesi in meat sauce, penne pasta in butter (for 11 euros!). I was surprised to see tortellini on the menu’ and done in a way which would enrage any purist in Bologna. Ask a Bolognese how tortellini are done- and they would never say serve them with a meat sauce- if done well, tortellini belong in broth and nothing else.
Even if tortellini are from the Emilia-Romagna, tortellini are commonplace to home meals in Tuscany, especially on Sundays and holiday meals. Perhaps my personal expectations of a Tuscan primi list consists mostly of soups, some regional pasta-styles like penne strascicate (pasta “dragged” in meat sauce in the pan) pastas like pappardelle (wide pasta) in a wild hunter meat sugo sauce, timballo, crespelle, gnudi, etc.
Also, Sostanza is noteworthy for their offerings like the artichoke tortino and butter chicken which were more prevalent on old-fashioned Florentine trattorias from back in the day (talking 30+ years ago) but now have mostly disappeared. The tiny details in preparation are thoughtfully replicated to grandma’s or nonna’s cuisine, down to the baguette/bread roll crostini brushed in broth before having chicken liver pate spread on. These details which were trapped in time, mapped on the nostalgic palates of Florentines at nonna’s on Sundays, are now respectfully procured at Sostanza.
And the reason you find Emilia-Romagna pastas like tortellini bolognesi on the primi menu, is because these rich specialties (fresh egg pasta filled with parmigiano & pork cooked in butter) are now commonplace in neighboring regions like Tuscany and Umbria for special occasion meals. This is a whole other post and draws on the unification of Italy and how since, regions are now sharing and spreading their typical foods and dishes. So aside from regional specific cuisine, you find common foods in central Italy, central/north, southern Italy, etc.
If you aren’t Tuscan/Florentine or close as you can to being one, or haven’t experienced a Sunday/Holiday meal in a Florentine home, aren’t fascinated by historical trattorias and what menus in Florence used to be like, if you can’t appreciate simple home-cooked fare or aren’t super geeky about those kind of ethnographic culinary experiences, then you will not understand Trattoria Sostanza to the fullest and you probably would be better off going somewhere else.
I can appreciate tradition, and if a place is procuring nostalgia. I’m a geek for food memories! The result remains in that I feel that I spent a lot of money, didn’t feel 100% full by the end of it, and found some dishes to be mediocre in quality and only a couple tasty at best. In sum, I’d have to really force myself to go back in a city with countless other delicious restaurants & eateries. To me it wasn’t that special for a 45eu with industrial wine! Of course it wasn’t bad- but I have to workout to earn my calories (and monies) and I’m extremely picky where I spend them. So what you will find on my blog is food which to me, is worth every single penny (and sweat).
-Why do I think it’s overpriced?
Check out the menu- 10eu for pasta al burro (buttered pasta!) If I am not mistaken, I saw this dish come out and it was penne (dried) pasta and not the most expensive pasta on the shelf. I’d be more forgiving if it were a handmade pasta tossed with house-churned butter. If you notice on the menu as well, there is tortellini in brodo for 9eu. How is tortellini in brodo less than dried pasta tossed in butter?
In a group of 3, We spent 45eu each, and we didn’t get any primi, (first courses) we split 3 mains (secondi) and split ONE dessert in 3, plenty of wine which was the only thing fairly priced but I left not feeling full and spending way too much. I wasn’t a fan of the bollito (boiled beef served with sauces), the side of greens were pretty small at 7eu and the fagioli all’uccelletto (beans cooked in sage and tomato) were bland (sage, where art thou?) and the sauce tasted exactly like can tomato puree.
I felt the pricing ill-proportionate. The artichoke tortino (omelette) was 16eu. While extremely tasty- was pretty small for 16eu. For the same price you could get a veal loin lombatina (how is meat vs eggs with artichokes the same price?) Butter chicken at 20eu and for 2eu more, you could get filetto. The boiled beef bollito was 12eu, not bad in price if had been done well. The quality was somewhat tough and strangely dry instead of soft, moist and falling apart as it should be and a small/humble portion, although boiled beef bollito comes from lesser-noble cuts of beef.
-From my personal expectations of Tuscan/Florentine cuisine, the section for first courses (i.e. the primi section) had a limited selection of PURE core of traditional Tuscan/Florentine items
Another confusing primi I noticed on Sostanza’s menu tortellini in sugo (which is usually a tomato sauce) or tortellini in butter. I just spent a month trying to find the best tortellini in Bologna. The first thing I learned in Bologna on my tortellini quest was, according to purists, tortellini should only be served in broth. These are pasta pockets of several types of meat, some cooked in butter plus grated Parmesan- you don’t need tomato sauce to add flavor if done right! If a tortellino is done right, all you need is a little broth to make it shine. Even if in sugo (sauce) is how tortellini are consumed in Florence at a traditional festive or Sunday lunch, I just had a hard time with it after eating tortellini bolognesi in Bologna everyday for a month. I admit to mu initial ignorance regarding these food traditions, and It should be known these are plates are traditionally consumed even if not born from the local food DNA.
-the butter chicken didn’t change my life, I don’t get why people rave so much about it- and this is the dish that gives Sostanza it’s identity!
The bird’s breasts were indeed delicious, and perfectly cooked but I’d have to exert much energy to want to return to have this again. My beef with this famous butter chicken is that I don’t believe that chicken should be the icon to a supposed Florentine relic, when Tuscan cuisine is known for beef and hunter’s meat. I admit to being contradicted by this assertion, with old Florentine recipes including one from Elizabeth David’s Italian Food on Florentine Chicken which resembles Sostanza’s butter chicken. The objective question proposed is: isn’t it worthy, being the only place in town serving this lesser-known traditional Tuscan/Florentine dish?
Food for thought, I say! I still have hesitation. Tuscany to me is the land of olive oil- not butter even if you do find it used because it’s haute to be like the French. And believe me, I nerd out over obscure and nearly forgotten dishes. Life would be boring to have the same key iconic dishes day in and day out! But I don’t think there is anything exceptional about chicken breasts cooked in butter for 20 euros.
But what does ultimate food authority Artusi have to say about butter chicken?
Pellegrino Artusi is considered an Italian cookbook hero, as he was the author of “The Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well.” It is an essential guidebook to all homecooks and us Italophiles obsessed with Italian food. This food literature classic, rife with humor and occasional doses of food history, lists hundreds of regional Italian recipes, techniques and was completed in Florence in 1891, 20 years after the unification of Italy. The book focused mostly on Tuscan and Emilia-Romagna cuisine, and some tickles from France since French cuisine and use of butter has been a time-survived trend around these parts. Artusi lived in Florence but was born in Forlimpopoli (Emilia-Romagna).
I referenced his book, looking for this butter chicken and the closest I found was Pollo alla Rudini, which indeed details chicken breasts being cooked in butter, but after having been dredged flour and dunked in a egg batter and cooked in a very similar manner that Sostanza cooks theirs (over hot hot fire) and served with a slice of lemon. Is this where it came from when Florentine trattorias started putting it on their menus? Otherwise, the origins of this butter chicken arriving on the Florentine table remains a mystery! Again, I am not making such questions/assertions because I think I’m some fancy food historian, I’m honestly curious!
I’ve rambled on a lot, I’m pretty sure I never want to hear the words butter chicken ever again, nor eat it and I’m tired of trying to understand why someone would want to eat tortellini in Florence when they could take a train and eat them in Bologna and not be surrounded by at least half of the tourists.
My point is, I didn’t fawn over it as many others have. The butter chicken didn’t change my life but it was delicious, perhaps not worth 20 euros. I’d have to exert great effort to want to eat there repeatedly. Then again, I’m not Florentine and don’t have this nostalgia attached to my palate. But I’d like to think I can call out mediocre food when I taste it, and that’s what the ending taste of this post should leave you with.
In your rambling, opinionated trust,
Looking for alternatives to the so-called best restaurants in Florence? Where I think the best Tuscan food in town can be had? Consult these guides! Don’t forget to share them, too and follow on facebook for more food finds in Florence and beyond!
WHERE TO EAT TRADITIONAL TUSCAN IN FLORENCE
ALTERNATIVE GUIDE TO THE BEST RESTAURANTS IN FLORENCE