Thank ***ing goodness, 2016 is about out the door! It’s been a doozy and despite dystopian nightmares coming to fruition, my eating career has definitely had some highlights! 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 based on my personal expectations of Tuscan cuisine, some of the primi dishes to me didn’t scream pure Florentine/Tuscan.
For years I’ve heard about this little trattoria, mostly online and my clients asking for second opinions on their dining lists prior to coming to Florence.
Up until recently I refused to go, also unable to because it is really hard to get a table the same day, sometimes 2-3 days in advance and they are closed on Saturdays and Sundays. I also had a feeling the food wouldn’t live up to the hype.
Consequently, Sostanza ended up on the back burner of my to-eats list in Florence.
I finally got to make a visit here, and I’ll be honest- my hunch was right and I was not thoroughly impressed the way the rest of the internet praises Sostanza and its holy grail butter chicken. Bearing in mind food is subjective and all palates are different!
Here is what (I think) Sostanza is trying to do and why it is so raved about:
Sostanza 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 and greens.
At first glace, the pasta primi seemed like a riff on the Emilia-Romagna but riffed confusingly, seeing tortellini in sugo tomato sauce- any purist in Bologna would tell you that tortellini belong in broth and nothing else. But since some of these pasta primi were/are traditionally served around Tuscany (especially in homes/special occasions), they are considered authentic pieces to the Florentine menu. Perhaps my expectations were in the wrong place, with personal expections of a Tuscan primi list as mostly 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.
But after some discussion and reflection, the menu that Sostanza offers is like that which one would find at a holiday gathering like Christmas or a big fat Sunday lunch in a Florentine family home. Also, these offerings like the artichoke tortino and butter chicken 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 on the primi menu, even if they were born there, is because these dishes became 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.
So before you hear me out on my rant for why still, I’m not a huge fan of Sostanza, you should understand its concept before even considering going. Sostanza should be 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.
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.
-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
90% of the primi on the menu were pasta based, and some pastas that were born in the Emilia-Romagna (not Tuscany). Yes, these dishes are now apart of special occasion meal traditions, but that to me doesn’t mean that it’s now apart of Tuscany’s culinary DNA. Tortellini bolognese are Bolognese- at most you could say they are commonly consumed, even served during traditional occasions, in the central/northern Italian regions but I can’t seem to agree they should dominate a traditional Florentine/Tuscan menu. Perhaps because having heard this place to be so institutional, I was expecting to see more hardcore Tuscan/Florentine first course primi like farinata, pan cotto or pappa al pomodoro, pezzole, gnudi, crespelle, maccheroni, etc.
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 overall acceptable. 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