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 and overpriced. Granted, what you’re paying for is partly the tradition as a historic trattoria whose menu hasn’t changed in several decades, but it didn’t leave the same impression on me as it has others to want to go repeatedly.
I think it’s a one time go kind of place with some cult-followed classic dishes, but not my kind where I’d return again and again. There is far more interesting food and similar pricing in Florence which merits multiple visits, like Cammillo, Ristorante Fagioli and Buca del’Orafo. Buca by the way also does an artichoke tortino, but Sostanza probably corners the market on butter chicken. But if you insist on going and are okay with paying premium prices for simple food (but will look cool on instagram), then make sure to order wisely: stick to the egg & artichoke omelette tortino, the butter chicken and la bistecca alla fiorentina (florentine steak). I was disappointed by everything else. If you’re into long form reviews, then by all means read on for the complete digest!
Tourists usually out number the locals (as is with most restaurants around town). It’s a vintage, trendy trattoria which some Florentines and haute expats love- doesn’t mean everyone, me or you have to. I’ve spoken to a mix of people and I’m not the only one with this vote of about a 6/10. I thought the wine list was rather lame and above average on price, dominated by industrial producers. Plan on spending about 60-75eu per person if you do a mix of appetizers, first courses, mains and sides with wine from their list. Stick to house wine, ditch the pastas (not worth the calories imo) order the mains (artichoke & egg tortino, butter chicken and/or steak) and you’ll probably spend less and be content.
After long debates with locals and food writers who swear by Sostanza I gathered some observations. Sostanza has a classic Florentine menu it’s been taking orders from for decades and is considered a place for Florentines/Tuscans to nostalgically experience their home-style food traditions. Where locals can taste a menu like nonna made and a decor that hasn’t changed in 60 years. So while I found it overpriced as a trattoria ,I realize part of the cost your paying for is tradition.
If you dine for the sake of eating fantastic food (meaning everything on the menu being scrumptious) with a great wine list and only have a few meals to choose from in Florence, perhaps Sostanza is not the place for you. Apart from the menu items I mentioned, I found the rest pretty overpriced and mediocre (i.e. 11eu for buttered penne pasta, dry small portions of beef bollito, 7eu sides of sauteed chard, etc), although soulful in ambiance and service.
Unless you are thrilled with the prospect of dining at an institutional nostalgic time capsuled trattoria which hasn’t changed in 60 years, you probably won’t appreciate Sostanza to the fullest and you’d probably would be better off going somewhere else.
What to expect on the menu: old-school pasta 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 classic Florentine 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 thought the pasta options were overpriced (buttered pasta for 11eu) and some done in a way which reminded of me of my Italian friend’s dorm dinners (tortellini in meat sauce). Initially, I was surprised to see Bologna’s tortellini (tortellini bolognesi) on the menu’ and in sugo (meat sauce) would enrage any “in brodo” purist in Bologna.
Tuscan primi are usually 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. Don’t expect to find these types of Tuscan primi on Sostanza’s menu but rather classic pastas originally rooted from Emilia-Romagna but now commonplace on the Florentine home table like tortellini bolognesi.
The tiny details in preparation at Sostanza are thoughtfully replicated homestyle nonna’s (grandma’s) cuisine, down to the baguette/bread roll crostini brushed in broth before having chicken liver pate spread on. These details trapped in time, mapped on the nostalgic palates of Florentines at nonna’s on Sundays, have been respectfully procured at Sostanza for decades. I get why Sostanza is a big deal but allow me to not be a fan.
Of course a meal at Sostanza isn’t bad, I’m personally picky where I spend my cash and cash. So what you will find on my blog is food which to me, is worth every single penny and visits to the gym. 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. Granted, I have my own set of standards but I’m not ragging on this place as a disgruntled yelper- I assure you.
-Why do I think it’s overpriced?
Check out the menu- 10eu for penne pasta al burro (buttered pasta!) (2018 note- apparently this buttered pasta is now 11eu) 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 paltry sized mains (secondi) and split ONE dessert in 3, a bottle of wine. Yet, 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, albeit extremely tasty. 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.
-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. 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.
Did this recipe from Artusi inspired Florentine trattorias to serve it? 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’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 mediocre tortellini in Florence (except if at Cammillo) 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. 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 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