Fig & Thistle natural wine & plant haven in the Mission/Castro/Market border

Before I delve into this post- I want to let you know Curious Appetite made FINALIST in Saveur’s Annual Blog Awards, for the category Best Culture Blog! Thank you to anyone out there who nominated and selected this space where I detail food & drink culture in Florence and beyond. If you’d be ever more so kind, follow this link to vote for Curious Appetite under Best Culture Blog Category, along with more categories and a myriad of neat sites to check out! GRAZIE MILLE <3

here we go!

As readers may have noticed, I took refuge from the Florentine scalding summer to wintery San Francisco. Also, I was craving a burrito and surely such a craving wouldn’t be requited in stale bread salad panzanella town of Florence. But instead of burritos, I’ve found a food & wine scene- to me- puts Florence’s to question in several ways. 

After this summer in San Francisco, I’ve arrived to a conclusion of having been living under a pane sciocco (stale bread) rock. I was amazed to continuously find a unique combo of fresh ingredients I’d be hard-pressed to find in Florence like the delicate use of radishes, or when I find a wine made from an obscure grape I’ve never heard of like inky casavecchia from Campagna which oddly reminded me of jammy bacon fat, an amari I’ve never tasted or a style of wine I knew little about. I completed sommelier certification in Italy and I was constantly humbled…in America.

In San Fran at Bar 821

With little excuse, Florence houses just a few enotecas and restaurants with an interesting wine list. I believe Florence’s food & drink scene is limited for a plethora of reasons which I will do my best to synthesis. I should note- “interesting wine” is subjective. My preference for wine lie in natural, terroir-driven bottles, made from independent vignerons who are challenging the status-quo of enology. Biodynamic or any teeny tiny producer who puts a lot of passion into their craft.

Yours might be a respectable cult name like Biondi Santi or chasing after vintages- which have their place, but my preference is for natural wines, unique vineyards/zones, obscure/indigenous native grape varieties and makers who focus on best expressing a grape rather than blending a touch of international grapes as tricky shortcuts to achieving balance.

I’m not married to natural wines- but generally speaking my curiosity leans towards lesser-sung, boutique producers. I’m more curious with winemakers who dry farm, about soil/weather/elevation, yeast type, and how holistic their agriculture practices are- to me organic or funky unfiltered while have their place, is not the holy grail.

Fig & Thistle in the Mission/Castro/Market border

Natural wines- to put it simply- are those which are minimally manipulated in order to best express the grape’s nature combined with its environmental conditions. I’m also interested in unique traditional wines from around Italy like Vernaccia di Oristano, Lacrima Morro d’Alba from Le Marche and Timorasso from Piedmont.

There are indeed many enoteca wine bars in Florence- some kickass- but many pander to tourists or boast lists dominated by Tuscan wines and usually from commercial producers or outdated family mongols who have made sponsorship deals. Unless you’re going to a super-high end place or a handful of boutique type of eateries- it’s a challenge to find an intriguing variety of local & national natural or independent wines on menus around Florence.

I’ll give some credit to what is cool in Florence- and that is having laser focus understanding of wines from our backyard of Chianti Classico. We are spoiled to have access to so many producers of just one wine zone and its style, something for sure not available in a place like San Fran where a deep selection from around the world is heralded over deep focus of one region.

And for me to say I’m blown away by the wine scene in San Francisco compared to Florence’s could be considered a little sad. I was speaking with a winemaker/riesling activist, Andrew Nelson of Companion Wine, and he explained to me “the wine lists at most restaurants (in SF) are flawed compared to a city like LA or New York, and we don’t have enough wine directors who care enough.”

While this perspective may be more balanced than mine, I was oblivious to any disharmony from wine directors at Italian restaurants I visited like La Ciccia, SPQR and Altovino- their lists rocked my world a little.

That being said, I would ascertain the wine bar/boutique shop is where the wine scene in San Francisco is. I miss the wine bars & shops like Fig & Thistle who showcased winemakers weekly, I was able to discover the legendary Martha Stoumen and her unforgettable wines.

Tuscany has countless unique, terroir-driven and natural wine producers! For example, the wine producing areas around Lucca is home to a pretty neat collection of natural vignerons like Macea, Valgiano and Calafata, yet I rarely see them represented around menus in Florence, maybe I’m lucky to find them at a bottle shop.

What I noticed at the several natural wine bars in the Bay Area like Fig & Thistle, Ruby, Ordinaire, Oakland Wine Yard, is not only an overwhelming selection of specialty wines from around the world and top notch Cali wines to debunk any negative stereotype- I also found a plethora of natural Italian wines- ones I never saw in my several years in Florence. Which led to the ponder “are these makers focusing on export because they know the Italian market is not interested?”

Why should I have to wait for Vinitaly every year or have to visit producers in the countryside to find something besides an industrial wine selection?

I now wonder- where is the demand for a more dynamic wine scene in Florence? I have a few theories!

Reason 1: Florentines, Tuscans and some other Italians generally speaking, are creatures of habit and they are pretty stubborn when it comes to getting them to try new things.  The following notations aren’t to knock Florentine culture off its pedestal- but rather to offer a different perspective.

My impression is- also held by other Italians- that Tuscans are a particularly fascinating bunch. It is a region so idealized around the world, sought out with Florence as its capital attracting the curiosity of millions.

The result is what I deem “cultural fatalism”, a lack of motivation to excel due to the belief they’ve already achieved the greatest. I fear this is what keeps some Tuscans/Florentines held back in terms of accepting, seeking or celebrating newness and/or evolving to new achievements.

Part of the wine adventurism or lack thereof may be from a certain amount of intimidation. But if I- a foreigner with Italian as a second language- can learn about wines in Italy than so can an Italian with no language barrier.

For an example- orange wines! It’s a fascinating class of wines- not made by oranges but with wines whose juice was fermented with grape skin-contact- to put it EXTREMELY simple.

I found more people my age in San Fran have had orange wines than compared to my age group of Italians in Florence. Perhaps I was surrounded by people in my bubble, but I still found more of my friends- with zero exposure to wine culture the way Italians are- very open and intrigued to try lesser-sung styles such as orange or pet-nat.

sostanza florence room

The humble, homestyle trattoria is the preferred venue with recognizable fare, house wine the preferred drink- as anything off the wine list is usually caro (expensive).

I speak about these reflections at length with a fellow American I’m sure you all know Georgette of Girl in Florence and she gets it, “there are two types of people in Florence, those who care enough to pay more and seek out great quality, and those who just want to go to a comforting hole in the wall where they know the owner and can shoot the shit for an evening with 25 of their friends, even if the food is mediocre.”

And because to me, a lot of Italians take their food culture for granted, they have the opinion that paying more means getting ripped off- failing to see the increased price tag perhaps means higher quality and effort. Georgette reminded me of websites like “The Fork” which allow for discounts upon booking, influencing perhaps dining choices. She says “a lot of Italians I know brag about how much they saved on that site- it’s almost like the “groupon” effect.”

The criticisms I hear from Italians, tend to catastrophize eating/drinking in Florence as all touristic and overpriced. But I wonder how much do they really go out to eat besides at their trusty favorites to truly have an accurate outlook?

I guarantee when you speak to an Italian about their review of a restaurant- they will be more pleased if they felt they got a deal rather than walking away having tasted incredible flavors. You will undoubtedly hear “rapporto qualita prezzo. Abbiamo speso il giusto!.” Price to quality ratio. I cringe everytime I hear it muttered. I wish I could instead hear “la chef era molto brava.”

Price to quality is hard to quantify! Restaurants deserve to make money and dining out is a convenience- part of what you’re paying for is them being able to keep the lights on- and hopefully make a profit!

At the trattoria, local bar, fiaschetteria or aperitivo joint- Florentines are content with local Chianti, house wine, cheap prosecco and perhaps if they are feeling adventurous- international grapes grown in Italy like Sauvignon.

Because Florentines, and in my opinion many Italians, are creatures of habit.

I am firmly convinced, Florentines are fiercely loyal to their city- to their quarter even! Unless for a few exceptional cases who pack up and swear to never return. Thanks to the stagnant economic situation and stubborn acceptance of innovation- I’m sure they feel this was their only choice.

I usually will bet on how many years Florentines will last abroad, especially if they came from an entrepreneurial family name or a with inheritance property. But for those vehemently against coming back to Florence have something remarkable in their personality and their life goals, if I may be so honest. There is a lot to love about Florence, but there a lot of flaws for being able to live a life of professional dignity, especially for those who aren’t born into property and financial privilege.

August spent at sea? Not a shabby culture if you ask me!

Going back to why I put bets down on how long a Florentine would last abroad, I ponder these questions in their shoes: Why leave one of the most beautiful regions in the world when the wine flows cheaply and family coddling never-ending, and in a culture where it’s socially acceptable to prioritize leisure over work, where you can get by on relatively little and generally high quality of life and indulge in what seems like a national month off (August) at the beach?

outside Trattoria Enzo e Piero

Consider that for Italians “a restaurant scene” is a rather new cultural concept. Historically, there were probably only these extremes, i.e. the homestyle trattoria, the pizzeria and the uber high-end fine dining.

Nonetheless, Florence’s food scene has changed dramatically over the last 10 years! Some restauranteur professionals have told me “it was once hard to get a Florentine to eat gambero rosso crudo (raw shrimp) now there’s an explosion of fish eateries and even a selection of international cuisine represented!”

While Florence’s restaurant may have changed dynamically, locals acceptance is still excruciatingly behind in my opinion compared to other food culture capitals. There are now several Michelin starred restaurants in Florence, you can find options for ramen, people have an appetite for raw fish- but how many locals vs foreigners populate these establishments?

Locale Firenze- one of the newer restaurants apart of the city’s culinary renaissance

If I could convince even one Italian us Americans are not a nation of burger munchers and soda slurpers, I would feel I made a philanthropic contribution to my home culture- we’ve got enough PR dumpster fires raging making us look like a bunch of dumb dumbs.

It’s not uncommon in the states to go out several nights a week to dine and drink. Being back the last couple months have been refreshing- restaurants are packed every night of the week. In Florence in low tourist season, restaurants except for the cult-followed few like Osteria Vini e Vecchi Sapori, twiddle their thumbs until the weekend or when tourists start trickling back in.

Reason 2: Italians wages suck. I think this work culture of high taxes and low wages is a grave mistake to the future of Italian cuisine, wine and its innovation. Perhaps Italians would like to dine out more and appreciate a quality bottle of wine, thus investing in local enterprise and giving agency to aspiring independent entrepreneurs. Consider if the average Italian salary brings in 1000-1500eu a month, what incentive does one have to spend money out?

Especially when Italians have been raised with exceptional home cooking in some cases and a general grasp on how to cook respectable food at home from scratch and local bulk table wine- albeit mediocre- is 12x better than America’s putrid version of bulk wine, i.e. Charles Shaw $3 buck chuck?

So while the food in Florence is starting to become interesting, its progress in my opinion is funded in large part by foreign communities, industry professionals who get it, travelers, tourists and a small % of the well-to-do.

Reason 3: I realize these reasons have become rather long and tangential! But hey- that’s what a blog is for! Totally unfiltered blurting of things!

credit linked via Pinterest:

Back to reason #3- Italians, ESPECIALLY FLORENTINES, can be somewhat overly concerned with their figure. They see alcohol and eating out not as I do- a glorious gift on planet earth- but instead as evil weight gaining demon. Whatever happened to the classic adage “everything you see I owe to spaghetti”?!

In Italy, there is little in the way of a body positive culture and accepting attitudes towards physical appearance. I wish I could find the Italian equivalent of “Body Positive” and “Please Don’t Mansplain.”

I’ve witnessed extremely insensitive, ignorant comments about one’s figure- and it never ceases to amaze me.

Maybe this license to vanity its something deeper, going back centuries, a culture renowned for its obsession- and perfection- with art and beauty.

Combine vanity with being a little thrifty and suspiciousness in trying new things and what is resulting is a standard culture of mediocre consumption habits.

So these are just a few reasons why I think the wine scene in Florence is lacking in certain ways after my time in San Francisco.

I will say, I did miss the generous touches and the soulful experience at the Florentine hustling bustling historic eatery. The food markets like Sant’Ambrogio- where the growers like Leo will tell you how to prepare that random seasonal produce item you never knew of. While the markets of San Francisco are bountiful, there is less of a codified, ritualistic culinary repertoire to be able to give culinary advice- if this makes sense. At least with Florence, each vegetable matches a traditional dish, and Italians have a good relationship with eating & preparing whole foods.

Maybe in Florence when someone yells at you or judges you, at least they are being honest. When a Florentine in the service industry is kind to you, it’s not because you might tip them or are faking it because it’s the cultural expectation.

Also missed were staple welcome snacks like nuts and chips and prosecco even if subpar.I will never fathom how Americans can just drink without nibbling something! YOU ALL ARE MONSTERS AND YOUR STOMACHS ARE CRYING FOR FOOD WITH ALCOHOL!

Appreciated too are the digestivi offered by the house after a gut-busting meal, and I’ve missed the approachable bills for wine and straightforward food like pizza and pasta.

It’s certainly unfair to compare a small, old-world city like Florence to a city like San Francisco- but consider them food for thought.

Florence is dynamic and has a considerable international community- plus there are incredibly unique, independent producers in our backyard in Tuscany- yet where the hell are they on the menus around town?

Florence, this is my challenge to you- to open up more bars like Le Volpe e L’Uva, more sommeliers like Nicola of Coquinarius and if anyone could figure out how to bring back one of those wine doors into a street wine thing- I’ll be your best customer.

Until my next drunken thought,

Curious Appetite

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