Her name is Benedetta, a word that in Italian means "blessed," and it would be fair to say that Benedetta Vitali is blessed with a singular palate. She is quick to detect and analyze flavor distinctions, and she combines ingredients into something new and unusual. Add to that a fierce devotion to the traditions of her native Tuscany and an inquiring mind that has led her all over Italy in search of unique products, and you begin to understand why a trek to Vitali's Zibibbo restaurant on the outskirts of Florence has become a gastronomic pilgrimage for many. And why her beautifully illustrated cookbook, Soffritto: Tradition & Innovation in Tuscan Cooking, a sort of philosophy of the kitchen told through recipes, is winning critical acclaim all around the world.
Sunny and bright, with big windows that open onto a leafy grove, Zibibbo has the comfortable feel of a neighborhood restaurant, as if it were not in the Tuscan capital but in some much smaller, provincial town. Since it opened three years ago, its bar has been a place where a group of locals can be found at any time of day gossiping over cappuccino and espresso. Situated just off Piazza Careggi at the northern edge of town, Zibibbo is not a glamorous restaurant at all, but rather a place where food is to be enjoyed at ease and with gusto.
And what food! This is contemporary Italian cooking at its best: innovative, "but not something that's just fallen out of the heavens," Vitali says with a laugh. Her cuisine is direct and honest--"frank" is the word she uses. Consider a typical Zibibbo antipasto, insalata di polpo, which combines meaty, tender chunks of octopus with yellow-fleshed potatoes. "The ones I used today are from Campania--not new potatoes but the last of the season, because their texture is better for salads," Vitali explains. The octopus salad is served on a bed of delicate, immature radicchio leaves, each barely bigger than my thumb. Dressed with a rich, deeply-flavored Tuscan olive oil and little else, it is a dish that lingers in my memory.