Talk of Tuscany: Osteria Tornabuoni

After elevating mozzarella to cult status with his Obikà cafés, Bulgari’s Silvio Ursini is taking on Tuscany with his new restaurant, Osteria Tornabuoni.

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Standing underneath a stuccoed arch-way in Florence’s 15th-century Palazzo Tornabuoni, Silvio Ursini calls his friends to the table. Dressed in a custom shirt and slim Loro Piana trousers, the Bulgari executive wants feedback on the dishes he’s planning to offer at Osteria Tornabuoni, his restaurant on the ground floor of the Palazzo, set to open in March. This afternoon, that means intensely artichokey custards with a fava bean sauce and skewers of sausage, chicken livers and crusty bread, grilled until deliciously charred.

Palazzo Tornabuoni

Fresh mozzarella. © Martin Morrell

Having traveled the world for Bulgari, Ursini has a global outlook and sensibility, but he’s deeply Italian in his passion for his country’s traditional foods. “I like to develop restaurants that are ingredient-based, not chef-based,” he says. In 2004, he opened an innovative mozzarella bar in Rome called Obikà—Neopolitan for “Here it is!” Obikà elevates mozzarella to cult status, treating it with the same reverence that the Japanese do raw fish: The cheese is on display in glass cases, as fish is in a sushi bar, and the most popular dish is a tasting platter of three mozzarellas. The café expanded to seven cities—one opened in New York City last year—and Ursini has plans for six more worldwide, including one in the Palazzo Tornabuoni complex.

Ursini’s new restaurant is equally ingredient-centric. “At Osteria, I decided to include only dishes from Tuscany, using only Tuscan ingredients,” he says in effortlessly fluent English. “This is not about being a locavore—although that is nice, too—but about creating something with a true soul.” To develop the menu, Ursini called on his friend Rolando Beramendi, who spent 25 years in the restaurant and food-importing business in New York City and San Francisco. “The beauty of focusing on one region is that it has forced us to discover some really fantastic things,” Ursini says. “Instead of including a dozen cheeses from all over Italy, we have a selection of six pecorinos from different parts of Tuscany.” For instance, slivers of aged pecorino from Pienza top a salad of thinly sliced fennel. Most of these ingredients, as well as many of the wines on Osteria’s exclusively Tuscan wine list, are available for purchase in the shop at the restaurant’s entrance.

Florence

Florence. © Martin Morrell

The Osteria will also serve as the in-house caterer to the 36 fractional-ownership apartments in the Palazzo (one of Florence’s most important buildings, which dominates the city’s main shopping street, Via Tornabuoni). Superstar Florentine designer Michele Bonan redid the interiors, including kitchens outfitted in sleek Boffi cabinets and crystal chandeliers. He also designed Osteria Tornabuoni with a mix of new pieces and antiques, like an iron bar from an old butcher shop in England, from which cured meats hang.

As the staff clears the plates, Ursini asks the guests for their thoughts on the meringata, two crispy meringue discs sandwiching frozen whipped cream studded with shards of chocolate, all topped with a warm chocolate-and-espresso sauce. Jacopo Mazzei, the chief executive of Palazzo Tornabuoni and a member of the prominent Mazzei wine family (one of the founders of the Chianti designation), gives his approval. Ursini sips one of Mazzei’s Chiantis, which will be on the wine list at Osteria, and nods in satisfaction: “What I have tried to do is go back to the reason we all love Tuscany—the food, and the ingredients. In the end, that is what people want, no?”

Elizabeth Helman Minchilli lives in Rome and is the author of seven books, including the forthcoming Casa Rustica.

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Published April 2009

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