A writer visits the city with her mother and father and falls for the food and art, just as her parents did 40 years before
Everyone at the restaurant could smell it: the rich, musty perfume of Tuber magnatum, the incomparable Italian white truffle. The scent trailed behind our waiter, who held aloft a bowl of tagliolini al tartufo as he shimmied between close-set tables and then finally plunked it down in front of my mother. "Grazie," she said politely in her Tennessee drawl. "I've enjoyed this dish since before she was born." The "she" was me. And the restaurant was Cammillo, a favorite haunt of my parents when they lived in Florence in the late Fifties, first as newlyweds, then as new parents. According to my folks, Cammillo hasn't changed a bit over the past 40 years. It's still a dark room that smells of rosemary, its honey-toned walls decorated with local artwork, including a watercolor done by my father. Since 1950, Cammillo has served quintessential Florentine cuisine: pasta with splendid regional wild mushrooms; ribollita, a thick soup of beans, bread and the dark-green cabbage called cavolo nero; and tender roast pork. Cammillo himself has passed on, but his son, a wolfish fellow in tight orange jeans, keeps the place going. My mother kissed him when we arrived and asked whether he remembered her.
"Near the end of my pregnancy, your father and I were having dinner here," she told me, "and I began to feel dizzy. Cammillo and his son pushed together two tables for me to lie down on."
My dad smiled. "Do you remember what you ate?" he asked her. "Because I do: tagliolini al tartufo."
My mother, a Southern belle named Elinor Turner, and my father, Edward Giobbi, an Italian-American painter, eloped in 1958, settled in Florence and promptly had me. A surprising number of the restaurants my folks re-member from those days are still in operation--menus intact--and most of them, including Cammillo, are still terrific. Like the city itself, these places provide a special continuity in their lives.
Last November, I went back to Florence with my parents, and they showed me the city as they knew it. They took me to the 18th-century house in the Piazzale Donatello where they lived in a ground-floor apartment with a grand piano. Outside in the garden were a fig tree, an apricot tree and a persimmon tree, which dropped its fruit at night with a splat, my father said. They decorated the apartment with appliqué linens made by nuns and with antiques they bought on the street. In the fragile postwar economy, Italian families tried to make ends meet by selling off furniture, some of it centuries old and flecked with wormholes; many of the pieces my parents picked up then fill their home in upstate New York today.
The apartment was a 15-minute walk from the Piazza del Duomo and just five minutes from the Hospital of the Blue Nuns, where I was born. "I was absolutely Madonna-ized be-cause I was an American having a baby in Italy," my mother said. "People would stop me on the street and say, 'Oh, how wonderful! Your baby is going to be an Italian.'"
My parents settled in Florence not only because of the beauty of the city but also because of their interest in art. Their days and evenings were spent in passionate conversation with other artists. My father made hundreds of sketches of the Florentines: prostitutes, mitt-handed stonemasons, even patrons at restaurants. He loved to draw one old fellow, who was very short, and his wife, who was very large; the couple never spoke to each other during dinner.
My parents often combined their meals with a visit to a nearby church or museum. Cammillo, for example, is a five-minute walk across the Ponte Vecchio from the Uffizi Gallery. In the first room of the museum hang large paintings by Cimabue, Duccio and Giotto. "You can see the progression of art from the Byzantine through the Gothic and into the Renaissance," my father said. "It's bewildering and breathtaking."
It's easy, and some would say essential, to visit the Uffizi again and again. But my parents didn't eat at Cammillo each time--one likes a little variety with lunch--so they would often go to another trattoria in the neighborhood, Mamma Gina. There is an intimate booth my folks prefer that, with its high wooden walls, resembles a box pew. "We made a hundred plans for the future in this booth," my mother said. It's dark and cozy and allows you to concentrate on the plate at hand, like Mamma Gina's grilled sausages, which snap when you cut into them and come with sweet cannellini beans tossed in olive oil, or a dish of soft, steaming polenta covered with a sauce of porcini gathered that morning.
Periodically, relatives from the United States would come to Florence, and the newlyweds--thoroughly Italianized in their tweeds and handmade shoes--would show them around. They would, if begged, descend upon Harry's Bar, even then a glitzy tourist scene. More often they'd hit Caffè Concerto Paszkowski in the Piazza della Repubblica to drink Cynar, an artichoke-based aperitif. A grand old place with uniformed waiters, Concerto Paszkowski is a famous perch from which everyone in Florence watches everyone else: schoolchildren in their matching smocks, priests grabbing a quick smoke, shopping bag-laden grandmothers in perpetual states of mourning for someone or other, gangs of linen-suited blades on the prowl.
Since the out-of-towners always insisted upon taking their guides to dinner, my folks would direct the party to Sabatini, a Tuscan steak house. Once the most elegant establishment in the city, it's still a fine restaurant where the service is more formal and the crowd less rowdy than in the trattorias.
Generally, though, my folks preferred to revisit more everyday culinary destinations. We searched for a humble bakery my mother used to frequent when she went to the food market in the Piazza del Mercato Centrale. She remembered a particularly lemony rice custard tart, and while we found numerous cafés that sold them, as well as the indecently delicious little cream-filled doughnuts known as bomboloncini, we never managed to locate my mother's bakery.
On this trip, my parents were especially intent on visiting Santa Maria del Carmine, the church that houses the most famous of Masaccio's frescoes. Four decades ago they were obscured by dirt, but today they are vividly restored. In fact, when my parents took me there, they both got kind of quiet and teary. For the first time, they could see that the naked figures in the baptism panel are shivering.
Afterward, we crossed the piazza and sat under wobbly umbrellas outside the Trattoria del Carmine. "I always order the specials, "my mother said. Indeed, the menu of strictly regional, seasonal dishes is written in painstaking longhand every day, evidence of the kitchen's reliance on fresh market produce. That morning, the restaurant had acquired sweet, aromatic mushrooms called ovoli, which have red caps and feathery yellow interiors. In one dish, they were lightly sautéed and spooned over yielding, buttery tagliatelle. In another, they were placed in a salad with shaved Parmesan. For our main courses, we ate bistecca alla fiorentina, a juicy grilled T-bone steak served al sangue (rare), garnished with lemon wedges and accompanied by fagioli al fiasco, intensely flavorful beans cooked in a Chianti bottle for hours in wood-fire ash. In a celebratory mood, we drank a Chianti Classico. The Masaccios--or the memories--had made my mother and father giddy.
Traveling with one's parents is about as maddening as an experience can be: he walks too fast, she walks too slowly; he likes the sunny side of the street, she prefers the shade. But in this case, it was also an inspiration. Through their eyes, I saw what expat life in Florence in the late Fifties was like: artists, aristocrats and working-class people all bumping up against one another on narrow sidewalks and under graceful porticoes. But I also caught a glimpse of my folks when they were young, groovy and in the first rush of love. For me, that was the most delicious thing in Florence.
Eugenia Bone wrote about New York City's Café Habana in our September issue.