This article was also published in the Financial Times.
Alessandro Grassi, a proud Florentine, was standing outside Zeb, close to the river Arno, with his hand hovering impatiently on its front door as we arrived. 'Giuseppina and her son Alberto [pictured] are cooking the best kind of Italian food - fresh, simple and great value', he explained. 'In fact, I eat here so often I think she believes I'm her second son.'
These words were music to my ears. I had travelled to Florence despite a slipped disc because it is my favourite city, and while the flight had not been too painful, the last 100 metres in the taxi bouncing over cobbled streets had certainly set my spine tingling.
The ostensible purpose of my visit was to be one of the first non-Italians to visit 'taste', which I can now report is the most stylish food exhibition I've ever attended.
Located in Stazione Leopolda, Italy's second oldest railway station but now an exhibition hall, and designed by Pitti Immagine, who have masterminded Italian fashion shows for 60 years, 'taste' brings together 250 artisanal cheese, salami, chocolate and olive-oil producers, as well as winemakers and a growing number of micro-breweries, every March. Day passes are 12 euros and this annual event should be on the radar of any professional or amateur chef.
Above all, it highlighted the Tuscan genius for producing so many different foodstuffs that so immediately excite and delight all the senses. This is an approach that the Navaris at Zeb (which stands for zuppa e bollito
, soup and boiled meats) have adopted with the same success, albeit on a much smaller scale.
Until three years ago, Zeb housed the Navari family grocery store but Alberto decided it was time for a radical change. The low, arched room has been painted white; one wall is still devoted to wine, haunches of ham, jams, honey and biscuits; and a U-shaped counter now dominates the centre. One side of this houses the colourful dishes that have been prepared earlier while the other is home to a dozen comfortable stools with a few more seats in the window.
Alberto and Giuseppina patrol the galley in between, a position that not only allows them to monitor every detail of their customers' meals but also establishes immediate eye contact. With no written menu, their passion as they describe their dishes becomes immediately obvious.
Alberto began by rattling through a range of pasta dishes but as he did so his voice seemed to change tone as he described the last one, ravioli filled with ricotta cheese and a sauce of duck meat and orange. Three hands shot up in unison and Alberto went off to pass the order to the kitchen in the arches beyond and to fetch a bottle of fresh but fully mature local Fortuna Pinot Noir 2006 from the opposite shelf.
There was just a hint of a smile on his face as he returned with three gleaming plates of food but it was as nothing compared with the expressions of satisfaction on ours only a few minutes later. This was pasta at its best, the sharpness of the ricotta a foil for the rich duck meat, the flavours of both enhanced by the subtle orange sauce, made, Alberto revealed with pride, from a combination of the juice and zest of the blood orange. This lunch for three was 60 euros.
I would have liked to have stayed for dessert but my eye had been caught on the way in by Il Gelataria di Filo, a tiny ice-cream shop directly opposite, whose sole customer when we walked in was an extremely elderly man. The ice creams here, such as my tarte Tatin one, are good enough to remind anyone of the time when they were much, much younger.
While Zeb enjoys this renaissance under a second identity, Ora d'Aria, further along the river and within a five-minute walk of the Ponte Vecchio, is finally flourishing thanks to its second, and far more propitious, location.
Ora d'Aria, a euphemism for the hour prisoners are released from their cells, has for the past five years been a collaboration between textile entrepreneur
Luca Bendali from nearby Prato and chef Mario Stabili (right).
But while the combination of an investment from this less glamorous, but highly prosperous, town has served Florence so well over the centuries, on this occasion the partners made a simple strategic error when they first opened: they chose a location in the wrong street.
'We opened in the Via Ghiballeni, too close to the long-established Enoteca Pinchiorri', Bendali explained, the memory of significant losses momentarily wiping any enthusiasm for food and wine from his face. 'But then this building was finally renovated after the devastating bomb went off just across the road almost 20 years ago. We moved here last September and since the day we reopened business has been great', he concluded with a very broad smile.
It is easy to see why. A large window makes the narrow street an excellent vantage point into the kitchen; the bright dining room on the ground floor allows Florentines to see and to be seen; and the tables in the basement evoke a sense of history and another good view, this time into the restaurant's wine cellar.
And Stabile provides modern, light variations of classic Tuscan food. His steak tartare, made from top-quality Piemontese beef, was not minced or diluted with anything too overpowering but, having been marinated in one of Italy's increasingly popular artisan beers, was finely chopped and served with diced pear. Buratta, the ultra-creamy cheese from Puglia, was adapted into a creamy, tepid broth which revealed small packages of cabbage and diced shrimp as well as slices of confited tomatoes. And best of all was a risotto into which the meat from osso bucco, the gelatinous knuckle of veal, had been deliciously enveloped.
If Bendali can ensure that Stabile does not stray too far from the principles of Tuscan cooking, then the money of Prato will once again have underpinned Florentine artistry.