We're traveling again. This time we're in Florence, where we spend our mornings in Italian class and our afternoons exploring this amazing city.
In Florence there are hundreds of restaurants, pizzerias, osterias, tavernas, bars, cafes. It’s hard to choose; there are so many. We love to wander off the main piazzas, looking for that special little place where everyone likes to go. Where they know your name and they know how mamma made lunch.
Last November we stumbled on a place like that: Ristorante Zio Gigi. It’s a little place like many others, but something about the menu caught our eye. And when the door opened, we heard singing. Loud, boisterous, welcoming. We had to go in--we had no choice.
The meal we had there was so good that we promised ourselves that we’d go back this trip. And we did. Last week we went back for lunch and enjoyed it as much as we had the first time. So today we went back again, armed with camera and notepad. When we walked in, the waitress exclaimed “Bentornati!”, welcome back. I couldn’t believe she remembered us. She had probably seen several hundred people since we were there last. But she remembered us. One of the reasons we like this place is that we can use our Italian--they don’t automatically switch to English with us. If you want them to speak English, though, I’m sure they would oblige.
When you walk into Zio Gigi’s, you see a lot of small tables and one large table on the left with a reserved sign on it. We watched as people came in, sat at this table and were served pasta without ordering. They seemed to be regulars--they knew everyone and everyone knew them.
We sat at a table for two nearer the back, where we could get a good view of Gigi. He’s a large man in every way--large stomach, large heart, large voice. And he sings. A lot. It was hard to get a photo of him because he was always moving. And singing. Dan grabbed him and got him to pause for a minute. Did I mention that he sings?
We ordered from the fixed price menu, which changes every day. Today there were 7 options for primi piatti (first course, normally pasta), 7 for secondo (meat or fish), and 3 contorni or vegetables. I ordered risotto nero alle sepie, with squid ink and pieces of squid in it. Because I had been there before, I asked for a small portion. This IS a small portion, according to the chef...
Dan had ribollita, a traditional Tuscan ‘soup’ that’s more like a stew. It’s thickened with bread and full of lovely vegetables. Gigi serves it with a healthy helping of beans too.
For the main course we both had filetto di sogliola in guazzetto, or sole served with a mildly spicy sauce. It was delicious. Dan had his with more beans...
This is not the place for a quiet lunch, or a romantic one (though I suspect if they thought you wanted a little romance they’d probably produce a rose and a bottle of the good stuff).
Rather, this place is alive with voices: with conversations, with waitresses shouting orders, and above it all, Gigi, singing welcome to his customers when they come in, singing goodbye when they leave, singing arias in between.
As we sat there, enjoying the organized chaos around us, I was captivated by the smell of garlic and basil and spices from plates that whizzed by. Everyone was always running.
I asked the waitress if I could take some photos and she said, “Qui `e come casa tua--se tu fai le foto a casa, tu le puoi fare anche qui.” Here, you’re at home. If you take photos at home you can take them here too. So I did. The light wasn’t great but I did my best.
The first thing that appeared on our table was a large basket of bread. This was Tuscan bread, with no salt and a lovely crust. As we don’t eat bread, we asked her to take it away so that she could use it on another table. She told us that someone else would only bring more--it’s a rule here, she said: there’s always bread on the table.
And the price. Get ready for this. A two course meal costs 8 Euros--plus 1 Euro each coperto or cover charge (standard in Italian restaurants) and whatever you have to drink. We had lunch for 10 Euros each. In the heart of Florence, a block behind the Cathedral. Tax and tip included.
When it’s time to pay, you go to the counter and the waitress tells Gigi what you had. She remembers. He sings the amount to you. You pay him and leave with a heart full of music and a stomach full of the kind of food that mamma used to make.
If your mamma was Tuscan.
This is not a cheffy restaurant, nothing here will win a Michelin star. It’s the place where you go to have a lunch on a working day. It’s the place you can always count on finding a warm welcome and a home-cooked meal, served with humor and a little song. Did I mention that Gigi sings?
Ristorante Zio Gigi
Via F. Portinari, 7/R