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a restaurant discovery
in florence's oltrarno

by Susan Van Allen

La Sostanza, Enoteca Pinchiorri, Il Cibreo�� � these restaurants are what every visitor who�s been to Florence rattles off to me along with, �You MUST eat there!� But I�ve dined at these jam-packed-hard-to-get-reservations-at culinary institutions on previous trips. I know they�re fantastic and so does every guidebook. It�s rare to hear of an undiscovered spot in this Renaissance city; and one that�s barely over a year old is even more unique. Which is why when I discovered Olio & Convivium, which just opened in December of 2002, I knew I�d hit on a real find.

The restaurant�s Oltrarno location was immediately attractive to me. Here on the less tourist infested side of the Arno river, I found real Florentine life: doorways reveal bronze and woodworking artisans at work, laundry hangs from window sills, students lean on Vespas chattering in Italian. Having spent the morning with the crowds of Germans, Japanese, and Americans at the Mercato Centrale and Piazza del Duomo, I was relieved to leave that behind me, cross the gracefully arched Ponte Santa Trinita, turn up the narrow slanted Via Santo Spirito, and join my friend for a relaxing lunch.

The atmosphere was immediately welcoming. Olio & Convivium is not only a restaurant, it�s also an upscale food emporium created by the Convivium Firenze, an organization dedicated to the rediscovery and preservation of the ancient traditions of Tuscan culinary arts. An entranceway table elegantly displays carefully chosen selections of proscuitto, salami, and sausages. The corridor leading to the dining room features cases of tempting cheeses, pasta sauces, and shelves of freshly baked breads, biscotti, olive oils and honey. Walls lined with bottles of red Tuscan wine set into dark polished woodwork warm the small tile floored dining room where we settled in as we eyed the antipasto counter. It was stocked with assorted carpaccios (beef, swordfish, pork) each marinating in olive oil and seasonal vegetables, porcini mushroom pudding, and a fresh fennel salad.

Our mouths watering from the gorgeous visuals, we sent an SOS to our waiter to help us make our lunch choices. He started us off with a sampling from the displays we had passed on our way in. The highlights were a pepper-studded Tuscan salami, creamy gorgonzola, and sharply aged pecorino cheese which we enjoyed with glasses of Chianti and rustic bread dipped in olive oil. An amazing fresh pasta course followed -- spinach and ricotta tortellini with tomato ragu and taglerini with prawns, zucchini and tomatoes.

The knowledgeable and cordial service was a bit on the slow side, but it gave us time between courses to wander back to the wine and olive oil tasting corner and check out the glass enclosed front kitchen which is set to open for cooking classes. Dining with the sophisticated local business clientele made us feel a genuine part of the Oltrarno scene, so we stretched our stay out to two hours.

We considered buying a glistening bottle of olive oil or honey on our way out, but opted not to, as we knew once we hit the streets we�d turn back into tourists again and didn�t want to lug around extra weight in our bags. I wished I could change places with the elegant signora who followed us out the door, carrying pane toscano. As she headed across the street into an apartment, I imagined her completely satisfied from a perfect traditional lunch, turning on the fan and taking a perfect traditional nap.
see also...
*Tuscany Region
*Tuscany Guide
*Rub Shoulders With the Rich & Famous
*Discovering Monte Argentario
*Villa San Michele
*A Restaurant Discovery
*Tuscan Women Cook
*Battle of the Bridge
*Michelangelo: Graffiti Artist
*City Girl Meets Tuscan Farm
*Leaving Lucca
*The horseshoe adventure in Pinocchio's Hometown
*How to flirt: Lucchese Style
*A Tuscan Feast
*Traveling to Italy Forum

Olio & Convivium
Vio Santo Spirito, 4
50124 Firenze
TEL: 055 26 58 198
FAX: 055 26 56 267
[email protected]

Hours: Monday-Saturday open at 9:30 for coffee, tastings, and purchases
Tues � Sat for lunch and dinner
Cooking demonstration classes begin in the restaurant in the fall of 2003
Closed Sunday
Pricing: Moderate (Entrees 10-19 euro)

About the Author
Susan Van Allen, a Los Angeles based writer, has written for the sit com �Everybody Loves Raymond� and about her travels in Italy for National Public Radio�s �Savvy Traveler,�, and other publications. Her grandmother immigrated from Molise, and her grandfather from Potenza. She travels to Italy often to visit relatives and enjoy all the country has to offer.


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