Solo in Florence (Part Two) – Where dining is Cuco
(Solo in Florence, Part One and this Part Two continues my series of adventures in Florence, on my own.)
It was just after eight o’clock when I ventured out from the Hotel Alloro, the crescent moon rising above the rooftops and the earliest of the night crowd just emerging onto the streets. Christian’s dinner recommendation and walking instructions only secondary to my main concern, I’m hungry, and it’s Halloween.
Recommending restaurants can be a tricky business. Every one’s taste is so subjective, expectations difficult to gauge — especially if you don’t know the person well. Indeed, the art of the concierge, quickly sizing up the patron, their style, their social situation, their tastes and matching that to the extensive offerings the size of the city itself is critical. The success of your choice magnified in the hospitable intimacy of a bed and breakfast. If all goes well reputations soar, pick poorly and suffer the nasty critique. It becomes a matter of trust, and as a woman traveling alone, it is not only about the meal, but comfort, safety and security. So off I went to cuco cucina contemporanea, a short distance from the hotel a quick right, then left and there you are.
Apparently my left wasn’t quick enough as I skirted the sidewalk cafes that take over the narrow sidewalk missing the street entrance completely and getting myself all turned around. Street signs are few and far between, or obscured in ancient building facades. Unphased, I just popped into a nice looking hotel lobby and asked for help, my directions righted and in minutes I was standing at the all glass exterior of a very modern, abet tiny establishment, the bright green and white interior awash with Halloween decorations, candles, cobwebs. The outside sandwich-board sign welcoming guests in English. The place was empty of diners. I am I too early for dinner?
Reassured that dinner was being served I chose a seat with my back to the wall and good view of the kitchen and street outside. My waiter, Ricardo has excellent English and the daily menu is written in both English and Italian in a spiral notebook. The place mats in hot pink boldly announce that this is the place where “eating is sexy.” What does that mean?
The table next to me is soon filled with a man in tuxedo tails, long wig and hat, his companion, a witch. Clearly friends of the restaurant, lively chatter, smiles, laughter and photos. I’ve come to a party! Friendly, jocular, throughout the evening we chat between us, he, an American ex-pat symphony cellist and she, his beautiful Italian wife. At eleven o’clock is the showing of Rocky Horror Picture Show, downtown and screened on a building in the piazza for the crowd.
But for now, it is time to eat. To start, I am served a warm sformato made with roasted eggplant and rich, fresh ricotta and parmesan reggiano with a sprinkle of sesame seeds and drizzle of olive oil. My notebook is now out in plain sight and I am asking Ricardo all sorts of questions. What is in this? How is this made? He is so patient and this type of conversation could not be had in a bigger, busier eatery. Even as other guests fill up the place, he takes time in between to chat with me about the food.
My Antipasti choice, is what sparked my love affair with this little place. Smoked cheese and pear kabobs. Sounds simple really, bamboo skewer, pear cubes, some cheese. But oh, oh my. Not any cheese, but Scamorza, smoked mozzarella, firm but juicy pear chunks, warmed just enough to soften the cheese and bring the sugars, slightly caramelized to the fruit’s surface. Placed on a bed of baby greens, drizzled with a balsamic reduction and bright, grassy olive oil. A sprinkling of fresh oregano and dusting of black pepper. I have tried to recreate this at home, and have come close, but not quite.
|Scamoraza and Pear Kabob at cuco cucina contemporanea, Florence, Italy
Being Halloween, I had to try the Primo Scary Soup of the day. A rich, creamy pumpkin soup with a hint of ginger. Crusty croutons buoyantly floating on top. A sip of Chardonnay du Tuscana, then dipping my bread in the thick creaminess of tasty soup — not so scary after all. My Secundo was smoked salmon carpaccio. Tender, moist with gentle smoked flavor and not overly salty on a bed of greens and a bit more wine which had a bright fruit forward crispness and less oaken than some of Californian Chardonnays. The combination paired nicely alternating the warmth of the salmon and the crisp fruitiness of the wine. A seemingly light meal, fruit, cheese, soup and some fish and I was amply satisfied (read full!) and so taken I came back two nights later for more!
|A second visit to cuco cucina contemporanea
Greeted like a friend and warmly welcomed back I asked for more pear and cheese kabobs (loved them that much!) When I saw that chef Stefano was offering wild boar stew on today’s menu, it was an easy choice. I have been trying to get the flavor and texture right myself after my darling nephew scored and shared this gamy meat earlier in the fall. I tried Anne Burrell’s recipe, and thought it was ok, I tried a version in Pistoia and that was ok. This was spectacular in comparison. The juniper berries and hint of clove and pepper layering spice on the deep red wine driven stew. The boar itself, large chunks, but so fork tender it fell apart nicely for each bite. Heaven with the Castello di Meleto Chianti Classico. I was also offered a taste of the vegetable baklava, a combination of carrots, eggplant, zucchini with flaky layers of phyllo dough, buttery, browned and slightly crisp. A beautiful meal, too much food to include dessert, so Ricardo poured a small glass of dessert wine, a late harvest Sauvignon Blanc and Gewurztraminer blend from Tarapaca, Chile. Perfect, not cloyingly sweet as some dessert wines, very fruity and with buttery yet crisp pear like finish.
As I sipped, I learned that cuco is not officially a restaurant, more a deli and catering establishment with the assorted gourmet goods, wines and prepared foods for sale. Apparently the rules and quotas to become an official restaurant in Florence is quite rigorous and restricted. But you could have fooled me, this sweet little place reminded me of the best of the California-style boutique bistros/cucinas. Amazing how well this team works their magic in the tiny kitchen, the chef with the twinkle in his eye, and Ricardo acting as gracious host.
Christian made the right call, the just right recommendation for this American lady of a certain age, dining on her own in Florence.
|And for dessert …
Cuco Cucina Contemporanea
Via del Melarancio, 4, 50123 Florence, Italy