The heart of Florence
“Oh my, it’s so good it makes me want to cry,” my sister exclaimed as she took her first bite of Il Teatro Del Sale’s soft cake with spelt, swiss chards and béchamel. With a response like that, you know you’ve found something special. Walking in the front door for the first time however, you may question if you’re in the right place. There are shelves lined with books, olive oils, spices, art work, and even a few articles of clothing. It looks more like a artisanal shop than a restaurant at first glance. Il Teatro Del Sale is a ‘members only club’ and membership gains you access to their one of a kind family style dinners and lunch throughout the week. It is home to more than 190,000 members and has good reason for it. For a nominal membership fee of just $7 and a $30 dinner charge*, you gain access to essentially unlimited food and a beautiful show to end the night. Did I mention you can fill up your wine glass as much as you please?
You continue walking to the main dining area and you find a small stage along with a large family style seating area. Look to the right and you’ll realize you’re exactly where you’re supposed to be; a large window peers into a beautiful open kitchen with smiling chefs preparing for the dinner that’s set to begin in 15 minutes, at 7:30 sharp.
Soon after getting settled and filling up your wine glasses to the brim, ten or so dishes are laid out on a buffet style table and the first round of food has is being picked up by their excited guests. Everyone is taking their time eating their food, savoring and truly tasting every bite. They know more food is to come. And soon. Shortly after, the head chef, a bearded, jolly man begins yelling, and I mean YELLING out specials from the menu, waiting for you to come to him and pick it up. Pappa al Pomodoro, fried anchovies; somehow these dishes look even more mouth watering than the first round. Twenty minutes go by and more dishes are called out by the happy man in the kitchen window. You’re not sure it’s ever going to end and that is perfectly ok. This restaurant is something you’ve never experienced before, as a foreigner or even as an Italian local, and it makes you want to go back as soon as you can, without even having left yet. For us Americans however, this task is not as simple as we would hope.
The menu, curated by Fabio Picchi, is focused on a zero kilometer kitchen, meaning 80% of their menu is derived from ingredients found in the region of Tuscany. Fabio Picchi is the executive chef and co-owner of Teatro Del Sale with Maria Cassi, his wife. They also own the three Cibrèo restaurants, all located on the same block in Sant’Ambrogio. He and Maria are the brain children behind all of this beautiful madness. The restaurant’s menu is authentic Tuscan cuisine, with recipes inspired by Fabio’s grandmother and the Picchi family. Even today, his mother still grows and provides the Cibrèo restaurants with her very own chili peppers. You can taste this authenticity in every bite. The freshness, the love that went into caring for the plants and creating the beautiful dish before you.
With every new dish called, a pan of salty focaccia is brought out, drizzled with the perfect amount of Fabio’s favorite olive oil. Olive oil is everything to Italians, as it should be. It drives the flavor home and can turn a simple dish into a transcendental experience. Giulio Picchi, Fabio’s son and manager of the Cibrèo restaurant describes the importance of olive oil, “Whenever my father travels, he brings Tuscan olive oil with him. For us, the Tuscan olive oil is the best. He shares the olive oil with people he encounters, and shares a piece of Tuscany with them. In that way, he always has a little bit of home with him.”
The imagery of home is strong in Il Teatro Del Sale. From the moment you walk in the front door, you are greeted with a breath of fresh air, a familiarity you’ve been longing for. You don’t recognize the feeling immediately but when you look around you realize what it is; you feel like you’ve stepped into someone’s home. Off the busy, loud streets of Florence, into peace and serenity.
After your stomach is full and your head spinning with delight, the kitchen begins to close down and waiters come in and move the tables out of the way and push the chairs forward, facing the stage. The show is set to begin. Who is it tonight? Is it a comedian, a band, or a playwright? There is way of knowing ahead of time but part of the fun for me, is the element of surprise. The concept of eating delicious food and then sitting down to relax and enjoy a show afterwards in the same place is such a beautiful concept to me. It is a feeling of pure satisfaction and one every restaurant should strive to invoke on their guests.
Il Teatro Del Sale isn’t a restaurant, not a theater, but a cultural association with a stage and a kitchen. It is something truly unique in the heart of Florence. It’s a place that leaves you feeling completely and utterly satisfied. Content with a full belly, a full heart, and a strong desire to return as soon as you can.
Soft cake with spelt, swiss chard, and béchamel.
Pappa al pomodoro
Spicy clam soup
Caserecce with eggplant pureé
*Prices are as of spring 2016
All photos courtesy of Il Teatro del Sale and Cameo Fucci