I’ve never eaten so much bread in my life. Focaccia, pita, and breadsticks (many of them house made) were served at each restaurant we visited, along with a side of local extra virgin olive oil and aged balsamic vinegar. Some restaurants added their own touches: for example, at Irene Firenze we were also offered a plate of fresh grape tomatoes from Sicily before every meal, and a cup of roasted pecans afterwards. At other restaurants, dinner was followed by a complimentary shot of limoncello and a conversation with the owner.
Even though we sampled Italian standards like lasagna, veal milanese, and calamari, our visit was also full of intriguing new dishes and fresh takes on classic recipes (more on that next week!). There was also an unexpected cultural twist: it seemed to take forever to get the check.
The first time we noticed this was during our first lunch after landing in Florence. We ate at Quisitapas, a great tapas bar in the Westin Excelsior with classic Spanish tapas on one side of the menu, and a selection of Italian-influenced tapas on the other. We both ordered the salmon tapas. The flavor combination and the presentation were amazing; the salmon was served on a bed of sauteed spinach, and topped with baked tomato skins and a crispy sage leaf. And of course there was bread, olive oil, and balsamic vinegar on the side!
There were only a few diners seated outside. It was not only a delicious lunch, but also a much-needed break from fourteen hours of travel. I had a chance to take a breath and let my brain catch up with all the impressions of being in a beautiful new city.
After our meal, we were more than ready to go back to the room and take a quick nap. There was only one problem.
We needed the check. Where was the waiter?
Five minutes became ten, then twenty.
Chris eventually caught his attention, and asked for the bill. Over the next few days, this happened at several restaurants- places with delicious, creative food, beautiful atmosphere, and excellent service. By then it became clear that this was not simply the result of a quirky wait staff at the first restaurant, but a pattern. Most of the time, we didn’t mind - after all, we were there for two weeks, what’s the rush? So for three days, it remained more a matter of curiosity than anything else.
The realization finally dawned on us at breakfast a few days later.
We were seated outside, enjoying our morning cappuccino and brunch at the espresso bar Ditta Artigianale. Two women sat with empty plates at the table to my left, talking for about a half hour. The waitress did not approach them. Other couples sat together, chatting amiably in Italian or French, their plates long gone. Looking around, it almost seemed as if there were more customers finished with their meals than there were eating their meals.
And that’s when we realized: our meal together was being treated as a sacred time, a break from the stress of life, work, and sometimes even vacation. They expected we would use this time to enjoy one another’s company, to talk, relax, and be free from the pressures of the day. The purpose of our time there was not merely to fill ourselves, but to fellowship. What we may have first mistaken for absent-mindedness was actually their hesitance to intrude.
Even back home, our lives are often so busy, with so many demands, that unfortunately we tend to first cut down on important but seemingly less urgent things like sleep, interactions with loved ones, or leisure activities. But you have to eat, no matter how busy you are. Why not use that time to take a pause from a hectic schedule and enjoy one another’s company? Humans are built for community. All of us have that drive, to some extent. And the Florentines recognize that eating together meets that need.
So what did we do when we wanted to leave a restaurant quickly? As soon as our dessert was delivered, I would just say, “Grazie, siamo pronti per il conto.” Thank you, we’re ready for the check.
Tomorrow, I'm going to share a little about our favorite Florentine restaurant, and the owner Fabrizio. It’s one we loved so much that we ate there three times… and it also has the most unusual name.