1

Finding love in Florence

Visiting Italy was never high on my must-travel list. I wanted the fiestas of Spain, the French Michelin stars and the watercolour sunsets of Greek islands much more than Italian sprawl and plain pastas.

That was, of course, until I actually went to Italy. Converted to the disorder, the charm, the food (oh, the food) and the beauty, I’ve been back every year since my long weekend in Verona. Ticking off cities with a cappuccino in one hand and a camera slung round my neck, Venice, Lake Garda, Amalfi and Positano have all dazzled me.

Then, to Florence.

florence view

Initially, I couldn’t warm to Florence. Our AirBnb was a moment away from the Duomo- a seemingly great decision when making the booking that later left bells ringing almost literally in our heads every morning from 7am as the Camanile- belltower- became intimately acquainted with our sleepyfaces. The town was heaving with heavily perspiring tour groups, marching en masse down side streets and main squares, forming human blockades of obnoxiousness everywhere they went. The transport staff were mean, hardened no doubt, by an onslaught of idiot tourists like us. Ripped off by a shoddy tourist trap gelatoria, dismayed by endless queues, unable to escape the bustle of frantic selfie sticks. Perhaps the Italian charm was wearing off.

But then, to the rescue, Jonathan. Armed with his TripAdvisor app and a serious nose for finding the quiet spots, our weekend of plodding round packed galleries with screaming schooltrips turned into something quite beautiful.

florence girl

We dug out the recommendations from friends and hunted down trattorias and pizzerias galore. We made a booking for the best chicken I have ever eaten. We escaped the crowds to the ‘other side of Florence’- Oltrano. We wiled away hours in gardens reading, chatting, eating.

One of the best things we did- ever- was find a little private tours company out in Tuscany- the 500 Touring Club. Once we navigated the bus system out to rural Firenze, we met our date for the day: Topsy.

topsy fiat 500 florence

After a quick driving lesson (Jonathan, not me) and a slick of lippy (me, not Jonathan), we were pootling around the Tuscan hills to our little heart’s content.

We found Florence at a slower pace, by peering round corners and succumbing to revisiting places- a travel sin according to Past Farrah. I went the long way round to falling love with Florence, but I chilled out when I realised that enjoying a city means finding the rhythm that feeds the city, that gives it life-not charging round at full speed with a checklist to dispassionately work through and spending more time being angry with crowds than giggling with your boyfriend.

florence atmostphere

Instead, spending afternoons lounging in our flat, carefully choosing our picnic supplies in supermarkets and revisiting our favourite spots time and time again made this trip special. You soak in beauty, not rush past it.

farrah kelly

0

Dine ‘em, date ‘em

The way to my heart is most definitely through my stomach. As the Spice Girls once said- if you wanna be my lover, you better get with my insatiable need to go to more restaurants. So, in what I can only fairly describe as the least subtle hint I have ever dropped to my fella, I’ve whipped up a little guide of places that are perfect food-focused dates.

Morning date

Step one of this date is to get brunchy boozed up. One of my all time favourite restaurants in London is Kurobuta Marble Arch- specifically for their incredible weekend brunch. With live acoustic singers doling out ‘No Diggity’ and Kiwi waiters making sure your glass is never less than half empty, it’s cool, chilled out, and the food will impress your discerning date (a.k.a. me)

DSC01752

All you can eat sushi, Kurabuta

Though I’m not entirely sure what makes this a ‘brunch’- no eggs or avo in sight- you will LOVE the all you can eat sushi, DIY ramen and robata grill dishes. Stock up and drink up for your allotted table time, then sprawl out and walk the ten-fifteen minutes down to Hyde Park for long walks by the lake and maybe an unbearably coupley Instagram or two.

 Midweek date

So what if it’s a Tuesday night- there’s no excuse for shoddy dating. Fortunately for you, there is no end to the number of restaurants hustling to get diners in for the quiet nights. That means more bang for your buck and more money for cocktails.

Screen Shot 2016-05-12 at 13.07.56

Tuesday night champagne, Theo Randall at the Intercontinental

I like to take advantage of this for the upmarket spots. Places like Les 110 de Taillevent, Theo Randall at the Intercontinental, Alain Ducasse and Beneres all pop up on the Star Deals section of Book a Table, with best availability early weekdays. Use these cheeky deals to experience the fine dining, Michelin starred side of things on a budget- and make it one of your more interesting Tuesdays.

DSC01367

Theo Randall at the Intercontinental

Out of town date

Nothing quite beats day trips as a romantic way to spend your afternoon. Hop on a train and head to a trusty country pub for a bottle,roast dinner, cheese board, and boardgames.

Some of my favourite places to do this are the Chesil Rectory and Black Boy in Winchester, almost any place in the South Downs but particularly Lewes, and possibly my favourite gastropub of all time, The Pointer, Brill.

DSC00821 (1)

The Pointer, Brill

DSC00355

Richmond Country Pub

Lunch date

I contend that the best way to spend a lunch date is in a market. Stop for lunch at one then shmooze yourselves samples and pick up trinkets, get dessert in another place, drinks in another. My personal favourite is Brixton Market, but Maltby St, Borough, Brick Lane and Spitalfields are all wonderful.

DSC01029

Champagne et Fromage, Brixton Market

Screen Shot 2016-05-12 at 13.08.33

St Johns Bakery, Maltby St Market

Local date

There’s a lot to be said for the kind of date night you can walk home from. No taxi fare, planning or long tube journeys required.

One of the many great saving graces London has is that almost every suburby bit has a street on it with a smattering of good, dependable restaurants and a decent pub or bar. I’m a stone’s throw from a great Goan place and a smashing little Turkish place, with a ‘hip’ cocktail bar and a scatter of pubs with great gins on. Slick some lippy on and make a night of it.

Screen Shot 2016-05-12 at 13.10.19

The Toy Shop

Classic date night

The stomach may be the way to my heat, but the way to my good books is dinner and drinks on a Saturday night.

Pick out a cool restaurant in town- I recently have loved Blanchette, Boro Bistro, Tom’s Kitchen St Katherine Docks, Hoppers. Round it off with a great cocktail or wine bar- big hitters for me being WC Clapham, Cahoots, 68 and Boston, and anywhere on a rooftop.

Egg Hopper London

Hoppers, Soho

DSC02317

Frogs legs, Blanchette, Soho

1-00554

68 and Boston, Soho

-

Pick me up at six!

1

Eating Florence

You don’t go to Italy for a salad. I certainly can vouch for that- this is a country where diets come to die.

Rich, deep meat dishes; cheesey, meltingly decadent pastas; crisp, bite-me pizzas. Italy is the land of sexy food and exciting dining, and I am here to take in the throes of Florence’s food, a willing servant.

THAT buttered chicken.

Down a side street- as so often the best restaurants are- you will find a bustling trattoria filled with wise Italians and lipsmacking tourists. As you queue, waiting for your seating session, waiters will shimmy past you with freshly slit Tuscan hams and cheeses, American tourists will call out asking to book a table for the same time next year, and your anxiety about being tantalising late for the last portion of the infamous butter chicken will reach dizzying heights.

Then, breathe, you are seated on a shared table with two bickering elderly Italian men, who spend the entire unaware of the delighted glances you keep shooting them. Order the butter chicken.

chicken

Enjoy the table entertainment of other diners arguing with each other over the final bites of shared food, sip in the Tuscan carafe, wave to the chefs through the open partition to the kitchen.

When it arrives, sizzling in the pan, doused liberally in butter, cut a portion off- crisp, crunch of the skin- and take a moment to be grateful for all the life decisions you have ever made leading you to this moment. Bite, make eye contact with your companion, smile. Devour the entire thing in about 6 seconds.

Gusto, gusto!

There’s no real knack for finding the best pizza in an Italian town. Follow your nose down various ambling alleys and sidestreets until you find a place with a queue.

We waited patiently outside Gusta Pizza, alongside half of Firenze. A moment away from Santo Spirito, the Shoreditch of Florence, we were in a queue that acted as a cross section of Florence on a warm, April day: Lonely Planet clutching Americans, hungover students, beautiful Italian girls calling to their friends on the passing Vespas, a gaggle of schooltrippers; and us- a couple hunting for romantic moments via pizza.

gusta pizza

Once we snaked round the door ordered in terrible Italian (they responded in English), we were handed a slip of paper. Jonathan slipped off to the shop round the corner for a beer to go. I stood and watched pizzas kneaded, flung into ovens and scooped out for a few minutes clutching my slip until- hurrah!- my number was up.

Gleefully prepared with pizza box and drink in hand, we squatted down on the steps of the Basilica di Santo Spirito and fished out a pizza slice each. Mine, a Calabrese (spicy salami, mozzarella, tomatoes), Jonathan’s a Gustsapizza (rocket, parmesan, mozzerlla), both topped with a beautiful tomato base and finished with perfectly crisp crusts. Hoovering up any melted cheese and joyously feeding each other mouthfuls, we surveyed the Santo Spirito square livening up for the evening and checked off ‘Romantic Pizza’ off our to do list.

pizza

A Florence foodie’s worst kept secret.

Mercato Centrale is an edible treasure wonderland. While the system isn’t particularly clear- not least to two hangry tourists- I can quickly forgive any misgivings. Split over two floors, the Mercato brings together producers and kitchens into one beautiful hall. Light refracts into colourful soft sheets covering the dining tables, with ample people-watching spots going.

We toured once, then doubled back to our selections. Aranci was excellently executed (and novel to Jonathan; ‘deep fried pasta- this is a fucking genius idea‘), wine was sharp and clean, sandwiches so wonderful they felt decadent, cannolo sweet and messy.

Mercato wine

Pasta la vista…

In a stroke of genius, Italy invented the four course meal (don’t fact check that).

As someone with intense food envy problems, primi and secondi are an answer to all my restaurant prayers: antipasti to warm things up, primi to satisfy cravings, secondi to seem a touch more elegant and dolci to get the sweet spot.

The best course- I think everyone agrees- is primi a.k.a. your chance to also eat pasta tonight. God bless Italians for finding a way to elbow in a good old bowl of the good stuff into even the finest of dining experiences.

I can recommend the Osteria Antica Mescita San Niccolò for their excellent value, bustling vibe and sweet waitresses, but truly, this is a glory Florence-wide.

pasta

Fresh, al dente, surrounded by warming and deep meaty sauces- and, naturally, topped in a mountain of parmesan cheese. Now, if I can come up with a way of incorporating this into a daily routine…

Diets a long forgotten misery, settle into a scoop of gelato and wander off into the playful Florence streets, looking for your next meal.

0

Borough Market Restaurants for Sharing Plates

Once upon a time, Borough Market was unknown. Unless you were looking for food wholesale, there were much cooler places to be. Traders would arrive long before dawn for the day’s work, and the local pubs would open from 4am to serve the first pints of day to those clocking off from a hard slog. As the name ‘Borough’ became a destination for the savvy foodie, traders turning over small fortunes would clamber to rooftops for end of the day drinks together, breaking bread and putting the world to rights.

Admittedly a romanticised version of events, this image of a community of once under-appreciated food lovers turned much-hyped tourist attraction, makes for one of my favourite places in London. The spirit of Borough Market- sharing successes over good wine and food- feeds my love of two restaurants there in particular- Arabica Bar and Kitchen and Boro Bistro. To me, these small-plate-style spots hark back to the days of clearing down stalls after the day’s trade to join your competition over a bite to eat.

Arabica Bar and Kitchen

Arabica is home to a worldly menu inspired by much loved delicacies (falafel, hoummus, pide) and  ’”Levantine with London swagger’ new delights (Fosse Meadow chicken in Lebanese seven spice, Roasted pumpkin freeke).

a7

Pour out a good Turkish red, choose from a list of mezze divided by cooking method (Clay Oven, Josper Grill, so on). Snack on ras el hanout popcorn while you wait.

a6

Chatter with friends as you dip, scoop, nibble and tear your way through a mix of authentic, carefully spiced mezze.

a5

Life-changing onion rings. Bit, beefy onions surrounded in tarator (basically cream cheese), deep fried. So bad, but so, SO unbelievably excellent.

a4

Let the hours slip by as you pass around plates, clink glasses and revel in the convivial spirit and happy din of this small restaurant with a lot of soul under the railway arches.

Boro Bistro

Ever French, the menu is divided into lovers. Meat lovers, Veg lovers, Seafood lovers, Charcuterie lovers. I am all of those lovers, so I order everything.

5

Smearing terrine and potted meat onto toast (and a little over my face, an inevitability), slicing beef onglet to share, picking out red wine with the joyful waiters. It’s an authentic little bistro- designed with both candle lit dates and hungry group reunions in mind.

4

2

Each mouthful a delight, each plate carefully distributed between everyone for a fair share. Order more wine, endeavour to reach the dishes placed at the other end of the table, and catch up on holiday plans, work dramas and existential questions between bites.

1

Through to dessert, where the small plate philosophy sensibly ends (catch me sharing my creme brûlée), and makes way for a few more glasses of heady French wine before heading back out into the night, home.