The woman next to me chats happily in Italian, seemingly unaware that I can’t really understand and waves her arms in extravagant exclamation. We’re packed on benches as close as only good friends should be and yet I’ve never met her before. It’s the week of Pitti Huomo (the twice a year men’s fashion and accessory event) and the black garbed cognoscenti are out, filling every restaurant and bar with the fragrance of Jo Malone and loud chatter, this is fashionable Florence and I’m eating in Alla Vecchia Bettola.
Whenever I’m in a foreign city I go well prepared, asking friends who’ve been before, which are the best restaurants, the hotels known only to a few and when the morning markets open. I pick up cards at every point, producing a diary of delicious places to eat and wonderful spots to stay.
I first visited Florence in the 80s on a business trip. There was so little time to actually see what this beautiful city was all about, no standing aghast at the beautiful bronze doors of the baptistry, or climbing four hundred and fourteen steps of the Campinile Tower to gaze in wonder at the sites of the city. But we trudged the streets in the evening, trying to get our fill of this fabulous place. Of course I stroked the nose of the bronze boar in the Mercato Nuova already shiny with the wishes of generations of tourists and locals. I gazed in awe at the statue of David, shadowy at dusk, but no less magnificent. Completely unaware it was a replica and that the original is in the Galleria Dell’ Academia.
But the site I thought the most wonderful was Ponte Vecchio. I crossed it every day from my hotel on the edges of the River Arno and stared in amazement at the terracotta, sand and cream coloured buildings with turquoise shutters and awnings, precariously stacked out over the river, defying both gravity and the ravages of time. It’s cobbled street, the home of Florentine jewellers, spread along either side of the medieval bridge. The buildings only giving way to a loggia at the centre to allow the Fiorentini to watch the Arno slide slowly by underneath.
It’s on the far side of the Ponte Vecchio that you find one of my favourite restaurants. Here the renaissance partially gives way to more modern structures and wider roads, the clog of traffic and modern life invade. But on a corner is a restaurant that is home to traditional Tuscan food. White tiled walls interspersed with ceramic scenes of Florence, long marble topped tables with stools and benches, where waiters and diners wave and gesticulate to each other in recognition, make this a genuine local Tuscan restaurant. This is where I was introduced to the house dish of Penne Alla Vecchia Bettola. A wonderful creamy tomato sauce rich with garlic, spiced with chilli and enlivened with vodka, served over perfectly cooked penne pasta, in simple bowls with plenty of fresh grated parmesan. This is a dish worth travelling across the Arno for or you could make it at home until you make The trip.
Penne Alla Vecchia Bettola
- 3 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 onion finely chopped
- 3 cloves of garlic crushed
- 1 red chilli chopped
- 2 400g tins of tomatoes
- 3 sprigs fresh thyme
- 3 sprigs fresh oregano or majoram
- 100ml vodka
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 100ml double cream
- 400g penne pasta
- 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
- grated parmesan to taste
- Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil over a medium heat and add the onion, fry until starting to soften and add the garlic and chopped chilli
- Cook until the onions are translucent and soft
- Add the tins of tomatoes and heat through, turn up the heat to a strong simmer
- Add the sugar and stir to dissolve
- Add the vodka, cook for 10 minutes to cook off the alcohol, stirring to stop it catching
- Add the thyme and oregano or majoram, reduce the heat to a slow simmer and continue cooking for 30 minutes
- Put the pasta into a pan with the salt and cook according to the manufacturers directions
- Drain and stir through 2 tablespoons olive oil, set aside to keep warm
- Add the cream, stir to combine and heat through
- Add the penne to the sauce, stir the two together and serve with parmesan cheese to taste
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