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Critic's Notebook

For Authentic Florentine Flavors

Zibibbo specializes in soulful dishes unfamiliar to tourists. But if Florence is too far away, a new cookbook dishes on the Tuscan treasures.

June 06, 2002|S. IRENE VIRBILA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

FLORENCE, Italy--Tuscany has become such a tourist destination it's hard to find restaurants anymore that serve anything other than the familiar roster of dishes the tourists already know. Cibreo in Florence, which Benedetta Vitali and Fabio Picchi opened in 1979 fresh out of college, is one of the very few exceptions.

Three years ago, Vitali left Cibreo to open her own place, and it's become my favorite place to eat in Florence. Named for the Sicilian grape, Zibibbo Trattoria is only about 15 minutes from the city center by taxi, but well worth the effort for its gloriously authentic Tuscan food.

Ask to be dropped off at Piazzetta di Careggi. From that little square, Zibibbo is only a few doors down Via di Terzollina. There's no sign (or at least not the last time I was there). Just look for a window displaying some of the best wines in Italy. That's it.

A small bar opens onto an airy dining room that's much more contemporary chic than rustic, but the food is soulful Tuscan fare cooked with finesse and passion.

The menu changes frequently, yet everything on it sounds interesting enough that I could eat here every night. Vitali, who speaks English well, will take your order and translate any of the dishes you don't know. Outstanding antipasti include insalata di gallina, a salad of shredded chicken with a few leaves of bitter green radicchio, julienned sweet peppers and a gorgeous, yellow, handmade mayonnaise. There's also an inspired octopus and plump white fagioli (beans) salad drenched in lemon.

Pastas are first-rate too--everything from tagliatelle in a rustic duck sauce and spaghettini with quickly sauteed veal kidney to spaghetti tossed with mussels, clams and tellini (a tiny, sweet shellfish).

Inziminio di calamari, which is squid and spinach, is a traditional Florentine dish that's hard to find anymore, and Vitali's is memorable. Another Florentine favorite is trippa alla Parmigiana, a gratin of tender tripe and Parmigiano Reggiano. And I crave her classic arista, pork roast stuffed with herbs. I'd love to stay long enough one time to eat my way through her entire menu.

But how often do any of us get to Florence? The good news is that Ten Speed Press (www.tenspeed.com) recently commissioned Vitali to write a cookbook. It's called "Soffritto: Tradition & Innovation in Tuscan Cooking" ($32.50), and is illustrated with photographs and the pastel landscapes that hang on Zibibbo's walls.

The recipes reflect the simplicity and integrity of the best Tuscan cooking. You'll find her versions of raw artichoke salad and pappa al pomodoro, Tuscan bread and tomato soup perfumed with basil. She tops fettunta (essentially Tuscan bruschetta) with cavolo nero (Tuscan black cabbage) and cardoons.

And yes, she does include her recipe for the inziminio di calamari I love and arista too, along with musings on technique, ingredients and serendipity in the kitchen.

Should you ever get to Florence, keep this address in your pocket.

Zibibbo Trattoria, Via di Terzollina 3/R, Florence; telephone: 011-39-55-433-383. About $30 a person, not including wine.

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