With ten years of working in menswear under my belt, you’d think I would now be bored, jaded and sick of the bi-annual trip to Florence for the international fashion circus that is Pitti Uomo; when in fact it remains probably my fondest work excursion of the year—no doubt driven by the new friends I make every time, and the myriad of food establishments I have the pleasure of eating at.
Tucked away behind Via Tornabuoni is Coco Lezzone, and it’s lunchtime. I was the first to arrive, which was surprising really, having almost completely walked past the narrow double doors; their semi-sheer curtains blocking enough of the interior that you can’t peer inside, forcing you to enter and be hit by the waft of smells from within. I was greeted by a few women seated near the door. Buongiorno! I say cheerfully, Salve, they reply. I’ll never get that one right. The interior made me feel like I’d walked into the Tuscan version of Manze’s pie and mash shop with its tiled walls, gingham tablecloths, ancient wooden seats and the photos decorating the walls that scream, “Hey you, yes you! You’re in good hands.”
I spy the UK's new King, and I wonder what he ate. Long communal tables fill the room, further enforcing the atmosphere that you’re about to have a family meal. We’re elbow to elbow with the gang next to us, a couple tucking into a plate of fat white beans soaked in enough oil to pique any American president's interest.
Menus are placed in front of us. Coco Lezzone, I’m told by Ettore, means, “The Stinky One” in old Florentine slang. Stinky, however, is good: the best foods are stinky, if you ask me. The menus are removed from in front of us, and Nonno announces his arrival by declaring “I am the menu”. He reels off what they have today, at a blistering pace. Thankfully, my Italian vocabulary can handle food. We order one of my favourite things—a selection of starters—and one of my other favourite things—a flask of wine—served Tuscan style in a straw-covered bottle.
Orders are barked into a tiny hole into a window—no pen and paper, no 'yes chef', no mistakes. We talk at length at the importance of keeping your memory sharp as we age; fighting the internet algorithms designed to rid us of our attention span. A few Tuscan liver crostini arrive, and I throw them down like event canapés after I’m five glasses deep. Artichokes are in season, served with a squeeze of lemon and a douse of liquid gold—they go down a treat.
Okay, now for some Secondi. I order a veal chop - pounded, breaded, fried and given a lick of tomato sauce. It’s wonderful, of course it’s wonderful. In classic Mike fashion, I get a bite of everyone else’s meal - Ettore’s pork chop must have been five centimetres thick and stuffed with garlic and sage, so he had plenty to share.
After crying with joy into my tiramisu, I am told they do not serve coffee—a fascinating point, and one which gets much whooping from Rikesh, who has much to say on Italian espresso.
We say our grazies and head out into the glorious Florentine sunlight, stopping to stick my head into that same tiny hole our orders went into. My curious gaze is met with understanding smiles and nods, as I bumble through my gratitude. The kitchen is a tiny galley affair, and I am still wracking my brains at how they were slinging food out at the pace they were achieving. Taking centre stage is a wood fire oven, no doubt in permanent use since the restaurant opened in 1900—"God I bet that makes a good steak," my thoughts salivate. “God I bet that’s a bastard to clean”, as I skip out, wondering where the rest of that flask of wine went.
The evening arrives, and we stagger into Trattoria Cammillo—our livers still aching from the free-pouring Negronis at WM Brown’s party. I stop to think through the boozy fog, 'what’s the difference between a Trattoria and a Ristorante?' Cammillo feels like you’re stepping into someone’s house—therefore it’s instinctively a Trattoria, but it’s fancy…and there’s a wine list, so maybe it’s a Ristorante? None of that matters, because somehow we’ve secured the big table right in front of the open kitchen, and we stride smugly past familiar industry faces—even Gerardo Cavaliere’s dog Ottone is here! He’s tucking into a T-bone - good boy, he knows that’s the best bit.
There’s a few more of us than at lunch and the table feels even bigger due to the fact that we know everyone at the adjacent table, so the atmosphere is electric. It’s like we’re at the best dinner party in Florence. Hang on, we may well be at the best dinner party in Florence. We giggle like naughty school kids as we gawp into the open kitchen, watching the silent dance between the cooks. I watch one juggle five pans across the burners, pausing for mere seconds to whip up a big silver bowl of eggs, presumably for breading the escalopes he’s somehow simultaneously flouring in yet another bowl. I love cooking just as much as I love eating, so I’m transfixed. This is what they mean by dinner and a show, surely.
Wine is poured, and I don’t even look at the menu because I know what I’m here for. We all know what we’re here for. It’s the single greatest phrase in my Italian lexicon, and nothing excites me more than saying it or hearing it: “Bistecca per tutti." Steak… for everyone. The great unifier. Ordering an enormous steak in Florence is the same as ordering those sizzling fajita platters that used to be in fashion up and down the UK—everyone looks, everyone is jealous. I am full of thrilling anxiety: How much do we order? Dear god, they want it in kilos. Right, maths time: I can eat X, and there’s Y amount of people here. But don’t forget, this is Bistecca alla Fiorentina, the double whammy of sirloin and filet, so there’s a bone to account for in all that weight. I don’t even dare consider uncooked versus cooked weight, so I close my eyes and let our waiter make the call. He’s fantastic—he’s talking in French to one of our compatriots, Italian of course, to the other side of the table. I’m not even going to throw my Welsh into the mix, because I’ll explode if he toasts me with a Iechyd Da. Speaking of toasting, what’s with that tiny free glass of fizz they give you in these nice places? I never see it appear on the bill - maybe this is the mysterious Coperto charge?
I eat steak until one of my shirt buttons flies across the room, and then I eat one more piece.
I’m done, no room for dessert. Oh tiramisu you say? Go on then. And an espresso. And a grappa, why not? Forget carriages at midnight, this is wheelbarrows at dawn.
Breakfast is not such a big meal in Italy. Often no more than a hastily-munched croissant and a cappuccino, I’m always delighted to visit La Ménagère, which in my hungover state feels like I’ve walked into church, except the eucharist is avocado toast and beautifully-made coffee. Another place with long communal tables, the vibes are more Anthropologie than Wagamamas though, with homeware, books and trinkets scattered around the high-ceilinged palazzo. I pile in with my suitcase and am greeted by a vision of Da Vinci’s Last Supper, realised by new friends and old. Luke Alland is here—Jesus, in the middle of the table—only Jesus is hungover and wearing dark sunglasses. I go to order myself a cappuccino, and am told, “good luck” by the lads. The service is notoriously slow. My coffee, however, arrives mere minutes later—they must have known I needed it. Either that or I’ve nicked someone else's.
The dinner menu looks creative and excellent, so I’m forever sad to have only ever been here in the mornings. Perhaps next time. I order a warm baguette filled with scrambled eggs and bacon, sink back into my chair and feel the wave of contentment wash over me.
My time in Florence is always too short, but I’ve always eaten well.