Flavours and Favours of Florence – Part II – But Is It Art? – Il Portale, Florence – 1st Visit

Following that dinner on the first day some select from the younger among our party went out to take advantage of the lower age limit in Italy with regard to the purchase of alcohol. Suffice to say it ended in disaster. Involving ambulances and the police, two in the group were hospitalised overnight and the entire party was thenceforth banned from the purchase of alcohol outside of dinner quarters. Feeling somewhat maltreated from that experience, having had no hand in the situation whatsoever, I was more compelled to get my drinking in around my meals. I think the anger was invoked in our supervisors – not to mention the Italian authorities – more because of the different way in which “binge drinking” is viewed in Italy compared to that in England. Rather than a means of getting drunk, like their food, alcohol – wine in particular – is seen by the Italians as art; something to be appreciated rather than exploited.

After heavy group chastisement in the early morning, we were delighted to hear that the gentleman whose luggage had been lost the day before had indeed been reunited with his suitcase. I hear more recently that this occasion was not the first instance in which British Airways had been responsible for losing his luggage, further invoking the boy’s hatred of them.

DUOMO

The Façade and Dome of the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore Photograph: Ryan Mann

After briefly admiring the religious landmark we were staying near, the Basilica di San Lorenzo, we made our way to the Piazza del Duomo, admiring the Renaissance architecture implemented into the magnificent Duomo Cathedral (see pictured), or the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore.
Having only seen depictions and photographs of the cathedral beforehand, the size of the building – not to mention that of the dome in itself – is truly better experienced up close. Along the side, I paid great attention to the statues of the Saints all staring down on the sinners amongst us.

DOORS TO THE BASILICA

The doors to the Basilica
Photograph: Ryan Mann

We also came across the bronze doors (see pictured) forming the main portal to the Basilica, among the oldest doors in Italy (dating from 1899 to 1903, the right-hand of which was sculpted by Giuseppe Cassioli (1865-1942). The overall experience was an unhappy one for Cassioli, who subsequently sculpted a bronze self-portrait of him being strangled by a snake to represent his ordeal. Due to their age, the doors are now railed off, but are a tourist attraction in themselves.

View from the belltower

View from the belltower – 277ft above
Photograph: Ryan Mann

While some braved the great many steps (414 to be precise) to the “fabulous views” atop the Basilica’s free-standing belltower (see pictured), nearly 280 feet below, I – whilst suffering from a chronic fear of heights and a bad back caused by the hotel mattress – personally went to cross the Ponte Vecchio (the old bridge) at the River Arno, which I had in the past dubbed “Bling Bridge” due to its being lined with (Hellishly expensive) jewellery shops. Some of these establishments are some of the only places left in the world to sell coral jewellery, as many species are now endangered and both the retail and purchase of such materials are in fact illegal in some nations such as the United States. For some items, we are looking at 500-odd euros for a pair of earrings. This site may be called Expensive Tastes but even I can admit that that is excessive.

The River Arno from the Ponte Vecchio

The River Arno from the Ponte Vecchio
Photograph: Ryan Mann

Crossing the River Arno (see pictured), we kept our eyes out for the beaver-rat-vole-like mammals that occupy the banks, to no avail (in February, one would assume such creatures would be still in hibernation.) We took a very simple lunchtime snack – a rectangular slice of pizza for three euros – outside the Uffizi Museum, which was our next destination.
Originally, the gallery was actually the offices (for which Uffizi is Italian) for Florentine magistrates, built for Cosimo I de’ Medici (mentioned in Part I), begun in 1560 and finally completed over twenty years later after the original architect Giorgio Vasari died in 1574. Within the gallery, there are sculptures and paintings by many a famous name: da Vinci, Titian, Raphael, Michelangelo; individuals who need no introduction really. However, as a former art student who did not do very well, there’s only so many depictions of The Death of Saint Sebastian, Judith Slaying Holofernes and David and Goliath without my mind deviating and questioning whether it actually is art. From my experiences in London galleries, I am more inclined to consider the Renaissance exhibits in the Uffizi art than I am a blue canvas with a speck of black directly in the centre. Things that are passing for art these days.

Art appeals to the senses, and the more senses it appeals to the better it is. And of course my idea of art – as you know – is food. A very good example of art, appealing to almost all the senses. En-route to the Piazza del Duomo, a quaint little pizzeria named Il Portale which I am awfully sure we passed the day before, attracted us to dinner with their impeccably-priced selection. A table for four, neatly placed in the front part of the restaurant accommodated us exquisitely.

I will start by commending the excellent, not to mention speedy quality of service. It seemed like no time at all had passed between ordering our drinks and our receipt of them. We commented to ourselves: “That was quick!” only to find that our waiter demonstrated not only a good grasp of the English language – vital for impeccable service in my opinion – but also a keen sense of humour:
“Yes, I am very fast!” he chuckled in reply as he placed our plates down from the left-hand side, as any waiter familiar with silver service would know.

Chicken Liver Pâté

Chicken Liver Pâté
Photograph: Marvin Dibbern

By all means call me predictable or boring or both – whichever you prefer – but my choice of antipasto was chicken liver pâté on toasted ciabatta (see pictured). And yes, I know what you’re thinking: “He probably had better at Café Rouge in England.” – Actually not the case. While the presentation was still far from that of the aforementioned French restaurant, not unlike that of Ristorante de Medici, I think the flavour of this pâté found what the latter’s lacked. One could not taste the blandness of the ciabatta, and it came seasoned and garnished lightly with parsley. Overall, even superior to that of my favourite French establishment in Westbourne (although some chutney would have been a nice accompaniment).

My main course – entitled Pizzeria Maianara – was vast in proportion to the Margherita English Ryan was eating opposite me. A rather large plate entirely filled with this moistly-based pizza, topped with spicy yet soft pepperoni. And I am not talking about the pepperoni the size and thickness of a 2p coin on a Tesco Value pizza. Au contraire, I am talking thick pieces of well-braised pepperoni sausage that tickled the tongue with a subtle and intricate spice. Sadly, the pomodoro sauce had moistened the base to such an extent that these toppings – including the mozzarella cheese – fell off as I went to pick up a triangle.

As surprising as this might sound coming from a self-confessed glutton, this Maianara Pizza did fill me to the point of stomach ache and bloatedness. No dessert on Earth could have found room inside me after that! As for quality of value, if I were to compare my meal here at Il Portale to that at Ristorante de Medici, I would direct a person here every time. Including the service charge, excluding the well-deserved gratuities, this vastly superior meal came to a mere four euros dearer than that the day before! Does Il Portale deserve higher than a three-star rating? I would certainly say so.

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