Some people’s idea of dining hell might be Trattoria Mario in Florence. You can’t book. You don’t even get your own table for two. You get put where there’s space
Some people’s idea of dining hell might be Trattoria Mario in Florence. You can’t book, so you spend the hours preceding your lunch or dinner fussing about whether you’ll get a table.
When you get there you have to queue; the waiters don’t usher you straight to your table as you arrive. No it can be a 15 or 20 minute wait. The place is noisy, heaving and everyone’s bunched in together.
You don’t even get your own table for two. You get put where there’s space – at the end of a table for six, sharing with two others on a table for four. There’s no menu to ponder, to umm and ahh over, to chat through at length, to provide you with opening snippets of conversation. There’s not much choice either. And stuff starts running out before too long.
Yet Trattoria Mario is the sort of place I spend my life searching for. It’s the sort of place I would spend my life eating in were in not seven hours door to door.
It’s the sort of place I would base my own fantasy restaurant on, more or less brick by brick, ingredient by ingredient, except I would give the punters western-style loos.
So here’s how it goes. You find the central market in Florence then adjacent, on a small street called Via Rosina, you’ll walk past it first because the front looks like a dingy newsagent.
There may be a queue outside which is a clue. Then after a wait you get seated, they bring you some paper place mats and some bread and then soon after ask what you want to start with.
We were offered a small choice including tomato soup and ravioli, which we went for. The soup, thick, oily and unlike anything I’ve tasted, was unbelievably good. The fresh pasta was perfect stuffed with some cheese.
Main courses could have been a giant veal steak, or beef stew but we went for ossobucco and some boneless steak. Food cooked with the confidence of timeless authenticity, inspired by fresh local ingredients. In other words, clichéd brilliance. We glugged carafes of white then red wine. We shared biscotti and vin santo.
Customers laughed and joked as they squeezed past each other. The kitchen occupies about half of the small room and somehow they manage to squeeze about five chefs in there.
The food runs out when it does so they don’t waste anything. Tough luck if you’re too late to have ordered it, but that’s what happens when you respect fresh ingredients.
Good markets start running low at lunchtime, like the one in Florence, bad ones still have their shelves crammed full after dark (er, Whole Foods).
The bill at Trattoria Mario is staggeringly cheap – about 25 euros. 25 euros! For three courses, red and white wine and water.
The place started in the fifties when Romeo and Amelia Colzi opened the place with their son Mario in what was a 16th century stable. From a small stove they served simple soups, meat dishes and pasta.
Mario died in 1980 but his widow and sons continue the tradition of serving local wine and the sort of food you’d get in a Tuscan home.
Could you replicate this sort of thing in London? The joy of having no menu, of simply eating what was fresh and seasonal. Would people cope with queuing and sharing tables? Could the chef source those kinds of ingredients with the disadvantage of not being able to buy meat, veg, salad and wine from the hills and fields around the town?
It could never be as cheap. But it could be as much fun.
Sam and Eddie Hart capture a hint of that spirit at Barrafina but perhaps Trattoria Mario is only possible in exactly the spot it is run by the family who know how to do it because it’s in their blood.