Can a person be happy at an Italian restaurant that does not serve pasta? The answer is unequivocally yes, when owner/chef Fabio Picchi offers alternatives that will not be soon forgotten. “Pasta,” he claims, “is ordinary, the stuff of everyday, what we eat at home.” His is a menu that reflects his passion for taste and textures that go beyond the ordinary, yet are as comforting as what Italian grandmothers have cooked up for generations. "Pasta was not part of a typical Tuscan cuisine until recently," Cristina, our hostess informs us. Classical Tuscan cooking was always influenced by an abundance of vegetables and included stews or hearty soups, such as ribollita, as a first course.
In the 36 years since he first opened Cibrèo, Picchi has developed a highly personal, yet undeniably Florentine, cuisine that has become internationally famous. His soups have become legendary. Drizzled with the gold of local olive oil, his yellow-pepper soup is much prized for it creamy consistency and zesty lacing of red pepper. My husband enjoyed the snappy tang of the passato di pesce piccante, a favorite of Grandfather Picchi, according to Fabio’s youngest son, Giuliano. It reminded us of a spicy New Orleans fish stew, only this one as smooth as silk. Picchi need not leave his neighborhood for the raw materials that he purchases fresh each morning at the nearby Sant’Ambrogio marketplace. Adhering strictly to what is in season, he creates a menu that changes almost daily. My portion of sformato di patate e ricotta, a delicate potato and cheese soufflé with pesto, was divine.
At Cibrèo, there are no written menus. Cristina pulls up a chair and joins us briefly at our table, taking time to describe the selections of the day, explaining what ingredients are used and how the dish is prepared. When appropriate, the waiter even explains how to best enjoy the dish – such as the porcini mushroom baked in foil that I ordered. I was instructed to tilt my head down and not miss the steamy aroma as it escaped the opened pouch. An individual loaf of potato bread, whimsically shaped like a dog bone, was delivered to our table. After the waiter added the freshly cooked barlotti beans to the porcini, he suggested that I break up the bread into tiny pieces and let them soak up the flavoursome juices of this singular dish.
A parade of desserts then followed, brought forth from a kitchen, where Satan himself must reside. In my weakness, I succumbed to his every temptation and even now could not name a favorite, although the cheesecake with a marmalade of Sicilian bitter oranges ranks high on the list, sharing blame with a coffee mousse with chocolate. Did I mention the wines and spirits?
I regret that I did not get a chance to meet this larger-than-life Florentine, who has never strayed far from the neighborhood of his youth, where his passion for cooking was born – much to our good fortune and that of his neighbors!