The best meal in Florence

Duomo in FlorenceOverlooking the Ponte Vecchio





For many travelers, their best meal in Florence might be high on a hill with views of the Duomo. Or along the Arno river, overlooking the Ponte Vecchio. Or maybe in a piazza near the Uffizi museum.

But for me, while celebrating my 50th birthday this week in Florence, a small neighborhood place stood out from all the others.

The restaurant: I Carbonari

I CarbonariNormally, my wife would research restaurants and get trusted recommendations. But we were all tired on Tuesday night and so we chose the restaurant closest to our hotel. It was I Carbonari,  less than 50 meters away and so new that there weren’t any reviews we could read.

As soon as we walked in, the place felt inviting. The brightly colored kitchen was open and smelled wonderful. One entire wall was a chalkboard with an area reserved for kids to draw. Instead of a printed menu, they listed a few specials based on what was fresh that day. And they also offered to cook other dishes based on what we liked.

I went with the classic dish listed that day: spaghetti vongole. It’s so simple – just spaghetti, clams, garlic, olive oil, some herbs – and yet somehow this was different. The dish sang and not a note was wrong. The amount of oil and blend of seasonings was pitch perfect. The clams tasted like they just came from the sea. And the pasta had a firmness and flavor that stood up to all of it. Despite a generous portion, I ordered a second helping.

And the wine! Again no menu, just a carafe of house wine. I chose red and it had a wonderful taste that I could only describe as – and I know this is a strange word to use for wine – “fresh.” I asked about it and they proudly told me the wine was made without preservatives. Making a stomping motion, he emphasized “with the feet.”

After we ate, the kids were tired and walked backed to the hotel with my wife while I sipped my wine. Now alone, I indulged myself with a 3rd glass accompanied by a slice of ricotta cheesecake like no other. I thought of my grandparents, Vito and Angelina Bruno who took the boat from Piaggine to New York almost 100 years ago. Perhaps it was the effects of the wine, but I felt more Italian than ever.

Contributions & curiosity

The daily specialsNormally, that would have been it. After all, restaurants for tourists are usually a simple transaction, rarely if ever to be repeated. But in writing about working out loud, I’ve developed a greater sense of curiosity and contribution.  I wanted to know more about these people and to do something for them besides just say “grazie” and leave a tip. But what else could I do?

The most obvious contribution was to come back the next day for lunch. When we did, the Ciaos! and Buon giornos! we exchanged had even more feeling. Immediately, I noticed a familiar dish on the counter. Pizza rustica is a traditional Easter pie and the last time I had it was before PCs were invented. We started our lunch with 4 slices and some red wine.

Other people came and went, everyone wearing warm, genuine smiles. We met the woman who baked the cheesecake from the other night and another chef (he was “the meat chef” as opposed to “the fish chef”). Seeing everyone interact in this small, friendly space made me feel like I was in someone’s home. I very much liked being there and that gave me an idea.

“Tomorrow’s my birthday,” I said. “I’d like to come back again.”

“Your birthday?! Really? She’ll make you a cake!” he said, excitedly, pointing to the baker. “What kind of cake would you like?”

The best meal in Florence

Kids at the kitchenThe next night, we got to know each other better. I learned that Stefania and Fernando have been married for 20 years and just opened the restaurant recently. They met while doing other work in London and lived there for 10 years.

And we learned their restaurant is truly a family business. The meat chef is the brother of the husband. And Andrea (in the photo, on the right) is the fish chef and their brother-in-law. He’s married to the wife’s sister, Gabriella, who’s also the baker. Andrea is also responsible for the wine as it comes from a vineyard he owns in Puglia.

During all of this conversation, our family busily swapped plates, sampling everything. Whole squid stuffed with ricotta and vegetables. Marinated sardines and orata. Pasta with pureed asparagus that tasted like the sun itself. Between courses, the kids drew pictures for my birthday while I lost count of the wine glasses (both white and red this time).

My cake!And then came the cake. I had asked for “something with Nutella in it” knowing my kids would love that. Stefania dimmed the lights, Fernando lit the candles they’d purchased, and everyone sang. Then they presented us with a bottle of champagne and entertained the kids while we all talked and drank. We encouraged them to come visit us in New York City and we even connected on Facebook before we left. Back at the hotel, I saw they’d posted pictures of the cake and I did the same.

And that’s how I came to experience my best meal in Florence. We did eat at other places but I don’t remember the names of those restaurants never mind the people. At I Carbonari, we made a connection. And that’s what turned our meal into an experience and a story I wanted to share.

Mille grazie to my new friends.


Andrea, Stefania, and Fernando

About John Stepper

Helping organizations create a more collaborative culture – and helping individuals access a better career and life – by spreading the practice of Working Out Loud.
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19 Responses to The best meal in Florence

  1. Abigail Hunt says:

    Belated birthday greetings John – a great reminder that connecting makes food taste better than just counting star ratings!

  2. moyramackie says:

    The power of living in the now? And the result is connection. We don’t have to know people a long time, we just have to BE. Gorgeous post where I could hear the laughter, see the gestures, smell the seafood and taste the wine.

  3. Clay Hebert says:

    A beautiful story for a beautiful experience. Wonderfully said, John.

  4. clayhebert says:

    A beautiful tribute to a beautiful experience. Thanks for letting us in on such a wonderful tale. And happy 50th!!

  5. Christoph Thiede says:

    Hi John,

    It is with with great joy to have read this marvellous story of yours – truly seems to have been a very special day and i am heartily happy for you!

    I normally like to congratulate by singing a personal birthday song to people i met and like and I do this with varying tunes so one year it could be a jazzy version while the next year it could be the frantic happy speed metal version and it gives me so much fun that i normally crack up laughing whilst doing it.

    Not knowing exactly when your special day is, i will just do you the old classic in a long-distance none audio form which probably is appropriate because less harmful for your ears as well 😉

    Happy Birthday to you, Happy Birthday to you, Happy Birthday deeeeear Joooooohn, Happy Birthday to YOU!

    Wishing you good luck, health and fortune & may the best days of your year past be the worst of the one to come!

    And a special thx for your weekly sharing of thoughts – truly a weekly gift to me.

    So, all the best from Munich and have a great time!

    Christoph Thiede

    Maistraße 20 D-80337 München

    m: +49 (170) 5754284 ________________________________

  6. psheldrake says:

    Happy Belated Birthday! I’ve made a note of I Carbonari for our next trip to Florence. Perhaps you could do them a real favour – on the basis most tourists won’t have your feed in Feedly! – and be the restaurant’s first entry on Tripadvisor; at least I can’t find it there at the mo.

    • John Stepper says:

      Thank you for the wishes and the idea. I did ask them about their social media presence and they said they simply haven’t gotten to it yet. I posted a review on their Facebook page (which is clearly a work in progress).

      I don’t know how Tripadvisor works in terms of establishing a presence there. I assumed either Tripadvisor would do it automagically or the restaurant owner would have to do it. Once it’s there, I’ll be sure to post a review.

      When I google “I Carbonari Florence” I find their Facebook page, a review for a restaurant with the same name in a different city owned by different people and…this post. Shows that even restaurants need to work out loud! 🙂

  7. Claudio says:

    Hey you are now in tripadvisor mode? ;o)) anyhow great deal to come in Italy to celebrate.

  8. I love these kinds of stories when unexpected discoveries delight. And it’s amazing how simple foods expertly prepared can be fantastic. Happy Birthday John!

  9. It is actually the power of being nice and open and interactive. Talk to the people and most of them will talk back. Be nice to them and most of them will be nice, too. Whatever you give you will receive. I more and more truly believe in that.

  10. Irene Johansen says:

    My first reaction: I want to go to this restaurant.
    Next: Thanks for sharing your birthday celebration with all of us – very generous!
    Finally: The experience is everything, isn’t it.

    Happy Birthday!

  11. Sue M. says:

    what a wonderful story and experience! I only now got the chance to read and enjoy this.

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