(MY MOST MEMORABLE MEAL is an occasional feature written by the co-hosts of the restaurant recommendation web site http://www.atLarrys.com)
There are people who can recite every course of a great meal they had years ago; I’m not one of them. In self-defense – or embarrassment – I travel overseas with a little notebook, simply to jot down what we’ve eaten. Even at that, my notes often are incomplete, trailing off in smudges, or droplets of dried sauce.
Was our first meal at Da Delfina outside of Florence Italy the best food ever?
The cooking was terrific on a trip in which we ate our way through the top places in Florence. But what made that lunch the most memorable meal was the entire experience, specifically, how the combination of location, view, service and food brought me back from near hysteria.
My wife, Karen, had an assignment from the L.A. Times food section back when it actually had space to fill. She was doing a piece on minestrone and ribollita, yesterday’s minestrone reboiled with bread and a lot more. Da Delfina was said to have spectacular ribollita, as well as a wonderful selection of game birds, sausages and pasta.
With friends, we’d rented a little house south of Florence for a week to get the out-of-city experience. We were going to eat our way around the area and do some cooking at home. But the one important, immovable meal was to be Sunday lunch at Da Delfina, northwest of Florence – perhaps 40 miles from where we were staying. When making the reservation, we learned the restaurant would stop serving at one o’clock to set up for a wedding party later that afternoon and evening. Then it was closing for two weeks.
I was driving. We left with plenty of time to get there by noon. But there are two east-west autostradas from Florence to the coast near Pisa. I thought I was on the northern one, meaning a simple left turn down to Carmignano/Artimino, where Da Delfina is located. Nope. I was on the southern road, and the left turn, after everyone asked, “Aren’t we going too far west?” took us into one small, deserted town after another. Sunday, noon – people in church or at home. Finally, a solitary man, unshaven, possibly drunk.
“Dov’e Carmignano?” (where is Carmignano?) got us a torrent of Italian, more than any of us had in our limited repertoire. Seeing he wasn’t getting through, his solution was to crank up the volume. Finally he shouted, over and over, “Sinestre! Sinestre!” Okay – left. We roared north. At three minutes to one we entered the Da Delfina parking lot. Karen, our daughter and our friends scrambled for the entrance. I just sat back in the car for a minute, sweating and vibrating.
When I got to the door, worried that Karen and our friends had to argue their way in, I found our party seated at a table. “Don’t worry,” Karen said as I arrived. “Everything is fine.”
How fine? There had been apologies that we couldn’t sit on the terrace. All the tables had already been moved for the party later that day.
The staff, affable and then some, gave no hint that we had to hurry. Their charm calmed me entirely within two minutes. There were other occupied tables, no one getting the rush. We were the only non-Italians, generally a good sign.
The food? Various house-cured and wonderful salami for starters, a selection of sensational pastas, then perfectly roasted game birds and meat. You can take a look at just how lovely the place is by going to www.dadelfina.it. Yes, the site is entirely in Italian, but click on “Il Ristorante” for photos that show just how gorgeous the view is.
Oh, a few years later, our family went back for lunch. I was thoroughly mapped-up, which did not, however, prevent me from taking the wrong bridge across the Arno and getting lost. Two local women at a T-intersection gave us exactly opposite instructions. We went one way, a shiny Audi behind us the other. We arrived at Da Delfina within a minute of each other. Same result: calm brought on by great food, exemplary service and beautiful surroundings.
Next time? Maybe my wife or our daughter will have better luck driving.