Teatro del Sale - Florence, Italy
Often, especially on long trips, the whole process of finding a restaurant can become a little tiring. It needs to be shaken up at the best of times - Sometimes a big lunch instead, settling for an evening on the fly eating just street food or snacking it instead, can do the trick. Gimmicks often fail when it comes to food but Teatro del Sale is no gimmick, no gimmick at all. The Theatre of Salt is a proper theatre, albeit it a small one, all dark woods and deep red velvets (Although it should be pointed out that these are community theatre functionality rather than anything approaching regal grandeur), but the star of the show is undoubtably the food and the chefs who prepare it. You need to book in advance, let's be clear on that. In fact, you not only do you need to book, you need to become an official member as well. But fret not, this isn't as much of a pain as you might think, and it happens for the princely sum of €5 per head.
Actually, it's probably a good idea to get your hotel to book it for you, as they would be more familiar with the process and may have some pull if it's getting close to a sell out. The entrance fee is then another €45 on top of that, at the time of writing at least, but that's it. For this, you get not only all the food you can eat, but refillable wine glasses, never ending desserts, including coffee and then a show as well - More often than not, a local musician, but the acts can be as varied as the food on display here. I must stop myself there, actually. I keep referring to it as food. It's not, it really, really isn't. It's so much more than that. It's local fare, traditional cuisine, it's proper proper stuff - Fresh, local and it's wonderful..... but don't be expecting anything over-played, anything macro or nouvelle. It's honest, it's heartwarming, it's true and it's cooked with love.
The premise is this; along one side of the communal dining room, all long tables for the friendly crowd with some smaller tables for the more aloof and suspicious, is the kitchen. Opened up to the diners by a long glass wall and serving hatches. You get to see it happen, and that's all part of the show. There is no menu to speak of. The head chef chooses what he's going to cook that day, based on what is fresh down at the market, what's in season and what is 'good'. At first there is definitely an unease amongst the first timers. What is going on? What do we do? Get a glass of wine is what you do. Just get up, go to one of the readily replenished casks and fill your glass - Get ready to get into the spirit of things. When the first dish is called by the head chef, very theatrically from the kitchen hatch, there is a moment of pause. Some will try to decipher what was uttered and then make their move. Some will just rush to the head table where the freshly prepared grub is placed, ready for the mayhem that is about to follow - While some, just a few, will sit back and just let it unfold in front of them. Just so they can get an idea of what it's all about. The feeding frenzy that is the first course or two, soon settles down, as dish after dish is forthcoming.
There is so much food. Local fish, including mackerel, anchovy or tuna may be the order of the day. Simply cooked with garlic, olive oil and dill, along with plenty of choices for vegetarians ... without even having to announce yourself as such, there's plenty of choice. There's meat dish after meat dish, Italian roast potatoes and purees, soups and stews of every kind, and all are produced and announced very excitedly, by the chefs when they are ready. It really doesn't take long to realise that there is so much food to go around, that you can just start taking your time and really start enjoying the place. The atmospheric change in the crowd is palpable. It's human nature to prioritise just being fed, you want to make sure that you don't leave hungry or miss out on something special, but they know what they are doing and you can relax and the quality can be appreciated once this first requirement has been fulfilled. Some of the dishes may not be to everyone's tastes but there will be so much that is that this shouldn't be a concern. It shouldn't be a complaint either, by the way, dear, dear HDT's. It's also a wonderful opportunity to try things that you at think aren't exactly your cup of tea, firstly because you can just serve yourself a little taste, and secondly nobody's watching anyway. What may happen is this; a dish may smack you in the face as it's so delicious. The dilemma being; do you go back and get more and more knowing that you will soon run out of room for other dishes or do you suddenly become very grave indeed and pass up the opportunity of seconds and thirds so you have room for everything else? Another glass of wine will help you decide.
The atmosphere becomes increasingly more cordial and it becomes very clear to see those, to whom this place is a paradise, and also to see those who feel that this place is not for them at all. Mind you, I can have no idea what the latter were expecting? If you love Italy, traditional food, very quaffable wine, theatre, people, a sense of community, bottomless plates, laughter, romance and a sense of the unknown, this wonderful place can only deliver for you. Again, I have read the dreaded Trip Advisor before writing this, to get an idea of what other people's experiences have been, and quite frankly, I'm really disappointed with humankind, or with what our old friends the HDT's have had to say about it. Although the reviews are generally very good, there are several who don't like all the dishes - As previously mentioned, that shouldn't be a complaint. That's not the chefs fault. That's the human condition. Very few of us like everything, but I can assure you that the food is 'of the area', cooked splendidly and with love, delivered with aplomb (and little formality) and it's hot, plentiful and delicious.
One of the reviewers called the chef rude - I can only begin to imagine. From reading the review, I would have been angry with the guest too, but the truth is, he probably wasn't rude. He was probably blunt, tongue in cheek or saddened by the attitude. For example, my partner decided that we should try the Couscous Soup that had just been called. There was plenty of food still to come and we didn't want to fill ourselves up with something as seemingly uninspired as this dull sounding broth. The head chef served her himself. "Just a small amount, please." She said. His face dropped like a hanged man. "You sure?" he boomed. "Yes." Came the reply, but breaking into a smile. "His face broke wide open and said, knowingly "You'll be back." To this day, the couscous soup at Teatro del Sale is one of the finest things I have ever tasted. We each had at least 3 portions and I maybe a fourth. How could something as simple as couscous soup taste so incredibly good. It's all in the stock but the bite of the couscous turned it into something very special indeed. It was a delight and I can still taste it..... in a good way, and I miss it, so very much. I can only assume that the person writing the review is a git, was having a bad day or just simply shouldn't have been there. There are many ways of getting the information you need to make a valid decision on any given restaurant or experience whilst away on holiday. If you fail to understand what a place stands for and what it's all about, don't go. If it's not for you, don't go, but certainly don't complain about it. There is nothing worse than the overblown and ignorant tourist, ruining the atmosphere for others, just because they incapable of choosing something suitable to their own needs. Quite frankly, I would be much happier if this type of traveller were to stay back at the hotel and eat in the sterile and corporate surroundings that are quite obviously more suitable to them. How can this not be appreciated or loved? It's a foodies haven, a break from the norm, a throwback to happier more simple times, it's a society welcoming you with open arms and it's a bloody pleasure. Their pleasure and our pleasure.
After the main course and sides have been served, maybe about 20 to 30 different dishes, it's time to get you desserts form the front section of the building. Time to chat with others who were there to get their opinions and to share some stories of the evening. The desserts are fresh and plentiful too, as is the coffee. The whole event may have taken place over 2 hours or so and once the flour dust has settled, everything is quickly transformed back into an actual theatre, ready for the show. Stay or go, it's up to you. Stay for a little while and run away if the performance is not for you, but the standard is actually very good. We preferred to leave after a short while as we wanted to talk about our evening. So we left, vowing to return as soon as we possibly could,
before walking the streets of a quite and deserted Florence, arm in arm, then a nightcap or two, all the time grinning and talking of our night at the Teatro del Sale.
When I hear that friends have just been to Florence, or the subject of past trips come up in conversation, I have to deliberately stop myself from mentioning the place, just in case they didn't go or hadn't heard even of it. To have visited Florence and not to have made this very particular pilgrimage, fills me with an abject sadness. Ignorance is bliss to those poor souls - better left unsaid to those who've already been to Florence, .... but to them that are going, the name Teatro del Sale must be scratched into their suitcases and booked in advance.
Teatro del Sale
Via dei Macci,
Tel: +39 055 200 1492