Letter from Elsewhere

A funeral in Florence

On a freezing but bright late February day, I walked across Florence to pay my respects to a dear friend who had passed away suddenly. In strict Italian tradition, the family were a casa on Sunday at a discreet funeral home with a beautiful courtyard. But (much to the relief of small children and many adults) the casket was closed, so the long line to pay our respects did not ripple with that customary sense of dread at confronting the dead body – one of the few taboos left in our society – or having to kiss its cheek. 

Instead, the coffin was covered in red roses for love, narcissus that diffused the scent of spring, and a smattering of beautiful artichokes, whose spear-like, purple-tinged green leaves represented one of the great loves of the man inside. The sea of flowers on the floor harboured more than one basket of beautiful vegetables – not just a pretty cornucopia of the bounty of Tuscany, but a hint at the relationship he had with this land.

A black and white portrait among the roses showed my friend laughing, his clear-blue eyes twinkling, his long white hair and beard unruly. Fabio Picchi, called “the intellectual chef”, was the founder of one of Florence’s – arguably Italy’s – most important restaurants, Cibreo.

In a country where food is so much more than mere nourishment, fashion or fad, to be the owner-chef of a restaurant that redefines a particular cuisine – in his case, Tuscan – is a sign of distinction. Picchi was also an avid writer of books (with titles like Papale Papale: recipes to save your soul and The Ten Commandments for Not Committing a Sin in the Kitchen) and, by opening his original Cibreo restaurant in 1979 in a rundown quarter of Florence, was also the saviour of a neighbourhood that seemed headed for ghettoization. 

Picchi was already famous when I first arrived in Florence in 2008. A star before celebrity chefs even existed, his passionate glorification of Tuscan food was reflected in the name: cibreo is a traditional Tuscan dish made from giblets, eggs, broth and lemon juice – the classic cucina povera (peasant cuisine) that at that time wasn’t deemed worthy to sit on fine-dining menus. His original restaurant teamed white linen tablecloths with defiantly Tuscan dishes using stale bread, beans and tripe galore. So obstinate was he about serving non-Tuscan food that no risotto has ever graced a Picchi menu and even pasta was banned in the early days. 

Cibreo reinvigorated an area that remains the most earthy – I could even say salty – part of Florence. The Sant’Ambrogio neighbourhood with its small artisan workshops, cacophony of market traders and simple church with no notable work of art (itself a rarity here) is a living, breathing antidote to the manicured and globalised Florence that is the centro storico (historic centre); its sprawling fruit and veg covered market hasn’t yet been given the “Wholefoods” treatment that has transformed the larger Mercato Centrale into something Instagrammable for the city’s millions of tourists.

The people of Sant’Ambrogio still talk with broad Florentine accents and the daily melee of people and bicycles and small fluffy dogs weaving in and out of the outdoor market stalls are a happy reminder of simpler, noisier times before lockdown, when shopping entailed thronged pavements and animated conversation – not clicking an online order silently at home. 

The pandemic has changed Italy, the subtle adjustments to daily life in Florence quietly bringing us into line with more modern cities. Before covid sent us all home, online shopping giants like Amazon were largely spurned by Italians, who traditionally prefer the human contact of buying their groceries, meat and bread in person, preferably in a slow progress through the different shops of their own neighbourhood. But lockdown saw so many family businesses close that the centre of Florence is now almost exclusively the domain of the same big multinational brands and chain restaurants you find in New York or Melbourne.

Now, as I walk through the debris of discarded masks to pay my respects to my friend, I notice a new phenomenon on the cobbled roads of this Renaissance city: delivery drivers cutting up cyclists in their haste to deliver food consignments for various well-known apps, or clogging the streets outside eateries and supermarkets, as they wait to fulfil online orders. They’ve even infiltrated the Tuscan countryside where I live.

Ironically, I now mourn the time I used to have my packages sent to the car mechanic in the village after delivery drivers refused to try and locate our house. Now those same drivers turn up all too easily at our gates – a testament to how cleverly the online giants have seized their moment. And as the precarious life of the app delivery workforce infiltrates Florence’s streets, I remember how fiercely Picchi resisted this change at Cibreo during the pandemic. When restaurants were allowed to open only for takeaways, he sidestepped big tech by arranging direct home delivery, knowing the apps suck up a large percentage of commission as well as everyone’s data. 

It’s this personal, family-oriented, hands-on approach that made the welcoming Cibreo café my home-from-home when I first arrived in Florence, knowing no one. It was the place I went to every morning, and the staff became fast friends.

They brought me coffee as I hunched over my handwritten notes, struggling to write a book, and fed me under the guise of recipe-testing when they knew I was short of funds. They even sneaked me across the road to their private members’ club so I could work all day with wifi, ensconced in a leather armchair. In those days, after a trip to the UK I’d often head straight to Cibreo from the airport.

Of course, I made a beeline for the cafe when we were released from Italy’s first strict lockdown and we all greeted each other (from the prescribed distance) with tears in our eyes – the only part of our faces visible through the clumsy, unfamiliar masks. My friends and I dutifully sprayed our hands with sanitising gel as we entered and a typically wry card on every table reminded us of covid rules. Still, there was giddy relief at this small return to normality, sitting once more at our familiar corner table, drinking the creamiest cappuccino in Florence and enjoying the banter of our Cibreo “family”.

Picchi’s blue-eyed son Giulio has now taken over the Cibreo “empire” which includes the main restaurant across from the cafe, a greengrocer, the Teatro del Sale members’ club, and the cheaper Trattoria. Each in its own way reflects the qualities of the founder:  intellectual, interested, political, socially conscious.

The Trattoria is informal – no booking needed, no tablecloths. Private members’ club Teatro del Sale combines theatre with food – the kitchen is on show to diners and afterwards members help clear the tables and set up chairs in front of the stage, often for a live show by Picchi’s performer wife, Maria Cassi.

In keeping with Picchi’s socialist roots, membership costs less than a tourist pizza-lunch and is open to all. Lately, they’ve added a tiny eatery fusing Asian and Tuscan food, and C.BIO, a large emporium selling everything from aprons to organic produce. They’ve even introduced a sustainable butcher’s stall in the covered market. Picchi loved food, but he also cared about social inclusion, diversity, democracy and sustainability. Although a Tuscan to his fingertips, he was a man who wholeheartedly embraced other cultures. 

The crowd of people thronging the funeral home on that Sunday in February was a direct reflection of Picchi’s passion for social inclusion. In my years in Florence I’ve rarely been in a space that contained such diversity – of race and ability. As we all hugged and wept, everyone said: “I feel like I have lost my father.”

Kamin Mohammadi is the author of “Bella Figura: How to Live, Love and Eat the Italian Way” (Bloomsbury)

Life

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