Meryle Evans - April 2014
Florence, Italy—“I was against serving brunch,” admits Vito Mollica, executive chef at the palatial Four Seasons Hotel Firenze. “It just seemed like a way to use up leftovers, and, for me, the food has to be very, very fresh.” Nor was the American Sunday morning ritual on the radar of the largely Tuscan clientele devoted to Mollica’s cuisine at Il Palagio, the hotel’s Michelin-starred restaurant.
Nevertheless, Mollica, a native of Basilicata who returned to Italy in 2007 to open the hotel after a seven year stint at the Four Seasons Prague, forged ahead with an international menu, served in the splendid arched atrium of the renovated Renaissance palace. “What I discovered,” Mollica recalls, “is that Florentines didn’t want to eat at 11 a.m. They came at 1 p.m., and they didn’t want eggs.” What did lure them, he learned, was family-style food, old-fashioned dishes made with recipes provided by his culinary team from their mothers and grandmothers. “We opened the kitchen,” he explains, “so the guests can chat with the cooks, and the staff can form relationships with our clients. It’s an interactive experience.”
Now brunch has evolved from novelty to congenial culinary destination, attracting hotel guests, area residents, and visitors from other cities like Bologna, only half an hour away via high-speed rail. The sprawling buffet with over 70 items, not counting pastry chef Domenico Di Clemente’s sumptuous dessert table, is spread out across four different areas and the kitchen. Pride of place belongs to the tripe sandwich, lampredotto, an iconic “street food for both rich and poor,” Mollica notes, “that we serve in its original form, on a roll soaked with broth and topped with chile oil and salsa verde. People line up for it.” The recipe appears in the chef’s 2012 book Vito Mollica: Invito a Cena al Palagio di Firenze, (Vito Mollica: Invitation to Dinner at the Palace of Florence), with both English and Italian text, and in a YouTube demo. Aficionados also head for other classics like crostini with warm chicken liver, ribollita (Tuscan-style minestrone), and bollito misto (a long-simmered stew of seven kinds of meat garnished with the candied fruit and mustard condiment mostarda and salsa verde).
A bountiful array of seafood, raw and cooked, includes fresh raw oysters and scallops, grilled scampi, and salads such as shrimp with chickpeas and scungilli with broccoli. Pâtés, salumi, and cheeses are de rigueur—a four kilo (nine pound) twist of mozzarella comes from Paestum in Campania, the center for buffalo mozzarella farms, and where prosciutto stars. “Tuscan prosciutto is very different from that from San Daniele,” says restaurant manager Gabriele Fidele, who enjoys discussing the nuances of artisanal products used at the restaurant. “Ours is saltier. I can’t eat the San Daniele. It’s too sweet.”
Fidele’s staff is on hand to prepare à la minute dishes like Calvana beef tartare, named for an endangered breed of cattle, and to replenish baskets of house-made breads, cured olives, pickles, and a myriad of other condiments.
Despite the Florentine lack of enthusiasm for eggs at midday, one dish that makes the cut is a slow-cooked (below 62˚C/143.5˚F) Paolo Parisi egg served with bottarga, capers, citrus, and new harvest Tuscan extra-virgin olive oil. Parisi is a beloved-by-gourmets farmer who feeds his Livornese free-range hens goat’s milk, resulting in creamy, silken yolks.
Brunch is served from October to June. Then Mollica moves the brigade outdoors to the terrace of the hotel’s 11 acre private garden for a trattoria alfresco lunch, and pizza and barbecue in the evening.