Thursday, January 12, 2012

SekretPolice's Picks - Alla Vecchia Bettola & Pontormo's Deposition

Today's post comes from my big brother. I asked him if he'd like to contribute because he's a veteran of Florence and I trust his opinion on most things, especially food (although he has questionable taste in shirt collars).

Readers of EatDrinkSleepWell will know that I am a longtime fan and prior resident of Florence - in no small part because my parents met there, hence to the city I owe my existence. I've been eating there with significant frequency for over two decades and having tried literally dozens of its restaurants, I have now developed a standard routine of old reliables (two of which my brother has chronicled in the last couple of days). These are so standard in fact, that for short visits, the itinerary is invariable - Acqua al2, Cibreo, Quattri Leoni, and my old neighborhood place that I keep secret to hide from tourists.

That said, I surprised myself by actually trying something new when I was there for Fourth of July weekend in 2009. I had run across Alla Vecchia Bettola (loosely translated as "the old dump") numerous times and had driven past it on many occasions while looking for a gas station to refuel rental cars. This time I decided to break routine and check it out. I reserved for 9:15pm, thinking it would be quieter, and arrived promptly to a substantial line spilling out into the tiny piazza in front. After about 20 minutes we were seated at a long, marble topped communal table amongst a crowd that was overwhelmingly Italian (always a good sign).

We ordered an antipasto a la Bettola con funghi (afettati - prosciutto, salame, finochianna; crostini di fegato; and marinated porcini) but our primi came first. The waiter, who appeared to be handling the entire interior himself, had forgotten, so we decided to have it after our primi. I had paccheri a rottanculo (not a particularly appetizing name) - a meat sauce with beef, pork and chicken livers - that was delicious. My friend had penne a la Bettola - a spicy, incredibly rich penne a la vodka that was similarly fantastic. The antipasto arrived, without the funghi, and was fairly standard (I'd probably try something else next time). For secondi, I had braciole con caperi e acciughe - a breaded, thin veal cutlet sauced with a wonderful tomato sauce made with capers and anchovies - which was incredible. My friend had Coniglio Arrosto Morto - rabbit roasted to death - which was very moist and flavorful, but far too bony. Red wine della casa came in a large, straw-wrapped jug and cost 4 euro per person no matter how much you drank. It was remarkably potable. Desserts, particularly the fresh fruit, looked great but we were far too full. It was just far enough out of the town center to provide a proper passeggiata to aid digestion. The place is great, try not to tell too many people...

And while we're on the subject of secret Florentine treasures, one of my favorite works of art is hidden right under everyone's nose in Santa Felicita - the oldest church in the Oltrarno. It sits in a tiny eponymous piazza off of the Via de' Guicciardini, about a block up from the Ponte Vecchio. The church is concealed, in part, because much of the facade is obscured by the Vasari corridor, an elevated Renaissance tunnel that joins the Palazzo Vecchio with the Palazzo Pitti. If you know the right people, or pay enough, tours of the corridor are possible but it is otherwise closed to the public.

In any event, if you enter Santa Felicita under the corridor's portico you will find an unlit chapel immediately to the right with two paintings by Jacopo Pontormo. For a small fee, you can turn on timed lights to view his Annunciation and, more importantly, his Deposition. The latter is a treasure: a breathtaking composition of oil on wood that is nothing short of ethereal. Considered to be his master work completed in 1528, the composition, color and implied movement struck me speechless when I first saw it in situ during the last day of an art history class on a semester abroad In 1988. It leaves me similarly silent every time I go back, which is every trip I make to Florence.

The mannerist palette verges on pastels, and lends to the overall surreal quality of the painting. Christ is being taken down from an invisible cross by a group of mourners who appear engaged in a whirling ballet freed from the laws of gravity. What I love most about the painting is that it's astounding visceral impact is amplified by its surprise location. It is like a shrouded portal into the heavens. I delight in taking first time visitors to Florence to see it, without telling them what we're going to see - Exactly as my art history professor did to me. Go, and enjoy.

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