ROBERT ST. JOHN: Teatro Del Sale becomes top not-to-be-missed experience

By Robert St. John

FLORENCE, ITALY— I eat for a living.

Over the course of the last 30 years I’ve eaten all manner of meals in all types of locations. Last week I enjoyed one of the most unique meals I have ever eaten. I enjoyed it in one of the most unusual settings I have ever seen, in one of the most beautiful and distinctive cities I have ever visited.

Teatro Del Sale in Florence, Italy was recommended to us by Annagloria Corti, the owner of the villa we are renting. On the first day we met, while she was giving us the villa walk-through, she mentioned that she had made reservations for us in Florence. “You are in this business. You will like this place. The food is very good. The price is cheap. The chef is very famous here.”

Sounds good to me. I knew from the conversations we had shared, via telephone and email, that Annagloria was a woman who knew food, especially in this area.

We arrived at Teatro Del Sale at 7:25 for our 7:30 reservation. We were immediately asked to read a lengthy “rules” sheet and pay five euros each to “join the club.” I wasn’t sure what the deal with the membership was, but I wasn’t worried that it was a scam, because locals had to pay 10 euros, and the place was filled with locals.

Teatro Del Sale, which I believe translates to “theatre of salt,” is located in a beautiful, rustic building, and has nothing to do with salt, other than the perfect amount that might end up on whatever you are being served.

The seating is communal, and we could tell dinner was already being served as soon as we walked in. I paid 30 euros per head and we made our way to the dining room

We were given instructions as a man led us to our table. “Did you read the rules? We have one seating. The local red wine is included, have all you want. You will be served multiple courses on small plates. Pace yourself (he actually said this in Italian, but the way he said it, we knew what he was talking about). Dinner will last 1 ½ hours. After dinner there will be a performance. We will remove the tables and all of the chairs will be lined up theatre style. Enjoy your meal.”

The five of us were led through a few small rooms, past a long table where people had lined up for Chianti, and into a large space that had been a theatre at one time. There were rustic beams overhead and rough-hewn floors. At the end of the room was a small stage, barely lit, where it appeared that performances had been held for a few centuries. Against one wall were lead-framed, old–world style interior windows. Behind the windows was a kitchen straight out of central casting. A huge brick oven— one that had been in place for a while— a massive spit with small hens rotating and roasting over an open fire, and three chefs busily preparing dinner.

Within a few minutes the head chef, Fabio Picchi, opened one of the windows, and in a huge bellowing voice, filled with bravado, began yelling into the room. I am not sure what he was saying, my Italian is limited to the bare necessities, but I knew he was welcoming everyone and enthusiastically announcing the course he was about to serve.

Most of the crowd of 150 rushed out of their chars and headed to the back of the room where a table was set with 10 or 12 beautiful antipasto dishes— orzo salad, roasted vegetables, a few of the usual suspects, and many more atypical suspects.

After the mad dash to the table, a sous chef, opened the window and loudly warned the crowd to pace themselves, there were many more courses to come. He didn’t lie.

We probably had 12 courses over the span of the next hour. Each course was introduced by Pricchi’s passionate announcement that rang through the room with unmatched bravado. The food was excellent. We ate risotto, a few fish courses, chicken meatballs, two pasta courses, a braised beef, veal, the roasted chicken, and finished with gelato.

Pricchi is the real deal. In 1979, he opened Florence’s top fine-dining restaurant— the sister concept to the casual Theatro Del Sale— Cibreo. He was just 25 years old. He still owns it, and it is still considered by most to be Florence’s most elegant restaurant. He reminds me of an Italian Gordon Ramsey, an athletically imposing figure with long gray hair and a fantastic beard.

He passionately announced each course, served each course, and, later, introduced the evening’s entertainment.

The entertainment was a very talented woman who did a cabaret-style show accompanied by a pianist. She was a cross between Lucille Ball and Liza Minnelli. Most of the songs were in Italian, the crowd of locals howled with laughter, and it was very surreal experience watching the show.

We enjoyed the restaurant so much I booked it again. Two nights from now, we’ll return to Teatro Del Sale for dinner and an instrumental performance by two guitarists.

It’s a restaurant concept I have never seen before, and not sure if it’s even very common over here. One would think it’s like a supper club or dinner theatre, but it’s nothing like either one of those things, at least how we understand them.

Teatro Del Sale is great food, at a great price, served by a passionate chef, with entertainment thrown in. Add a historic building in a great section of Florence, and it becomes the top not-to-be-missed experience we have witnessed over the course of eight weeks, 13 countries, 5,000 miles, and dozens of meals in dozens of cities.

Chef Fabio Picchi at Teatro del Sale

Cioppino

Tomato Stock:

½ cup Olive Oil
½ cup Butter
3 cups Onions, medium dice
3 cups Leeks, hand-chopped fine, white part only
3 cups Green Bell Pepper, medium dice
2 2/3 cup Carrots, small dice
2 cups Celery, medium dice
½ cup Fresh Fennel, chopped fine
5 qts. Canned Crushed Tomatoes, highest quality
1 cup Tomato Paste
5 qts. Water (or stock)
¼ cup Salt
3 Tbl. Tabasco
2 Tbl. Dried Oregano
2 Tbl. Dried Basil
2 Tbl. Dried Thyme
6 Bay Leaves
2 Tbl. Creole Seasoning

Sautee onions in olive oil and butter. Do not brown. Add leeks, green pepper, carrots, celery and fennel and cook 5-10 minutes until soft. Add remaining ingredients, bring to a boil. When stock begins boiling immediately reduce heat. Cover and simmer 2 hours stirring frequently.

To Prepare Cioppino:

2 Swordfish pieces, 1 oz. each
2 C.O.D. pieces, 1 oz. each
4 Scallops
4 Shrimp (16-20 ct.), last tail joint remaining
Seasoned Flour
2 oz. Butter
2 oz. Olive Oil, not extra virgin
1 Tbl. Garlic
2 oz. White Wine
6 Mussels
1 oz. All lump crabmeat
2 cups Tomato stock

Lightly dust seafood in seasoned flour. Shake off excess flour. Sautee in olive oil/butter mixture. Add garlic. Deglaze with white wine and cook approximately 1 minute to reduce liquid. Add mussels and sautee. Add crabmeat and tomato stock and continue to cook for 5 – 6 minutes. Transfer to a serving bowl and garnish with fresh fennel.