June 19, 2016

Random Acts… Meet three memorable men in Florence, Italy

Posted in Dining, Spirituality, Travel at 10:15 pm by dinaheng

Dinah EngThe best part of any journey, for me, is talking with the locals, who know the best eateries, the best shops, and the places that define the soul of a city. On a recent trip to Italy with my sister, we met three memorable men in Florence. Their stories reveal the three best reasons to visit the capital of Italy’s Tuscany region – the Renaissance artistry, the warmth of the people, and the wonderful food.

The Maestro of alchemy and jewels

Hidden amid the narrow streets of the Oltrarno neighborhood is an unusual artisan workshop that takes you back in time to the Italian Renaissance. Housed in the 15th Century Palazzo Nasi-Quaratesi, jeweler-sculptor Alessandro Dari’s atelier has been recognized by the Italian Ministry of Cultural Heritage as a Museo Bottega (museum workshop).

Walking into the small showroom, I’m dazzled by all the intricate pieces of handcrafted gold jewelry and small sculptures made of precious metals in the display cases. Collections called “The Keeper of the Soul,” “Alchemy & Magic,” and “Space & Time” tickle the imagination, making me want to meet the artist who created them.

After a few minutes, the maestro himself appears, clad in dark clothes and an industrial apron. Dari, who speaks little English, smiles with warmth and gives me a look at his workbench area. His fianceé Antonella, who speaks some English, serves as the interpreter.

“Alchemy was born centuries ago in China, Arabia, and Europe,” says Dari, pointing to various pieces around his laboratory. “In alchemy, the material has a soul. When you work with the material, you discover its soul.”

Alessandro Dari holds a sword designed to honor the practice of alchemy. Photo courtesy of Alessandro Dari.

Alessandro Dari holds a sword designed to honor the practice of alchemy. Photo courtesy of Alessandro Dari.

Dari, who made his first ring at age 16, studied chemistry at the University of Siena, intending to become a pharmacist. But a fascination with metalworking led him down another path. Today, his work is exhibited at the Silver Museum in Florence’s Palazzo Pitti and at the Cathedral Museum in Fiesole.

He teaches several students in the back of his workshop, using “sacred geometry” as the basis of his teachings. In other words, God created the universe with a geometric plan, and in the alchemic philosophy, he explains, “God and gold are the same. One lives in your soul, and the other in the material.”

Listening to him speak in Italian, I wish I could understand first hand what he was saying. One of the things that travel teaches you, though, is that when there is a will to communicate, there is a way. With each question I ask, the couple struggles to understand me, and shares the answers they think I am looking for.

Antonella explains that the techniques Dari uses stem from the Etruscan, Classical, Gothic and Renaissance periods. He takes particular pride in his “Collezione Castelli” (Castles Collection), where the architecture of castles was celebrated in his jewelry.

It’s amazing to know that everything from melting metals to engraving and the setting of stones is done in the tiny workspace behind the showroom. As I get ready to leave, the master goldsmith shares one last thought.

“Everything I do is about the elevation of the soul,” Dari says. “When the work is finished, I put every piece in a collection. I don’t know why themes emerge. It is something I feel inside. The point of life is to share emotion.”

Alessandro Dari’s museum workshop is at Via San Niccolo 115r, Florence, Italy 50125; Phone: +39 055 244747; http://www.alessandrodari.com/en/.

The Concierge

“Bene! Bene!” You can’t help but beam as Paolo Mori, concierge at the Hotel Lungarno, gives you an approving smile when you make a request, or take one of his recommendations. This is a man who could sell bottled sunshine because his heart is so open.

One afternoon, he tells my sister and me about an artisan workshop near the hotel. Rather than just give directions through the labyrinthine streets, he walks us through the neighborhood. Along the way, he shares the story of his life.

On one block, he points to the apartment building where he grew up. His father has passed on, but “my mommy is home now,” Mori says, happily. “I go to see her every couple of weeks, and she still cooks for me. She was a chef in a restaurant in Florence, so we ate well.”

The Oltrarno neighborhood of his childhood was a quieter place where he and his friends would play soccer in the street because there were no cars, tourists, or pollution to contend with. The cobblestone streets are still lined with small shops that the locals patronize. We stop in front of a local cobbler’s store.

Hotel Lungarno Concierge Paolo Mori. Photo by Dinah Eng.

Hotel Lungarno Concierge Paolo Mori. Photo by Dinah Eng.

“Here, they make handmade shoes,” Mori says. “When I was a kid, I would sit in that window, pretending to make shoes. It was great fun.” A few more feet and we cross the street. “And that’s where I went to church!” he exclaims. “On Sundays, we would visit the museums.”

He is proud of the neighborhood he calls home, and while he didn’t become a cobbler, he did try several other trades. He worked for a retailer, as a waiter, and tried plumbing before deciding to go into the hotel business. In 1997, he joined the Hotel Lungarno as a porter, was promoted to doorman, then concierge.

“I love my work,” Mori says. “Florence is my home, and I love to welcome everyone to my town. Every day is different because you don’t know who’s standing in front of you. It’s a universe of people from different countries and different perspectives.

“You have to figure out who’s in front of you, and what they’re looking for, in order to help welcome them. Florence is a warm town. It’s not Milan, where people are professional and stay cold.”

The oddest question he’s ever had from a guest? “One woman asked, where are the gondolas?” he says, laughing. “They are, as you know, in Venice. She was visiting so many different Italian cities that when we told her, she laughed, too.”

Mori has a fondness for America, having visited the United States on his honeymoon. He raves about the sights he took in at the Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, Las Vegas, San Francisco and Los Angeles. “Bellisimo!” he says.

Today, his wife works at IKEA in Florence, and they have an 11-year-old daughter. The family lives in the city suburbs, but Mori still loves the Oltrarno neighborhood of his youth.

“I love every single corner, because every corner has a secret, or something particular that only those who live here see every day,” Mori says. “A lot of the historical shops have been replaced by tourist shops and commercial places. Fortunately, Florence is still a wonderful town. Perfecto!”

The Oltrarno (meaning “the other side of the Arno”) neighborhood, lies south of the Arno River in Florence. Known as a historic, working-class neighborhood, the area is filled with local restaurants, small artisan workshops, and antique shops. Hotel Lungarno, Borgo San Jacopo 14, Florence, Italy 50125; Phone: +39 055 27261; http://www.lungarnocollection.com/hotel-lungarno.

The Food Connoisseur

One rainy afternoon, it was time for lunch at Irene Firenze, the restaurant inside the historic Hotel Savoy off the Piazza della Repubblica, The menu is different than most places in town, so Paul Feakes, the restaurant manager, stops to chat and explain why.

“We designed a menu for women,” Feakes says. “Men enjoy it, too, but we were very aware that people’s tastes and needs have changed. So while the menu is authentically Tuscan, the dishes are lighter, healthier, and address a number of allergies and intolerances. Vegan, gluten-free, lactose intolerant, whatever you need.”

Irene (the name of hotel founder Sir Rocco Forte’s mother) was chosen to give the restaurant a feminine feel, rather than a masculine title that might suggest a bar.

“Tuscan food is traditionally very heavy and very meat-based,” Feakes explains. “Considering a female palate enabled us to get creative with the menu. As a result, we’ve seen huge growth in both Italian diners and new international faces.”

Paul Feakes, restaurant manager of Irene Firenze. Photo courtesy of Rocco Forte Hotels.

Paul Feakes, restaurant manager of Irene Firenze. Photo courtesy of Rocco Forte Hotels.

Feakes, who has lived in Italy for seven years, is a food connoisseur whose journey has taken him around the globe. Feakes started in the catering industry in Great Britain, moved to work in California, then to an ashram mountain community in India, two hours north of Mumbai, where he cooked for about 300 people.

Eventually, he returned to the UK, where he helped to grow catering brands and re-styled food operations in the House of Commons when he was recruited to open Portcullis House, a building in Westminster that houses members of Parliament and their staff.

After a slight detour to become a psychotherapist, Feakes, and his partner of 21 years, gave everything up to move to Florence in 2009, looking for a total life change. There, Feakes started a private cooking school and opened an art gallery in Northern Tuscany’s Pietrasanta.

“I devised a way to put my creativity, my love of food, and my need for another adventure together by teaching English through the medium of cooking,” he explains. “This led to teaching at the Savoy, and I returned to my roots of pure food and beverage when I took over as restaurant manager for Irene.”

Moving to Italy suits the food connoisseur, who learned to speak Italian gradually as he acclimated to his new home. “I make mistakes, of course, but I like to think that I make beautiful mistakes, or make mistakes beautifully,” he jokes.

He sees food changing in Florence and Italy in many ways, and dislikes the trend toward over-complicating traditional dishes. For his taste, Tuscan food should be simple, seasonal and flavorful. A simple bruschetta with wonderful fresh tomatoes under the Tuscan sunshine, he notes, is divine.

Yes, there are cultural differences between England and Italy, but Feakes is more than happy where he is.

“For me the Italian culture fits how I wish to live,” Feakes says. “I miss things from England — a great beer in a country pub and our sense of humor. But I just love life here – being outside under the sunshine, and the rhythm of the life. I feel like a new Florentine, not like a foreigner in a strange town.”

Irene Firenze, Piazza della Repubblica 7, Florence, Italy 50123; Phone: +39 055 27351; https://www.roccofortehotels.com/hotels-and-resorts/hotel-savoy/restaurant-and-bar/.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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