It’s the week of the menswear fair, Pitti Uomo, when I visit Florence. Oblivious to the fact the event was happening – though it did, with hindsight, explain why it was so hard to find a hotel room – I’m also oblivious to its world-famous attendees: “That’s Tommy Hilfiger!” my companion stage-whispers as we make our way through the Four Seasons lobby towards the landscaped gardens at the rear, where al fresco dinner is served.
Possibly there are other world-renowned stars from the international world of chic dining nearby, too; not my wheelhouse, and besides, I was distracted by the artwork all around the room. Here are a shoal of cheerful fabric fish by Anna Paola Cibin; here, carved stone reliefs, gleamingly resorted, that date back to the building’s original life as the fifteenth-century Palazzo de Gherardesca; and here a marble statue of surpassing ugliness, depicting a tussle between an agitated rooster and a small boy whose petulant expression lends him a striking likeness to the current American president (luckily the sculptor didn’t depict him grabbing a cat or there’d have been an international incident by now).
There’s more art out in the lush grounds where the restaurant Il Palagio serves dinner, but on the evidence of a brief stroll around the poolside, it’s safe to stay put beneath the pergolas on the terrace and enjoy a dinner whose artistry outshines the nearby sculptures. On a warm evening in July, it feels like there can be no better place in Florence to dine al fresco as the sun slips away.
It’s a meal perfectly judged for a summer evening: the servings aren’t overwhelming in size, and the flavours on plates are bright, sharp, sweet and limpid. They’re also exceptionally beautiful: raw scallop is served on a bed of vividly coloured red and golden beetroot carpaccio; raw scampi look as though they’re inching their way over a mound of linguine twirled into an elegant roll and spiked with red chili and anchovy sauce. Roasted duck is served with rhubarb and chard such a dark green it’s almost black, all iron and blood, but meticulously portioned not to overwhelm.
The menu balances lighter flavours suitable for ravishingly hot Italian days with the luxury ingredients its clientele is likely to want to see whatever the weather. These are simple-seeming dishes, though for a moment I detected a very slight culinary snook being cocked in the featuring of bone marrow and caviar in a single dish. In fact, since miraculously this combination accentuates but does not overwhelm the dish they garnish, that summer-light plate of scallop and beet carpaccios, it’s just a forgivable small flourish of confidence in cooking.
Well-sized though these dishes are, we declare ourselves defeated after three of the typical four. As a substitute for a heavier dessert – choices include a summery peach melba or, for the brave, a sponge cake drizzled with Strega, Italy’s aptly named witch’s brew liqueur – Il Palagio offers a raft of variations on an affogato: I plump for the one that mentions violet, and am delighted to receive a small and surpassingly elegant arrangement on a silver platter, comprising a small scoop of lemon sorbet in a coupe, and an antique glass apothecary’s bottle of violet-flavoured gin the colour of your grandmother’s eyes.
Out at Pitti Uomo there are shoes covered in reflective silver spikes, and poseurs being snapped for fashion blogs in their identical cropped shiny trousers and slicked shiny hair. In the serene grounds of Il Palagio is where the real style, understated and for all seasons, is happening. C
Il Palagio, Four Seasons Hotel Florence
Borgo Pinti, 99, 50121 Forence, Italy
+39 (055) 2626 450; fourseasons.com