“Where are you headed today?” the front desk manager asks as I’m checking out of my hotel in London.
“We’re headed to Florence tonight, for a steak. Then we’re off to Southern Italy first thing tomorrow morning,” I say.
“What an extravagant life you lead,” the manager says.
I hadn’t considered how extravagant my answer would sound until after I had uttered it: One night in Florence, for a steak.
Naturally, I would prefer to stay longer in Florence, one of my favorite Italian cities. But my final destination and my whole reason for being in Europe this time around was much farther south. I simply needed to catch a train to get there, and Florence seemed as good of a place as any to do that.
Besides, one of my all-time favorite food memories is of Florence’s Ristorante Buca Lapi.
I first dined at Buca Lapi several years ago, when Florence was indeed my destination. I had checked into my hotel around 8 p.m. on a Friday night and I was famished. I asked the concierge where I could find the best steak in town. Florence is known for its beef. Without blinking he said, “Buca Lapi. There is no one better.”
“Do you think I can get in?” I asked.
“When would you like to go?” he politely inquired.
“Right now,” I said.
He took a deep breath. He looked at his watch. “It’s Friday night, sir. But I will try.”
He dialed the restaurant and asked for the owner. They argued for what seemed like five minutes. And then he hung up.
“You are in luck,” he said. “Your table is ready.”
When I got to the restaurant a few minutes later, it was packed. As far as I could tell, every seat was filled. A dozen men stood in line outside in the alley, in the shadow of the Duomo, the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore, the centerpiece of Florence for nearly 600 years.
The owner hastily led me through the crowded restaurant to a small table in the very back corner, a table barely big enough for one person. Luckily, I was alone that time. Otherwise I probably wouldn’t have gotten in.
I ate steak. I drank single-vineyard Barolo. I didn’t care that I was sitting at a table that was never meant for dining. I can’t remember a more satisfying meal.
So I am nervous now, returning to Florence to share Buca Lapi with my partner, an extravagant one-night stop in Florence for steak and wine en route to somewhere else. Will it live up to my expectations? Will the memory of my first visit survive?
Buca Lapi has survived many things. This is the oldest restaurant in Florence, serving since 1880 in this same dank basement of Palazzo Antinori, a city palace owned by the famed Antinori family, who have been making wine in Italy since before the Duomo was finished. And for as long as anyone remembers, this has been one of the hardest reservations in Florence, something I hadn’t realized the first time around.
I requested my reservation one month in advance, to the day, which is when they open the books. They emailed back two days later. I was in.
When I arrive – on a Monday at 9 p.m., following a lightning-quick photo tour of the city’s most famous landmarks – everything is exactly as I remember. A group of businessmen in tailored Italian suits congregates in the alley, waiting for their table. The owner, the same guy who brusquely rushed me to my makeshift table last time, who I now know to be Luciano Ghinassi, and who is also the restaurant’s pastry chef, greets us at the door. He’s still in a hurry, frantically greeting guests and shuffling them to their seats so he can serve the spaghetti that keeps piling up in the kitchen window, steaming, emitting a distinctly tomatoey perfume into the air.
The kitchen occupies a small corner of the restaurant, just inside the front door. Pots clang against the stove. I can hear oiled steaks sizzling over red-hot charcoal as the flesh hits the grill. The visibly misty scent of grass-fed, dry-aged Chianina beef dominates the foyer. A waiter rushes through the crowd with a bottle of wine, a crisp white napkin draped across his arm.
I hear a loud “thwack!” I turn toward the kitchen. The chef has just slammed a meat cleaver into a 4-foot slab of porterhouse steaks, lopping off a single T-bone that weighs probably 5 pounds, the quintessential bistecca Fiorentina. I want that.
I want to stay and watch, but Ghinassi impatiently rushes us our table, the only empty spot in the restaurant, a really good table. The menu is vast. But I already know why I’m here. To eat steak. And drink Barolo.
I look around the room and notice that everyone is eating more or less two things: the spaghetti or the steak. It takes me another minute to realize that most of those spaghetti bowls are ultimately being cleared to make room for steaks. Most people are eating both: huge bowls of spaghetti followed by the biggest steaks of their lives.
We forgo the spaghetti and order the lardo (pork fat) on toast as an appetizer. And the bistecca Fiorentina for two. Minutes later, I hear another loud “thwack!” The waiter uncorks a 2008 Barolo.
The “steak for two” could actually feed four hungry men. But I’m here for just one night – for Florence’s best steak and for great Italian wine. And like everyone else in this beef-scented room, I’m feeling extravagant. There will be no leftovers. Tomorrow be damned.
And, yes, it is just as I had hoped. One of my favorite food memories is still very much alive.
This article originally appeared in the Orange County Register. To view more of my work for the Register, check out the archives. I also invite you to follow me and join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.