The village of Calenzano is nowadays a suburb of Florence. At first it might seem like a large retail park and industrial zone, and indeed much of it is, but there is an old area with a medieval castle up on the hill at Calenzano Alta, you just have to look hard to find it.
In terms of cuisine, the area is famous for its olive oil which I can recommend wholeheartedly, though finding someone to sell it to you might not be so easy.
My employer puts us up at either the Delta Florence or the First Hotel, which are right next to each other, on either side of a motorway slip road. To get to them from Calenzano station (about 30 mins walk as there are no taxis at the station although you could try calling one from a bar) turn right onto the main road from the station square and just keep going straight. You will go over a small bridge, past the Piscina Communale (community swimming pool, not open to the public until very late) and over several roundabouts (rotondi) until you get to one with a huge rusty wheel (illuminated blue at night, see pic) where you will see the hotels just after a large Carrefour hypermarket.
Due to some confusion over my reservation, I got to see both hotels and can tell you that the rooms are pretty much the same; small, beige and a bit depressing. The First Hotel, where I eventually stayed, does have a swimming pool, though it doesn’t open till mid June when it’s officially summer in Italy. Of course with my luck, I was there in May. The breakfast is ok and the staff mostly helpful but the walls are paper thin and there’s the odd mosquito.
To get to Calenzano Alta, and the restaurant below, go back three roundabouts towards the station until you see a sign saying ‘Calenzano’ pointing to the right with another sign saying ‘Municipio’ below it. Go along this long straight road until you come to Via Molina, turn left and continue going straight along the road and through a small pedestrianised area. You can turn right up Vico Molina or take the next right, Via del Castello, which takes you right up to the nearest castle tower. You will see the castle towers at several points along the way but Via del Castello is the only logical approach. I had to ask several people the way the first time and they all made it very complicated but it’s easy once you know. Brush up on your Italian directions though!
La Terraza (Intermediate B), 25 Via del Castello, Tel. 055 887 3302
This is a lovely spot, right next to the tower, and has fantastic views of the plain below (pylons and factories by day but the city lights at night). However you won’t get these tables unless there are four or more of you.
The service was quite possibly the slowest I have ever encountered! I waited half an hour for my order to be taken and the same again for it to arrive, unlike an Italian couple who were served first despite arriving after me. Still, it wasn’t as bad as for the English couple on the next table who waited ninety minutes for their food even though they had arrived before me! They said they’d been the night before though and waited an hour, so they were used to it. Another couple without a reservation coming in after me were turned away as I don’t think the staff could cope.
The restaurant seems to basically be a three person operation with a single chef moving at a sedate pace in the kitchen and a grumpy middle-aged waiter rushing around frantically serving the whole restaurant by himself. The third person is granny who cuts and distributes the bread, does the dishes and various odd jobs and who will only smile if you force her to.
Fortunately the food more than made up for the service.
Ceps were in season (in stagione) so I leapt at the Tagliatelle ai Porcini Freschi which was pretty good though not amazing (B).
While I’d been waiting I’d seen the waiter carrying a huge t-bone to a nearby table where a guy the size of Mr. Creosote gobbled it down. Tuscany is famous for its steak so the second course was a no brainer. It had to be Bitstecca alla Fiorentina nel Filetto.
I pointed at Mr. Creosote’s table and ordered the same. The waiter didn’t want to give it to me though because at 1kg he thought it was going to be too much, but I insisted. It had to be the biggest chunk of meat I’d ever eaten (the picture doesn’t do it justice, it was three fingers thick as is tradition) but I just about managed it. It was of course awesome (A+).
The waiter recommended a Calenzano red, I think a Pinot Noir and Gamay blend; Tenuta di Son Donato Marchesi Pancrazi (2011), which was excellent (A) despite being one of the cheaper bottles on the menu at only €12.
The neighbouring town of Prado is famous for its biscuits so I tried the Biscottini di Prado con Vin Santo for dessert. They were fine (B), but not perceivably different from the other hard brittle ‘cantucci’ I’d been getting all over Tuscany.
The Castello di Uzzano (2004) vin santo (del Chianti Classico) was excellent though (A).
Finally I persuaded the waiter to sell me a bottle of olive oil which had come from their own grove just 200 metres away.
Total cost €75 (not including the steak), €43 of which was the steak. Good food, but make sure you reserve, arrive early, and bring a book!
Il Portico (High Intermediate B+), 12/14 Via Enzo Cherzani, Tel. 055 883 9778, www.ristilportico.it
This is the easy option from the hotel (it’s between Carrefour and the First Hotel) and although it looks a bit modern and characterless, I ate and was served very well here.
Continuing my mushroom obsession for the second day in a row I opted first for the Risotto ai Funghi Porcini which was sublime (A).
More good Tuscan meat for my secondo; Lombatina di Vitella alla Brace, or grilled loin of veal, with a side of fries. Deeply satisfying (A).
Drinks wise I started with a glass of Prosecco (celebrating my last day of work) and moved on to a 2010 Chianti Classico called Rocca delle Macie which, if memory seves, was pretty good (B).
Finally, a glass of ‘Nivole’ Moscato di Asti (Michele Chiarlo 2012), also very good (B+), and an excellent accompaniment for the delicious Zabiglione (A). Total cost €47, which felt reasonable.
From the roads signs I passed I gather there are a few museums, parks and churches in Calenzano that might be worth seeing should you need entertainment. You could check them out on the tourist website.
Or you could hop on the bus to Florence. The bus stop for the #2 to Statzione Centrale is just over the road from the front of the First Hotel. It takes 40 minutes and costs €2 which you can pay on the bus. Reception can provide you with a printed timetable. The last bus back from town is at 00.30.