"Don't fill up on bread."
That parental mantra has gone the way of "don't put your fingers in the clothes wringer," since it's the rare restaurant these days where patrons are treated to basket-upon-basket of appetite-slaying bread. Now, the norm is a few warmed slices from a respected local bakery's loaf, usually priced at about a buck apiece and sometimes accompanied by a pat of butter.
But it's worth reflecting on what those extra dollars have bought. The "don't fill up on bread" dictum made sense when restaurant bread was bleached, spongy and as characterless as the beige tuna casseroles that drive people to dine out once in a while. That bread bears zero resemblance to what's being served at The Florence, chef Hugh Acheson's first foray into Savannah, a city with a dining scene hurting for a shake-up.
Go ahead and fill up on pastry chef Chris Wilkins' bread. Not because there aren't good dishes to follow, but because the bread is a delicious distillation of the restaurant's concept, rather than a distraction from it. There is no shame in reveling in Wilkins' unbuttoned mastery of Italian technique and local ingredients - namely, the wild yeasts that have been knocking about the former ice factory housing The Florence's bar, restaurant and adjoining coffee shop.
On the night I dined at The Florence (because of the distance between Charleston and Savannah, I departed from standard review protocol and visited the restaurant just once), the bread slate was arrayed with slices of crusty, open-crumbed farm bread; seed-edged filone emblazoned with golden raisins; and dimpled focaccia with toasty tops, sliced tidily as tea-party sandwiches. The garnishes ran the gamut of basic tastes, with sea salt, butter, grassy olive oil and blueberry jam available for slathering experimentation.
The Florence must have lucked into a blueberry windfall just before I got there: My server's recommendations were so consistently blueberry-centric, from the opening cocktail to the closing dessert, that I was surprised he didn't send me home with a blueberry muffin for the following day. Admittedly, the jam was excellent, hardly a surprise at a restaurant fronted by a chef who's frequently written about preserving, but it overwhelmed the multilayered flavors that unified the breads.
Bread doesn't end with the modernized basket. The appetizer selection includes four kinds of bruschetta, giving diners a chance to carb-load before their meals of pizza and pasta. Really, the menu at The Florence reads like a manifesto against the nation's current bout of gluten-free madness, although it ends with traditional entree plates, designed to pair with vegetable side dishes sized for sharing.
My meal faltered the further I moved away from the bread, but I still left the restaurant impressed. My guess is most Charlestonians won't be blown away by chef Kyle Jacovino's food; The Obstinate Daughter and Indaco, both of which have had much longer than two months to practice, generally do a better job with the Calabrian chiles, olives, farm eggs and clams that have emerged as touchstones of Dixitalian cooking.
Yet what The Florence gets very right is the fundamentals: I can't think of a similarly priced restaurant in Charleston with such a polished wine program, and the service is terrific. If I could wish a restaurant on every American city that deserves one good downtown restaurant, I'd wish for a restaurant much like The Florence.
That's partly because The Florence is so versatile. Reservations are precious, which means diners are still treating visits like events, but listen closely: That Beck song on the stereo is telling you it's absolutely OK to wander in after work for a pizza and wood-fired cauliflower or a couple of well-made cocktails. (The shortage of prime-time reservations shouldn't trouble the Charleston crowd, since a 5:30 p.m. dinner works perfectly for an out-and-back, assuming a free afternoon and a designated driver.)
The casual dining room looks great. While wooden floors, brick walls and exposed rafters have become as de rigueur in restaurants as fire exits and working plumbing, The Florence's arched windows and subtle mint green color scheme, which runs the length of the rectangular room, are the sort of design elements that launch a thousand Pinterest pages.
Even with those plaid-upholstered stools spinning before the kitchen bar, what caught my eye first was the service staff. It's regrettable that hiring front-of-the-house workers for their abilities is still a notable achievement in the restaurant industry, but that doesn't make The Florence's evidently fair-minded philosophy any less commendable. Coming from Charleston, it was refreshing to see a multitude of body types and skin colors represented on the floor.
And, speaking of transcending stereotypes, The Florence's wine director is the very talented Allison Crumpton, who's assembled a compelling and readable list of Italian wines. Organized by region, the list - it's actually a three-ring binder - is crammed with accessible information and tremendous values: I lost count of how many bottles were priced at $35 or less. My only quibble is there's no way to cross-check by-the-glass wines against the book for their backstories, but my server spontaneously offered to beckon Crumpton if I had any questions.
Crumpton came up with a Trebbiano Di Lugana to pair with my black bucatini that pretty much made the course. The tomato sauce was electric with chiles that sparked off the fresh clams, curled-up shrimp and tangy cheese. But the noodles, clumped and soggy, seemed like they were crashing the party instead of enlivening it.
By contrast, a duo of sliced roasted pork and confit spare ribs with spiced pecans came across as thoroughly professional. The ribs waved the Georgia flag a mite more enthusiastically than many of the other dishes, which directly reference Jacovino's study trip to Italy, but the juicy, syrup-sweet pork is surely a crowd-pleaser. Other mains include a steak, half-chicken, whole snapper and fish stew, which was well-received at tables near mine.
If I went back to The Florence, I'd likely stick with the pizza. Although the margherita I tried was snuffed with too much basil, the crust - handsomely charred on its underside - had a wonderful sour puff. An ideal meal at The Florence would start with a short glass of vermouth (the restaurant is doing all it can to mainstream the civilized practice of drinking vermouth before supper), end with an expertly pulled espresso and, in-between, feature lots of Italian wine exploration sustained by great pizza and bread. Who could ever get their fill of that?
Reach Hanna Raskin at 937-5560.