As I sit at a reclaimed grayish wooden table and sip on my bubbly, bitter cocktail – the Spritz, it’s called – I look around me to take in the scene. The Florence is bustling with liveliness, but not too noisy; bright enough to read the menu, but dim enough to be sexy; cool enough to be hipster, but not so much to make anyone uncomfortable. I detest a restaurant that tries too hard.
The latest venture of celebrated culinary stalwart Hugh Acheson, The Florence is the new kid on the block, trying to nudge its way onto the scene amongst the rich history and cul-ture of Savannah with a subtle, cool flair. And nudge, it does. A thoughtful blend of tradi-tional Italian food, Southern flavors and beautiful, locally-sourced ingredients, The Florence serves up imaginative dishes that showcase extreme attention to detail and a return to the good stuff: wonderfully simple food.
Located in a non-descript two-story building on Victory Drive in Savannah, The Florence has an unpretentious, inviting vibe that Acheson uses to position the restaurant as the neighborhood joint. “Looking at the template for how a tourist town works when 80% is there for the tourists, and 20% is there for the locals. I want to do the opposite: 80% for the locals and 20% for the tourists,” Acheson told me when I had spoken with him on the phone earlier that day. “This gives credence to the locals; they are the heartbeat of the city.”
I swirled the enormous ice cubes in my drink – the really good, slow-melting kind of ice cubes – and was startled by the sudden presence of a baby face staring at me through black horn-rimmed glasses. “Anna?” he asks, his eyebrows arching in question as he extends his hand to shake my own. “I’m Kyle, the executive chef.” I take his hand and shake it. Cer-tainly this teenager in front of me could not be the executive chef of the newest, most gabbed-about restaurant in Savannah, I think. But then I realize he is probably thinking the same thing about me, as I am a baby-face myself, so I spared him the judgment.
Chef Kyle Jacovino sits down at the table with my husband and me, and we chat about the menu, the food, the wine, the place, the wood fire oven, which, by the way, was hand-made in Naples, Italy, out of volcanic rock and blazes at 900 degrees Fahrenheit. All of the items on the menu are Kyle’s creations, and he uses each group of food to craft a cadence to the flow of the meals here at The Florence. Kyle says that his goal is for diners to share the Beginnings group (appetizers) and Pasta en Casa section (pastas), and then order their own individual Pizzas, Proteins (seafood and meat) and Contorni (vegetables). The process of ordering each course elongates the dining experience, which he wants to be like the traditional family dinners in Italy.
“In Italy we eat for, like, hours,” Kyle laughs. “It’s really fun.” Kyle is humble and honest; the flicker in his eyes shows a hard-working young man with the type of passion about his work that makes me excited, too. His grandparents on his father’s side came over from Italy. His mother is half-Italian, “but we don’t talk about the other half,” he jokes, and I giggle as I sip on my cocktail that gets a little bit sweeter with each taste. We chat for a little while longer, and then Kyle politely dips out to continue to oversee the kitchen. I am more than impressed.
Allison, the general manager and wine director, then pops over to make an introduction, and she helps my husband and me sift through the thick binder of wines, all carefully se-lected and sourced from Lady Italy. The wines are divided by region, separated in the binder by little handwritten names on each tab. We flip to the one with Sardegna scrolled on the tab, and we are greeted with a picture of the wine’s place of origin and a brief description of its taste. I have met very few wines that I don’t like, and this one is no exception.
I abandon my Spritz for the splendid crimson Italian wine, and my husband and I proceed to order a slew of food. Following Chef Kyle’s orders we start with the Salumi – we ordered all three – then the Black Bucatini pasta (a favorite of Kyle’s) and the La Diavola pizza (a favorite of both Hugh and Kyle’s.) Faster than the switch of a cat’s tail, Kyle whisks over with a wooden board bearing artfully-displayed meats and homemade mustards. My favorite is the fresh pepperoni, thickly-sliced, served warm and made in-house! My husband’s favorite is the pork rillette, which he generously smears over a piece of crusty – yet fluffy! – bread. All breads are made in-house, in the wood-fired oven. Take that Sara Lee.
I wash down the spicy meats with a swig of my red wine and glance hungrily over at the kitchen. The waitress brings over the black bucatini, and the husband and I eagerly serve ourselves. After instructing him to twirl the pasta as opposed to cutting it – “People are looking! Act like we belong!” – we shove the pasta into our mouths, and we both open our eyes wide in shock and then simultaneously close them slowly with satisfaction. There is a lot of muffled “mmm”-ing going on; this pasta is unbelievable. A wonderful temperature with a great spiciness, the pasta is cooked al dente, and the seafood is too. And the sauce! Oh, the sauce. Perfectly creamy, but not milky; textured, but not chunky; brothy, but not soupy, it is an incredible punch of everything a tomato sauce should be and then some. I want to lap it up right out of the bowl like my parent’s Airedale would, but I use my Southern restraint in the name of social propriety.
I look over, and my husband has a bit of it on the tip of his nose. Always a good sign.
Onto the pizza course we go and continue the “mmm” sounds as we chomp down slice after slice of the heavenly La Diavola pizza. Encased in a soft, pillowy dough, this Neapolitan-style pizza is so scrumptious that, after a long strand of mozzarella cheese tragically slips off my fork, I pick it up by the end and pop it back into my mouth. “Waste not, want not,” my mother says. All social decorum is cast out the window next as my husband and I stuff ourselves silly with the scrumptiousness that is laid in front of us. My husband licks his thumb and then uses his fork to scrape off some homemade pepperoni from the pizza. I tear off a piece of the Diavola crust to sop up more of the tomato bucatini sauce. It is every man for himself as we proceed to devour the food as if it is our last meal on earth. “This food is so good, it’ll make you want to smack your mama,” as my father says.
After the meal is polished off, my husband and I are genuinely a bit sad everything is over. We walk back to the car, hand in hand, not saying anything to each other, in part because we are so full, but also because we both are mentally reeling over the epicurean extravaganza in which we just (over)indulged. “80% for locals, 20% for tourists,” I repeat under my breath, and I think about the strategy behind Acheson’s success. And clearly his strategy is working because my husband turns to me and says, “So, when are we going back?”
Written by: Anna Jones
Photography by: Emily B. Hall