Coco Lezzone

2 ponte vecchio.jpg The first time I ate at Coco Lezzone in Florence, it was at the invitation of film producer Dino De Laurentiis, who knows a thing or two about Italian cooking:

(1) He created the gourmet Italian DDL Foodshow Emporiums in New York and Beverly Hills about 20 years ahead of their time,

(2) His lovely granddaughter Giada, with many of her family’s recipes and great charm and skill, has become a best-selling cookbook author and very popular Food Network chef, and,

(3) He is Italian and always has been.

We were in Florence because that’s where Hannibal was being filmed, and Dino asked my wife Elizabeth and me and some others working on the film to join him at Coco Lezzone for dinner.

Now, before I describe what we found there, let me explain how you get there.  From Piazza della Repubblica, you walk in the direction of the Arno down Via degli Strozzi, which soon turns into Via della Vigna Nuova.  You pass Gucci and Dolce & Gabbana and, perhaps not surprisingly, Via dell’Inferno. 

You continue on to Via Purgatorio, and at this point you are tempted to wonder if you continued further would you hit Via Paradiso -- but don’t, because you won’t;  just as in the afterlife, heaven is very far away from these other places (and in Florence about 25 kms).  So stop and turn left on Purgatorio and let this darkening, narrowing alley lead you to Via del Parioncino where you will find the simple facade of Coco Lezzone on the corner.

When Elizabeth and I first navigated that route 7 years ago and walked into the restaurant, we discovered we were not the first of Dino’s guests to arrive.  Anthony Hopkins was already there, sitting alone at the reserved table, and before him, I kid you not, was a small plate of fava beans and a nice Chianti.

Coco Lezzone (whose translation is something like “dirty chef”) is a trattoria.  It’s old, authentic and family run.  It has a concise, no-nonsense menu of essentials that makes all other more extensive menus everywhere else seem unnecessarily cluttered and verbose.

To start with, you will be able to get either bean soup or tomato soup.  The bean soup is good, but the tomato soup, pappa al pomodoro, a thick mixture of fresh tomatoes and bread and olive oil, is unbelievable.  You will have a few choices of pasta, meats, vegetables, and desserts like fresh lamponi e zucchero, all good.  And you will have, if you also have a little foresight and good sense, the opportunity to eat the best Florentine steak in the world.

4 fiorentina.jpgFor bistecca fiorentina you must not only make a reservation at the restaurant at least a day in advance, but also reserve the steak itself.  This will tell the owner of Coco Lezzone, Gianluca Paoli, how much he has to buy from the butcher for the evening of your dinner.  (We once made the mistake of calling on the day of the evening, instead of the day before it, and had to beg Signor Paoli for fiorentina.  After several impossibiles from him and a lot more pathetic begging from us, he finally relented, and when we got there and sat down, we witnessed the arrival of our steak, carried in from the butcher, in a plastic bag leaking blood.)

Now, about the fiorentina:  It is served and priced by the kilo (40 Euros per).  You have no say on how much the two of you might want.  You are sized up with a glance from Gianluca, or a member of his family, a decision is made without your consultation, and before long 1, or 1½, or 2 kilos of meat is being delivered to your table.  It is very rare (there is no other way fiorentina is, or should be, prepared), it is sliced with the bone sitting next to it, it is floating on olive oil, it is peppered with coarse pepper, and it is - like that street you couldn’t find - paradiso.

Like its menu, Coco Lezzone’s atmosphere is simple and unpretentious.  It is warm and comfortable and convivial in the same way your kitchen is with friends and family hanging around while you cook for them.  Some of the white-clothed tables are separate; others are long communal ones you may share elbow-to-elbow with the mostly-local clientele.

The service, too, is no-nonsense, like at the house of a friend who likes you but does not love you.  There is no fawning here, just polite efficiency, which I’ll take any day over the reverse; I’m there to eat, not flirt. 

And it is fast.  Unless you’re with Dino or Roberto Benigni or Silvio Berlusconi or Hannibal Lecter, you’ll be in and out of there, and expected to be in and out of there on a crowded night (unlike every other place in Italy). in less than an hour and a quarter.

inferno.jpgI have been back to Coco Lezzone twice more since my first visit there in 2000, most recently a couple weeks ago with my son Charlie, and I can report that neither it nor the food has changed in the least in the intervening years, which is a very good thing.

If this place were in LA, I can assure you I wouldn’t be writing about it.  I wouldn’t want the secret out.  But I don’t get to Florence all that often, so I doubt I’ll ever have to wait in line behind you (though you may have to wait behind the many Florentines who love this restaurant as much as I do).

Remember, past Inferno, left at Purgatory, and just like those places, cash only.


Steve Zaillian is a screenwriter and director.