It was a cold weeknight in February. Walking past the restaurant Il Latini, we saw a crowd, mostly made up of tourists, forming at the door of this perennial Florentine favorite. We were looking for something new and undiscovered and heard that Giovanni Latini, who had split from his brother Torello, current proprietor of Il Latini, had just opened a new eatery just blocks from the long-held family seat.
Family patriarch Narciso Latini began the dynasty in 1951 when he took over his uncle’s wine store on Via della Vigna Nuova. In 1965, he moved Il Latini to its current location, the former stables of Palazzo Rucellai. Narciso ran the restaurant with his sons until a few years ago. The brothers’ wives were rumored to have had a falling out.
It’s always a thrill to walk into a place, especially in a tourist city, and notice that the place is filled with Italians, with not one foreigner in the bunch. That was the scene at L’Osteria di Giovanni and luckily one table was still available — the one we had reserved.
In the Latini family tradition, this operation of this restaurant is truly a family affair. At 93, Narciso is still going strong (his granddaughter noted that his first ever trip to the hospital took place this year for something minor and he immediately asked, “When can I go back to work?”) and is the host most days during lunch.
Although proprietor Giovanni is always buzzing around the place, overseeing the dining room, it is a new generation of Latinis — Giovanni’s daughters — who are the driving force behind this place. Caterina, trained at New York’s French Culinary Institute, is the head chef. Her sister Chiara serves as the restaurant’s sommelier. They both speak English like natives (thanks to their Chinese-American mother) and make American guests feel additionally welcome. The girls also have a brother, Marco, but he lives in the U.S. Their mother, Carol, makes the desserts (for example, panna cotta or torta al cioccolato) and is behind the selection of the waiters’ funky leopard-print aprons.
A great family story is one thing, but obviously, the true test of a restaurant is the food. Our meal started with complimentary starters of fried vegetables (artichoke, squash blossoms, depending on the season) and a plate of coccoli (fried bread, name means “hugs” in English). For anyone whose beloved Italian grandmother made similar dishes, the surprisingly light, yet familiar taste of these traditional foods will bring tears to your eyes!
Next, we devoured a selection of appetizers including prosciutto, salame, finocchina, mouth-watering sheep’s ricotta and chicken livers on crostini. The Latini family has excellent Tuscan producers and you can taste the high quality of the meats and cheeses. We decided against ordering both a first and second course and each member of our group moved on to veal ossobuco, potato ravioli with black truffles and tortelli stuffed with pears and Pecorino, respectively. Absolutely rave reviews all around the table.
Chiara says that the most popular dishes are ribollita (a traditional Tuscan soup), pici (a type of pasta with sausage and kale sauce), Smokey Gnocci (gnocci with smoked tuna, swordfish and salmon) and bistecca alla Fiorentina (the famous Florentine steak).
The next day, we paid an impromptu late lunchtime visit to Il Latini to compare the two restaurants. The experience — average food, inattentive service — proved lacking. To be fair, Latini is known for its frenetic, communal dining (there are two dinner seatings) and large portions. Perhaps we didn’t try it at the best time or success has brought some complacency.
In contrast, there’s a palpable hunger in the air at Giovanni — the sisters and their father are open to trying new versions of Tuscan favorites, while maintaining a relaxing and welcome atmosphere. While they themselves may be hungry, the Latinis will make sure, you leave their osteria full and satisfied.
L’Osteria di Giovanni
Via del Moro, 22
(39) 055 284897
Open for dinner every evening and for lunch only on Saturday and Sunday.