Firenze Trattoria: Rich aromas of Tuscany set the mood
When the two of us want to celebrate a romantic occasion like Valentine’s Day or an anniversary, only a certain kind of restaurant will do. Lately we’ve been drawn to the soft light, impeccable service, and delectable offerings of Firenze Trattoria in Salem.
This little hideaway fills up fast and doesn’t take reservations, so we like to arrive as early as 5:30 p.m. Admittedly, that’s not a very romantic hour for a dinner date — it’s when other restaurants are wooing diners with early-bird specials. But having arrived at Firenze once at 6 p.m. and encountered a line of people shivering on the sidewalk, we now take no chances.
A few weeks ago, when one of our birthdays coincided with our 33⅓ -year wedding anniversary (it’s a third of a century — doesn’t that merit a dinner out?), we headed to Firenze Trattoria.
“Firenze” is Italian for Florence, the capital of Tuscany, and Tuscany is synonymous with romance, as anyone who’s seen “A Room with a View,” “Under the Tuscan Sun,” and scads of similar movies knows.
On the dark blustery night of our most recent visit, warm light from the tiny restaurant’s front windows beckoned us like a sauna in the Arctic. Inside, French retro-pop played at low volume. (It’s an Italian restaurant, yes, but not a “Volare” kind of place.) Anticipation being a key ingredient of romance, the rich aromas of Tuscany wafting from the kitchen put us in the right frame of mind.
We normally skimp on lunch before visiting Firenze so that we’re hungry enough to order with abandon. On this last visit, while relishing our grilled and fileted branzino, spooning up the gnocchi with shrimp and mushrooms, and sharing the crostini and cheese, we asked ourselves why this place strikes us — and a number of our friends — as the perfect spot for a romantic night out.
Part of it has to do with its personal touch. As often as not, we’re waited on by Andi Kociaj, co-owner of the restaurant with his brother Zamir, the chef. The brothers are Albanian natives who moved to Florence as boys. Any time the owner of a restaurant prepares a meal just for you and the other owner brings it out to you with quiet pride, it’s surely a special occasion.
Part of it has to do with the intimate dining room. The tables, covered with crisp white tablecloths, are small and square, so you sit close enough to your partners to study their faces, share bites of food, and clink wine glasses with ease. That intimacy feels old-world. It transports you far from the United States, where everything is big and getting bigger.
And here there’s the physical sensation of warmth, especially on a raw night. At Firenze, it’s a full-body feel: The peach-yellow walls induce a feeling of comfort; the dishes — whether roasted vegetables or herbed beans — stimulate with their bright colors and heat.
It may help the ambiance, if not the bottom line, that the restaurant lacks a bar. After-work cocktails can be fun if you’re the one drinking them, but if you want a quiet dinner for two, an active bar scene can be an impediment (they do serve beer and wine).
If your taste runs to swankier surroundings and trendier dishes, Alto Forno in Peabody, with its chic dining room, superb food, and top-level service, is a sure way to impress your valentine. For those who prefer French cooking, small plates, and an intimate cafe atmosphere, Duckworth’s Bistrot in Gloucester is our idea of culinary romance. Both places take reservations, but Duckworth’s tends to get booked up weeks in advance. Note to readers: Valentine’s Day is only 11 days away.
For us, a key ingredient of romance is authenticity, and there’s nothing fake about Firenze. You’re not subjected to giant photo murals of the Amalfi Coast or to opera singers in training moving among the tables (yes, this can happen in the North End). Here the core of the experience, plain and simple, is the delicious, lovingly prepared food. Is there anything more romantic than that?
Firenze Trattoria, 2 Lynde St., Salem. 978-219-1188, www.firenzesalem.com.