Alessandro Soltrani smiles a lot, and he has a lot to smile about as the owner of one of the most popular bars in Florence, Enoteca Sant'Ambrogio Caffè, situated in the Santa Croce district. Born and raised in Iran, he first came to Italy as a student back in 1976, where he studied scenography and interior design at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Florence. He still regards this city as one of the most beautiful in the world, and he knows it like a local. Moreso, he is known by all the locals!
Alessandro is the first to allude to the near impossibility of a comparison between Iran and Italy on a cultural and social level. Thirty-six years after leaving his native country and embarking on a new life in Europe, he has spent most of his adult life here in Florence, where he has established his career, family and home.
A food lover and design graduate, he took to the ground running and entered the bar and restaurant industry, managing and owning a few different bars in town before opening Caffè Sant'Ambrogio (www.caffesantambrogio.it) 21 years ago. Situated in the piazza of the same name, this bustling social hub sits on the bee-line course from Piazza Beccaria, along via Pietrapiana and straight into Piazza Repubblica.
When asked about the challenges of starting and managing a thriving business, he cites his friends and acquaintances who always tell him he works too much. He admits that he rarely delegates, and if he does, he is often nearby to offer support. Even with a full team of 10 including bar staff hailing from Florence, Albania, Poland and Slovenia, alongside his wife and daughter, he still works 5 of the 7 days a week that the bar is open.
Alessandro's daughter Sevil, born in Florence, works in the bar during the day. 'We don't see a huge amount of tourists here as it's off the beaten path for them and mostly frequented by Florentines, who come to the bar for the great selection of drinks and harmonious, friendly vibe. I live nearby and this is also where I hang out when I'm not working,' she admits.
This area of the city, however, hasn't always been such a cool spot. When Alessandro first took over the property it was in a part of town referred to by some as the ‘Bronx of Florence;' it was when traffic still sped down via Pietrapiana and across what is now the pedestrian square, which Alessandro has seen completely transformed over recent years.
Standing the test of time, both in terms of design and functionality, is much of the 'timeless' original bar structure that Soltrani designed 21 years ago and that still confidently ‘sets the scene' of his enoteca today.
As regards Alessandro's relationship with the Florentines, he has become a well-known figure of the community (involved with several groups and initiatives including the homegrown film fest, Festival dei Popoli) opening his doors to the world of customers that frequent the bar. 'It's all about them,' he says, '...the bar is built on customers; they need to feel comfortable, happy and respected and I always strive to offer them serious, good quality products. A lot of research and testing goes on behind the scenes.' Testament to Alessandro's philosophy and easy-going nature is the constant flow of people at the bar who go to enjoy the impressive wine menu or get some lunch. The bar, however, it great for seeing and being seen during the aperitivo, when people literally spill out onto via Pietrapiana chit-chatting and socializing with drinks in hand, often the Martini cocktail, which has become a flagship drink on the square.
The bar is also a regular haunt for some of the Florence celebrity jet set, precisely for the relaxed and unpretentious atmosphere. On a busy Friday night you may even find yourself being served a beer by Litfiba's Piero Pelù!
One place in the city that inspires you.
Piazza Signoria, without a doubt; for me it represents the whole city.
Best cappuccino and brioche?
Caffetteria La Loggia on via Pietrapiana.
Best Bistecca Fiorentina or best restaurant and why?
For bistecca it would have to be Da Ruggero on via Senese, which was recommended to me by the caretaker at the Accademia when I was a student so many years ago. I've been taking people there ever since! A little further out of the city is a place in Doccia, Il Maccherone; aside from doing an amazing bistecca, the whole menu is traditionally Tuscan fare and everything is superb. I often take friends and family there on a Sunday for dinner.
Favourite excursion fuori porta?
My house in the countryside! I work in the centre of town in a bustling, energetic atmosphere surrounded by lots of people, so my house, 15 minutes outside of Florence, is a corner of paradise where I can relax. I have a large area of land, including a football pitch! Then there is my pride and joy - my orchard - where I grow my own vegetables. I try and cook something fresh every day at home.
Famous monument or tourist attraction that you still haven't visited.
To be honest, I've seen most of the sights in Florence but I know there are several smaller museums and churches that I've yet to see. I've never been to a match of Calcio Storico Fiorentino, but that's my own choice.
All the bad words! Florentines seem to have one to fit every occasion, so there's such a rich variety to choose from.
One thing you will never get used to in Florence.
The dogs and their litter on the streets. I've been here a long time, and the problem never seems to have been confronted properly.
One thing the Florentines will always do better.
Cook! The food here is among the best in the world.