When Sharon Oddson and I met for a chat on a cloudy fall morning, shortly after unlocking La Cucina del Garga, her family-owned restaurant not far from the heart of San Lorenzo, she offered me a cappuccino. But even after four decades in Florence, she handed it to me with some requisite straniera reticence: ‘I’ve never quite mastered them,’ she admitted.
An accomplished restaurateur, artist and cookbook author, Sharon’s colorful expat story reads like the stuff of Hemingway-driven daydreams. Originally from Canada, she spent much of her childhood in Winnipeg but always intuited her ‘international destiny,’ as she termed it. ‘I’m very proud to be Canadian,’ she explained, ‘but we moved often, so I never had a true sense of belonging to any particular place.’
A hint of European influence subtly shaped her childhood. Her maternal grandparents were from Copenhagen, and Winnipeg had a vibrant art scene that drew her in. Passionate about painting by the age of 12, she visited a local Van Gogh exhibition and can pinpoint that as the moment she first felt Europe’s pull.
Once Sharon surrendered to that wanderlust, Switzerland was her first stop. She stayed there until family events took her to Copenhagen. ‘From there, my grandparents, mother and I traveled to Florence, arriving on a ridiculous bus tour,’ she remembered, shaking her head, ‘but I immediately loved it so much that when my grandparents were heading back to Winnipeg, I had to push—you know, “Mommy, can’t we just stay here a few more days?’”
When her mother returned to Canada, Sharon stayed behind, taking courses in art and Italian language. As she began forging friendships with fellow creatives, Sharon was swept into the heady Florentine art circles of the day. Jumping into this early ’70s café crowd with both feet, she met Giuliano Gargani, a charismatic painter called ‘Il Garga’ among those in the know, and the two soon ‘never left each other’s side.’ Beyond their mutual attraction and shared artistic interests, the two were both fascinated by food. To pay the bills, Giuliano worked in a butcher’s shop that he eventually purchased, and their fun hobby soon turned into a business opportunity they couldn’t pass up.
When a neighborhood trattoria owner reached retirement age, they took over his restaurant, not knowing what they had walked into but managing to build a faithful following of friends, students and local artists. Despite the bohemian charm of it all, Sharon was frequently overwhelmed: ‘I was at the front of the house, and as a young, foreign woman it was tough to give myself any real credibility with the Florentines,’ she admitted.
But the intimidation factor never held her back. ‘I am a Capricorn: I’m very stubborn. I was going to succeed in Italy if it killed me,’ she laughed. She faced myriad struggles, though, and confesses that living with her mother-in-law was chief among them. Marrying young, raising children and ‘making house’ with people whose worldviews were far removed from her own, she toiled tirelessly to reinvent herself all’italiana before having an epiphany: ‘I realized that I am not Italian and will never be—to survive, one just has to accept being a bit ‘between cultures.’ You can’t forget where you come from, and Italians won’t let you anyway, so why would you fight it?’
Unsurprisingly, as her defenses came down, Sharon confidently carved out a niche for herself. Her trademark cheesecake became the most talked-about dish on the dessert menu, and she started teaching Tuscan cooking classes to travelers and locals alike. The international side of the family business kept her stimulated, and continues to drive her today, two years after Giuliano’s passing. The restaurant is a true team effort—Sharon’s son Alessandro keeps the kitchen running; daughter-in-law Elizabeth assists with operations and key business decisions; and Sharon herself teaches the classes, shops the markets and frequently spends evenings keeping tabs on the tables.
Having been here for so long, Sharon has seen and experienced every side of expat life, from being blinded by Florence’s beauty to banging her head against a wall now and then. She considers it all par for the course: ‘When you live this life, you just have to embrace all of it. I’ve realized how fortunate I am to be a part of a world that still isn’t completely my own, and to have these different sides of me. It’s very beautiful, in a way.’
And, for the record, her cappuccino wasn’t half bad.
Best bar for an aperitivo?
The Biblioteca delle Oblate. For a ritzier night, I like the rooftop bar at the Excelsior.
Best restaurant or place for bistecca fiorentina in Florence?
I think I’m probably obligated to say La Cucina del Garga in via San Zanobi. But in all honesty, I really do think my son Alessandro does it better than anyone else.
One place in Florence that makes you happy or inspires you?
The Brancacci Chapel.
The biggest difference between Italians and Canadians?
Canadians make an espresso last 10 minutes.
Best day trip in Tuscany?
That would have to be climbing down the cliff at Cala Leone in Calafuria, Livorno, for a swim in the sea.
Favorite view of Florence?
From the Bardini Gardens. I’ve only ever been in the fall, and there’s this smell of rotting leaves—it somehow gives me a great sense of peace.
Pet peeve or something you will never get used to living here?
Everyone still speaks to me in English, even after 45 years. I used to get really defensive, but now I just give them a big smile and say ‘si, lo so, ho questa gran faccia da straniera.’