It was a gelid, finger-freezing night when San Niccolò 39 enticed me inside its cosy chic interior.
Formerly Ristorante Filipepe along favourite neighbourhood Oltrarno street via San Niccolò, the textured grey walls with chic design touches and marine mementos remain unchanged; what is different is the energy.
Restaurant manager Paul Feakes, ex Irene Firenze at Hotel Savoy, lights up the dusky ambience with his unerring enthusiasm and charisma. “I put you in the donkey shed” is not a line you often hear while being led to your table, but the donkey shed in question is warm, welcoming and mercifully free from braying. A romantic hideaway, this corner of the dining room is topped in wooden beams and tailed in old stone flooring, sparking curiosity about all those who have trodden here before.
David Rockefeller, for one, who recently celebrated his 101st birthday at San Niccolò 39, thanks to a previous passing mention in The Florentine seen by his granddaughter who lives in Florence. The oldest living member of the New York family enjoyed lobster and chips served with homemade mayonnaise (36 euro, available on Fridays and Saturdays) with a bottle of slightly chilled Brunello.
Contemporary chic in San Niccolò
To the right of the entrance is a design-led square declaration of intent: “SO healthy, gustoSO, SOfisticato, SO chic, San Niccolò 39, appetitoSO, SOlare, SOrprendente”. The sophisticated lobby is the sort of place where you’re content to lounge on the curvaceous maroon sofa, watched over by an androgynous bust sculpture and enclosed by see-through shelving nestled with seagreen glass demijohns and gastronomic reading matter. Wait with drink in hand from the decadent mirror-backed bar, a reflection on the meal to come.
The restaurant is comprised of several dining areas, all equally contemporary and comfortable with a maritime feel, from square tables for two to round tables for slightly larger groups. This is not a place on which to descend in big numbers, better suited to the advanced stages of the dating game or for a special occasion tête-à-tête with your beloved. In the summer the outdoor terrace extends the experience with a Moorish meets Mediterranean ambience.
It’s sexy and seductive. The food at San Niccolò 39 reminds me of a little pink book titled Lust: Food for Lovers, which divides recipes by desire. A sumptuous prawn cocktail lavished on avocado-smeared bread (16 euro) would go into that paperback’s “Licky, sticky and yummy” chapter, while the umbrine fish, pear and hazelnut tartare (20 euro), an island of freshness lapped by an unashamedly unctuous shellfish bisque would feature under “Sensuous for two”. Under “Salty tastes that linger” (ahem), opt for the catch of the day (9 euro per 100g), proudly brought to your table for temptation purposes. The kitchen, headed up by young chef Vanni, will cook your fish any way you like, but – my tip – the salt-baked fragolino is delicate, scented, with none of the saltiness you might infer from the cooking method. On Thursday nights, spice things up with the samosa (8 euro) and tagines (22 euro), varying in flavour and ingredients from week to week, prepared by the resident Moroccan cook. Which would appear either in the “Something hot, hot, hot” or “Food that bites back” part of my little pink book.
Long gone, thankfully, is the perpetual wine list, page after page, name after name unknown to mere mortals who meekly crave a glass of fine red or wine. In a diner-friendly approach, the short but on-point wine selection at SO39 is listed by experience. Be reassured by Brunello and familiar labels or be bold and try something entirely new. For instance, a structured white Aglianico from Basilicata, a chameleon-like fish-loving wine. Its name? Preliminare, meaning, among other things, “foreplay” in Italian.
San Niccolò 39: seductive and seasonal, fresh and friendly, a meal to linger over with your loved one.
San Niccolò 39
Via San Niccolò 39, Florence
+39 055 2001397
Open for dinner, closed Mondays and Sundays