It’s a prime dining location in Florence: an exquisitely laid table by piazza Santa Maria Novella. La Buona Novella Restaurant at Grand Hotel Minerva serves gourmet cuisine by night and contemporary hotel fare by day.
We spoke with talented young chef Tommaso Calonaci to find out about the new summer menu and his team’s sources of inspiration.
The Florentine: There’s plenty of fruit and vegetables on the menu. Is that a deliberate choice?
Tommaso Calonaci: Seventy percent of our menu centres around fruit and vegetables. On the summer menu, there’s mackerel with peaches. We bathe the mackerel first in salt and then in an acidulous marinade, where we add peaches macerated in vinegar. The fish is served with fresh and grilled peaches with miso. I like to use the broiler as it reminds us of Tuscan cooking, which we’ve lost a little in recent times. The idea is to apply a touch of sourness and char to unusual ingredients like peaches in this instance. We like to add contrast and movement in terms of taste and colour. You’ll also find cannelloni pasta filled with ricotta and nettles served with venison tartare and seasonal fruits. The aim is to serve dishes that have substantial and tangible flavours.
TF: Tell us about your signature dishes.
TC: One of my signature dishes is a chocolate mousse made from 70 percent Valrhona chocolate and extra-virgin olive oil, which enhances the flavour of the chocolate. We play with contrasting temperatures and consistencies: a slightly salty cocoa crumble, yogurt gelato, frozen raspberry caramel. As you dip a spoon in it, your mouth perceives the warmth of the mousse, followed by the gelato that lowers the temperature.
TF: That sounds delicious. What about a main course?
TC: Onion noodles is another dish that’s been on the menu for a year and a half now. It’s a recipe that everyone seems to enjoy, even people who aren’t convinced when it comes to onions. We slice them so they resemble spaghetti before marinating the strands in milk for a day before serving them like an elongated nest on the plate with grated pepper, lemon and liquorice dust over the top, plus a pouring of light Parmesan fondue. Given that the onions aren’t overworked, they maintain their crunchiness, while being delicately flavoured at the same time.
TF: We love the cocktails served with perfect snacks up on the roof. How difficult was it to devise these pairings?
TC: We’ve had a lot of fun developing dishes that pair with the cocktails concocted by our barman Kareem Bennett. The concept was to do something different with the hotel’s cocktail list. Our job in the kitchen was to develop snacks that complement the enticing drinks that Kareem has designed alongside Julian Biondi. The mescal-based Paloma, made from mescal and grapefruit, flirts with smokiness and freshness, so our solution, which plays with similar flavours, was a ceviche featuring smoked paprika and herring caviar. Creating a dish as a pairing is always a tricky business, but luckily Kareem and I have similar sensibilities. It almost never happens, but we managed to get it just right on the first attempt!
TF: The bread served at La Buona Novella is memorable. Do you make it yourself?
TC: In the kitchen, we make everything from scratch, including the bread, which we improve everyday—it’s a passion of mine. I really care about the starter yeast and sourcing mostly local flours. Our bread strives to be innovative as the perfect accompaniment to a meal, so we change it often.
TF: What’s your career path been to date?
TC: When I started three and a half years ago at Grand Hotel Minerva, I first spent a month under Giuseppe Mancino’s wing at Il Principe di Piemonte in Versilia—the Maestrelli family, the proprietors of the Minerva, are also involved in that hotel’s operations. Mancino’s a true professional and a wonderful person; he taught me the ropes of managing a grand hotel kitchen. Previous to that, I worked at Il Vecchio Mulino, in Bagno a Ripoli, before spending a short spell in Rennes, before returning to Florence’s Acquapazza, La Prova del Nove at Firenze Number Nine and La Ménagère under Davide Oldani. The management here at Grand Hotel Minerva believed in me from the get-go with a new kitchen—I was only 24 at the time. That first season was intense as I learned how to manage the all-day nature of the job, from breakfast to lunch, aperitif by the pool and dinner by the piazza. Now, it’s a well-oiled machine with one of the youngest and most talented teams in town.
TF: How would you sum up your culinary philosophy?
TC: For chefs, there’s always the risk of being tempted into using too many ingredients and frills, but in actual fact the best dishes are based on three elements that pair well together.
Piazza Santa Maria Novella 16, Florence
Tel. (39) 055 27230