At Cibrèo with friends the other night, I choose a fish wrapped in foil and cooked in its own juices with lemon and herbs. I notion to a sage leaf. ‘Is this the salvia we bought at the market last week?’ I ask Giacomo. No, he bought this sage the previous day. ‘You took another girl to Novoli!?’ I gasp in theatric disbelief. His friend assures me I am the only girl in the history of Giacomo’s mornings at Novoli who has ever willingly woken at 4am for a trip to the biggest wholesaler in Tuscany.
I have never been one to ignore a market. Say the words ‘mercato,’ ‘marche,’ ‘markt;’ whatever the language; I will find it and adore it. In special cases, I will set my alarm for what some consider the middle of the night just to take a spin around fresh produce and have a chat with the distinctive producers.
For Giacomo Picchi, Fabio Picchi’s eldest son, rising in the dark of the night is a regular occurrence. ‘Jack,’ as his friends call him, visits the ortofrutticolo in Novoli five mornings a week in order to personally choose the fruit and vegetables for all three Cibrèo restaurants: Caffè Cibrèo, Cibrèo Teatro del Sale, and Cibrèo Ristorante. Most restaurants do not have a dedicated person on staff to make the trip. Instead, they call their producers, place an order, and have everything delivered. For Cibrèo, the most humble, highly-regarded restaurant ‘empire’ in Tuscany, the quality of the ingredients is not something to be left in the hands of anyone outside the family. Never you mind that the business has been buying herbs from Enrico and greens from Piero since the first night of service in 1978. Fabio, renowned Florentine chef and creative persona, has grown Cibrèo into a fleet, complete with 25 chefs and the entire family at one post or another. For Giacomo, who spent a brief period in the kitchen at Chez Panisse and whose mother is a professional chef instructor, food and cucina Fiorentina is in his blood.
One morning I rise early and meet Giacomo at my favorite angolo in the city, Cibrèo corner. At 5am the caffe in Mercato Sant’Ambrogio is only just opening. We wait with ‘calma’ for a quick espresso before locating the van. Lucky for Giacomo, Novoli is only ten minutes from the center, pushed outside of the periphery due to its sheer enormity. It is the largest wholesale market in all of Tuscany and has been serving restaurateurs and food proprietors since the 1920s (prior to 1960 it was located in another zone.)
At 5:15am, we are already late. With a hand-written list scribbled by Daniele, head chef at Teatro del Sale, we begin. The first visit is always to Enrico, a Florentine caricature with a head full of white hair, a bushy white mustache, and jaded eyes. Giacomo brushes through crates of sage, rosemary, and mint in the back of the ape. Next is Piero, where we buy crates of spinach and dark leafy greens.
We drive the van around to another part of the enormous small city that is the ortofrutticoli, and I follow him like a little girl as he makes quickstep strides through the warehouse. We are on a ‘fragole’ hunt. He passes over crates of larger varieties from Basilicata before finally locating what must be the only stack of tiny strawberries in all 9000 square meters of the complex. He plucks two strawberries from the crate; one for him and one for me. It is only April; exceptionally early in the season, but the little bud bursts with flavor. We visit another producer for half a dozen crates of celery, another for cavolfiore (cauliflower), and another for lemons. By the time Giacomo is hauling ten colossal sacks of cipolle into the van and fitting all of the crates in like a puzzle, I am half asleep. His energy is tremendous; his strength even more so. After 15 years careening the Mediterranean on sailboats, he is more than pleased to work with his hands again. Driving back to Florence, dreaming about returning to bed, Giacomo’s phone rings. We forgot the leeks. ‘Amo porri,’ he tells me with fervor as we turn the van around.
We return to Cibrèo corner just as the egg producer arrives. She is here with her free-range eggs, and with wide eyes and hands in motion, Giacomo describes her chicken farm, how the ‘galluzzi’ run free and how everything is as natural as a storybook.
I ask what happens next. ‘Ora, colazione.’ It is just about 7am, and the day is beginning to lighten. I accompany him to La Loggia, a classic caffe two steps from Sant Ambrogio. He takes his second espresso of the day and a budino di riso, a classic Florentine breakfast pastry. I cannot believe that this man who just shuffled hundreds of pounds of crates and who has been awake for hours eats only a tiny budino di riso for breakfast. Isi, everyone’s favorite barman and reliable, dear friend at Caffe Cibrèo, surely saves a panino or two for Giacomo. By the time I return after a flash ‘morning nap,’ the majority of the 25 chefs on staff are crossing the cobble-stones from one kitchen to another, carrying a crate or two of the sage that Giacomo chose for them at the market.