Requiem aeternam dona defunctis, Domine.
Et lux perpetua luceat eis.
The Florence is dead, and unlike Mark Antony speaking of Ceasar, I come to bury her and to praise her. You hath been told that The Florence was ambitious: if it were so, it was a grievous fault, and grievously hath the Florence answer'd it.
For three short years there appeared to be a true battle of wills between a city that is far too content to eat fried seafood every day and get their pizza from chains and a restaurant that had a simple but elevated idea of illuminating the culinary DNA shared by the South and the South of Italy. That battle was visible in the customers' reviews that ranged from elated to infuriated almost in equal measure on Yelp, Facebook, or Tripadvisor. That battle was also evident in the almost defiant menu that the restaurant consistently put out where they actually relegated the most relatable item, Pizza, from a place of prominence to almost "blink and you miss it" position in small typeface and pushed the boundaries of local sensibilities (particularly in regards to price). Most people in Savannah probably expected their dish to come with an included side item, and were no doubt confused by the words "pre fixe." The folks at The Florence will tell you that they never compromised "who they were", which is true, but maybe sticking to their guns wasn't the best course of action. Thus the city has won, as it always does, and the only truly exciting restaurant I've experience in my entire three decades plus as a Savannah native quietly makes its way into obscurity.
I tried to tell everyone about the wonderful happy hour deal that was available every night they were open. I spent a lot of time preaching the aesthetics of the building, the execution of the food, the perfection of their pastries available at brunch, and the overall "not-like-a-Savannah" restaurant experience they offered. I thoroughly enjoyed their "Rooftop Reels" on Sunday evenings, especially during the first summer when they showed all of the Bond films for free upstairs so that you could enjoy a pizza and a flick. It turns out, at least some of those things were dinners' biggest complaints. People did not like the "cold" or "antiseptic" feel of the old converted ice factory. It is unarguably a beautiful space, top to bottom, and I simply don't understand what people found off-putting--particularly in hot weather when "cool" is exactly what I want, and it's always hot weather in Savannah. You can't make everyone happy, but it seems like locals in Savannah went out of their way to be unhappy with The Flo complaining about parking (they had a nice covered deck behind the building) or the fact that it wasn't "real Italian" (a argument that seems so inane in Georgia that I almost didn't type it out). I personally never thought of The Florence as an "Italian" restaurant. It was a good place to eat food that had some Italian influences. Mario Batali talks always about how Italian cooking is primarily defined as using what is in that particular region, and not a set list of ingredients or even techniques, rather an attitude. Florentines would never use fish from Puglia, and Bologneses are not going to cook with Sorrentino lemons. It that way The Florence was the most Italian of any restaurant in Savannah; everything made in house and sourced locally so that the menu changed with what was available but the quality never diminished. That sort of nuance though still has not caught on in the Coastal Empire, and in many ways I suppose that is makes what chef Kyle Jacovino was doing at The Flo all that more "trailblazing." It will take a while still, but supposedly Kyle is staying in Savannah, so maybe there is hope in the future.
We first visited The Florence for our last meal of 2015 (thus begins the retrospective portion of this discourse.) We came in, last minute, to celebrate New Year's Eve. At the time we were only visiting Savannah, still being based as we were up in Atlanta, and it was our first opportunity to check out the year-and-a-half old venture from "celebrity chef" Hugh Acheson: a very well known name in the Atlanta and Athens region. Hugh himself was there that night, dressed in a suit while expediting and running dishes out to dinners. He actually stopped and spoke with people throughout the evening, which I thought was a nice touch. We didn't actually see him at the restaurant again after that.
The menu that night featured the pizzas prominently in their own section. We chose the Lorraine in honor of my sister, and also because it had meatballs and chilis. It was the best pizza we ever had in Savannah, and sadly we never saw it on the menu again when we finally moved down here six months later (though the calabrian chilis were always a big component of the cuisine at the Flo.) We also had the joy of sampling what had been two "staples" of sorts on the menu by then, the whole-yolk ravioli and the pork cannelloni. Both dishes proved to us beyond a shadow of a doubt that chef and cooks in the the big open kitchen were at a level above anything else I'd ever known in Savannah.
To guild the lily, since it was New Year's Eve, we also had a foie gras dish that was beyond decadent with raspberry jam, nuts, and some kind of delicious fried brioche. I may have never seen foie on a Savannah menu before that night. I really haven't seen it since.
That first night showcased the Italian sensibilities of the place, but also was the first in a series of unrelated "bests"; the first being a glass of eggnog. It was the end of December and they still had "Hugh's Nog" on the menu, and it was by far the best iteration I'v ever sampled in a public space.
By summer 2016 we had firmly reestablished ourselves in Savannah, and it was around this time they started the "Rooftop Reels" series wherein they would set up a projector and screen in the upstairs bar to show films. The first series was Bond, and I was fortunate enough to get in a few times to relax and watch 007 shoot up the place. There were never too many people at the screenings, but I didn't take that to mean much at the time since these were on Sunday evenings, but it started to give me the inkling that something was off. It was during one of these screenings, Casino Royale I believe, that I ate another in the list of "bests." That time it is was the single best dish of anything I've yet to eat in Savannah: wood-fire grilled lamb heart. In my haste and enthusiasm I failed to get a photo, which was a common theme of my experiences there at the Florence (I never got a snap of the amazing pork belly and oat dish either). I still think about that lamb heart constantly, even though it would unfortunately become emblematic of what so many people found frustrating about the place. I loved it. I wanted it again, but by the next Sunday (I think they skipped Quantum of Solace and went straight to Skyfall) it was forever off the menu.
By the summer of 2016 things started to fall apart. Every time we went in, be it dinner service, brunch, or happy hour, the place was pretty well empty. The pleasant little cafe portion of the complex was no longer open during they day, or at all as a separate entity. They had also ceased lunch service by then, so I never got to try the pretty sandwiches that I had stalked on Instagram for about six months from up in ATL. They did open the cafe up for one day later in the year, but lunch never returned.
Brunch became the only time to get the amazing pastries made there on the premises. A few times we went to brunch on Sunday intending only to eat the perfect almond croissants, not to mention the blueberry scones with clotted cream (British!) and the guava and cream cheese pastries (Latin American!) all while enjoying an americano or espresso. I always ended up getting at least on dish though, and it was there at brunch we discovered another "best." For a few weeks they had a tamale dish that was unruly in how delicious and perfectly executed it was using beautiful Anson Mills hominy, then folding in pork fat, and confit pork into the masa.
Here you can see the pattern now: eggnog, lamb heart, croissants, tamales. People in Savannah apparently couldn't handle these distinctly non-Italian items at a restaurant that also specialized in Napolitana-style pizzas and fresh pastas.
For its last year we were pretty regular at the Happy Hour, getting our pizza (or two) and sampling other dishes. The bread plate (baked in house) was always a tasty snack, but my continued favorite was the ever evolving octopus dish. The meat was always delicate with a crusty char, but the ingredients below the tentacles changed over time depending on the season. One memorable version had a sort of pepperoni ragu. The final variation the last week of service was with chile verde, harissa, potatos and the incredible roasted padron peppers that were regular supporting members of the menu's cast.
That last week of service also brought back a few other memorable hits from over the years including that whole-yolk ravioli. One I was pleased to get to try before the end was the sweet corn agnolotti which almost brought me to tears as I ate it and realized that I'd never have its like again, nor would anything in Savannah come close to its simple beauty for who knows how long.
The last week was sort of a mad dash to get in and appreciate what we could, pay our respects to the great crew of servers and cooks that had treated us so well over the last two years, and eat as much Happy Hour pizza as possible. People on the internet seemed to complain about the service at the Florence often, but as Jesse Blanco put it in his farewell piece at Eat it and Like it, that's a Savannah problem. For us though, especially by the end, there wasn't a better group of servers anywhere.
Our last meal was indeed a sad one, not only for its finality but also because it was the first time we had tried one of the calzones. So often we were blinded by our pizza lust that it took our last meal there to finally open our eyes and see what was right in front of our faces. I never eat calzones, and I've been a fool. Like literally everything else at The Florence, it was a work of art.
There really is nothing left to say that hasn't been said by so many others in Savannah over the last week. Restaurants like The Grey and Atlantic, knowing that they owe their current success at least in part to The Florence being the first to stir up the stagnant culinary waters of this smelly swamp town left very nice parting messages on blogs and social media.
It was impressive to see all the people who loved and valued The Florence fill out the space over the last week. Though, I'm sure lots of people came for the first time as well, since there was a time limit, which really is a shame. I hope that all the crew land on their feet and move forward with new ventures, and we certainly look forward to what Chef Kyle Jacovino is going to do next, but our hearts remain broken just the same.
Notes on the gallery from left to right: pizza margharita, the happy hour staple. Pizza and octopus. Smoke tomato bruschetta with fried egg. Smoke chicken hash with coddled egg. Bread plate with traditional accompaniments. Duck breast with carolina gold rice "grits." Prosciutto and melon. Chocolate cake and vanilla gelato. Brioche French toast with grappa whipped cream and blueberries.