A slice of Italian piazza

CIBREO (TRATTORIA); Via dei Macci, 118r Piazza Ghiberti, Florence, Italy. Tel: 0039 55 234 1100. Open Tuesday to Saturday 12.50pm to 2.30pm and 7.30pm to 11.15pm. Closed bank holidays. Average price, pounds 15 per person. Payment by cash only
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Last Time I visited Florence, it was a red hot August and I was a student on a tight budget. One-and-a-half decades later, I find myself tramping the uneven pavements of Tuscany's most renowned city once again. The rucksack and sleeping bag are mercifully gone, but this time I'm encumbered by two small children, plus double pushchair, emergency milk, changes of clothes, nappies, etc, and have a group of 10 keen cooks in tow.

Technically, I am in Tuscany to work, as a tutor on a week's Italian cookery course, based high up in the hills above Arezzo. This morning, I lost most of my tutees to the joys of Florence's Mercato Centrale, but was amply compensated by the market itself. I came away with two bunches of plumed spring leaves of cavolo nero, Tuscany's fabulous black cabbage, complete with a recipe from the stall-holder for fettunta (the local version of bruschetta or crostini) con cavolo nero - tonight's starter, to be prepared by the errant class back in the kitchens.

A midday regrouping restores most of our party, and we set off across the city to another market and our setting for lunch. The Mercato di Sant'Ambrogio is rather more charismatic than the Mercato Centrale, with more of an air of bedlam and old-fashioned noise, bustle and red-blooded business. By the time we arrive the dustcarts are out, clearing up the morning's rubbish, and the stall-holders are battening down their hatches. As it happens, our timing is impeccable, for we have made it just ahead of the market workers.

Cibreo is actually a small conglomerate of eating places, gathered in the upper right-hand corner of the market's piazza. There's a smart ristorante, which my guide book describes as the "most Florentine of Florentine restaurants", and a friend tells me of its displays of tinned tomatoes above the counter, along with truffle oils and aged, fancy grappas. There's a cafe, too, but after a moment or two's hesitation, we aim straight for the small door tucked away behind an overflowing wheelie-bin.

The trattoria is small, to put it mildly; so small that they can only squeeze in four tables. The decor, if you can call it that, is basic: tiled walls, an ancient Coca-Cola chiller on one side and a coat rack. Through the door on the far side of the room you can see the ristorante, across the kitchen which both establishments share.

Our little crowd is just big enough to command the one empty table for itself - otherwise everyone shares, grabbing spare seats as previous occupants depart. The menu doesn't change, and it is deceptively understated. In theory, we four adults with a bit of help from junior mouths, might have managed to cover a fair spread of the dishes on offer. But we end up ordering multiples of the same things. Three plates of polenta con erbe and one sformato di patate e ricotta to begin, and three sausages and beans and two polpettoni di pollo e ricotta for the main course.

There comes a telling moment of silence around our table (children, too) as we take our first mouthfuls. I've never tasted polenta as divinely good. It doesn't look much, just a pool of runny, pale gloop, topped with a rivulet of olive oil, and grated pecorino, but the flavour is something else. We all sigh and then compare ideas, reckoning that it must have been made with a rich stock (not water) and perfumed with rosemary, basil and nutmeg. At the far end of the table, the sformato is eliciting similarly ecstatic noises. Smooth as the proverbial baby's bottom, the silky creamy cube trembles gently beneath the pressure of the several forks that reach over towards it. The spoonful of meat ragu served with it is as dark and intense as the sformato is pale and delicate, and lifted with a final grating of lemon zest. We have to order a second portion.

Meanwhile, tots corner has rampaged its way through a main-course helping of chicken and ricotta meatballs, bathed in a creamy tomato sauce, and is also demanding more, with a worrying note of urgency. The understanding and sympathetic waitress eases the situation with slices of chewy bread, and she chivvies the kitchen into full throttle to meet the infants' order. Peace descends again.

Our sausages fill corners we barely knew we had. They are meaty and plump to bursting, sunk into a mass of tender white beans, bathed in chilled tomato goo, and flecked here and there with pieces of that very same young cavolo nero that nestles in the carrier bag under the table. The one sour note in this whole sublime affair is, rather too literally, the house wine, but even this is mellowed into shape by the food and the atmosphere.

By the time we reached pudding, any vinous doubts have been smoothed well away. And what puddings they are, too. In our established conformist mode, we opt for the two chocolate offerings alone, the first a perfect, high-density, midnight-black chocolate tart, and the second a knee-trembling budino, an unmoulded set chocolate cream designed to send grown-up chocolate lovers into ecstasy, and luckily far too high in cocoa solids to please children.

The cost of all this heavenly food totals an amazing 175,000 lire, which translates to a mere pounds 65 or thereabouts for all of us, including a good tip for the ever-smiling, ever-patient waitress. If only I'd discovered this place when I was last in Florence, I might have enjoyed that visit more. With the savings I'd made on accommodation, I could probably have afforded to dine here several times over. And for a budget student, the loos would have set a final seal of success on the deal. Curiously at odds with the thoroughly non-designer dining-room, they are spacious (the man- agement could, at a pinch, fit a fifth table in here), colour co-ordinated and complete with those chichi taps that swish on automatically as you thrust your hands under them. Almost as fancy as the food itself.