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Just Back From Florence

Hotels, restaurants, shopping

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Hotel Renaissance
The renovation of the Hotel Excelsior, completed three years ago, has made it the most luxurious grand hotel in the city. The room decor is nicely understated—period 18th-century Florentine furniture—and the location, right on the Arno and a 10-minute walk from Via Tornabuoni, is ideal. Fifth-floor rooms have the best views, such as that from the Belvedere Suite, which has a view of the Duomo and the Ponte Vecchio. The 33-series rooms overlook the Arno downriver. $482-$2,400. 3 Piazza Ognissanti; 39-055-264-201; fax 39-055-210-278.

But We Still Like
The Hotel Helvetia & Bristol for its cozy intimacy and location, right next to the Palazzo Strozzi. Double rooms can be small though, so ask for a Junior Suite. One good choice: number 353. $412-$990. 2 Via dei Pescioni; 39-055-287-814; fax 39-055-288-353.

Label Conscious
Fuori Porta means "outside the gate," and refers to the location of this enoteca, just beyond the old city wall on the other side of the Arno. The food is simple—bruschetta, crostini, and crostone. It's the 600-label wine list, by all accounts the second best in town after Enoteca Pinchiorri, a two-star Michelin, and the adjacent wine store that make this a must-stop (shipping available). Both are deep in great Italian reds, and prices are astonishingly reasonable—Antinori's silky 1993 Guado al Tasso costs about $50, for instance. There are also 30 selections available by the glass each day. Check out the list at About 15 minutes from the Piazza della Signoria by cab. 10r Via del Monte alle Croce; 39-055-234-2483; fax 39-055-234-1408.

Front Burner
Fabio Picchi, the chef-proprietor of Cibrèo, still does the most innovative cooking in town—meaning no pasta, among other things. (In America he would have spawned a host of imitators by now.) One great dish: cuttlefish soup, made with squid ink. Tip: Lunch is far less crowded than dinner. $50. 8r Via A. del Verrocchio; 39-055-234-1100.

Take to the Hills
The pollo shiacciato (grilled chicken) at Omero, a small, rustic place above the city in Arcetri, is lip-smacking good. Plus, the restaurant is open on Sunday night, a rarity here. $50. 11r Via Pian de Giullari; 39-055-220-053; fax 39-055-233-6183.

Mark the Date
In January even luxury store windows are emblazoned with signs screaming Saldo (Sale). One great exception is Ferragamo, which offers fabulous merchandise at 50 percent off, but lets word get around town on its own. With the terrific exchange rate (2,000 lire to the U.S. dollar), that means a pair of men's suede shoes costs only $80. Usually the second week of January. Palazzo Spini Feroni, 4r/14r Via Tornabuoni.

Choice Objects
Casa Blanca, which opened last July, has a marvelous selection of Italian furniture and objets from the '30s and '40s, plus original Fornasetti plates. One great thing: A Venini floor lamp ($1,500) with a glass column of swirling white lines, a technique called vetro lattimo. 41r Via dei Fossi; tel/fax 39-055-277-6265.

Illuminating Experience
I've always loved those Florentine floor lamps with the curlicue ironwork column and the parchment shade. Through cashmere maker Brunello Cucinelli I found out the best place in town to get them: Albrici (20r Via Serragli; 39-055-211-095). Cost: $750.

Taxing Issue
You can now file the VAT refund form in central Florence at Downtown Cash Refund, instead of bucking the lines at the airport. But only on weekdays from 2 to 6 p.m. 2 Ponte Vecchio (first floor); 39-055-211-567.


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