I last saw Fabio Picchi in December of last year. I was in Florence for a few weeks, and I’d been looking regularly for the man in “Cibreo-Town” (the auspices of Sant’Ambrogio that has been Fabio’s ever-increasing gastronomic headquarters since 1979). The people I asked – his son/protegee; the general manager of Il Teatro del Sale; the long-standing hostess at Cibreo Ristorante; the sommelier at Cibreo Trattoria; the barista at Cibreo Caffe) – all said he was around. He was always around Cibreo-Town, so I kept looking. I finally found him at C.BIO, his new gourmet market with an additional array of non-gastronomic products (from gardening to housewares to clothes of his own design) with an emphasis on quality and sustainability. He was sitting in a chair by the cheese counter. He greeted me with less enthusiasm than expected. I reminded him that he had recently promised me (during a visit a few months earlier) a Tuscan breakfast of steak and mushrooms. He waved me away, stating that mushrooms were no longer in season. I should have known he was not well.
The first time I saw Fabio Picchi was in 2003. I’d just moved to the hills south of Florence for a year to launch my new career as a writer and to explore the gastronomy of a region that captured my heart upon first visit, two years earlier, and changed my life. I’d read about Fabio in my research of Tuscany and heard of him from the many experts I’d consulted before my arrival. I saw him for the first time in the Sant’Ambrogio market; he was arguing with a farmer over the fate of some artichokes. Fabio Picchi was difficult to miss – a man of considerable height and a stature emboldened by a shock of gray hair tangled off his head and chin, dressed in the clothes of a most stylish chef, his lyrical projection and demonstrative gesticulation adding to his theatrical presence. I would later use the scene in Sant’Ambrogio market to introduce the character of Fabio Picchi in my novel Cucina Tipica: An Italian Adventure:
“Bill cut through the crowd and walked directly up to a man in checkered pants and a chef’s coat, arguing with a farmer over a crate of artichokes. The chef was large, with wild gray hair and a wild gray beard around his mouth and off his chin. He looked to Jacoby like an anachronistic poet-philosopher type visited upon Florence from a previous century. He was head and shoulders above the other market goers and a figure of great animation, his hands flailing and his voice booming through the open air under the slanted roof as if he were debating an important civic matter as opposed to the fate of a bushel of artichokes. The passionate man stopped speaking abruptly upon noticing Bill, his hands rising up like a Baptist preacher recognizing the return of a prodigal son.”
I’d become close with Fabio prior to the writing of the novel. I featured him and his second wife, legendary Florentine actress/performer Maria Cassi, in an article for Men’s Journal. They had opened Il Teatro del Sale right around the time of my arrival in Florence. And while I had heard all of the wonderful things about each of the Cibreo eateries, the theater was their enterprise that most caught my attention. It struck me as such a unique concept, especially for traditional Florence: a former convent converted into a “members only” cabaret-cafeteria-commissary offering buffet-style meals, separately and modestly priced, for breakfast, lunch and dinner, the latter of which often included a show (often featuring Ms. Cassi’s one-woman tour-de-force performances). The membership part was tongue-in-cheek as the annual fee was a few euros; the application form full of cheeky questions. The ethos was actually one of grand inclusivity, where an incredible meal could be had, at communal tables, with limitless wine accessed from a spigot, in a spacious room filled with aroma from the open kitchen and the ambiance of camaraderie.
“The ideal table of sharing for human beings is the stage” Fabio once told me.
This was the idea behind Il Teatro. The entire establishment being a stage, a table set for sharing. And the sharing that Fabio embraced was not limited to this one of his many locations for dining. It was also in his relentless sharing (on so many stages: books, television, articles, podcasts) of the philosophy he championed, of the majesty of Tuscan food and its constant re-imagining in creative ways that fosters, simultaneously, progress and homage. This is the man who opened his first Florentine ristorante 1979 with no pasta on the menu! And this is the same man who opened a Oriental/Tuscan fusion restaurant in 2017 and recently expanded into a cooking school and operations in a hotel. The Cibreo brand and its mission was always expanding under the auspices of Fabio’s vision and passion. His enthusiasm and forward-thinking energy always struck me as boundless, that he would always be the man standing tall, buying artichokes with bravado in the market at Sant’Ambrogio.
Alas, that will be the man I remember, not the man sitting in a chair, explaining why we wouldn’t be having a breakfast of steak and mushrooms together.