Then there is Le Murate, a 15th-century former monastery on the Via Ghibellina, which through public grants has reopened as an arts space comprising galleries, a café, and administrative offices. The brainchild of town alderman for culture Giuliano da Empoli, Le Murate’s public areas go by the acronym SUC, for Spazi Urbani Contemporanei; the idea is for it to serve as a social nexus for emerging artists and those who are interested in them—Italian and international, local and tourist alike.
Away from the Palazzo Vecchio and the official ministrations of civil servants, hoteliers and restaurateurs have tapped into a sense of the city’s elevated potential. Though most have strictly local roots, one notable opening by an American hotel group constitutes a major vote of confidence. The St. Regis Florence made its debut in May on the site of the old Grand Hotel Firenze, in the Piazza d’Ognissanti. Some of its 100 rooms and suites fly (in perfectly tasteful fashion) the Medici-inspired flag of opulent silks and velvets in royal-ecclesiastical shades; others are rendered in a gorgeous muted palette. St. Regis is a hotel brand on a roll, and much strategy goes into the selection of its locations. Its arrival here, now, is a direct result of what St. Regis brass is actually calling Florence’s “second Renaissance.”
At Il Salviatino, just up the hill toward Fiesole, the traditional hospitality model is turned neatly on its head by a staff of Service Ambassadors—driver, butler, waiter, guide, and concierge rolled into a single, nattily-dressed individual. They’ve been met with mixed reviews, as has the hotel’s erratic décor: at times admirably tasteful (as in the beautiful double-height, wood-paneled library), at others less so (hanging old-master reproductions from metal chains, parallel to the ceiling in the restaurant, defies explanation). Thank goodness the terrace, with its white sofas and views of the villa’s gardens, is a delight.
Back in town, just off the Piazza della Repubblica, is a discreet jewel, Palazzo Vecchietti: more residence than hotel, tailor-made for the creative classes seeking low-key live-work space and privacy. There’s no lounge or bar, but all rooms have stocked kitchens and working and sitting areas; and all are prettily modern—the handiwork of local designer Michele Bonan, whose imprimatur of artfully contained flamboyance is instantly recognizable.
Bonan also designed J. K. Place Firenze, the boutique hotel on the Piazza di Santa Maria Novella that, after eight years, continues to evolve. Its cocreator, Ori Kafri, is a sharp 34-year-old entrepreneur with his hands in, among other things, publishing and art galleries. J. K.’s well-connected general manager, Claudio Meli, launched Bravo Concierge service in 2007 so he could finesse clients’ time in Italy beyond their J. K. Place stay. On any given evening one might find a small cross-section of the city’s art, fashion, media, and business worlds commingling in the hotel’s living room and restaurant; on Sundays at lunchtime, the terrace proliferates with friends and families. With its alchemy of ease and style, exclusivity and openness, the hotel has become a Florence institution—one that’s spreading, with an outpost in Capri, a planned opening in Rome in late 2012, and aspirations to launch projects outside of Italy in London, New York City, and Tel Aviv (birthplace of Kafri’s mother and father).
IO Osteria Personale, on the Borgo San Frediano, by contrast, opened just months ago, but it already has the feel of an institution in the making. Owner Matteo Fantini studied and practiced veterinary medicine, but dreamed for years of starting a restaurant. So last December, enlisting 23-year-old chef Nicolò Baretti, he did just that. IO organizes its menu by primary ingredient (meat, fish, vegetables) rather than by course. Fantini, who chats happily with diners for half an hour at a time, draws whimsical art naïf deconstructions of the day’s dishes onto chalkboards above the sparsely elegant table settings. The facile presentation is in winking contrast to the sophistication of the food: whole pigeon embellished with smoked pig’s cheek; delicate warm seafood salad served with minced panzanella and asparagus gelato.