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Cibreo’s Yellow Pepper Soup

 Years ago when my daughter was studying in Florence, I had a transformative dining experience there. I ate at Cibrèo. That first dinner at Cibrèo stayed with me forever, so when my brother-in-law and sister-in-law invited me to be their guests at a villa in Florence this month, I knew Cibrèo also had to be in my future. 

After eating dinner at Cibrèo twice in the last two weeks, I’m happy to report that the food is just as good as ever.  But you don’t have to fly to Florence to savor one of Cibrèo’s signature dishes. Just make the recipe at the end of this post.
In a one-block corner of the city, you’ll find several Cibrèo eateries, including the fancy, linen-tablecloth Cibrèo restaurant. Dine there if you want to go more upscale. But to eat the same food at half the price, in a more casual setting, go to the Cibrèo trattoria across the street. No reservations taken, so it’s best to line up twenty minutes before it opens at 7 to get a seat. Because it’s small and it’s not exactly a secret.
There’s nary a pasta dish or pizza on the menu, but what does come out of the kitchen can only be described as divine, including their yellow pepper soup, or passata di peperoni gialli.
 If silk and sunshine were edible, this is how it would be done.
Start the evening at the Cibrèo cafe with a glass of prosecco or an Aperol spritz, to get you ready for the main event.  Maybe you’d prefer to spend the evening at the Cibrèo dinner theater, where it helps to know Italian.
Fabbio Picchi is the mastermind behind all these delicious eateries, and you’ll see him constantly scurrying back and forth among diners to make sure everything remains to his high standards.
 I have to confess when I showed him photos from my recent preparation of his yellow pepper soup, he scolded me because I had roasted and peeled the peppers, instead of running them through a food mill  to separate the skins from the pulp. Italians frequently use this tool (a mouli) when making tomato sauce too.

 But since I don’t own one, I roasted the peppers and peeled the skin. Sorry Fabio.

The soup was just as good as what I remembered eating at Cibrèo, even if I adapted the recipe to suit my lack of a mouli. It freezes beautifully too, so you can stockpile some for when company’s arriving, or when you’ve got a busy day and don’t have time to cook. A little heavy cream makes it luxurious.

Everything on the menu at Cibrèo is really special.

The polenta is one of my favorites. I don’t how they manage to get it so soft and creamy. I just know I had to have it, with its dribble of olive oil and scattering of parmigiano on top. So I did. I would happily eat this for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

This ricotta and potato sformato was pretty darn special too, served with a rich ragù on the side.
And who’d have thought that crab soup would be a specialty you’d crave in Florence? Well, take my word for it, it may look drab, but any other crab soup you’ve had will pale beside this intensely flavored version.  
The main courses were equally delicious, including this casserole of sausages and beans – a classic Tuscan dish.

The roast pork loin with potatoes and spinach looked delicious too, but the one criticism was that it was served at room temperature.

I have to confess the stuffed chicken neck (replete with chicken head in the presentation) didn’t sound too appealing, but it tasted like a very good chicken paté. Be prepared – so much of the food at Cibrèo is mousse-like in texture.

But I couldn’t say no when I heard that stuffed rabbit was one of the night’s specials – with sweet cipolline onions on the side. It was tender, flavorful and I would order it again in a heartbeat. Actually, I did order again on my second visit in two weeks.

The desserts were also every bit as delicious as I remembered. The cheesecake smeared with orange marmalade was a standout.
But then again, so was the cream-filled tart topped with the tiny strawberries (fragoline) that are a specialty in Italy this time of year.
But this was the dessert I had been dreaming about since my last visit – a coffee flavored bavarian cream smothered in dark chocolate. One bite and you’re in la-la land. It’s light and luscious and rich all at the same time.
I didn’t think Cibrèo could top that, a new dessert on the menu comes close – a vanilla bavarian cream served with a puddle of reduced, sweet grape must called saba.  Now I’ve got a real problem. What to order for dessert next time?
Cibreo’s Yellow Pepper Soup
Total time: 45 minutes
1 red onion
1 carrot
1 stalk celery
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
4 yellow peppers (I used 3 and roasted them, then peeled them)
4 medium-size potatoes (I used 1 large and it was plenty)
2 cups water or chicken stock
Coarse sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1 glass of milk (It’s good with just milk, but use heavy cream if you want a really rich taste)
2 bay leaves
Homemade croutons to garnish.
1. Chop onion, carrot and celery. Fry them in olive oil until golden in a heavy casserole large enough to hold all the vegetables.
2. Devein and chop peppers. (I roasted the peppers and peeled them, then added them to the blender along with the other cooked vegetables) Peel and chop potatoes. Add to casserole along with about two cups of water or stock (or half water and half stock), enough to cover vegetables. Lightly season with salt and pepper. Simmer 20 to 25 minutes.
3. Pass the vegetables through a shredder or a Mouli to remove skins. Puree in a blender or food processor. (After soup has been liquified, it should not be boiled again or it will lose its color and taste).
4. Return soup to heat and add milk, which will remove any remaining acidity in the peppers and give the soup a smoother consistency. Add bay leaves. Heat through without boiling. Correct seasoning and remove from heat.
5. Take out the bay leaves. Serve soup in heated individual bowls garnished with croutons. If you need to reheat the soup, heat it in a double boiler.
Yield: 4 to 6 servings.

Cauliflower Sformato

Looking for an unusual first course for your next dinner party? Look no further. This is elegant, delicious and can be made a day ahead. It looks like it took a long time to make, but in fact, it whips together in about 15 minutes. And it goes down … like buttah!

It’s the culinary version of the little black dress – you can change it around with a different sauce, or use a different vegetable. There are endless variations … mushroom sformato with cheese sauce; zucchini sformato with red pepper sauce; asparagus sformato with mushroom sauce, etc. etc. etc.

One of the most memorable versions I ever enjoyed was a ricotto sformato, or flan, that I ate at Cibreo’s, my favorite restaurant in Florence, Italy. I should amend that to say trattoria, since I never ate at the bonafide Cibreo’s restaurant, but rather at the eponymous annex next door. It carries the same menu but at half the price. You don’t get the linen table service as in the restaurant, in fact the trattoria is downright casual, and you might have to share a table with a complete stranger. But to me, that’s half the fun. And eating Cibreo’s much-heralded food is the real reward.

So try this sformato with whatever vegetable you have on hand. I had a lot of cauliflower calling out to me. I didn’t wait for a dinner party either. I made it just for the two of us, and was happy to have the leftovers for several more meals. Even if I wasn’t at Cibreo’s.

Cauliflower Sformato

(eight 3/4 cup servings)

1 large head of cauliflower, trimmed and cut into florets
(about 4 cups)
1 3/4 cup milk or a combination of milk and cream
1/2 stick unsalted butter, plus more for greasing molds
1/4 cup flour plus 1 T.
pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
salt, white pepper, to taste
3 eggs, lightly beaten
1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese

tomato sauce, about 2 cups

Cook the cauliflower in water for about 10 minutes, or until tender when pierced with a fork. Drain, then put back into a dry pan and cook for a few minutes to help evaporate any remaining water. Be careful not to let it brown or burn.

Butter eight 3/4 cup oven-proof custard cups or flan molds and preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Put the cauliflower in a food processor and puree it until perfectly smooth. Place it into a colander lined with paper towels to absorb any remaining moisture.

Heat the milk in a saucepan until warm and little bubble start to form. In another saucepan over low heat, melt the butter, then add the flour and stir and cook for a couple of minutes until smooth. It will start to get “pasty,” but that’s fine. Add the milk and continue to stir constantly, using either a whisk or wooden spoon, for about five minutes. Add seasonings and cauliflower puree.

Beat the eggs and add the parmesan cheese. Add the puree mixture to the egg and cheese mixture, starting with a small amount, then increasing the amount a little at a time. You want to slowly raise the temperature of the eggs and cheese. If you add the pureed cauliflower mixture all at once, you risk curdling the eggs.

When everything is mixed, pour into the buttered molds and put the molds in a bain-marie or hot water bath. Bake for about 40 minutes. Remove the molds from the water and let them rest at least 10 minutes before trying to unmold. If you unmold too soon, they won’t hold their shape. They actually hold their shape better the next day when you reheat them. I microwaved them in their molds, then flipped them out onto individual plates. Serve as is, or with a simple homemade tomato sauce, if desired.