Mario and Alessandra De Benedetti, both of whom were born and raised in Italy, share a keen appreciation of nature and good food. Combining these passions, the couple began developing an interest in the nutritional and emotional benefits of flowers and herbs.
When the De Bennedettis relocated from Milan to New York about five years ago, they realized a dream by creating a flower-centric space in the middle of Manhattan’s NoMad neighborhood. Il Fiorista (in Italian, “the florist”) is more than a restaurant. This virtual culinary garden also houses a floral boutique and an educational center.
Creating the “terroir”
Abstract murals, painted by Leanne Shapton, surround diners in this spring-like garden. “Her flowers on the walls are a nod to our logo,” says Mario.
The color and scents of real flowers enhance the dining experience. “We respect seasonality and source flowers locally whenever possible,” he says. The same flowers welcoming guests at the entrance often serve as ingredients or garnish for food and drinks.
Creating the menu
Il Fiorista opened in September 2019 just before the New York City restaurant industry was hit by the COVID pandemic, making for an exceptionally challenging startup. “After opening at full speed, we had to close for a few months. Then we tried to reopen outdoor dining in lovely greenhouses but had to close again by the end of 2021,” says Mario.
As a result, Il Fiorista lost some of its team, including its first executive chef. Fortuitously, a creative and vibrant sous-chef, Rae Kramer, who was there since the restaurant opening was able to take over the helm and help the owners realize their vision.
Il Fiorista’s unique menu is seasonal and local, infused with flowers and edible herbs and a touch of the restaurant’s Italian heritage. “A dish begins with a vegetable that is in season and grows from there,” says Chef Rae.
She makes creating bespoke recipes sound organic. “Developing dishes definitely comes from conversation and life experiences,” she says. “It’s like taking a trip abroad or having someone from our team get excited by an ingredient they thought was only utilized in their own culture.”
She says she was taught to use flowers in the same way most chefs use herbs. “In fact, some of the favorite flowers used at Il Fiorista are flowering herbs. She’s also zealous about the medicinal benefits of flowers. “For example, rosehips are packed with Vitamin C and antioxidants, while chrysanthemum tea is a fever reducer, and stinging nettle tea is fantastic for arthritis and sore muscles,” she explains.
She attributes the Italian influences in her cooking to working so closely with Mario and Alessandra. “I was a woman from the Midwest with an affinity for vegetables and legumes. But hearing them rave about the perfect gnocchi and the bounty of Italian ingredients, I started to embrace the Italian palate and the simplicity of showcasing one ingredient.”
Housemade pappardelle is by far the most popular dish at Il Fiorista. “I don’t think we’ll ever be able to take it off the menu,” she says. “The bright lemony dish features my favorite botanical combinations of lavender and black pepper.”
Another house favorite is the Trout Tartare. Farm-raised, sustainable trout sourced from Hudson Valley Fisheries is seasoned with pickled mustard seed, lime juice, Calabrian chili, labneh, and freshly grated horseradish.
A vision for the future
“We wanted to create a place where people could feel a sense of community,” says Mario. Patrons include regulars from the neighborhood as well as others who choose the restaurant as a unique destination for meals or special events.
Il Fiorista bustles beyond the lunch and dinner hours. On-site classes include such topics as bouquet-making, making natural inks from flowers, and cooking and mixology with edible herbs and flowers—led by guest artists, designers, chefs, and in-house experts on the team.
The De Benedettis hope to expand what they consider a healthy, lifestyle concept. They’ve already branded their popular pasta sauces, bruschettas, and mushrooms in oil (that are now available in a number of specialty Italian food markets). They also plan to open new locations, highlighting the successful elements of their flagship NoMad enterprise.
The use of edible flowers in Italian cuisine isn’t a brand-new invention. In fact, even ancient Romans enjoyed salads with dandelions and violets. But Il Fiorista is helping inspire a flowering renaissance for a custom that has gone in and out of fashion.