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How to Cook a Meal (Almost) Entirely Out of Flowers

Sean MurphyComment

How do you create a flower-centric restaurant that doesn’t feel like a bridal shower? If you’re Alessandra and Mario De Benedetti, you ask your good friend, the artist and writer Leanne Shapton, to paint your walls with a geometric watercolor mural, and you ask Elizabeth Roberts, the architect known for her light-filled, thoughtfully reworked Brooklyn brownstones, to design the rest. The result is a high-ceilinged oasis on 28th Street in Manhattan, a stone’s throw from the flower district, bedecked in pale wood and Patricia Urquiola chairs imported from Italy. The space, Il Fiorista, which opened yesterday, doesn’t so much look like a bouquet of flowers — rather, it offers the calming, rapturous effect of smelling one.

This is the couple’s first restaurant project: Before they moved from Milan to New York two years ago, he worked in private equity, and she was a law professor. But when Alessandra developed an obsession with learning about flowers, and when the couple realized that spending some time in another country might offer a nice change for their family, an idea was born — and then one idea quickly became dozens.

The restaurant will begin with dinner service. Its menu, developed by chef Garrison Price (formerly of Il Buco Alimentari), focuses on all the ways that humans can eat and drink flowers: chamomile-rubbed chicken with rose-petal-infused harissa, crudos sprinkled with fennel pollen and pickled fennel flowers. He and bar director Gates Otsuji (who was previously Chef de Bar at the Standard Hotels in New York) have spent the past weeks fermenting, preserving and pickling enough flowers and flower-adjacent items that the venue has taken on a second life as a sort of mad botanists’ laboratory. Next will come lunch, breakfast, coffee and, of course, tea; there will also be a table at the front of the shop with a la carte stems of flowers that diners can buy to take home with them, plus a variety of bouquets arranged by the florist Mindy Cardozo; they will be selling books and home goods in their on-site shop, and hope to develop their own line of kitchen and beauty products sometime soon. The couple’s main goal, though, is to educate their customers about the health and wellness properties of edible flowers: “We want to create what we call a new flower movement,” Alessandra said, citing a study she read that observed how patients in geriatric and pediatric hospital wards had shorter stays, on average, when someone placed flowers in their room.

Their other aim is to focus on sustainability and local sourcing whenever possible. “Obviously we have to manage the problem of what we are going to do in winter,” Alessandra said, “because the farmers are telling us, ‘we can produce maybe some saffron in the greenhouse, or eucalyptus, but not a lot.’” They are considering buying flowers from Florida once their upstate purveyors (such as Allora and Treadlight Farms) stop growing for the season, but don’t want to go any farther afield. Luckily, they’ll also have access to the larder that Otsuji and Price are building. On a recent afternoon, in the back room that will act as both a private dining and event space for a wide variety of classes, Otsuji brought out two glasses: one filled with a salmon-colored shrub of tomato, strawberry and chiloe peppers; another of the same beverage, but spiked with gin. He’s devised a brilliant style of garnish, wherein he draws a line up the side of a highball glass with a slice of lemon, then rolls the glass in dried flowers to create a floral seam. Both cocktail and mocktail offered the vague sense of waking up in a garden, lush and vibrant. To create that feeling at home, the Il Fiorista team shared their advice and recipes on how to bring floral notes into your next dinner party — without overwhelming your guests.

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