Forget the Michelin stars. If you want to eat like a Florentine, it’s fast, fresh and on-the-fly. Alexandra Carlton to shares the best places to eat in Florence.
Mark Twain once described Florence as “the city of dreams”. My guess is many of those dreams are about bread. Florentines love the stuff – from springy schiacciata flatbread and slender grissini to their rather plain pane sciapo, made without salt thanks to a blow-up with nearby Pisa over salt supplies in the Middle Ages.
The king of all bread dishes here is the panini, a one-hander usually made with schiacciata or a soft roll and filled with anything from salami and pecorino to combinations such as anchovy, fennel and sliced orange.
The big hit is All’Antico Vinaio near the Uffizi, where lunchtime lines are so long cars often honk them off the road. But after eating the most luscious anchovy and burrata spaghetti one evening, I developed a soft spot for a hole-in-thewall tucked in an archway in Santa Croce. Called Antico Noè, it’s a sit-down osteria at night and runs a panini shop next door during the day. The creamy speck, rocket, brie and walnut sauce sando is as soft as a featherbed and rich as a Medici and I eat it as I weave through the crowds, gazing up at the majesty of the Duomo.
It’s not unusual to eat gelato every day in Florence and why wouldn’t you in the city that’s said to have invented it? The most revered flavour is pistachio – for that, Perchè No! in the city centre attracts the most diehard fans.
I’m visiting in late spring, when the cherries are starting their season, and return daily to the scalloped ceilings and extravagant chandeliers of Gelateria De’ Medici, in a busy street near the Basilica of Santa Croce. This place is famous for its rum and fig flavour but the ruby gloss of the sweet and sour macerated cherry, with its faint hint of marzipan, swirled into creamy pillows, calls to me. I could walk another 20 minutes to Medici’s second location in Via dello Statuto and enjoy my cherry bomb in the botanical gardens but the siren’s lure of that quick cherry hit wins out every day.
The most famous of local cakes is the schiacciata alla Fiorentina, a spongy orange-flavoured number stamped with the elegant three-petaled lily of Florence.
Traditionally it’s only eaten in February at Carnival, whereas other pastries are as much a part of daily life as crossing the Arno by bridge. Close to the city centre, the 70-year-old, family-owned Pasticceria Nencioni, with its glass bowls of candied almonds and tubes of Sicilian almond paste in the window, wins my repeat custom for its pretty individual pear tarts. Over the river in Oltrarno, the ricotta cakes – so fluffy they could blow away in a light breeze – at chic S.Forno are a morning ritual.
After a few days I become fixated on finding the perfect budino di riso – creamy rice pudding in a tart shell that’s enlivened with the subtle tang of lemon or a cheeky shot of vin santo. I try it at Forno Becagli near the train station and Antica Pasticceria Sieni in San Lorenzo, where master bakers revive Tuscan recipes from the early 1900s.
One afternoon, a friend grabs my hand and races me past Gucci and Giorgio Armani into a barely visible Pasticceria named Forno Top. There are just two lonely budino di risi on display. “This is the best budino,” she insists and one bite confirms the claim. Its lemon zest is as bright as sunshine and the filling as creamy as Michelangelo’s marble.
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“Only Rome and Napoli have good pizza. That’s a fact,” a Roman food writer friend says when I ask for pizza recommendations in Florence. She has a point. Florentine pizza is basically another incarnation of schiacciata, perhaps served open but with little resemblance to the blistered thin crusts of Rome. But when you just want pizza, you don’t want to get on a train to find it so one evening I stand outside La Divina Pizza in Santa Croce, waiting for its metal shutters to be rolled back. Here, the bases are made from stone-ground flour and the owners even offer a “tasting” menu that takes you on a flavour journey through creations made with different doughs.
The woman behind the counter seems slightly annoyed by my modest order – a single takeaway slice of Napoli pizza, topped with tomato, mozzarella and basil – because she’s busy trying to handle the queues already lining up for the restaurant’s few tables. She diligently weighs out my €4.20 slice and when I taste that rich pomodoro sauce I forget her irritation, along with any of my own.
One evening, as the fading light deepens the warmth of the city’s limestone walls from pale lemon to golden amber, I find myself in an unusually leafy corner at an outdoor table at Santarosa Bistrot on the edge of the Giardino Henry Dunant. Sipping a garnet-bright Negroni alongside a plate of cicchetti – discs of bread topped with either mozzarella and semi-dried tomato, bresaola and basil or a scoop of hummus – may not feel as history-rich as the city’s medieval wine windows but the tables full of high-spirited locals suggest most Florentines prefer fresh air and the sweet scent of wisteria to relentless tradition.
For a bit of everything
The Mercato Centrale food hall is a gourmet pick-and-mix where you can eat anything from fresh pasta to hamburgers made with Tuscan beef. For me, the football blaring from central TV screens makes it feel a bit too much like a sports bar so I head for the less razzle-dazzle Mercato di Sant’Ambrogio, where open-air stalls are piled high with artichokes, oranges and zucchini flowers and indoor butchers and cheese shops are as much of a visual feast as a literal one.
The best eat-and-run food can be found just outside the main forecourt: exotic panini from Semel (Piazza Lorenzo Ghiberti, 44R) – the roast pork with pomodoro and the mussels with spinach are standouts – or the nearby sandwich stand Tripperia Pollini.
It’s here I join a bunch of older men in flat caps and slouchy jackets lining up for the city’s most polarising sandwich made with lampredotto – fried cow’s stomach – a throwback to Florence’s agrarian past.
I inhale the fragrance of richly seasoned curls of offal and grass-green salsa verde on a crunchy bread roll, wrapped loosely in wax paper, and perch on one of the van’s narrow stools away from the clamour of the tours and foot traffic. A man gives me a broad grin, which seems to say that sitting elbow to elbow, eating offal as rich with flavour as it is with history and pride, is about as Florentine as you can get.
Image credit: Katie McKnoulty