A Taste of Florence
Any food lover is likely going to love to eat their way through Florence, but many of city’s most traditional dishes are probably not what you think they are.
The Florentines, like most Italians, have a very important relationship with their cuisine. They have very strict rules about what can be eaten when, with what accompaniments and in what particular order. You can even tell what month of the year it is by looking at a Florentine menu. It is a cuisine, however, that is simple, at times austere and based on those two obligatory ingredients, beans and bread.
For me, Florentine food is absolutely best eaten in the cooler months of the autumn and winter, as it is the kind of food that you crave when you want to feel full and warm, food that make you want to curl up with next to a fireplace with a bottle of Chianti. Ingredients such as fagioli – or beans, usually white cannellini beans – feature in many dishes. Pasta generally appears dressed simply in tomato sauce or in a ragù of sorts such as beef, duck, rabbit or wild boar.
But it is what’s known as the quinto quarto, the “fifth quarter” or offal that is probably the most Florentine thing that I can think of: lampredotto (cow’s stomach) panini (a tradition that goes back to at least the 15th century), tripe in tomato sauce, crostini with chicken liver or spleen spread, thinly sliced tongue carpaccio… They have even found a tasty way to use the crests of roosters. This is what Florentine cooking is all about it and this is what makes it unique in Italian cuisine.
One of my favourite Florentine scenes is catching the workers stopping for a mid-morning snack of lampredotto rolls washed down with a glass of table wine. There are some winter days where for some reason, nothing but one of these will do.
Florentine food is also historical – each dish has a story to tell and it reflects the age of the city’s traditions. There’s something about the fact that you can picture many of these dishes being cooked in medieval-style terracotta pots; indeed, many still are.
The star of Florentine cooking is of course, the bistecca Fiorentina – a T-bone steak at least “two fingers” thick, grilled over coals until rare and best served alone, without sauce or even lemon. I even had a retired Florentine butcher tell me that with a proper Florentine bistecca, meaning the steak that comes from a Chianina cow, you do not even need to add salt. The meat is so tasty it needs nothing to add to it and you shouldn’t cover its natural taste. Of course, there are those that are partial to a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and a fresh grating of black pepper.
Dessert is quite often a simple finish of fresh fruit or biscotti dipped in Vin Santo. Tiramisu and other creamy desserts are quite often on the menu these days but to be honest, after eating a proper Florentine meal who has the space to fit in one of these?
Eating like a Florentine is luckily a very easy thing to do in Florence because the locals – proud and insistent as they are on eating their own food – have not given up their trattorias and eating habits to the tourists. Maybe it’s predictable but there is something quite comforting about the certainty of knowing that no matter what happens or how much time passes, the Florentines are still going to be eating their favourite dishes.
Here are some of my favourite places to get a taste of Florence:
Street food and quick snacks:
- Lampredottaio – There are lampredottai (food vans selling lampredotto panini) in every quarter of Florence. Every Florentine has their say on which one is their favourite: my vote is for the one in the corner of Piazza Sant’Ambrogio.
- Casa del Vino – This tiny, wonderful place is tucked away behind the stalls of the touristy San Lorenzo markets on via Ariento. You can get a panino made with whatever you like, but trust their combinations and go for one of the day’s specials, such as fresh anchovies with creamy burrata and cherry tomatoes. You won’t ever look back.
- Café Verrazano – One of the best places to grab a quick snack when you’re in the middle of museum hopping or shopping, Verazzano do excellent focaccia in their wood fired oven and from time to time they have a wonderful cecina – chickpea flatbread. Their bakery is great for take away bread, biscuits and focaccia.
- Nerbone – Inside the Central Market of Florence, this is one of the staples of Florentine food culture. Grab a porchetta sandwich inside the chaotic atmosphere of the market. Open Monday to Saturday until 2pm.
- Ristorante Del Fagioli – This is real, local home cooking. Nothing fancy, it’s comfort food at its best. The first courses such as pastina in brodo are things that instantly take people back to their childhood. The warm chocolate-filled biscotti from Prato are the perfect finish to a meal here. Find it on Corso Tintori 47red, open Monday to Friday for lunch and dinner.
- Trattoria Mario – You cannot come to Florence and not try a meal here. It’s busy, yes, and no, you cannot book, but try it anyway. The Florentine institution. It’s only open for lunch.
- L’Brindellone – This restaurant is situated in what is, in my mind, one of the best intersections in terms of restaurant choices in Florence near the corner of Via del Leone and Piazza del Carmine. Get an honest bistecca here with down to earth service. Piazza Piattelina, No. 10.
- Trattoria Armando – in the unlikely neighbourhood of Borgo Ognissanti, this lovely restaurant is a proper jewel. The faces of famous performers of the nearby Teatro Communale look down at you from the walls while you eat spectacularly made local delights.
- Osteria Tripperia Il Magazzino – one look at the word “tripperia” in the title should give you the clue that this place specialises in tripe and other offal. The house antipasto plate is a must – their lampredotto meatballs will turn even the pickiest eater into an offal fan. Offal’s not the only thing on the menu, don’t worry, their pear and taleggio cheese risotto is lovely too.
- Le Volpi e L’Uva – when someone asks me what is the best thing about living in Florence, I cannot help but think first of sitting here and having a glass of wine. The carefully chosen wine list of boutique or biodynamic wineries means you will always find something wonderful to drink here. The crostini with lardo, honey and black pepper or truffled sausage and cheese are to die for.
- Il Santino – It’s not the same careful selection of wines as Volpi but they do have a wonderful selection of cheese and salumi, and the buzzing atmosphere in this microscopic wine bar is definitely a great way to start an evening.
- Sant’Ambrogio markets – Forget the Central Markets. This is the place where the locals go food shopping. See what’s in season by walking through the fruit and vegetable stalls outside before heading inside to check out the delis, butchers, bakeries and fishmongers. Open daily except Sunday.
- Santo Spirito markets – Every morning there is a quaint little morning market in the main square of one of Florence’s only remaining residential neighbourhoods of the historical centre. Every second Sunday of the month there is an antique market held here which is a great place for some street food (necci and porchetta being some of the favourites), and every third Sunday of the month there is an organic market here too.