Back to Florence, a panino in one hand and a wine glass in the other

It’s been a year and a half since we left Florence ‘for good’ and settled into a new and starkly different life in Melbourne. A lot has happened in that time that probably wouldn’t have happened if we’d stayed in Florence, which is a reason why we left – so that things might happen. Marco has worked with three of Australia’s best chefs and their restaurants as a sommelier. I’ve been working as a freelance food writer, professionally reviewing restaurants (that’s right, not just eating at them and complaining/waxing lyrical about them to Marco afterwards) for some leading restaurant guides or interviewing chefs and researching local, sustainable food for the lovely bunch at The Locavore Edition. I’ll be talking on a panel about food writing at this year’s Melbourne’s Emerging Writers’ Festival. I even curated an art show on food-inspired art earlier this year. AND we had a baby. A beautiful baby girl. A lot has happened, I keep reminding myself, even though often it feels like we’re still standing in the same place, unsure of which foot to put forward or in what direction.

What holds us back, I think, is that there is much pining for Florence. It’s not so much for the jobs we had (soul-sucking jobs that couldn’t even financially sustain basic necessities like rent and bills) or the apartment we rented (hot as an oven in the summer, freezing in the winter, meters from the Uffizi gallery and a pub with windows that rattled furiously at every passing vehicle and therefore noisy day and night. It had a bathroom the width of a cutlery drawer with a shower that only gave out water when it felt like it and stopped, usually, when you had a hair full of shampoo, but we settled for it for the terrace with views of Florence’s rooftops and the skewiff tower of Palazzo Vecchio, where we got married. Romantics that we are). But we pine for the friends and family that we left behind and, undoubtedly (although at risk of sounding very cliché), for the food.

This is hard to describe because it’s not just the food. It’s the way food is a part of the life. The simple traditions, the rituals, the way food is always an opportunity for a social gathering, the way it is so strongly connected to the place, the season and history – all the things that inspired me to want to write about food in the first place. It’s not just about a dish or a restaurant, though admittedly, it is probably a little about the produce (while Australia is an amazingly bountiful and multinational country where practically anything and everything is at your fingertips, I would love for someone to please get me some proper artichokes! And real Tuscan sausages – speckled with fennel seeds and so fresh you can eat them raw, perhaps with a gooey dollop of stracchino).

One of the things I miss most? A cheeky glass of wine on my way home under the watchful eye of some medieval tower or church in a spot where everyone knows you, you don’t even need to sit down and the offer of freshly made schiacciata, shiny with olive oil, or Tuscan bread with some local cured meat and cheese scooped right out of the wheel and paid for with loose change is the norm. Let’s not be too biased; Florence is far from perfect when it comes to dining out. Eating in the wrong place is unfortunately much too easy to do. Service is probably not a strong point. But when it’s right (the usual equation is simple, good, fresh), it’s spot on, with great food and more atmosphere and heart than you could hope for.

It’s very hard to keep a Tuscan away from his homeland for very long, so we are lucky to have been able to visit twice already in the last 18 months. The first thing I’ll do when back in Florence this week for a month long visit with friends and family? Exactly this – a little spuntino, a snack, to be eaten while standing on the street, perhaps, little glass of wine in hand, while catching up with old friends.

My favourite places to do this are not exclusively wine bars, not exclusively sandwich bars, but they are all characteristically, uniquely Florentine, satisfying that craving for a quick lunch, a passing snack or just a time out with a glass of wine in hand (self service in some cases), people watching in piedi, standing. Dotted around the city in strategic points where I could conveniently pass by them, there’s Casa del Vino, not far from the train station (perfect for arriving to or going from some other destination – take a cue from their specials board and don’t be afraid of trying the anchovies) and hidden behind the stalls in the heart of the San Lorenzo market. Close to Piazza Signoria and just off via Calzaiuoli, I Fratellini (the tiniest of them all) is pretty convenient when needing a cheap and quick lunch on the run in the centre of town, while for more of a wine bar (and for catching up with friends), Le Volpi e L’Uva near the church of Santa Felicita’ is the first place I think of going – I always run into someone I know here.

Pictured in this post is another hole in the wall, All’Antico Vinaio, a few doors down from our previous terrible apartment on Via dei Neri. Pop in sometime, you can’t miss it. There may be a queue, but these guys are fast, just join in. There will probably be a few nervous American students, unsure of the ordering procedure and the language barrier (no need, they do dabble in English and are certainly friendly), and at lunch it’s the spuntino spot of choice for many of the Uffizi Gallery staff for a generous, freshly made panino. You may even see a man dressed as a statue, his white painted face collecting crumbs – it’s all sorts at a place like this so central and accessible and above all, with such fresh, good food.

My favourite? The fennel seed-studded Tuscan finocchiona (below) with spicy marinated eggplant, please. But some days you just can’t say no to a bun filled with the most tender slices of porchetta di Montespertoli (above), roasted with pepper and rosemary. If you’re not sure what to order and are afraid of ordering the wrong combination of things because, oh yes, there are rules (as there should be for certain things), just ask them what they would recommend – they’ll fix you up.

For more of the Florentine eats I love, take a look here.

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24 Responses to “Back to Florence, a panino in one hand and a wine glass in the other”
  1. Rosa says:

    Good to hear that you are doing very well in Australia. Congrats on the jobs!

    I totally understand that you miss certain things about Florence. Those panini are indeed terrific and totally irresistible…

    Cheers,

    Rosa

  2. I’m always saying to the husband, “Everything has its plusses and it’s minuses.” This is especially true for apartments. It’s great that you’ve been able to go back and enjoy the plusses in Florence. The panino looks so good it’s making me drool! :)

    • Emiko says:

      It’s true, nothing is 100% perfect but I think you have to weigh out the pros and cons and go with the best option. I think that keeps us on our toes a bit ;)

  3. Wilbur Narwhal says:

    As a fellow ex-resident I highly recommend Semel, just round the corner from Cibreo, on the north side of Sant’Ambrogio market, very interesting deer, hare, boar, almost stew like fillings and some fish too. A lovely sort of bugigattolo sort of place with two charming staff.
    Yours
    Wilbur

  4. Regula says:

    I totally understand your feeling, you long for a place where you love to live but can’t due to the fact that there aren’t good jobs around as there are in Australia. Perhaps your heart remained in Tuscany in a way. I am that way with England, I desperately want to move there but there are not a lot of jobs, plenty of -as you put it perfectly- soul sucking jobs of course. There isn’t as a good as health system as there is here and house prices are double as well.
    I think we both need to find our compromise…
    Welcome home darling, enjoy in the full x

    • Emiko says:

      Thanks Regula! You’re right, a little piece of my heart is still in Tuscany (plus some of my best friends in the whole world and family of course) so it’s hard to stay away and not want to come back! I understand you perfectly… You have to weigh out the pros and cons and do what we can make the best go at I think! x

  5. Rebecca Wine says:

    Lovely post and welcome back. Italy sucks right now, so perhaps that’s a consolation? If you ever decide to come back, let us know – Marco could be interesting for our team!

  6. ilaria says:

    Wilbur said it right! :) as a born-raised Florentine one of the others place I need to recommend is Semel!
    And there’s another one Fratellini (it’s a namesake) in firenze, but it’s a trattoria, close to Sant’Ambrogio market:)

  7. Rossella says:

    Your story open a door on my past life decision.
    I moved alone to Rome without any sure job. I came from north-east of Italy where everything is precise (or at least we think so). I arrived to Rome, some hard months and years, and at the end it seems to be the right choice.
    I can only image what Austrialia is. Anyway, I understand how special was for you in Florence stop and take a glass of wine on your way home. It’s the kind of magic that take me in Rome, maybe more than my husband.

  8. Edwina Fraser says:

    Is it possible for souls to sigh? If it is, Emiko, this beautiful account of the intimate rediscovery of your beloved Florence has caused my soul to heave and sigh, and yearn for that city, no matter the political upheaval.
    Have a wonderful time drinking it in.

  9. Jesse says:

    Emiko,
    Just home from work, not soul sucking, but definitely getting there. And as I sit here waiting on Val to arrive home, looking forward to cooking dinner together tonight, reading this really just make tears form so easily in my eyes – because it’s the way we feel, exactly and somehow you captured that feeling of being away, of making a home, but having this pining in our gut to be back in Italy. Somehow, even with the problems, the issues and lack of this or that, somehow, that place feels more real, more alive — visceral even, with a way of living that makes one feel complete — makes us feel like we are living. Truly living.

    • Emiko says:

      You’re right, there’s something about being in Italy that draws us back constantly. Life in Melbourne is a bit of a rat race, so it’s not exactly the place where we feel most at home; there’s something missing. It may just be, as you say, the feeling that we’re truly living…

  10. mikey says:

    Thanks for the memories Emiko. It’s so good to hear you’re back on the ground over there hitting it hard SPUNTINO style. Mamma Mia! Finocchiona! schiacciata. Vai.

  11. Lovely post Emiko that many “expats” can relate to!
    Enjoy your time in Italy and showing off your gorgeous daughter!
    hugs to you 3
    Karin

  12. Caro says:

    Oh, Emiko my sentiments exactly! I lived in Toscana for almost four years and Florence is always in my heart. I plan to return in September and will relish that glass of red and delicious spuntini at all my favourite little bars;shopping at the Sant’Ambrogio market and dining at Cibreo and 13Gobbi (via Porcellana). Also love pottering around on the Oltrarno, finding tiny trattorie and wonderful artisans. Can’t wait!

  13. Marcella says:

    Ciao, io vivo a Firenze e il mio sogno è visitare l’Australia! Comunque è vero, un bel panino (o schiacciata) con la finocchiona, un bicchiere di vino… e sei in Paradiso!
    E il panino con il lampredotto l’ hai provato? Quello è veramente, veramente solo fiorentino!
    Abbracci da Firenze
    Marcella

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