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.