We used to live on Via dei Neri, the street that runs from the back of the Uffizi Gallery towards Piazza Santa Croce. It was more than 10 years ago now, when it was still a residential neighbourhood of central Florence. Despite being in the shadow of Palazzo Vecchio and two steps to all the monuments, people lived here — you could tell from the little shops like the fruttivendolo for fresh fruit and vegetables, the bakery and even the little dry cleaner. They were shops for locals. There is still a butcher shop there, but I doubt anyone who shops there now is a local. We’ve all been driven out by airbnbs and those little shops are no more — they’re all paninoteche, sandwich shops.
When we lived on that street there was a wonderful place we used to pop into to grab a sandwich on occasion. It was across the road from our apartment, after all. We were on a first name basis. You could waltz in there anytime and order a fantastic slab of schiacciata filled with whatever you like (finocchiona and stracchino was my favourite). There was a help yourself bucket of wines and proper glasses. We would perch on a stool and have a perfect lunch, often in there elbow to elbow with the guys who check tickets at the Uffizi gallery entrance, who were regulars. It was just a good local spot, doing what Florence does really, really well: quick, often standing, hole in the wall panini.
Then something really strange happened. Suddenly our neighbourhood panino place was named number 1 restaurant in Florence. It’s not a restaurant, of course, it’s a hole in the wall with three stools. And they do good panini but hardly exceptionally different from a handful of other places within 2 or 3 blocks away. Suddenly the line to get a panino is 45 minutes long. And even friends visiting from Venice are trying to get in line to try this panino they’ve heard “is a must”. This has now been going on for years now — I am surprised to find that it is still the case even now, during a pandemic, and well, yes, the neighbourhood is ruined. Every shop on this street sells panini now, gone are the little shops that once served residents. Rubbish is left everywhere, police patrol the street to stop people sitting in the doors of shops to eat and a “panino tax” has been proposed by frustrated businesses who have to clean up after them.
The truth is, no Florentine would ever dream of standing in line for 45 minutes for a panino. It goes against the very idea of why you eat a panino for lunch: it is quick. You don’t need to sit down, you stand, you eat, you drink, you go!
Also, no Florentine would ever stand in line for that long when around the corner there is another perfectly great panino waiting for you. This is what the tourists do not know. So what I’m trying to say is, don’t stand in line for a panino that is longer than a handful of people. This isn’t meant to be a negative post about a certain place that I used to love so much, I personally don’t think it’s their fault. It’s more what happens when you let tourists go crazy, when sites like Tripadvisor (that residents don’t use) get out of hand and what happens when that particular mix of things and an algorithm decide things that local residents don’t.
The point here (and what history can tell you too) is that there are plenty of other better choices because good panini is what Florence does so well.
The ritual is this: a small, round, crusty bun, sliced in half, with some of the fluffy, soft white bread pulled out to make room for the filling, which is never too much. One or two, maximum three, things go inside a Florentine panino. Creamy, unsalted butter and anchovies. Thin slices of prosciutto with a single layer of thickly sliced pecorino cheese. Truffled pecorino cheese and spicy, bouncy, fresh arugula. Creamy stracchino cheese, fennel-studded finocchiona and spicy grilled eggplant.
The bread may also be schiacciata (crunchy, wood-fired, olive oil-lathered focaccia) instead, or not too-thick slices of unsalted Tuscan bread. But the idea is something you can hold in two hands and finish in a handful of bites.
A glass of wine – a small, almost miniature serving of chianti or vermentino in a rounded glass, just enough for a few gulps – is the usual accompaniment, and most hole-in-the-wall paninoteche have a little shelf built into the wall that serves as a handy spot to place your glass so you can eat your panino with two hands while you stand on the street.
A panino al lampredotto, a bun filled with juicy boiled offal and salsa verde make up Florence’s favourite and most typical snack and these are served by lampredottai, lampredotto (abomasum tripe) sellers who boil the tripe in deep pots directly on the vans where the panini are sold and eaten.
Florence has a centuries-long tradition of little places that serve wine and food. Even as far back as the Middle Ages, wine-selling was considered an “arte”, and the vinattieri formed one of Florence’s important guilds, setting up cellars and mescite, where you could buy wine or drink it right there. And you can still see along the back streets behind hefty palazzi the little “buchette di vino”, or wine doors, many dating to the seventeenth century, where wine was sold to the public.
The tradition of Florence’s many paninoteche dates back to the nineteenth century, where, along with glasses of wine, freshly baked bread from the forno (bakery) and prosciutto, finocchiona and salame from the salumaio came together in the simplest of ways for a quick lunch, an impromptu snack or merenda.
Places like I Due Fratellini, which is literally large enough to hold the two brothers, Michele and Armando and a wall of wine bottles, are doing what that paninoteca been doing since 1875. Another Florentine institution, the beautiful bar Procacci, which is famous for its fancy finger sandwiches filled with truffle paste, have been serving Florentines truffle-laced panini and pouring wine since 1885.
My personal favourite choices for a panino that are less than a 5 minute walk away from *that* long line at Antico Vinaio include ‘Ino right behind the Uffizi gallery in Via Georgeofili (here, you can also sit down and have a full glass of wine!). In the same area, Il Cernacchino (which inspired this panino with beef stew recipe in Florentine) also does great panini, I do love their porchetta sandwiches too. And just down the road on via dei Cerchi, another two favourites are I Buongustai (Via dei Cerchi 15r) — I adore their spinach and melted brie panini, they were my regular when I worked in a jewlery shop on this street! If they were too busy, I’d go next door to I Maledetti Toscani (Via dei Cerchi 19r). And right around the corner of course is I Due Fratellini (Via dei Cimatori 38r).
I never miss a panino (usually the fennel, orange and anchovy one) at Semel (Piazza Ghiberti 44) or a lampredotto panino at my favourite Tripperia Pollini, the tripe van parked near the church of Sant’Ambrogio, when I’m in the area of the market. And if I’m oltrarno side, I head straight to S.Forno (Via S.Monaca, 3r) and ask for a panino with mortadella, possibly sandwiched in a rosemary scented, raisin-studded pandiramerino.
If I’m not far from the train station, I sneak into Casa del Vino (Via del Ariento 16r). Their sausage and stracchino panino is something I dream of regularly. And whenever I can, if I’m in the area of Campo di Marte, the outskirts, not far from the train station or the football stadium, I go straight to place that I’m quite positive is the actual best panino in the city — Caffe Dogali (Viale Malta 5r).
Further reading: These photos come from my book Florentine (some are outtakes that never made it in!) and you’ll find a number of recipes n there inspired by these places, Procacci, Tripperia Pollini and I Buongustai for example. And I have a Florentine food guide available here.