Three years of living in Florence with a very active social life means I’ve eaten and drunk in pretty much every restaurant you could possibly want to try, and sampled every Tuscan speciality on offer; because the food in Florence is Tuscan, it is not Italian! The regions are very proud of their own special cuisine, and many have their own particular dishes. Tuscan food is very rustic and uncomplicated, and totally delicious. If you would like to learn how to cook it yourself, check out my friend Giulia’s food blog, full of beautifully described and stunningly photographed recipes, many handed down in her family over generations.
But I want to tell you today about where and what to eat when in Florence, because I’m bossy like that! This is not a list of the top ten restaurants, though you will find some good ones, it is not a list of the top dishes to eat, though some are included too, it is my snapshot of memorable culinary experiences in Florence, and ones I know you will enjoy too (except maybe the tripe!).
1) Best Thing to eat in Florence – Bistecca a la Fiorentina (Florentine steak)
The ONLY place to eat this is Perseus in my opinion, and in that of many Florentines. This huge restaurant is packed every night with locals for good reason. Don’t be tempted to order it elsewhere, as if you also go to Perseus you will be annoyed that you spent so much on an inferior steak! This is the display that greets you as you walk in the door:
Order for two people or more and share, they can’t do it for one (unless you have a gargantuan appetite), it’s too big! It comes rare, they won’t cook it any more even if you ask. The waiters bring it to you on a little trolley (it’s so big, they can’t do it on the table), and carve it up in front of you. It is amazing – I didn’t really eat even slightly pink meat before trying this (which I admit the first time was scary), and now I love it!
Order it with just roast potatoes, and a good bottle of red (don’t go for the house stuff in the flasks, it’s not great, but their house red in a bottle is pretty decent, but for the steak I’d push the boat out a bit and get a nicer bottle – try a montepulciano di Abruzzo, or a Brunello di Montalcino – my usual steak accompaniments) Don’t bother with a starter, they aren’t totally amazing – maybe just some bruschetta, and you won’t have room for pud! It is a bit out of the centre, but you can walk along Via San Gallo from the centre by the Duomo, or get a bus from Piazza San Marco or the station (any bus going to Piazza della Liberta), but it is probably easier to get a taxi if you’re struggling to find your way around. You’ll probably need one home anyway! It’s expensive, (EUR 50 a head or more if you go for the nicer wine) but absolutely worth it.
Now this is a serious warning. You see so many visitors gorging themselves on gelato from the shops which line the main tourist streets between the Piazza del Duomo and the River Arno, and exclaiming how wonderful it is. I don’t know where they have been eating ice cream, but it can’t have been that good. Do not under any circumstances be tempted to get anything from these places where it is piled high in hideous, almost radioactive colours with fruit decorations on it. (Wow, I really am bossy!) That stuff is full of chemicals and tastes like it. There are so many wonderful artisanal places where it is flavoured with natural things and really does taste absolutely unbelievable, that it would be a travesty to eat this stuff. There is even a great place right next to the Duomo if you simply cannot wait and have to get your gelato fix the moment you arrive (because you’ll be able to find the Duomo – just look up from anywhere in the city and you can see it!). Grom is one of my favourites too. It’s motto is ‘Ice cream like it used to be’. Try the nocciola (hazelnut), or their specialities, Crema di GROM (hard to describe, but amazing) and Bacio (like the little chocolate and hazelnut sweets). Everything there is good – go several times and try them all! Or ask for samples if you’re not sure before ordering, just ask: ‘Posso provarlo?’ (poss-o pro-var-low) You can find it on the corner of Via del Campanile and Via delle Oche.
Then you have Vivoli which is near the Santa Croce church further across town. Their rice pudding (riso) is my favourite, and their Millefeuille is pretty awesome too! It’s on Via dell’Isola delle Stinche (which means street of the island of pigs, or leg bone in an alternative translation – perhaps a Florentine can correct me?! Who knows, it sounds amusing to me anyway).
The best spot for an early evening gelato to be enjoyed as the sun sets is La Carraia, which is on the south side of Ponte la Carraia, so once you have your gelato you can walk to the centre of the bridge and have a wonderful view of the Ponte Vecchio one bridge over for beautiful dusk views. They also do amazing cakes to take away – perfect to take for dessert if someone invites you over to dinner.
3) I Due Fratellini
This is not exactly a restaurant, but more of a Florentine gourmet experience. I Due Fratellini (the Two Brothers) on Via dei Cimatori (38) is a traditional eaterie for workers finishing shifts at local leather factories or markets, and this is the last genuine one left in Florence – practically just a hole in the wall where you get a crusty bun filled with whatever you like (from an enormous menu), freshly made in front of you by the two friendly chaps who run it (no longer the original brothers of course, but all family) with a small glass of red, which is 70 cents! For me the only option to choose is Porchetta (roast pork) with Salsa Verde, another must-try Tuscan meat. They have little shelves next to the shop which are numbered so you can put your wine glass down to concentrate on wolfing your sandwich, and remember which one is yours!
Definitely an experience, makes a great little lunch if you plan on a big supper. Go early though, or you queue for hours because this place is deservedly popular with locals and tourists alike, particularly in a city where many gastronomic experiences are costly, and this one is cheap yet one of the tastiest!
4) The Mercato Centrale
The Mercato Centrale is surrounded by streets of markets which nearly every visitor to Florence checks out. Often however they don’t venture into the huge building at the centre of it all, which is a big mistake. The Mercato Centrale is a must-visit in its own right. Stalls and stalls of fresh ingredients and plenty of places to sample local goods. It is also where you will find number 5 on my list, and perhaps you should head there to eat before walking around the market… some of the cows muzzles and pig heads and huge piles of intestines on display might put you off your lunch! Alternatively recently the top floor of the market has been opened to the public with every kind of food on offer that you could want and plenty of seating, as well as more gift shops and even a TV cookery school. It has been beautifully renovated and is in keeping with the architecture of the building but also very modern.
It’s a great place to buy decorative souvenir versions of the usual Italian delicacies to take home – porcini mushrooms, pasta (in just about every comedy shape – don’t look too closely if you are easily offended), olive oil and balsamico and parmesan. You can buy all of these things more cheaply at a supermarket of course, but they won’t be quite so prettily packaged, nor can you try before you buy quite so easily. It is also a great place to pick up ingredients for a picnic in one of Florence’s parks (the Boboli Gardens are my favourite).
Okay, so tripe may not be to everyone’s taste, and I confess, I have not yet plucked up the courage to sample it either, but it is a Florentine tradition and one which is apparently delicious. I’m back there in a few weeks, I may force myself then! The best place is reputedly Nerbone, located in the Mercato Centrale, which has been serving up bollito (boiled beef) and lampredotto (the fourth stomach of the cow) Panini since the market opened in the 1800s, which they serve again with the spicy salsa verde. Unlike many Italian traditional eateries, the man who serves you does not also look like he was personally there when they opened. You can read about and view a video of another blogger’s experience of eating it here to tempt you!
6) The best wine bar
Le Volpe e L’Uva (the fox and the grape, don’t ask why!) is a wonderful little wine bar which dishes up fantastic plates of hams and cheeses which perfectly accompany the wines. It’s a bit tricky to find in a little courtyard off the road, but totally worth it and right in the middle of town on the south of the river right by the Pontevecchio. The two brothers who own this spend half the year travelling the little family-run vineyards of Italy and buying by the crate, rather than by the van load, and every single wine is brilliant. I am a particular fan of the Maremma Viognier, and you HAVE to try a Vernaccia di San Gimignano while there, though preferably in San Gimignano (beautiful traditional hilltop tuscan town with lots of towers, well worth a day trip in combination with a visit to Siena). Of the reds try the Barolo, and the Sardinian wine is not bad, and if they have the one from the slopes of Etna, that is pretty awesome too. Also their Chianti Classico is very good. In fact, it is generally a good bet in most places to go for the Chinati, as it is local and will most likely be the best quality for your money.
7) Pappardelle al cinghiale – Wild Boar Pasta (and a decent tourist restaurant!)
Trattoria Za-Za on Piazza del Mercato Centrale is in every guidebook and a total tourist trap, but with good reason – it’s brilliant! The food is great, especially the Tuscan specialities, though you can find dishes from most of Italy there, including pizza. I highly recommend trying the trio of tuscan soups (soup is not quite the right word to describe it really – they are so thick they are almost stews) as a shared starter, also the fried courgette flowers if they are in season.
The wild boar pasta is absolutely brilliant. I get it every time I come here, and you have to try wild boar at least once in Florence. It has an amazing gamey taste, like a much richer beef, and is deliciously paired with juniper berries in this dish. I don’t have a photo of it with thick ribbons of papardelle (the Florentine way of serving it), but I have a picture of the same dish in Siena, which is made with pici pasta, a local Sienese thick, hand-rolled spaghetti. A must-try if you venture there for the day!
Go early in your visit, because you will probably want to go back!
8) Rustic local food
One place you won’t find any tourists (and its all the better for cheap, well made local food) is Trattoria le Mossacce on Via Del Proconsolo. Brilliant. It is only open at lunch and dinner, i.e. not all day. No frills, no fuss, just really authentic Tuscan cuisine, priced for the Florentines and not tourists, and friendly staff who are happy to see some tourists stumbling upon their decent food!
9) For chocaholics – Hemingway!
Hemingway is maybe not so popular in the heat of summer, but the rest of the year it is a warmly glowing comfy oasis away from the sometimes torrential Florentine rain. This place does the best hot chocolate I have ever tasted in my life – their cioccolato al peperoncino. Yes – chilli hot chocolate. Now we all know that’s a great combo in a bar of chocolate, but in a drink, it really comes into its own! They make it so thick it is more like a chocolate soup, I usually end up eating it with a spoon (shocking I know). I don’t have any photos of their hot chocolate, because once it is in front of me there is little else in the world until it is gone again! But I do have one of their incredible handmade chocolates – if you can manage any more chocolate after your decadent hit.
I highly recommend a visit to this place on a chilly or rainy day. It is a little out of the way of the usual tourist spots in the Oltrarno, but for me that always makes seeing the sign outside all that little bit more special.
10 ) Pizza – last for a reason!
Why last? Because pizza isn’t a Tuscan thing. In Rome, or in Naples, eat pizza. Eat nothing but! But in Florence, it isn’t that great, because they don’t put as much effort into something that is made mainly for the tourists, at least, it seems like that to me. There are a couple of good places located in mainly residential areas far from the centre, and not places you could easily find on holiday. In the centre, for me there is only one place worth visiting for pizza I think – Ciro and Sons on Via del Giglio. The interior is beautiful, the waiting staff are very friendly, and most importantly, the pizza made freshly in their wood-fired ovens is delicious!
If you are visiting Florence I hope you will give these a go – if you’ve been to Florence and have other favourites (places I might not have tried hopefully, so I can explore some new ones!) do let me know in the comments. And buon appetito!
This is my rather tardy Fiesta Friday offering – whilst I have done no cooking myself, I hope I have brought some inspiration and some deliciousness to the party, and an Italian flair! Happy weekend all!