Eat Like a Local: Florence

Five tips to amplify your Florentine dining experience

By / December 2012

Some people say great food is hard to find in Florence. They say the city is overrun by tourists and therefore, mediocre restaurants. They say that authentic, honest, lively, simple, seasonally focused Tuscan cooking fled for the literal hills years ago. To be sure, you can find some true gems in the tiny trattorias and osterias that dot the hillsides just outside of Florence’s city limits, far away from the long lines outside the Uffizi Gallery and the crowds seeking relief from the sun in the shadow of Brunelleschi’s Duomo.

But I, for one, don’t buy all that Florence trash talk. Even with its mobs of sightseers and junky souvenir shops, my lifelong love affair with the city, its people, and yes, the food, took root on my first visit nearly 14 years ago, grew even more when I lived there for a short stint, and continues to this day. Even now, after traveling to other countries in Europe, Asia, and South America, Florence is hands down my favorite place on Earth. It’s also the only place I’ve ever felt immediately at home outside of Virginia, where I was raised.

Last summer, I returned to the city and made it my mission to seek out the very best it had to offer in food and drink. Sure, there are those tourist traps with views of the Ponte Vecchio, where they serve plates of Olive Garden-esque fettuccine alfredo and soupy lasagna. But if you know where to look – one, two, or three streets behind the tourist hot spots, along the dingier streets, or just across the river – you’ll find the food of my Florence, food worth getting on a plane for, food worth defending. Here are five of my favorite ways to eat like a local, naysayers be damned.

1. Skip that soggy panino in the glass case and lunch at ‘Ino.
Sure, the ubiquitous caprese or salami panini will cure even the worst case of sightseeing “hangries” (angry hunger), but look beyond the tourist clogged corner cafes to ‘Ino for panini done right. Situated down a narrow, unassuming street that connects the Piazza della Signoria to the Arno River, this tiny panino shop offers an ample menu of innovative sandwiches piled high with local meats, cheeses, and tapenades. The olive oils, vinegars, and spreads for sale also make it a great spot to pick up a few gifts for folks back home.

2. Sip wine curbside at I Due Frattelini.
As little more than a counter carved into the side of a building, I Due Fratellini is a tiny vineria and sandwich shop that’s been filling Florentine glasses since 1875. Tucked down a side street behind the Orsanmichele, the city’s original grain market, you won’t find any seats here (unless you want to cop a squat on the cobblestones), but look for the wall-mounted shelves to temporarily free your hands of that glass of Chianti. You’ll need both of them, after all, to devour that crusty Tuscan roll stuffed with wild boar salami and butter, one of the best deals in town.

3. Get your espresso shaken, not stirred, at Il Chiaroscuro.
I’ve got nothing against a great cappuccino, in fact, I adore them. But for most Italians, the dairy-heavy cappuccino is reserved for mornings only. Espresso is the lighter caffé pick-me-up of choice for afternoons and evenings. Few do coffee better in Florence than Il Chiaroscuro, where they source beans from all over the world and grind them to order. For a twist on a classic espresso, order the shakerato – espresso, simple syrup, and ice shaken like a cocktail tableside and served in a martini glass.

4. Rub elbows with strangers over osso bucco at Osteria Vini e Vecchi Sapori.
Eating at Vini e Vecchi feels more like being at a raucous dinner party than a restaurant. That’s largely due to its size, which will have you sharing one of maybe 10 tables with strangers and their neighbors alike. But don’t let the crowded quarters deter you. The food coming out of the kitchen is some of the most authentic, simple, and fiercely seasonal Florentine cooking to be found in the city these days. My dinner there last summer had me swooning over the pacherri pasta tossed with cheesy squash blossom sauce and a plate of tender osso bucco with fresh peas and pancetta.

5. When it comes to gelato, good things come in the smallest packages.
As with all touristy spots in Italy, Florence is no different in its glut of circus-like gelaterias lining every piazza. While the American-sized portions, waffle cones, and sprinkles scooped out at these spots may taste okay, there’s also a good chance they began as a pre-made factory mix, aka something you could find easily stateside. But at Perché No! and Gelateria Vivoli the traditional and more modest serving sizes speak volumes about the from-scratch gelatos these spots create. Rich, dense, and bursting with flavors of real pistachio, cantaloupe, and raspberry, a small cup is more than satisfying and will minimize the guilt as you slurp down your fourth of the day.

 

Martha J. Miller is the food columnist for EthnoTraveler. Her writing also appears in the Washington Post and the Oxford American.

 

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