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Florence, Italy | Steeped In Culinary Traditions

World Eats

by Lauren Mulvey
World Eats Florence (Photo by Tomas Marek)

As the birthplace of the Renaissance, Florence is a must-see when it comes to art and culture, but it is also an amazing destination steeped in culinary traditions.

View of Florence (Photo by Tomas Marek)

Over the years, my visits to Florence have become increasingly centered around food.

During my four month stint living in the city as a student I consumed more aperol spritzes than I can count, and for my most recent visit last summer, I traded long museum lines for mid-afternoon gelatos and early dinners.

As the birthplace of the Renaissance, Florence is a must-see when it comes to art and culture, but it is also an amazing destination steeped in culinary traditions.

The famous Arno River, subject of poetry and music, divides the city into the historical district and the more residential Oltrarno district. While exploring the city, it does a great deal of good to venture away from the tourist hotspots to find a good meal, and yet, some of the best food can be found in the heart of Florence’s historic center.

A Florentine breakfast is sweet and so is Cafe Lietta (Piazza della Libertà, 6/7/8 Rosso. Tel: +39-055-269-6874. instagram.com/caffelietta) a pastry shop on Piazza della Libertà serving fresh flaky croissants, fruit tarts, and an original pastry called “piruli,” a ricotta and cream pudding in a short crust pastry shell, with various iterations like chocolate or salted caramel.

The 1978-established Aqua al 2 (Via della Vigna Vecchia, 40r. Tel +39-055-284-170. acquaal2.it), is just a 10 minute walk from the famed Duomo, the city’s centerpiece, and even if you arrive the minute doors open at 7 P.M. before the reservation rush you will likely have to wait in line to get a table.

Inside the walls are covered with colorfully decorated plates, and a closer look will reveal the mounted China are signed by famous bands, musicians, casts of internationally touring theatrical shows, and more. On my last visit to the restaurant I dined alone, but was happy to be in the close company of the scraggly signatures of the Guns & Roses crew. I started with the restaurant’s signature free smattering of bread and dips, including a fantastic white bean sauce, before transitioning to the creamy burrata sitting on a bed of prosciutto, and the porcini mushroom ragu pasta.

Here, head chef Stefano Innocenti has made a name for himself with a tender steak filet dressed with a blueberry sauce, an unlikely pairing that has received rave reviews from locals and tourists alike. Innocenti had a vision of altering the standard Italian dining experience, which is typically received in courses, and added Assaggi (tastings) to his menu. The pasta sampler allows you to try the cannelloni, the porcini mushroom ragu, and other fresh handmade pastas.

Just steps from the Arno river sits Michelin Star Ora D’Aria (Via dei Georgofili, 11r. Tel: +39-055-2001699. oradariaristorante.com). Originally located near a prison, the name Ora D’Aria translates to hour of air, a nod to the hour of time outside prisoners would have while serving sentences. The restaurant moved to its current location in 2010, and received its shining Michelin star the following year. Chef Marco Stabile is the captain here, and as a lifelong Tuscan local he incorporates a mix of traditional and contemporary tastes into his dishes.

Tiramisu at Ora D’Aria (Photo by Juraj Rasla)

Tiramisu at Ora D’Aria (Photo by Juraj Rasla)

Like any Michelin star restaurant, Ora D’Aria offers an elevated dining experience, presenting food across three menus that encompass past, present. and future. A current iteration of the “past” menu features a Tuscan tasting menu which plates dishes like cream of foie grass, guinea fowl risotto, suckling pig, and tiramisu for dessert at 110 euro per person. An alternative vegetarian tasting menu includes a roasted carrot tartare, chestnut filled raviolini, and a persimmon cream, white melon caviar. However, the menu is subject to
change without notice.

Set back further from the Arno is Yellow Bar (Via del Proconsolo, 39r. Tel: +39-055-211-766), a spot first recommended to me by a friend who grew up in Florence who insisted that the carbonara was the best in town, and she may be right. Each time I visit the staff humors me by letting me practice my Italian. At the end of meals here, I recommend swapping the traditional complementary limoncello shot for a cantaloupe-y meloncello version of the famous digestif.

Carbonara at Yellow Bar (Photo by Gorenkova Evgenija)

Carbonara at Yellow Bar (Photo by Gorenkova Evgenija)

A historic center neighborhood that still remains a hotspot for Florentine locals, Sant’Ambrogio, is home to bars, gelaterias, and authentic food stalls and restaurants where you may happen to hear more Italian than English. The highly rated Cibrèo Trattoria (Via dei Macci, 122r. Tel: +39-055-234-1100. cibreo.com), is the smaller and more affordable version of Ristorante Cibrèo, which opened its doors some 44 years ago in 1979.

Since then Cibrèo has expanded to include the trattoria along with a cafe serving freshly baked croissants brushed with a sweet Italian glaze and coffees throughout the day. But stick around into the afternoon hours for lunch bites like bread morsels with Florentine liver pâté, and flatbread sandwiches with freshly cut prosciutto. The cafe steps down a tier in pricing and serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Cibreo’s beloved owner Fabio Picchi passed away in February 2022, an occurrence which happened to overlap with one of my visits. Throughout the first month of my stay I had heard his name several times from locals who frequented the restaurant and cafe, a testament to the businesses’ integrity and Florence’s close knit community.

Another mainstay in this part of town is Sant’Ambrogio Market (Piazza Lorenzo Ghiberti. Tel: +39-055-248-077. mercatosantambrogio.it), Florence’s oldest marketplace for fresh produce, meat, dairy, and fish products. Dating back to 1873, today it still serves as a grocery and lunch stop for Florentines.

On the same side of town a much more relaxed homestyle sandwich spot almost always has a line out the door during lunch hours. Pino’s Salumeria Verdi (Via Giuseppe Verdi, 36r. Tel: +39-055-244-517. pinossandwiches.com) is a hot competitor to the Instagram-famous All’Antico Vinaio. Both serve up Italian-style sandwiches jam packed with mortadella, prosciutto, pesto, tomatoes, and more. But Pino’s has a more family-style feel, as Pino and his family make each sandwich, pour the wine, and prepare dishes like lasagna and meatballs together. I typically opt for La Bandiera (the flag): fresh schiacciata bread stuffed with spicy salami, spinach, tomatoes, nduja, and pesto, ingredients meant to mimic the famed Italian green, white and red.

Nearby, La Giostra (Borgo Pinti, 10/18r. Tel: +39-055-241-341. ristorantelagiostra.com) is considered one of the higher end options in Florence, hosting the likes of Elton John and Bruce Springsteen. The dining room is characterized by a distinctly romantic vibe, including glowing yellow lights drape from the ceilings that reflect off the walls full of vintage wine bottles.

Beef Carpaccio at La Giostra (Photo by FabrikaSimf)

Beef Carpaccio at La Giostra (Photo by FabrikaSimf)

Founded 25 years ago by Prince Dimitri d’Asburgo Lorena of a noble Austrian family, the establishment is now run by his son Soldano, while the kitchen is helmed by chef Ubaldo Tornarelli who’s team works from the early hours of the morning until opening for lunch at 12:30 P.M. and dinner at 7 P.M. Start with the beef carpaccio with Parmesan cheese and rucola with tomato, then segue to homemade ravioli with goat cheese and spinach.

For pizza lovers, an old reliable in Florence is undoubtedly, L’Antica Pizzeria Da Michele (Piazza del Mercato Centrale, 22r. Tel: +39-055-269-6173. pizzeriadamichelefirenze.it) a branch of the famous Neapolitan pizzeria. Here the pizzas are thin crusted and two times the size of the average person’s face. Another good choice, found across from the Cibreo’s cafe, trattoria, and restaurant complex is il Pizzaiuolo, where the margherita pizza is a classic, local favorite.

After dinner drinks can be enjoyed in Sant’Ambrogio as it has a corridor of bars that are frequented by young locals on many nights. Bitter Bar (Via di Mezzo, 28/30r. Tel: +39-380-646-1020. bitterbarfirenze.it), headed by Florentine bartender Cristian Guitti, is 1920s inspired, but only dates back to 2017. Craft cocktails incorporate funky ingredients like chile jam and truffle honey. One block over, the party continues at Rex Café (Via Fiesolana, 25r. rexfirenze.com), where bar classics and small bites meet creative concoctions from cocktail expert Mose Giordani.

Some of my best evenings on the streets of Florence ended in Jazz Club Firenze (Via Nuova de’ Caccini, 3. facebook.com/jazzclubfirenze.it). In a dimly lit basement, people in a tightly packed room lean back into Parisian bistro chairs tapping their fingers against their wine glasses or stomping a heel to whatever bossa nova beat rocks the stage that evening. The club has been showcasing local talent since 1979.

Across the river in the Oltrarno district, swarms of tourists cluster at Pitti Palace and Piazzale Michelangelo, but the atmosphere is quieter and stretches of the city are broken up by small parks and gardens.  Just steps off the Ponte Vecchio, famous wine bar Le Volpi e L’Uva (Piazza dei Rossi, 1r. Tel: +39-055-239-8132. levolpieluva.com), opened in 1992 by Emilio Monechi, Riccard Comparini, and Ciro Beligni, is a good place to start your Oltrarno tour. Their founding mission? Making wine accessible to all through the cultivation of relationships with small wine producers. Sometimes it’s hard to get a seat here, but the wait is worth it.

A brief walk away in Piazza Santo Spirito, a cluster of restaurants and wine bars orbit an open square with a sculptured fountain and the cathedral of Santo Spirito. The piazza is truly a cornerstone of Florentine nightlife.

Hovering on the corner of the piazza, Gusta Osteria (Via dei Michelozzi, 13r. Tel: +39-055-285-033. instagram.com/gustaosteria) is not only a great dinner spot, but perfect for aperitivo snacks, bruschetta, and a cheese and meat board with tender prosciutto and cutting pecorino cheese. I spent many a lunch here, pouring parmesan onto my lasagna, and staining my lips purple with glasses of their house red wine.

Venture past the cathedral and into the square to find Osteria Santo Spirito (Piazza Santo Spirito, 16/r. Tel: +39-348-346-7804) at the opposite end. Outdoor seating offers the perfect opportunity to people-watch over a plate of their famous baked gnocchi in a cheesy truffle cream sauce.

Those who have visited Florence more than once may know that the city rarely changes. Film and photos from 50 years ago show the same buildings, and many of the same businesses and families still play kingpin in the city’s cultural landscape. Since 1956, Trattoria Sabatino (Via Pisana, 2r. Tel: +39-055-225-955. trattoriasabatino.it) has paid tribute to tradition with simplistic classics on its daily menu. Before it fell into the hands of Valerio Buccioni and his father in the mid-1900s, it served as a can teen-style restaurant, and before that, a nunnery in the San Frediano neighborhood of Oltrarno. Day to day, courses change and can be anything from roasted veal to tripe alla fiorentina. Prices are incredibly low, with most first and second courses under ten euro.

Newer to the culinary scene and quickly climbing the ranks is 2016- born Essenziale (Piazza di Cestello, 3r. Tel: +39-055 -247-6956. essenziale.me) run by chef Simone Cipriani. Their ever-changing menu keeps fare exciting and relies heavily on ingredients sourced from local organic farms and oil mills. Decor inside is minimal and clean, a sign that the focus here is on the food.

Oltrarno’s culinary wonders extend southeast toward Piazzale Michelangelo, a famous overlook with incredible views of Florence. As the streets start sloping upward, Beppa Fioraia (Via dell’Erta Canina, 6/r. Tel: +39-055-234-7681. beppafioraia.it) offers a romantic outdoor setting complete with twinkling lights hanging  amidst trees and shrubbery. Menu items range from aubergine ravioli with prawns to porchetta style roast rabbit.

Prawns With Pasta at Beppa Fioraia (Photo by Nerudol)

Prawns With Pasta at Beppa Fioraia (Photo by Nerudol)

Any culinary trip to Florence is utterly incomplete without a visit to a gelateria or two. The debate over which is best is always expanding, but local favorites often include Gelateria de Medici (gelateriademedici.com), whose two locations are at least a 30-minute walk outside the historic city center, and are largely frequented by locals. The flavors here span creamy hazelnut, to Crema de Medici, a creamy chocolate-y crunchy delight, but their bite sized “ice cream globes” are a perfect treat to bring to a dinner party or back to your hotel for a late night treat.

Another must is Vivoli (Via Isola delle Stinche, 7/r. Tel: +39-055-292-334. vivoli.it), which is a short walk from the famous Santa Croce Cathedral and doubles as a cafe serving morning espresso and a gelateria. The affogatos here are picture-perfect and intoxicatingly sweet—a perfect mix of creamy espresso and sticky vanilla gelato.

Though it may not have the global range of cuisine as in big international cities like New York or London, Florence provides visitors the opportunity to enjoy unique, local cuisine as well as well-loved Italian classics. Homestyle restaurants give Michelin starred venues a run for their money in this city where tradition is king and every where you go people are living la dolce vita.

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