Florence is well-known worldwide for its incomparable Renaissance history. In Florence, however, have been created several must-to-taste recipes of the Italian cuisine. Here was born Catherine de’ Medici, wife of Henry II of France, who imported in Paris the best Tuscan recipes, fundamental for the birth of French haute cuisine.
A few weeks ago I went back to Florence. I walked around the taverns, the market stalls and carts of street food. Read on and take a trip with me between grilled steaks, slow-cooked recipes, weird-but-tasty street food, vegetarian soups, crunchy bruschettas and local cheese of the Florentine tradition!
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RETURN TO FLORENCE
I come back in Florence after more than one year. For me, born in Bologna and expatriate in the US in 2013, Florence is my second home. Here I use to live and study (sometimes ...) for six years, here lives my wife’s family and here I turned on the stove the first times, collecting some successes and many burns.
STREET FOOD IN FLORENCE
One apartment, seven boys and a constant coming and going of people; these are the first memories that come to me from the past. Parties… dinners… hungry girls… the kitchen sink always cluttered with dishes… one single shared refrigerator - fresh supplies mixed with leftovers and other weird things - and discussions on the management of the common funds. Student life. Little money. T-bone steaks alla Fiorentina admired more over the glass of the butcher than on my plate…. a lot of street food. Sharp flavors, strong, brutal. The discovery of the quinto quarto (the entrails of the cattle, destined to poor people in the olden time, but actually delicious delicacies for gourmets) after so many years of vegetarianism.
The cuisine in Florence is like the people who live there: simple, steeped in history, rough, ironic. Often it is appreciated only at the second tasting, like Lampredotto: stew of the fourth cow stomach, or croutons with udder calf, a unique bite with its sour and milky taste.
I wander around the streets of the historic centre. Borgo Albizi street is long and narrow: black shadows of the overhanging roof over me snatch a winter sky unusually blue, wedged in a narrow strip. I walk along from Borgo Albizi to Pietrapiana street, going beyond the Loggia del Pesce. I'm almost arrived to Piazza Sant'Ambrogio when I glimpse the front part of the cart of the Lampredottaro (lampredotto seller) just behind the corner. Vapors come out intermittently from a large pot – where I am, I can’t see it, but I KNOW that is there – Going closer I see a bunch of people who already gather the space in front of the cart. As I had imagined, the pot of Lampredotto opens and closes, Pierpaolo (the Lampredottaro) pierce the cow stomach cooked to perfection and laying it on the cutting board. Fast and precise cutting reduce the meat into small pieces; salt, pepper, salsa verde (read here my personal version with wasabi) and the sandwich is ready! With the first bite come to me some flavors that I miss for a long time. The calloused meat, made unbelievably soft due to the slow cooking blends with the crust crispy bread soft inside. The intense flavor of fresh parsley and crushed garlic, a bit of anchovies, intense extra virgin olive oil - seven boys and a constant coming and going of people and howling nights - memories come back to my mind, the lampredotto catalyzes and shoot them directly into my head and my soul. "But, don’t you wonna try the tripe?!" The deep voice of Sergio, the father of Pierpaolo, brings me back to the reality of my duties towards food. "Sure!" I answer with my mouth still full of the last bite of lampredotto. Sergio and Pierpaolo are the latest owners of the older lampredotto’s bench still in business in Florence; Everyday from their knifes pass 50 pounds of lampredotto. Sergio hands me a large portion of Trippa alla Fiorentina: tripe stew with tomato sauce and a sprinkling of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. I look at the crowd growing,with the passing of time; the spoken Florentine inflexion is predominant, but there are also many persons coming from abroad. What has long been a poor food, eaten only by locals, is opening up to the world. The face of those who try for the first time tripe or lampredotto is a must that I can’t miss, I know how they feel themselves, it happened to me the same! Their expression change several times in a few seconds: curiosity, disgust, surprise, pleasure, desire, addiction! If you want my advice: for your first time, opt for the sandwich, the serving bowl without bread is only for experienced!
In just a few steps, I reach Piazza Santa Croce and from there trough Via dei Neri, behind the Uffizi Museum, the Antico Vinaio is waiting me. Bread without salt and olive oil green, intense and spicy… so difficult to find far from Tuscany! And the cured meats: Tuscan ham, shoulder boar, Finocchiona (typical spicy salami with fennel seeds and red wine), Soprassata (I am not sure you want to know how it is made, but I can assure you: it is very good; I can confide you that somehow the pig's head is involved...). To combine the cured meats on the counter of Antico Vinaio are waiting me seasoned and soft Pecorino cheese, olives and croutons with fresh tomatoes, cannellini beans and fegatini (chicken liver and hearts patè). All I can find in this place is a hymn to the simple peasant food; basic ingredients and fragrant bakery.
MARKETS AND “BOTTEGHE”
Markets and botteghe (small artisan workshops); In the middle of them, local food and traditional recipes. In Piazza del Mercato Centrale, between the leather seller’s stalls there is one of the most ancient covered market of Florence. Inside the market, at the first floor, local people buying supplies daily: Chianina beef, Tyrrhenian Sea blue fish, fruits and vegetables from the surrounding countryside. Scenes untouched through the centuries: screams and trading, money exchange, trolleys, varying prices. At the second floor, the market has been renovated a few months ago. A large space offering the great variety of Florentine cuisine available to those who want to sample a plenty of products at the same time: buy at the counters and looking for a place at the tables. For who want to learn, a space dedicated to cooking classes hosts local cooks who tend daily lessons.
Just outside the Mercato centale is what is perhaps the most popular trattoria (informal restaurant owned by family members) in Florence, the "Fiaschetteria Mario". Open since 1953, this restaurant embodies the Florentine spirit brought forward by three generations. "Mario" is open only for lunch, as the tradition of Florentine trattorie, customers sit where there is room, "eating together" as it is clearly written on the sign near the entrance. "Mario" is not a place for all: just finished eating you must get up and leave the place to those who wait, there's not time for small talk! If you are willing to accept the rules of the house you will be rewarded with an absolutely authentic daily menu, depending on the availability of the fresh supplies prepared every day.
SOUPS AND CROSTINI
Soups and local bread are two must-to-eat of Tuscan cuisine. In my years in Florence, with the money that can be found in the pockets of a student, bread and soups were the classic trattoria meal to accompany a wicker bottle of red wine to share with friends. The typical Tuscan bread (Ciabatta and Bozza are the most popular shapes) is without salt to not cover the taste of the food. The queens of the soups with bread are Pappa al pomodoro with basil and fresh tomatoes and Ribollita with Lacinato Kale (Cavolo Nero): simple products, created with leftover bread, which enhance the flavor and texture details. Two delicious dishes, simple and tasty, become justly famous throughout Italy. Try on also Pasta e Fagioli (cream soup with whole and crushed Borlotti beans and served with or without sausages) and Pumpkin soup.
A meal in Tuscany has to start with a selection of crostini (bruschettas): Fettunta - a simple slice of lightly toasted bread rubbed with garlic, salt and extra virgin olive oil - The crostini with Cannellini white beans (served sometimes with little shrimp), and crostini with chicken livers, are the most popular.
Crossing Piazza della Signoria, along the Piazzale degli Uffizi, I reach the Lungarni (the roads along the river Arno). Walking on the Ponte Vecchio across the river I enter in Oltrarno, the part of the city most beloved by the Florentine people, that includes the districts of Borgo Santo Spirito and Borgo San Frediano.
Loosing myself, wandering through the streets between Palazzo Pitti and the church of Santo Spirito, I stop to have a lunch at the trattoria "Quattro Leoni", in Piazza della Passera. I miss a bit 'of carbohydrates, I think, entering into the restaurant while watching at a picture of Dustin Hoffman visibly tipsy just outside the door of the restaurant, with Sting sitting in a car behind him that laughs amused by the scene. Normally, the photos of foreign stars in the premises of the restaurants make me think bad, but I know that Sting live in the countryside just outside Florence for years: he knows where to go to eat! Sitting on a table after waiting a few minutes, I order a dish of Pappardelle (large Italian noodles) seasoned with wild boar sauce knife-cutting coarsely. After the Pappardelle I attack a big portion of Peposo all'Imprunetina, the typical beef stew slow-cooked into red wine, spiced with plenty of black peppercorns. I can’t miss the dessert so I decide for the classic Cantucci con Vin Santo (typical cookies poached in local sweet wine). Eating I look the dishes come from the kitchen: I will taste them in the following days: Fiocchetti con taleggio, pere e asparagi (pinched strips of fresh pasta with tasty soft cheese and cubes of pears and asparagus), salt-preserved cod alla fiorentina, fried meats and fish. The coffee at “Quattro Leoni” is served with mocha: it smacks of home, nice alternative to the usual espresso.
After the meeting with the Peposo (delicious, but... a bomb of calories!) I need to take a walk ... walking eastbound throughout the district of Santo Spirito reach the homonyms square and Church. Oltrarno is considered by the Florentines the “Real Florence”, away from the commotion of Piazza della Signoria and the Basilica of Santa Maria del Fiore. Piazza Santo Spirito is a popular hangout for young blood, particularly in summer. I am ready to have a dinner! I sit into the gazebo of “Trattoria Santo Spirito” placed at the opposite corner of the church and I order two half portions of excellent Ribollita and Pappa al Pomodoro. After eating, I continue towards the district of San Frediano, the last outpost of the popular spirit Florentine. I do just a quick lap, in the following days will be back more than once.
San Frediano is a neighborhood of Florence that is resistant to most attempts at renewal, often dictated solely by a desire to massive increase in revenue. People Who lives here defends with pride and passion the connotation "popular" in the area. Here I choose to eat “Her Majesty” the Bistecca alla Fiorentina ( typical Steak of Florence) at "Antico Ristoro Di Cambi" (read here history and recipe of Florentine Steak) an historic restaurant of San Frediano, open for over 60 years and carried on with excellent results by cousins Stefano and Fabio. The Bistecca alla Fiorentina, simply called Bistecca in Florence, is a cut of sirloin of beef characterized by the typical "T" bone, weighing between 1.5 Lb to 4 Lb. Personally, the Best cut for the Florentine Steak weight 3 Lb, a big deal! Passing through Florence and surrounding countryside is a big crime do not try on the Bistecca alla Fiorentina, but forget to decide the cooking level: the only way to cook the Bistecca is rear, if the cook is willing even to consider the idea of cooking it in a different way, go away because that place is a tourist trap! If you prefer your meat well done opt for Peposo stew, grilled pork or roast rabbit (Yes, in Italy is very common eat rabbit) excellent food, but if you have the courage to face the Florentine steak will not regret it!
To not end prematurely my lap because indigestion, I call the rescue my friend my old friend Samuele, one of the famous "seven" who used to share the apartment with me in Florence at university times. We drink a few glasses of wine and talk about the past; memories resurfacing again, but when the steak come on our table it hush-up us suddenly. The meat is magnificent on the wooden cutting board, thick four fingers, still smoking, sprinkled with coarse salt. There's also a few of delicious side dishes, Canellini white beans and baked potatoes, but our attention is fully on the meat. Stabbing the knife into the steak, the meat is unbelievably soft in all its parts - fillet and sirloin - rouge and juicy. I and Samuele, we wolf down the steak enjoying the moment; when the meat is over and only the bone laid on the cutting board we look into eyes for a while… then I quickly grab the bone to hell bon-ton and start gnawing on the last stretches of meat, while Samu gets a laugh!
Paced at the edge of San Frediano district, next to Piazza Torquato Tasso, "Gnam!" is a new place, open just a few months ago, specializing in hamburgers. Lapo, Giulio, Marco and Riccardo are the young owners of this restaurants that revisits in a masterly way the American myth in Florentine key, using local techniques and products. Sitting on one of the tables of the “Gnam!” I have a little talk with Lapo (click here to read more). He explain me the philosophy of the place: a new Idea of American-Italian fast food with great attention to local and organic ingredients. While I eat a hamburger of Chianina beef (the best local breed of cattle) between two slices of olive oil schiacciata (typical Florentine flatbread) I think about the struggles of the San Frediano neighborhood against the gentrification and the cultural leveling and I think that a way to evolve in the tradition, eventually, is possible.
Leaving Florence displease me a bit '; It is a city that welcomed me, made me angry, fed me the head, heart and stomach. The food they offered me was special, sometimes brutal, but sincere and honest. The flavors of the local recipes are distinct, using a few ingredients which are not open to manipulation. I leave you one last tip: approach the local food with curiosity and without fear to try something completely different from what you are used to eating at home, you will be rewarded!