It made me jump every time — a fist coming down on the card table, a menacing lunge forward, sudden raised voices, everyone’s hands doing half the talking. I always stopped what I was doing to listen, and try to make sense of what these little old men would get so heated about day after day outside the gelateria where I worked when I first moved to Italy. It had to be something important, right? Like politics or ideology or some ancient wound, a betrayal that kept getting dragged out.
And then my Italian got better. Little by little words began to surface that I could recognize, I started to be able to string a few threads together here and there. It took some time, but I eventually discovered what all the hand waving and passionate speeches were about. And though it had nothing to do with current events or old double-crossings, it was no less important to the little old men, no less deserving of their fire and zeal. All along, they had been talking about food.
Whose nonna had the best recipe for ragu, full-on debates about what goes into a proper pasta al pesto, a play-by-play of everyone’s dinner menus that night and exactly how each dish was going to be prepared… These guys would go on and on for ages — about food! And the thing is, they weren’t unique to the little town in the Cinque Terre where I was working at the time. I had studied in Florence the summer before and had witnessed the same intense conversations there. In fact, I find that Florentines are passionate about food on a whole other level — they take pride in what they prepare and eat because family traditions in both the city and the surrounding countryside are rooted in a strong attachment to the land and what it produces.
So when you visit Florence, a city planted in the middle of an agricultural treasure trove and home to some of the most mouthwatering dishes in the country, you want to do eating there right. It’s practically a matter of respect in a place that reveres its cuisine as much as this city does! So let’s make sure you have the basics of Florentine eating down before you venture into its culinary world, shall we?
First, know your lingo.
- A bar is not a bar here. Well, it is, but not all day long. During the day you can think of bars as more like cafés. Hell, this is where Italians come to eat breakfast, for Pete’s sake (and not the liquid kind). An Italian bar sells coffee, drinks and snacks like sandwiches and mini-pizzas — things they can quickly warm up for you. Some also serve several courses at lunch, but check the menu to see whether these are frozen microwave meals or not (they have to indicate this by law). Most bars don’t have a kitchen in which to prepare things from scratch.
- An enoteca is a wine bar that often includes a small wine shop and might also serve food, bistro-style.
- Trattorie and osterie are similar in that they feature rustic home cooking and are usually family-run.
- Ristoranti are, of course, restaurants. They can run the gamut from sophisticated world-class eateries to casual dining spots.
Second, know when to go.
Make sure you check about restaurant (or trattoria or osteria) closing days if you’re planning your eating out in advance, particularly in the off-season. Eateries in seasonal towns don’t necessarily abide by this rule since they’re not usually open year-round, but many restaurants in larger cities like Florence have one day of the week when they close (usually Mondays). Some places will even close for several weeks in August for holidays.
Third, know what to expect.
Tuscan cooking is one of the best known of the Italian regional cuisines, likely because Tuscany is the most popular province for travelers in all of Italy. It’s famous for its hearty pastas (like picci, which is usually served with a wild boar sauce), bean soups, and of course their healthy, peppery extra virgin olive oil. The name of the game here is simple, local, abundant and fresh.
In Florence you can expect to find carts and vans selling the workingman’s lunch of hot panini di lampredotto (tripe sandwiches — and yes, I’m telling you you need to try a cow’s stomach sandwich, and I promise you will not regret it), nocchiona (a fennel-spiced salami) and fresh Tuscan pecorino cheese (made with sheep’s milk). You can stop at an enoteca for a glass of vino on your way home or munch on a slice of delish torta della nonna (grandmother’s cake) at a neighborhood pastry shop — it’s filled with custard and topped with pinoli (pine nuts) or almonds. And of course for dinner there is the famous Fiorentina, a thick Chianina steak that die-hards insist is best eaten without any contamination from extra ingredients, like salt, pepper or olive oil.
Classic Florentine food is based around a few simple staples: Unsalted bread, beans, extra virgin olive oil, and meat or game. And any true traditionalist will include offal — or organ meats — on their list of quintessentially Florentine fare. Called quinto quarto in Italian, we’re talking tripe, livers and spleens, tongue and even rooster crests! Wild, right?
Fourth, know what to do if you can’t eat everything.
Now, being from an island in a Canadian rainforest, I was raised with enough hippy meals to last me a lifetime (my mom freaked my grade school friends out with her spicy lentil soups), so of course I’m not going to forget about suggesting some vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free options for your time in Florence. This is a city that prides itself on its meat dishes and pastas after all.
First off, here are some handy phrases. Write them down on a piece of paper and stick it in your wallet so you always have it on hand to show the waiter at whichever restaurant you’ve decided to eat at.
- Sono vegana/vegano = I’m vegan (female/male).
- Non mangio carne o pesce = I don’t eat meat or fish.
- Non mangio latticini = I don’t eat dairy.
- Sono celiaca/o = I’m celiac (female/male).
For my vegan peeps, look for farro-based soups and ask for contorni senza latticini (non-dairy sides). Most sides are cooked in olive oil, but it’s best to tell them you don’t eat dairy to avoid any random butter or cheese mishaps.
For vegetarians, Florence can be surprisingly easy! Some good pasta would be pumpkin or squash ravioli, walnut sauces, or ravioli with spinach and ricotta. And if you stay away from flour, just tell the waiters. Eating gluten-free is not that hard here because a ton of places have gluten-free pasta in-house. My Italian tour manager, Rosa, has been celiac since she was little and she sometimes carries her pasta with her. I notice she always tells the waiters to not cook the pasta in the same water as the regular pasta since she’s really careful. Don’t be shy about doing the same.
Of course you can also make life easy for yourself by seeking out Florence’s vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free restaurants too. There’s a surprisingly good selection of places, including Il Vegetariano, Libreria Brac, Konnubio and Ristorante Quinoa.
For a comprehensive list of our fave places to eat in Florence (and Rome, and Venice, and the Cinque Terre), check out our new digital guidebook, Gigi Guides. And leave a comment about your favorite eating experience in Florence — we don’t need to let little old Italian men corner the market on passionate discussions about food, now do we?