I didn’t really warm up to Florence immediately. And like any place I have high expectations of, I started off a bit disappointed. The dense narrow streets with tiny sidewalks flanked by enormous uninviting doors. It’s the kind of place where all of the good stuff is inside someone else’s walls and you’re not invited. I feel that way about large parts of Paris as well. Ancient palazzos built on the backs of someone else’s misery. It’s a visceral class thing. When I see ridiculously ornate rooms with ceilings painted by people you know about and fine inlaid marble, I see only misery, avarice, domination, and subjugation. Glorious gold encrusted masterworks supposedly dedicated to the love of Christ that you know were the result of some truly heinous acts. To be honest my first impression of Florence was that it was crowded, it smelled like piss and shit, and the bread sucked. But it grew on me. Except for the bread, that still sucks. That’s not entirely fair, the bread in Florence is unsalted so it’s a bit bland, but the first several restaurants we ate at served us stale inedible slices of it which didn’t help. The city though, with it’s plazas and cathedrals, marble statues tucked in on every corner, it’s beautiful. The kind of beautiful that only comes from being the center of the world for a while. And Florence certainly was for a long time.
I still feel like I haven’t found the soul of Florence. It’s a big place and even with a week I barely made it out of tourist purgatory. There is just too much to see. I never got chance to just settle in and breath with the city like I like to. The food on the other hand, Tuscan food in general, was fantastic. And I did manage to have more than one great meal in the city. Tiny elbow-to-elbow joints with three or more generations working the floor and art crammed in floor to ceiling. Hand written menus that change often and with no English to help you decipher. The bluster of locals enjoying conversation. Great experiences to be had everywhere if you know where to look.
Walking around town.
Florence is big and predominately flat (at least in the town center) and it’s easy to just get lost wandering the streets. The crowds taper off when you get away from the cathedral and the road to the Old Bridge so it doesn’t take long to find yourself alone and exploring. Something I wish I had had more time to do.
Duomo di Firenze (Florence Cathedral)
This cathedral with distinctive dome is actually a complex of the cathedral, the plaza (Piazza del Duomo), the Baptistery, and Giotto’s Belltower. It’s the center of town and impressive to see. It’s free to visit the cathedral but all of the other elements including the cathedral dome require entry. You can buy a group ticket that includes them all. The dome requires a timed reservations online when you buy the ticket.
Honestly I thought the cathedral interior was pretty boring and unadorned. Except the dome which is spectacular and painted with depictions of heaven and hell. The exterior is very ornate with patterns in green and red marble which give it a slightly “christmas village” kind of character and it’s encrusted with statues and embellishments. At first I was like, “woah, slow your roll fellas” but it grows on you and now I kind of like it.
The baptistery looks boring on the outside but the interior is striking, fully covered in elaborate byzantine style gold mosaics, I quite liked it. The belltower is actually a freestanding structure in the same exterior style as the other buildings. It’s enormous. I didn’t walk up but Katy says it’s three separate levels with 360 degree views on each but oddly no bells.
Art, art, and more art! (The Uffizi Gallery and Galleria dell’Accademia)
Even if you’re not into art, you really need to go see at least these two galleries. We spent a day in each more or less and feel the time was well spent. Uffizi is the largest by far and has three levels of both classic Roman sculpture and Italian Renaissance master works. Plus a mind-numbing collection of older church altar paintings that seem to go on for-ever. You’ll get to see all the Ninja Turtles in here. Plus a ton of Rubens and Bronzino and all the greats. Amazing collection. The Accademia is famous mostly for the statue of David which is probably the most famous sculpture in the world. But it also has a similarly mind-numbing collection of church altar paintings (where are these churches? Aren’t they mad that their artwork is sitting in some guy’s palace or some gallery in Florence?) as well as some other unfinished works by Michelangelo and an interesting display of a sculpture workshop’s plaster proofs and plaster copies.
I won’t bore you with pages of famous paintings. I think this kind of art is something you need to see in person. It’s not terribly interesting as a photo. But here are a few things I found interesting.
Literally the Old Palace, named such when the Medici moved to the new palace across the bridge, is the seat of city government and is surrounded by a large plaza with a collection of sculptures and a fountain. It’s a great square with interesting art to see and right beside the Uffizi Gallery and Old Bridge (the only bridge to survive the retreating Germans). It seems pretty innocent now but apparently this is also where public executions used to happen. Like the burning people at the stake kind. The themes of the sculptures also seem to heavily feature rape. As does the whole town.
Sunset in Florence
The food of Tuscany is characterized by simplicity, quality ingredients that stand on their own without much adornment, and peasant dishes that utilize what’s available in practical ways. Beans, stews, and grilled meats abound along with simple homemade pastas and rustic unsalted breads. It reminds me a little of the rustic food I grew up on in Appalachia.
I was introduced to ribollita which is a stew made from stale bread and everyone has their own version.
Also cantucci di Prato with vinsanto. Cantucci is the word they use for biscotti (originally from Prato) and it comes with a sweet wine call vinsanto to dip it in. Vinsanto is made from grapes that have been left to dry and slightly mold, then fermented for a full year and barreled for another three years, five years all together.
Polpette is a meatball, and they are never mixed with pasta here.
Braciola rifatta is a twice cooked beef where leftover beef is breaded and deep fried and a sauce is added.
Lardo is like pork belly that’s basically all fat and cured in spices for flavor. It’s often sliced then served on toasted bread and melts into delicious nothingness.
Traditional Tuscan food. This small restaurant was located quite close to the Old Bridge but seemed to completely escape the attention of all the tourists in the area. A small tightly packed dining space with the same elbow-to-elbow style of seating you find at all the best traditional places and an all-Italian menu. (Note: most restaurants in Florence don’t seem to get cell reception so don’t rely on your phone to translate for you at the table.) We ate here for lunch but it’s the same menu for dinner.
All things considered I think this was my favorite meal in Florence. It had the best Ribollita hands down of any of the traditional places we tried. I had heard they had good meatballs and I was certainly not disappointed. They were served on a bed of spinach that suspiciously delicious. Katy got a dish that seemed to be off menu. I’m guessing stracotto with chianti but I cant verify that.
Ristorante del Fagioli
Traditional Tuscan food. Fagioli was amazing! We stopped by without a reservation and got right in. It’s the same elbow-to-elbow kind of classic joint that you really want to stumble on. Packed with local families having a great time. A hand written menu packed with Tuscan classic with no English to be found. But the waiter was more than happy to walk us through it and make recommendations. We started with the ribollita and a bowl of bean puree soup. It actually turned out that the starters were probably too large for us but they were delicious, just filling. Katy got the Ossobuco which she loved (I got the marrow) and I got braciola rifatta which is twice cooked beef. They take existing cooked beef, bread it, then refry it and add sauce. Fantastic. The liter of house wine at 10 euros really can’t be beat either. And desert was fantastic. I highly recommend this place. And probably the most affordable place we ate at.
Vini E Vecchi Sapori
Traditional Tuscan food. The first time we stopped by this place we were turned away. They’re booked up every night so you need to make a reservation a day ahead. But I’m glad we did and came back. Same elbow-to-elbow atmosphere. Walls packed with art. A spirited and spunky waiter who was also very helpful. The atmosphere in here was a bit more wound up, crowded, and we ended up eating faster than at other places. But we weren’t really rushed. The service was just really fast. Food was excellent. And in the end this ended up being our cheapest meal of the bunch.
We started with the butter and anchovies which was exactly as it sounds. Katy got a stewed meat dish and I got the boiled beef with onions on special for the night and extremely tasty (better than it sounds, a classic peasant dish).
For dessert we had Cantucci di Prato with vinsanto (Biscotti di Prato) (not pictured). They actually call biscotti cantucci here and you get this sweet wine called vin santo to dunk them in made from aged semi-dry grapes and matured for several years.
Traditional Tuscan food. Cammillo was located just across the river on the Ponte Santa Trinita. Probably the more fancy of the traditional places we tried. There were at least three generations of family running the restaurant and it was lively and packed. Art on the walls, elbow-to-elbow table experience, all the good signs. A huge menu but still a single page. Although this time the back had English to help. Katy started feeling a bit ill just before we arrived so she had a pretty light meal.
I started with the warm celeriac salad that was absolutely loaded with bottarga, a cured and dried fish roe that’s grated over the top, similar in character to bonito flakes. Then went with the special of veal sweetbreads with buttered peas, probably the best sweetbreads I’ve had. Katy got a simple bowl of minestrone with homemade pasta that was fantastic. You probably couldn’t go wrong here.
Traditional Tuscan food. Nella was a half block from our apartment and we ended up going here twice. Truth be told I didn’t like my first meal here. The beans were bland and my sausage was too salty. And the bread was stale. But Katy had a revelatory rabbit cacciatore experience and it was reasonably priced so we came back for another go. This time I got the rabbit too and it was indeed out of this world.
In addition to the good rabbit, our second visit was lucky enough to be on a night with live music. A young man provided a complex recorder (flute) accompaniment to a recording. Then an Italian flute version of Greensleeves. Then the restaurant owner broke out a french horn and along with the other musician they played the Star Wars theme song along with some others. It was awesome! Afterwards the owner gave us both a free glass of wine and was quite jolly. A really fun time.
Ristorante San Michele All’Arco
We found this place through a friend. It’s a nicer farm-to-table restaurant where all of their meats and vegetables are grown on an eco-friendly organic farm. We started off with the cured meat selection which was fantastic. Probably my favorite thing. I had the ossobuco which was quite good and Katy had a pork steak. The portions are a little on the small side compared to other family run joints in town. I was happy we had the starter.
Ristorante Oliviero 1962
We ate here on our last day. We wanted to eat the fabled bistecca alla Fiorentina, a local aged t-bone steak specialty, but our first choice was closed on Sunday. This place was a block away from our apartment and had a Michelin sticker on the door (though they’re not on the Michelin guide site). The atmosphere was white table cloth with predominately tourists eating there. The food seemed like it might have been modern in the 80s but the pink peppercorn garnishes and plating seemed a bit dated. The food was good but not fantastic, not for the prices we were paying. The truffle buratta was competent and the rabollita was good but certainly not the best we’d had. The steak was indeed enormous but in the end it was just really good steak. The desserts were very tasty but it didn’t inspire me overall (but better choices than most places we’d been). I’m mostly including this meal to show the steak Florentine which seems to be on every menu we read. Don’t get me wrong, it was a really good meal, all things considered. But it was expensive and I think there are other better places to eat for traditional Tuscan food nearby.
A few more snacks and place across town.
Florence excelled at street art. It was pretty much on every street. And some prolific local artists producing excellent series. It felt like there was a real scene in Florence and to me these pieces are even more vital than the ones in galleries. Don’t miss out on the free show!
Weed in Italy.
When we were leaving San Michele All’Arco, directly next to the restaurant, we walked by these two marijuana plants growing in a shop window. Naturally curious we investigated a bit further to find what seemed like a basement marijuana store and on the street a marijuana vending machine. After a short chat with the very friendly employee, we learned that marijuana is indeed legal with a prescription card. Though this was the only store we saw like this and even here it seemed a bit hush hush. But clearly not hidden.