I was in Florence for a quick 4 day trip last week with the kid sister. Florence and the Tuscan countryside were indeed interesting, historical and picturesque, and we had a great time catching up and sightseeing. Without the constant surveillance of my husband, we also ended up consuming at least 2 scoops of gelato a day, not surprising given my appetite and the sister’s reputation for having the family’s sweetest tooth. Unfortunately, we squandered some of our meals, as arriving on a Sunday meant that many of the restaurants I had earmarked to visit were closed either on Sunday or Monday. Still, we managed to check most of the local specialities off our list and even enjoyed two excellent meals amidst a bunch of poor-middling ones at places catered to the thousands of tourists in Florence.
Florence is meat and potatoes land, with fish an afterthought. The region’s most famous snack foods, tripe and lampredotto (the cow’s 4th stomach) sandwiches sold at roadside trucks, reflect that meat loving ethos. The sandwiches are simply buns stuffed with your stewed organ meat of choice (chopped, seasoned with salt, pepper and green sauce, then dipped into the savory cooking liquid). Quite delicious for us organ meat lovers, though the meat was too chopped up for us to discern the differences in texture between the tripe and lampredotto. We got ours at Da’ Vinattieri, a literal hole-in-the-wall tucked under a medieval walkway out of sight from pedestrians traversing the crowded Piazza Signoria. There is a dining room the size of a shoebox, but we ordered through the takeout counter and devoured our organ meat sandwiches sitting on stools laid out along the covered sidewalk.
As mentioned, I had more gelato than was healthy, the most memorable cup from the world famous Grom. It was not merely for the flavors or the texture, though admittedly the pistachio was best in show, full of the smoky nut flavor, but also for the distance travelled to get there. We had walked at least 3 km in intermittent rain to find Grom, hidden in a little side street near the Duomo, getting lost and eating a consolation gelato (from Carabé, more famous for Sicilian style granitas than their icy gelato, if only we knew!) on the way. By the time we reached Grom, we were unfortunately too tired and frustrated to fully appreciate the ultra-creamy texture or fall in rapture, like some American ladies whom we noticed on the street, literally swooning at each bite.
Just as our trip to Grom showed how even best laid plans can be derailed by bad weather, tempers and poor map reading skills, our nightcap at Corona’s Cafe illustrated the rewards of just going with the flow. Looking very much like a tourist trap with an enviable address just off bustling shopping streets, we had the best non-gelato dessert during our stay, a light torta di nonna, that despite laying in a counter for the entire day, tasted fresh and delicate, the base still buttery and flaky, and lemon flavored vanilla cream filling oozing slowly out of the cake as we pressed our forks gently against the bulging middle. Chased down with strong espresso and some limoncello, it assuaged our disappointment at not being able to buy tickets for the opera. The gelato is supposedly fabulous too.
As for real food (a girl cannot live on refined sugar alone), we absolutely loved Trattoria Mario. Located just beside the central market, it looked like yet another tourist trap with a cheesy looking exterior and entrance plastered with lots of guidebook mentions. But once inside (not a minute after noon, we were 3rd at 11:55 and by 12:05 every seat was taken with strangers sharing tables), it transports you to a real Italian canteen, where you can peek at the cooks stirring pasta, dressing the soups with olive oil, chopping the perfectly roasted suckling pig (my sis’s order coming with one hairy pig’s ear).
Trattoria Mario also served us the best pasta on the trip. The pappardelle al ragu came with wide ribbons of homemade, al dente pasta mixed with just enough of the rich, savory meat sauce and parmesan cheese. The flavors were completely absorbed by the pasta through vigorous mixing the cooks did prior to serving (we knew since we were seated pre-service and had time to observe). A great plate of pasta for a princely sum of 5 euros. For some locals who just come for the pasta or a thick bowl of ribollita soup, this is a delicious bargain. You will however be knocking elbows with your neighbors and making friends with strangers, this place is just that packed.
As we chomped on succulent slices of pork and veal, we made friends with said local on our table drinking soup. Sadly we didn’t get time to do everything she suggested, but she steered us towards her favorite place in the Oltrano, Trattoria Casalinga for dinner the next night.
Again, Casalinga is not an unknown hidden gem. We were there at tourist dinner hour (7pm) and were joined by a full house of English speakers, though amazingly, the smiling lady who served us was the only local in Florence we crossed paths with who did not speak English. Here, at the housewife’s (for that is what casalinga means in Italy), we checked off crostini toscana (bruschetta generously topped with a mound of chopped chicken livers) and shared a comforting bowl of tortellini al brodo (dumplings in homemade chicken broth) before having our own meat and potatoes experience. Our steak, weighing only 500g, was too thin for us to appreciate the purported softness of the Florentine beef, but what we had was definitely very flavorful, with a charred exterior yet still oozing red juices inside. The potatoes too were wonderful, soft from being parboiled, then crisped and simply flavored with olive oil and salt in the oven.
A few final tasting notes:
1. The bread is uniformly terrible in Florence. We gave every bread basket a chance, only to experience disappointment. In the end, we headed straight for the bakery after getting back to Paris for a baguette to get over our bad bread nightmares.
2. Food shopping is fun in Florence and for that, a visit to the Mercato Centrale is a must. We spent half an hour just tasting balsamic vinegar and could have gone on for much longer if we weren’t rushing to Trattoria Mario for lunch. Needless to say, I bought some vinegar, alongside a bunch of Italian salami and prosciutto, and was sorely tempted to cart back tins of olive oil if I wasn’t so worried about busting my baggage allowance.
3. For those shopping for fashion and looking to spend a day at the Mall (what can I say, I am guilty as charged), the on-site cafe isn’t half bad, with surprisingly fresh salads (the mozzarella in the Caprese salad still oozes milk) and a large range of sandwiches and pizza for meat eaters and vegetarians alike. For a place called dot.com cafe however, they do not have wifi, which may make it a less convincing reason to bring your husbands/boyfriends/friends who do not shop along.
4. We had a really odd dinner experience at Trattoria Marione, where we found ourselves after all 3 places I had marked out for dinner were shuttered on a Monday night. The service was quite effusive but the server handed us all 4 plates (2 starters, 2 pastas) at once, the lasagne coming out at such high speed that it can only be pre-made and reheated in the microwave. Our food were rather subpar too, the soup and my asparagus pasta thin and very salty. But other diners, particularly those eating meat seemed to be enjoying their meals fine, so perhaps it was just us making poor choices.
Da’ Vinattieri: Via Santa Margherita 4r, Florence Italy 50122
Grom: Via delle Oche, 24-red, Florence Italy 50122
Corona’s Cafe: Via Calzaiuoli N 72R, Florence Italy 50122
Trattoria Mario: Via Rosina 2r (Corner of Piazza del Mercato Centrale), Florence Italy 50123
Trattoria Casalinga: Via Michelozzi 9r, Florence Italy 50125 http://www.trattorialacasalinga.it/