Although I visited Florence a fair bit as a child and teenager, when our parents used to load us into the car and drive us from Dublin to Tuscany every few years, this was my first proper adult visit. Sadly, my favourite childhood restaurant, which used to serve a groaning table of antipasti to locals each day has become rubbish and touristy in recent years, but we still found a lot of great places to try.There is nothing new or dramatic in this list, they’re all well known spots. But since Florence is one of the most written about destinations on earth, we were unlikely to hit on a completely undiscovered gem in just three days.
When Yotam Ottolenghi instagrams a meal in Florence, and it’s in a dirt cheap trattoria that’s a three minute walk from your apartment, you have to go. Those are the food blogger rules. Although I didn’t see this place in guide books, it features heavily in blogs and reviews. It’s a proper local place, with local prices and framed Fiorentina jerseys and a photo of Roberto Benigni as the only nods to interior design. The menu is short, with antipasti formed of a combination of crostini, cured meats and coccoli (deep fried pizza dough balls), three or four pastas, meat dishes, and grilled dishes. We were presented with a litre of the house Chianti when we sat down, in lieu of a wine list. That’s how I discovered red wine still gives me migraines, but no regrets. We started off with a plate of liver crostini, parma ham, coccoli and stracchino cheese, all utterly tasty. I followed with a truffle taglierini and fried zuccini flowers, while himself had a stewed beef dish and beans in a tomato sauce. My pasta was rich and delicate at the same time, the zucchini flowers perfectly crisp and not too heavily battered, but the beans were definitely the highlight. I have no clue how they got such depth of flavour into the sauce, but I suspect it involves copious amounts of pork fat. Every one around us was having the Florentine T-Bone steak, which didn’t appeal to me personally, but did look rather wonderful. The entire meal, which was definitely the culinary highlight of the trip, came to €50 in total, including wine, for the two of us. You need to book ahead by phone. We did it a week in advance, and amazed our hostess who had never had this success. That said, they serve quite late and we definitely saw people come in from the street around 9.30-10 and be seated right away.
A little googling tells me this is a chain in Italy, as I could have surmised from the on-trend industrial decor and hipster waiter outfits. That said, it is a chain which allows you to sit on a balcony with the best view of the Ponte Vecchio, Uffizi and Medici corridor, and sip organic prosecco and munch on fat green olives for around €5. They don’t mark up the off-licence price of the wine (you can also buy it to go), which is pretty extraordinary in this location, in a city like Florence.
Mercato Centrale and Casa Del Vino
The Mercato Centrale consists of two parts, the traditional downstairs where you can buy groceries, along with tripe sandwiches (we didn’t brave them), wine, coffee and a few different small restaurants which closes at 2pm, and the upstairs which hosts a relatively new food court serving different meals until 10pm. We loved wandering around the downstairs, picking up bites of foccacia and cannoli to nibble on, before buying ridiculously cheap dried porcini mushrooms to bring home, and marvelling at the many different types of offal on display in the butchers. The upstairs left me a little cold. There was lots on offer, but it all seemed about 20% more expensive than anywhere else, and conspicuously aimed at tourists.
So instead of the food court, we wandered a few doors down the street, to Casa Del Vino, which felt more like the real thing. A wine bar that opens at 9:30am and closes at 3:30pm, this was crowded with actual Italians, from older men sharing bottles of wine around and having the chat, to business people in suits grabbing a sandwich and a quick glass. There is no formal menu inside (the one outside didn’t seem to reflect anything people were eating), but they have a good selection of wine, and you can order a sandwich made up on the spot from ingredients on the counter for a few euro, which everyone in there had in their hands as they drank. Pecorino and salsa verde laden with anchovy and garlic seemed to be a favourite. Two glasses of very good wine, and two sandwiches came to €15. As were about to leave, one of the older locals had to reach over our heads to pluck a bottle of the shelf to buy and share around, and gave us a glass as an apology. He was the terrifying image of Phil Leotardo from the Sopranos, and remonstrated with me for drinking white wine. He also may have said something pretty racist, but I’m hoping we just misheard it in all the noise.
This was a great little wine bar two minutes walk from the Ponte Vecchio in the Oltrano, with a small but delicious menu of crostini and other bites, and a very reasonably priced wine list (most glasses were €4). Best of all, it had an attentive and knowledgeable waitress, who kept an eye on tables, and made sure people who were standing longest got first dibs when one became free. It has a small area inside, and a bigger terrace outside on a quiet square, next to an empty restaurant which showed a livefeed of its very bored chef playing on his smartphone for about an hour. We ordered a plate of crostini with N’duja and pecorino, and were guided away from our wine choices by the waitress,who led us away from more expensive options when they didn’t suit the food, and tipped us off on some unusual regional wines, all of which I have now forgotten. Unusually and a little bit blasphemously for Florence, they also serve French wine.
So, wine bars in Florence all close at ridiculously early hours (usually between about 4pm and 9pm), with this enoteca being the one exception. They have a little deck looking out over the Pitti Palace, which is not the most beautiful building, but still a pretty dramatic backdrop for a glass. I know very little about wine, but himself was in awe of the list, which included multiple Brunellos, as well as a number of different vintage Chiantis from the 70s and 80s for around the €10 per glass mark. Glasses of regular pleb wine for people who don’t really understand it started at around €6. If they don’t bring the bottle out to show you, you’re one of those people. Welcome to the club.
It seems to me in Italian cities, there is always just one square where everyone drinks until the early hours each night, and nowhere else. In Venice, it’s Campo Santa Margherita, and in Florence it’s Santo Spirito. A tall, elegant and slightly shabby tree filled square in the Oltrarno, it’s lined with bars, none of which are spectacular. Each night we passed through it was overrun with gangs of people bringing their own wine and beer (there is a late night shop around the corner on Via Sant’Agostino), sitting on every conceivable surface and having the banter. In the corner, we had dinner at Osteria Santo Spirito, which serves huge portions of tasty pasta dishes for €10 (as well as all the usual second courses, antipasti etc). The highight was the gratin of gnocchi with truffle oil, which had more cream and cheese then a human should consume in a life time. It will haunt my dreams for some time to come. The fact that someone has written an entire Intelligent Life article in praise of the dish shows I’m clearly not the only one.
A standard in every guide book, I have very little to say about it but that I agree with what everyone says, it’s great food at a great price. They serve €3 sandwiches and tiny glasses of €1 wine from a hole in the wall near the Piazza della Signoria, and everyone stands on the street wolfing both down. I had goats cheese with fennel salami, and highly recommend it.