Travel Journal: Italy – Part 4, Florence Eats

All about Florentine food for today’s Travel Tuesday

Honestly, of all the places we traveled in Italy, I was least impressed by the food in Florence.  The whole city felt very touristy to me, particularly the restaurants.  Most restaurants we went to seemed filled with Americans and the food tasted as such.  Perhaps it was the time of year we went (summer = tourist season), but one of my biggest surprises of the trip was how I didn’t really get any sort of local feeling from Florence.  That’s not to say we didn’t still have some very good meals; they just weren’t all “best ever” type meals.  I guess “less memorable” is the best way to describe it.  The biggest exception was the gelato.  Overall, gelato in Florence was better than most.  Let me be clear: I’m not anti-Florence.  I just recommend you check out this lil travel journal so you know how to make the most of the city.  Also, if you missed the post on all the activities we did in Florence, check it out here.

Night of July 5th

We arrived in Florence just in time for lunch.  We dropped our stuff off at the hotel and immediately went out to explore.  We knew day 1 was going to be a full day of museums and touring so we wanted to just get started and grab a quick lunch on the way.  We didn’t want anything so heavy since we were still stuffed from all the meat we’d been eating in Tuscany.  (Check out that food adventure here.)  I had read about AmblĂ© and guessed it would be perfect for a quick stop since it was en route to the Uffizi and would not be a big production of a meal.  It’s a funky little outdoor cafĂ© serving sandwiches on the lighter side (no massive crusty breads).  It’s rare to find anything light in Florence/Tuscany so this was a nice change of pace.  Especially when they’ve got homemade mayo.  Yessss.  Fun fact: all their mismatched, flea market-ish furniture is available for purchase.

After walking around the Uffizi and Pitti Palace/Boboli Gardens, we made our first gelato stop of the trip.  If you ask about gelato, you’ll be recommended the same two places, rightfully so because they’re both good.  We first tried one of the top spots, La Carraia, because it was on the way back to our hotel from Pitti Palace.  The portions were big and albert thought his biscuit flavor was extra creamy so this was his favorite gelato of florence.  I loved my ricotta pear flavor and agree that it’s probably slightly better than the other top recommended spot (but we’ll get to that in a bit).

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After a shower, we ventured back out to dinner.  Tons of people recommended one restaurant, but they were full when we arrived so we made a reservation for the following night and went around the corner to Parione, another recommended restaurant in the area.  It had been recommended by someone who had studied abroad in Florence and said it was a go-to spot to take the parents when they visited.  We took that to mean it would be great for us to have a nicer, slightly romantic meal and we were right.  There’s a large student population in Florence and while they might not actually be locals, they can typically be counted upon to steer you towards good food and fun bars (albeit with a young crowd at the bars).  I really enjoyed my zucchini/eggplant/smoked cheese carpaccio app (pictured below next to Albert’s tomato mozzarella) and loved my taste of Albert’s balsamic chicken, which was in a thick, sweet sauce.  It was different than any chicken dish I’d tasted, so it’s a good one to try.  I, however, went meat-free and ordered a pasta dish with truffles.  We were there during Tuscany’s truffle season which meant they were everywhere and fresh.  How could I not?!  Also, the restaurant’s owner was nice and jovial and gave us a bottle of prosecco as we were leaving. This is also a good place to get a Florentine steak, which is a must while you’re in the city.  Some of the better dinner restaurants are in this area, in the streets that shoot off from the Piazza Carlo Goldoni – even if you don’t go to Parione, I would definitely recommend this area for a meal.

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Night of July 6th

We woke up on the 6th and took our time strolling to the Mercado Centrale, an indoor market filled with stalls selling dried mushrooms, pastas, meats.  It’s a really cool place to walk around.  I highly recommend grabbing some dried fruit from a vendor – they sell every variety imaginable and we made a nice little baggie of dried kiwi, pears, pineapple, and oranges.  They were so sweet and delicious.  The whole Mercado Centrale complex was a Florence [and overall Italy] highlight so I highly recommend going.

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We also got lunch at a stall restaurant called Nerbone. It’s been operated by the same family since the 1800s and they specialize in lampredotto, which is basically cow stomach simmered in a delicious sauce.  It’s similar to tripe.  Yes, it’s a little weird, but it’s a Florentine specialty so I couldn’t NOT try it.  I knew I wouldn’t love it (I really dislike tripe – I’m not grossed out, I just really don’t like that texture) so I ate half my sandwich to say I tried it and then moved onto a porchetta sandwich since I don’t love eating pure fat.  I will say, the flavor of the lampredotto was amazing, I just didn’t like the texture.  Everything else there is also delicious so it’s worth a stop.  The line is long, but it moves pretty quickly, and it’s cheap.

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After more sightseeing, we made an afternoon gelato stop at the other most recommended place, Vivoli.  Here, I tried melon and pineapple ginger.  I really liked both flavors but La Carraia slightly edged them out.  I didn’t have a problem with the smaller portion size (the massive portions at other places were overwhelming when I was just looking for a snack), I just liked the flavors a liiiitle better at the other spot.  It’s still very good gelato and you should be eating gelato every day while you’re there anyway so you’ll need more than one place.

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That night for supper we went to Buca Mario and have to say it was our only real let down of the entire 16-day trip.  We had TONS of people telling us to go to this place.  In fact, it was the most recommended place of our entire trip.  However, it seems like a place Americans just recommend to each other.  And usually these Americans have gone there on organized trips vs. experiencing the country like locals.  There was not one single Italian in the entire place, outside of the wait staff.  It was the one time anyone overcooked pasta (in my lasagna) – and that’s saying a lot in Italy where every place seemed able to cook pasta to a perfect al dente.  It’s pretty much coded into Italian DNA.  Also, the burrata on our crostini wasn’t all that flavorful.  These are things that even the most basic restaurants in Italy are able to master.  Finally, they were overzealous with the service and were visibly annoyed when we were still looking at the menu trying to make a decision…but after rushing us through our meal, it felt like we had to beg for the check.  I’ve included photos but would honestly discourage you from going there.  I’m sure you’re wondering why I’m talking about this place at all.  And the reason is that I think it’s important that you know which specific places to avoid in addition to those that are must-trys.  Why waste a precious meal on someplace that’s not great?  Particularly when this place came recommended by so many people, it would be easy for you to receive the same reco when planning a trip so I want to make sure I voice my [different] opinion.  At least the wine was good.

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The fried zucchini flowers were pretty good, but I wish they were stuffed with something

After our not-so-great meal, we got a nightcap in the outside area of Gilli in the Piazza della Repubblika.  Service was pretty awful (I think because they were trying to close up shop), but the people watching was nice and we were in comfy chairs.  If you’re looking for a good drink to end the night, I would recommend a rooftop bar, usually found in hotels.  Sure, it will be pricier and you’ll be surrounded by tourists, but the service will be superior and the views worthwhile.  I care about being deep in the local scene for food, but booze tastes the same just about anywhere so I don’t mind being in a more touristy spot when it comes to intimate drinks.  Check out this list for a great roundup of rooftop bars in Florence…I only wish I found this list before our trip.  Again, learn from our mistakes!

Night of July 7th

After a couple fails when it came to following dining advice, we woke up on our third day and decided to throw the recommendations out the window and do our own thing.  We crossed the Ponte Vecchio because we knew we liked the vibe on that side of the river and stumbled into a restaurant called A Crudo for lunch.  This was probably definitely my favorite meal in Florence and we just kind of happened upon it.  It kinda redeemed the city for me.  It is a true hidden gem.  As the name would imply, there’s lots of raw meat and carpaccio-style stuff – even the dessert menu is fruit sliced like carpaccio.  The owner opened it about a year ago because he said he was sick of how touristy Florence was and wanted a locals spot.

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We drank table wine out of a carafe (no label and still fantastic) while eating surprisingly elegant food in a low key setting.  I started with a panzanella salad while Albert got a charcuterie plate.  Rather than the crusty, large crouton type panzanella I’ve had in the US, the bread here is chopped finer and sits in the salad, crust free to soak up all the liquid.  I definitely enjoyed it.  For his entree, Albert got a meat and cheese crostini and I got a fabulous tartare with capers, parsley, and deliciousness.  It was simple but perfect.

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After lunch, we continued to walk around the area, stopping in any cute shops we saw.  Finally, it was time for a gelato break (there was one every day, naturally).  This time we went to Gelateria della Passera.  It wasn’t recommended; we just spotted it along our walk and decided to stop in.  It’s a tiny window of a place, but their small batch gelato was fabulous.  People won’t tell you to go here like they do with La Carraia and Vivoli so that’s why I’m here telling you that this is a gelato must.  The kiwi was perhaps my favorite of the trip.

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Look at those seeds in the gelato – that’s how you know it’s the real deal.

For dinner we decided to walk around til we found something good and headed in the San Lorenzo area, lured by the live music coming from all the bars and restaurants.  We ended up at Brandolino for a meal that was nice but mediocre.  I would say for superior quality, we probably should have gone back to the neighborhood we were in the other nights or perhaps on the other side of the river, but the energy in this area was good so we were happy enough in the end.  Albert had a Florentine steak while I had the cannelloni.  We also split a salad.  The salad pictured below is pretty typical of a salad in Italy and why I was craving fresh, raw veggies upon my return to the states.  That’s pretty much the only complaint I had about Italian food and it’s pretty minor because if you said I could only eat pasta for the rest of my days I wouldn’t be mad at you.

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After dinner we went around the corner to BrewDog.  Italy is a wine-focused country so Albert was very happy to find a beer bar.  I admit, I also enjoyed the change of pace.  BrewDog started in Scotland and seems to be taking over the world.  The Florence location is in the middle of a bunch of schools so there’s a big international student crowd, ready to have a good time.  It reminded me of my study abroad days so obviously I loved it.  Extra points for good music.

Foodie Field Notes: 

  • Local Fare:
    • Lampredotto: A weird delicacy, but I’m happy I checked the box
    • Florentine Steak and other meat, especially tartare, is the main thing you’ll hear about in Florence
    • Truffles: Truffle season is officially late October/early November, but they seem to be starting earlier and earlier.  Not sure if it’s actuallyyy truffle season in July when we were there or if it was a trick; either way, it’s truffles, they’re delicious, and they’re cheaper there than they’ll ever be in the US.
    • Gelato: of all cities in Italy, gelato seems to be best in Florence
    • Panzanella: soggier than the panzanella you’re accustomed to in the US…that doesn’t sound appetizing, but it’s quite good
  • Tips:
    • There were a few restaurants we didn’t get to but heard were good:
      • Trattoria 13 Gobbi.  Several people said good things about this place, including a friend who went on her anniversary trip and seemed to have a similar local-leaning dining style.  Again, this area is cute with plenty of restaurants, so I would just walk around and stumble in whatever place looks good.
      • Trattoria Mario:  [Not to be confused with Buca Mario, discussed above.] This place is only open for lunch and the lines are long so get there at 11.  My friend’s boyfriend claimed he had his favorite steak of his trip here (and he ate a lot of steak).
      • La Proscuitteria Firenze: This is a little chainlet with 6 locations across Italy (it doesn’t feel like a chain at all). We didn’t go in Florence, but we went to the one in Rome and really enjoyed it. It’s a cute hole in the wall kind of place where you can ask them to make you a plate.  Pay 5 euros for a small; 10 euros for a lunch plate; 15 euros for a gourmet lunch plate.  They prepare enough for however many people are eating, and it’s a huge board of meats, crostini, cheeses, veggies, and bread. You can specify things you want or just let them make whatever is good.  Though I didn’t eat at the Florence location, I went in Rome and feel confident recommending it here.
      • One Eyed Jack: We only popped into this place for a hot sec so I can’t claim to have really been there but can say that it looked to be a cool pub spot that feels sort of like it could be in the East Village.
    • Cross the river – the best bars and restaurants seemed to be on the other side.