One of my favorite pass times is visiting local markets when I travel. It’s something my mother and I did growing up– searching for local food at farmers markets and bargaining at eclectic flea markets. Growing up in California with a mom like mine meant that I appreciated waking up at the earliest hours of my Sunday morning if it meant getting the first crack at the season’s bounties. So when planning our trip to Italy, I knew that heading into markets as often as possible would be a must. Not only do you get a sense of the local culture at these markets, but you get to taste your way through their specialties and dive into every day life.
The Mercato Centrale di San Lorenzo is one of these must-visit markets. It’s history dates back to the 1870s during the brief time when Florence was named the capital of what was then the Kingdom of Italy. Many of the vendors within the Mercato Centrale have had long-time ties to the market including one of my personal favorites, Nerbone. I am filled with sheer delight as I make my way through the labyrinth of produce vendors, butchers, and specialty stalls selling fine quality olive oils, wine, and truffles. Our visit in October meant that the season for white truffles had arrived and so I spent an obligatory few moments lingering near the luxurious tuber.
While the market attracts many tourists day in and day out, this is still very much a locals market. Lines form at the top of lunch hour at some of the more popular food stalls dishing out traditional tripe dishes and other offally good treats that may take the unaccustomed foreigner by surprise. and there are even a few purveyors who will have trouble understanding English. For the most part, enjoying this market comes with relative ease. Most stalls have someone who can understand some English and if you’ve got a simple phrase book handy, you can easily shop to your heart’s content. Take some time to peruse the cheap goods lined up in the outdoor market, too. While it may not look like much, you can find some pretty great Italian leather goods here and bargaining them down 10-25% isn’t considered rude– it’s part of the game.
Florence is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. It was the birthplace of the Renaissance and its balance of old and new can attract any culture-hound. Whereas Venice captivated us with its magic, Florence won our hearts by hitting close to home. Among the stunning old churches and cobblestone streets, there was an air of urban familiarity that lingered; shiny new stores and chic designers in harmony alongside family-owned trattorie.
Staying in a grand old world (but renovated) hotel overlooking the Arno River, we were able to experience a touch of Florentine glamour. A short walk took us to Santa Croce, the Duomo, and the famous Piazza della Signora. A few minutes in one direction landed us back by the river and onto the Ponte Vecchio where we admired vintage jewelry and fine Italian gold. Since shopping for precious gems wasn’t much our taste, we made our way over to San Lorenzo where we bargained hard for Italian leather goods like boots and belts; even a pair of black rubber rain boots when the rain really started to come down; my feet soaking in my black ballet flats.
The historic core was incredibly easy to navigate on foot sans a map and filled with a sense of adventure. Wander around, be mindful of where you’ve been, and it’s impossible to get lost. Just don’t forget to stop every few feet for some gelato– in Florence, gelato is just another form of art. Transcribed from notes on the backside of an Italian take-out menu, October 2012.
If there is one piece of advice that I can give you when touring Tuscany, it’s to rent a car (or at least a private driver to tote you from scenic town to scenic town). While it’s not my favorite wine producing region in Italy, Tuscany has a multitude of amazing things to offer the food & wine-centric traveler. A hub for centuries-old vineyards, olive oil producers, and some of the best food in the world, a day-trip through the Tuscan country-side makes for the best addition to your trips to Florence.
Using Florence as a home base, we recently rented a car to take us to our dinner reservations in Panzano. Since we weren’t looking to winery hop until reaching La Strada del Sagrantino in Umbria, we by-passed many beautiful wineries and made a bee-line to Greve in Chianti where we indulged in economical wine tasting at Le Cantine before heading to nearby Panzano for dinner.
Le Cantine, established in 1893, is a great alternative to those looking to get a taste of Tuscany without having to go through the process of drunkenly hopping from one wine producer to another. The process is simple. Buy a wine card that gets you a glass and mosey on over to one of their Enomatic tasting machines, individually priced and calibrated to provide you with a precise tasting pour. Harboring good relations with many of the region’s top producers, you won’t miss a beat here and will instead, have the benefit of finding the wine that best suits you while comfortably enjoying their beautiful tasting room. In addition to good wine at good prices, Le Cantine also offers light fare from Antica Macelleria Falorni, another premier butcher that has been serving the community since 1729 and is located less than a mile away. The meat board we got featured amazing salami and prosciutto of the highest quality and local bread.
In an alternate universe, I am Florentine. I am the wife of a wealthy someone-or-other who doesn’t want me to break a nail working a “real job,” but instead indulges me in my passion to live by my pen; leaving me to myself most days while he does whatever it is he does to maintain our small fortune so that I can spend my days in cafes drinking wine, eating what I please, and getting “inspired.”
If this alternate universe were real, I’d practically live at Procacci. But since this isn’t my reality, it’s rare visits to this beautiful wine bar that will have to suffice. Procacci is located on a fancy stretch of fashion real estate– neighboring appointment-only designer boutiques and artisan retailers. It’s been around since 1885 and has a reputation a mile long with only two newer outlets in Vienna and Singapore. Despite the modern times, somehow, they manage to maintain a certain enchantment about them. Luxurious yet unpretentious. The kind of bar you want to imagine seeing Hemingway in.
The interior is vintage-chic. Dark wood counters, ceilings high with shelves of fine wines and locally made products, small cafe tables lined up in a single row along a mirrored wall. Very Parisian…but you know, Italian. Their most popular product? Panino Tartufato, or truffled finger sandwiches. Imagine spending a leisurely afternoon here with a robust glass of Barolo and several platefuls of these dainty panini stuffed with truffle butter, smoked salmon, salumi, and the like. The prices are surprising; clocking in at under 2 euro each, you can fill up with an easy lunch or mid-day snack for under $20 euro for two people. Are these sandwiches all they’re cracked up to be? Absolutely. Order at the counter, pay when you’re done, and drift off into happy land as you day-dream your alternate reality. Procacci, via de Tornabuoni, 65R, Florence, Italy.
We recently dined at Ristorante del Fagioli based on the recommendation of several Florentine blogger friends who praised their rustic Tuscan cuisine and great prices. There was a heavy down-pour on our first night in Florence, so after considering our options, we found it best to try this place which was only a couple of blocks away from our hotel overlooking the Arno. Modestly tucked between small local shops away from the main stretch of high-end boutiques and restaurants, del Fagioli is the type of place you go to when you’re in need of a warm atmosphere and comforting home-style food.
It’s one of those places that feels out of a movie; Chianti bottles hanging from the walls in their signature straw baskets, a dining room mixed with actual Italians harmoniously dining among curious travelers. A no-fuss handwritten menu featuring some of the region’s most popular dishes (yes, including bistecca alla Florentina) at a fraction of the cost of most other neighboring joints.
There was a charm about the place. It was like we’d been there before. Weary from a long day out and about in the rain, we mistakenly (perhaps fortunately) let our stomachs order instead of our brains. And while we both agreed that we ordered entirely too much food, everything was delicious and was expediently brought to our table without much lag in their uber-friendly service.
We started off with a crostini appetizer topped with none other than silky melt-in-your-mouth fatty lardo and rosemary; local bread grilled just enough to give the lardo a bit of warmth. We followed it up with two pasta dishes: rigatoni in a rich veal ragu for him and the most amazing and simple tortelli, freshly made and stuffed with ricotta and lemon in a bright tomato sauce. Every bite of my dish was perfect; the cheese’s richness cut with a nice balance of acidity. At this point in the meal and halfway through our bottle of wine, I was just about ready to roll over and go to bed. But then the entrees came. Involtini for him and a plate of Bollito Misto (mixed boiled meats) with a side of fagioli (white Tuscan beans, their namesake). As we tried to eat as much of these dishes as we could, we had over-estimated our hunger. His dish was dense, rich,and comforting; mine being a complete protein on protein fest. The meat was tender and savory; the beans, petite and plump– delicately flavored with local olive oil and a simple dusting of salt and pepper.
This is the meal you want after a long day. When it’s a little chilly and you want to feel warm from the inside out. If in Florence and looking for a good hearty meal at low prices, del Fagioli’s got what you need. Reservations are highly recommended. Ristorante del Fagioli, Corso Tintori 47R, Florence, Italy.
After a few glorious days in Venice, it was time to move onto the next city on our schedule: Florence. Our time in Florence was going to be limited, but as we hopped off of our morning train and checked-in to our hotel, I had one thing on my mind. That one thing, was lunch from the legendary Nerbone in the Mercato Centrale, San Lorenzo. Da Nerbone has been a Florentine institution since the 1800s, serving up comforting fare at honest prices. Their specialties are their very inexpensive sandwiches made on rustic rolls and filled with incredibly tender meat. While they offer a small menu of other simple Tuscan staples, it’s their sandwiches that bring in the large crowds of both locals and tourists alike.
Boyfriend and I indulged in three different panini including their porchetta (which was lean but flavorful), bollito (boiled beef), and their famous lampredotto panino. Lampredotto is a popular Florentine street food and it is not for the weak of heart. If you’re familiar with tripe, lampredotto is just another step in the offally good equation (being a cow’s fourth and final stomach). While this type of sandwich filling may not sound too appealing to the average American, when in Florence, it is definitely worth a try. Besides, who’s to argue with long-standing tradition in a country known for a multitude of delicious food, right?
We planned our morning just right– getting to the Mercato Centrale around 11:30 before any major lines formed in front of Nerbone. Before long, there was a large group of businessmen getting in line for a quick, inexpensive lunch break. Be prepared to eat standing up as dining tables in this market are incredibly hard to come by. Worst case scenario, do as we did; set up shop on the outer stairs of the market and take in the atmosphere of the bustling market shoppers if you can’t find any empty counter space. Just don’t forget the salsa verde which is made with fresh green herbs– it goes great on everything. Stretch those Euros and satisfy your belly with the ultimate Florentine lunch on a shoestring budget.